Categories
Brampton Transit Urban Planning

Mount Pleasant: New Urbanism that almost works

IMG_2706-001Mount Pleasant Square, Brampton

A few weeks ago, I visited Cathedraltown, a subdivision in north Markham built in the new urbanist style. Cathedraltown made the news thanks to a controversial metallic sculpture of a cow installed in a parkette. (Last week, Markham City Council voted to move the sculpture.)

I came away disappointed by Cathedraltown. Despite a dense built form, and a main street lined with storefronts, it did not live up to the new urbanist promise: it was still a very car-centric subdivision, without the retail, nor the density required to make it a walkable community. The central focus is a Slovak-Catholic cathedral, recently re-opened after lengthy dispute between the development company and religious leadership. “No trespassing” signs still stand in front of the imposing church. Transit connections are poor, making a car virtually necessary to get even to nearby employment areas.

Mount Pleasant, in Brampton, fares somewhat better, despite some similar issues to Cathedraltown. What distinguishes it though are superior transit connections, and a better-programmed central focus.


Satellite view of Mount Pleasant via Google Maps 

Mount Pleasant started off as a small settlement between Brampton and Georgetown, where Highway 7 and 3rd Line West (later Creditview Road) crossed the Canadian National railway line between Toronto and Guelph. For most of its existence, it was little more than a collection of houses, two churches, a motel and a service station. By the 1960s, the local trains no longer served the flag stop there, and Highway 7 — now Bovaird Drive — bypassed the hamlet on a new railway overpass in the 1960s, also severing Creditview Road.

A few buildings — two houses and a former Presbyterian church, now a mosque — remain at the former crossroads. New subdivisions now surround the historical community.

IMG_6725Mount Pleasant’s old Presbyterian church is now a mosque.

Mount Pleasant GO Station opened in 2006, just as northwest Brampton was transforming from farmland to new subdivisions. The GO Station was built like any other in Toronto’ suburbs: a large parking lot, bus loop, and pick-up and drop-off area, with easy access to Bovaird Drive. But on the north side of the tracks, the City of Brampton, and the developer, Mattamy, tried something different.

At the core, the City of Brampton built a new library branch that incorporates the dismantled Canadian Pacific Railway station that used to stand on Queen Street in Downtown Brampton. (The station was moved in 1980 to a then-rural site on Creditview Road when it was threatened by demolition by the CPR. But the station building was left to rot before heritage conservationists carefully dismantled the structure.) Behind the library is a public school. In front, there’s a public square that includes a small playground, as well as a reflecting pond that’s a skating rink in the winter.

IMG_2709-001The Brampton Public Library incorporates the former Brampton CPR Station, rebuilt here at Mount Pleasant Village

To the west of the square are several low-rise apartment buildings, the sort of “missing middle” housing needed in Toronto’s established urban neighbourhoods. To the east are several retail/residential blocks, the sort of mixed use buildings that are uncommon in new subdivisions. The storefronts are all mostly occupied with businesses serving the local neighbourhood, such as hair salons and spas, a convenience store, a dentist’s office, and a restaurant. To the south are entrances to the GO Station and the bus loop for GO and Brampton Transit buses.

Categories
Infrastructure Transit Travels

The streetcar returns to Detroit – but who benefits?

IMG_1489-001Woodward Avenue at Mack Avenue, August 2017

I grew up in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. Our family could not justify long, expensive vacations, but we did make several trips to Detroit and the region, usually to visit the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. We’d stay at a hotel outside Detroit, usually one with a swimming pool. Besides the museum visit and the pool, my parents would usually include a stop at an outlet mall. We’d also drive through Detroit itself, sparking my enduring fascination with the city.

Since my first visit in the mid-1980s, the Hudson’s Department Store has been demolished, the Michigan Central Station has been permanently closed and allowed to deteriorate, and several downtown skyscrapers have closed and been abandoned. The city itself continued to lose population as more auto plants closed in the city and surrounding suburbs, and city services declined.

But on recent trips, on my own or with friends, we started to see the beginnings of what looked like a comeback. New downtown baseball and football stadiums, followed by new office buildings, the re-opening of the long-abandoned Book-Cadillac and Fort Shelby Hotels, the opening of the Detroit Riverwalk and Dequindre Cut multi-use paths, and new residential development Downtown and Midtown.

On the last trip to Detroit, my wife and I stayed downtown, at a hotel in the David Whitney Building, a formerly-abandoned office tower. We walked around Downtown Detroit and Eastern Market, visited the famous Art Deco Fisher Building, and went to several museums, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, and the Detroit Historical Museum, both of which had special exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion (also known as the 12th Street Riot). We ate at great local restaurants as well.

And I went back to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, both of which were as fun and as interesting as I remember.

We also took the new QLine Streetcar. It was a fun ride, and I’m happy to report that the service was well used by both residents and tourists alike. But I have some serious concerns as well.

Categories
Urban Planning

We came for the cow, but we had no reason to linger in Cathedraltown

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Last weekend, a few of us visited Cathedraltown, a newer subdivision near Highway 404 and Elgin Mills Road in northern Markham. We came to see ‘Brookview Tony Charity,’ a new chrome sculpture of a prize-winning dairy cow that was once the pride of a hobby farm that was on the site before it was developed. The metallic bovine made the news as local residents opposed the sculpture, located in an otherwise empty and unremarkable Cathedraltown parkette.

One homeowner objected as the cow, raised on stilts and wearing a prize garland, faced the nearby cathedral, likening it to the golden calf from The Ten Commandments: “I come from a Christian background and this is actually one of the worst things you can do, is to raise a calf; it’s facing the cathedral.”

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Ironically, the NIMBY rage only drew attention to the statue; later that week, it became a local tourist attraction. On Saturday, my wife, a good friend, and I went up to Markham to have a look at it ourselves.


Cathedraltown

Markham, on Toronto’s northern boundary, isn’t simply a cookie-cutter 905 suburb. The city of over 325,000 people is known for its high-technology sector, Pacific Mall and many other Chinese-Canadian shopping districts, and several heritage districts. The historic settlements of Unionville and Markham are well-preserved and vital, with interesting shops and restaurants. North of the old village of Markham, Markham Heritage Estates is a surreal subdivision dedicated to preserving old houses that would otherwise be demolished; it looks a little bit like a Tim Burton movie set.

In recent years, Markham has tried to urbanize some of its suburban landscape. Highway 7 is lined with midrise condominium towers and office buildings. Cornell, on Markham’s eastern edge, was Canada’s first “new urbanist” subdivision, intended to promote a less car-dependent lifestyle with higher densities, local retail and mixed use development, and street-focused parks. The new Downtown Markham development, a work in progress, is a mix of office, higher-density residential, retail, and institutional development near GO Transit’s Stouffville corridor and a new VIVA bus rapid transit line.

And then there’s Cathedraltown. Like Cornell, it’s a “new urbanist” development; it even has a main street lined with storefront. But it doesn’t quite work, at least not yet.

IMG_1251-001A mostly empty Cathedral High Street

Cathedraltown was the idea of Stephen Roman, who made a fortune in mining and had a a farm on Woodbine Avenue in Markham to build upon. The new community, on a family owned hobby farm, would have a spectacular new Slovak-Catholic cathedral as its centrepiece, with houses, parks, and stores surrounding the landmark. Stephen Roman’s daughter, Helen Roman Barber, took over the development in 1988.  The church — which remains incomplete — was opened for a while, but the building was the subject of a dispute between the development company and religious leadership and was closed from 2006 through 2016.

Meanwhile, the residential community was slowly built around the Cathedral in the last ten years.

 

IMG_1242-001A “no trespassing” sign still stands outside the recently re-opened Cathedral of the Transfiguration

Like other “new urbanist” developments, the garages and service areas are found not on the residential streets themselves, but in back alleys. Parkettes and playgrounds face the street, rather than behind houses. Dwellings are built close together, for higher densities than traditional suburban tract housing. There are townhouses, as well as semi-detached and fully detached homes, as well as some low-rise condominium apartments.

There’s a Main Street, which is called Cathedral High Street. It is lined with storefronts, but many are empty. Those that are occupied host dental offices, real estate agents, an insurance broker, beauty and nail salons, and after-school tutoring companies. Only one store, a nail salon, was visibly open on our visit on a Saturday afternoon.

A few thousand more residents might help. Building the retail along Woodbine Avenue itself, which gets far more traffic, might have also helped support sustainable retail. Nearby, however, is a pedestrian-unfriendly plaza on Major Mackenzie Drive that’s fully leased, anchored by banks, a Canadian Tire, a Shoppers Drug Mart, Starbucks, and Boston Pizza.

IMG_1253-001Storefronts on Cathedral High Street…

IMG_5598.JPGWhile a nearby auto-centric plaza is busy

Despite its new urbanist ideals, Cathedraltown is as auto-dependent as any other suburb. Only two bus routes serve the centre of the development: York Region Transit bus routes 24 and 80. Route 24, which goes to the TTC Don Mills Subway Station, operates every 51 minutes on Saturdays, and only until about 6:30 at night (Sunday service is similar; weekday service is slightly better). Route 80, which goes west to Yonge Street, operates every 45 minutes on weekends, until about 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Getting to GO Transit trains requires a car or a YRT bus ride involving a transfer between two infrequent routes.

IMG_1254-001Empty streetscape on a sunny Saturday afternoon

Without transit, and without places to walk to (apart from a church, a few parks, and an elementary school), the ideals of new urbanism aren’t matched by reality. Unless things change drastically, it will still be a place where residents will get in their cars to go anywhere. Better transit could be a start, but so would adding more people, and jobs.

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Maybe one day, this community will be completed

Categories
Infrastructure Urban Planning

Ontario’s land use scandal: Another greenfield hospital for Niagara

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Recently, I discussed the greenfield locations of new hospital and post-secondary institutions in Ontario, focusing on the new St. Catharines Hospital site and the Orillia campus of Lakehead University, but also mentioning the proposed sites of a new hospital for Windsor, and an university campus in Milton. Hospitals and educational institutions are primarily funded by the province, which likes to promote sustainable development policies such as the Greenbelt, and mobility hubs at major transit nodes.

The trouble with these new sites, located far from each city’s urban centre, is that they are difficult to reach by walking, cycling, or public transit. They don’t support downtown businesses, they ignore other potential urban land parcels (often former industrial sites), and are not in accordance with the province’s own land use policies.

I recently returned to Niagara Region to examine Niagara Health’s plan to consolidate health services outside of St. Catharines (where it already merged two urban hospital sites to a single suburban location). It proposes consolidating most health services located in five municipalities (Niagara Falls, Welland, Port Colborne, Fort Erie, and Niagara-on-the-Lake) into one site, at the corner of Biggar and Montrose Roads, south of Niagara Falls’ urban area, but adjacent to an interchange with the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW).

Niagara Falls, like most of urbanized Niagara Region, is de-industrializing, with modest population growth. Employment is largely dependent on public sector jobs, such as the education and health services, and the city’s tourism industry. As a large employer, the hospital should be as accessible to its employees, as well as its patients, as possible.


Map of current Niagara Health sites and proposed new hospital

The proposed hospital site is at the corner of two two-lane country roads, in an area without sidewalks. To the north and west is a golf course; to the south is a Hungarian community hall, farm fields, and a few exurban ranch houses. The land was donated in 2013 by a local business family, but last fall, Niagara Falls City Council was considering purchasing an additional 20 acres for staff parking.

Categories
Maps Toronto

Mapping Toronto’s population growth

Data geeks across Canada were eagerly awaiting this day — February 8, 2017 — the first release of the 2016 Canadian Census of the Population. Today’s release only covers population and dwelling counts, further information on age, sex, household characteristics, as well as language, immigration status, employment, income, and other variables will be released later in 2017. The 2016 Census included the mandatory long-form census, which will provide a robust snapshot on the socioeconomic status of all 36 million Canadians.

I created three quick maps showing the population growth in the City of Toronto by census tract. The City of Toronto grew by 116,511 people over five years to 2,731,571 in 2016, a 4.45% increase. Some suburban municipalities grew much faster, like Brampton  (13.3%, with a 2016 population of 593,638), but Toronto has been able to absorb one-third of the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area’s growth.

Toronto’s population makes up 46.1 % of the Toronto CMA (population 5,928,040). The rest of that growth was found in mature suburbs such as Brampton, Mississauga, and Markham, but also in quickly-growing towns such as Milton (population 110,128, up 30.5% from 2011). While some suburbs — Mississauga and Markham in particular — have been establishing higher-density urban centres with mid and high rise condominiums, most of the suburban growth has come from single-family homes and townhouses on formerly agricultural lands. If the Greenbelt is to continue being successful in containing sprawl and preserving productive farms and natural areas, Toronto needs to absorb even more growth in the next few decades. Land developers, speculators and the real-estate industry, however, are pushing back.

The first of the three maps shows the percentage increase or decrease in population by census tract. Areas with higher growth are concentrated in Downtown (particularly along Yonge Street and in the Entertainment District, City Place, Liberty Village-Fort York and St. Lawrence-Distillery-Corktown), as well as Etobicoke Centre, on Humber Bay, Midtown, and along the Sheppard Subway corridor in North York. Not surprisingly, these are areas in which new housing developments, particularly condo towers, are being built. Other neighbourhoods, for the most part, are seeing minor increases or decreases in population, likely related to changes in household/family size.

gta-2016-census
Population change between 2011 and 2016 by percentage by census tract, Toronto
(Alternate colour scheme available here and here)

But more interesting is the map showing absolute population increases or decreases between 2011 and 2016. It better illustrates areas of high population growth and neighbourhoods with population decline. The inner suburbs, especially parts of Scarborough and North York, clearly show slight a population decline compared to the high-growth areas described above.

gta-2016-census-absolute-changePopulation change between 2011 and 2016 by absolute numbers by census tract, Toronto
(Alternate colour scheme available here and here)

The final map shows the 63 census tracts (out of a total of 1,426 CTs) with growth of at least 2,000 persons. It very clearly shows where high population growth has taken place.

GTA 2016 Census Toronto High Growth.jpgCensus tracts that grew by at least 2,000 persons between 2011 and 2016

Categories
Toronto Urban Planning

Farewell to to Bathurst Manor Plaza

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This Sunday July 31, another suburban shopping plaza in Toronto will close for good. For over 50 years, Bathurst Manor Plaza, at the corner of Wilmington Avenue and Overbrook Place, served the local community. At its peak, it had Sunnybrook Market, a local grocery store, a Shoppers Drug Mart, LCBO, and a CIBC bank branch. It also had several clothing stores, an optician, restaurants, cleaners, an a video store. These may not be the types of businesses that would attract customers from far away, but they were the types of stores essential to the local community. It also had a gas station and service centre, which was later occupied by a kosher pizza restaurant. The plaza’s second floor houses doctors’ and dentists’ offices, lawyers, and other services.

There was also Goodman’s China and Gifts. Known for wedding registries, it was where my father would go (all the way from Brampton) to get fine crystal gifts, for my mother’s birthday or wedding anniversary, often bring my brothers and I along. I still remember friendly Mr. Goodman behind the counter, who always had a twinkle in his eye and loved seeing us kids with our father in his store. This is why I felt particularly sad visiting this plaza for the last time earlier this week.

Canadian Jewish News has a very good article that discusses the history and future of Bathurst Manor Plaza.

IMG_3825-001The abandoned Goodman’s China store