Categories
Infrastructure Urban Planning

Greenfield infrastructure: not so green

img_7612-001St. Catharines site, Niagara Health System

I recently visited two Ontario cities, St. Catharines and Orillia, to illustrate the problems of building new medical and educational institutions on isolated greenfield sites.

Large greenfield lands have several advantages: they’re easy and inexpensive to build on, they can accommodate large parking lots, and offer room for future expansion. But by the nature of their isolation, they’re more expensive to serve with road and water infrastructure, and more difficult to connect to transit. Students, patients, and employees must travel farther, and they don’t foster economic and social connections with the local community as well.

St. Catharines

In 2013, a new hospital campus opened in St. Catharines, replacing two smaller, run-down hospital sites just outside of the city’s downtown core. The new Niagara Health System site offers new and improved services, such as regional cancer centre, a spacious and bright dialysis unit, and a modern mental health centre. When the site opened, it was a vast improvement over the older facilities.

But there was one, major, drawback: the new hospital site is located on the far western edge of St. Catharines’ suburban sprawl, almost inaccessible without a car.


Location of current and former St. Catharines hospital sites

St. Catharines Transit re-routed a bus route (Route 1) to serve the new hospital site, but it costs the transit system nearly $400,000 a year to do so. The old General Hospital had four bus routes within walking distance to its urban location. Passengers from Thorold, Merritton, or several other neighbourhoods are required to make an additional transfer at the downtown bus terminal in order to access the new site. The distance makes taxi trips more expensive for the majority of St. Catharines residents and more difficult to get to by foot or by bike.

Categories
Transit Urban Planning Walking

They call this a “SmartCentre”

img_7608-001

The word “smart,” like many buzzwords, is thrown around a lot, to the point that it has lost meaning. SmartTrack, for instance, might have been a catchy name for a transit plan, but in the end, it didn’t turn out to be all that smart.

There’s also the case of SmartCentres, the retail arm of SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust. SmartCentres are ubiquitous in suburban Canada; the firm owns retail properties in all ten provinces and is Wal-Mart Canada’s largest landlord.

I was recently in St. Catharines, a mid-sized city of 125,000 on the Niagara Peninsula. I’ll have more to say about my visit there in a few upcoming posts.

I was walking from the VIA Rail station, on the west side of Twelve Mile Creek, opposite downtown, towards the new St. Catharines hospital on the city’s western outskirts. My route to the hospital (more on that later) took me through a SmartCentre big-box retail complex at Louth Street and Fourth Avenue. Tenants include Real Canadian Superstore (a large supermarket part of the Loblaws group), Wal-Mart Supercentre, Canadian Tire, Best Buy, and LCBO.


Google map of the big box complex in west St. Catharines

Like most big box centres, the stores are laid out surrounding a large parking lot. Pedestrians are an afterthought – there are few walkways or connections to surrounding sidewalks.

A token measure — a bus stop — is located within the property. The bus stop is on the main driveway, but a considerable distance from the front entrances of Wal-Mart or the supermarket, especially for anyone carrying groceries, using a mobility device and/or with young children. Shopping carts are left next to the bus shelters, and there are no other supermarkets in western St. Catharines. Anyone without a car must either visit Superstore, Walmart, or shop at higher-priced local convenience stores. The property owner is SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust with retail properties in all ten provinces.

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Excerpt from St. Catharines Transit daytime map. Only route 3 serves the big box centre from the south. 

Only one St. Catharines Transit bus route, 3 Pelham Road, serves the SmartCentre stop (evenings and weekends, route 115 replaces route 3), and only from the south. Traditional shopping areas, such as Downtown St. Catharines and the Pen Centre mall, are much better served by local transit. Route 1, which directly connects downtown and the new hospital and serves neighbourhoods to the north, runs nearby, but it doesn’t enter the property.

St. Catharines, once an industrial powerhouse, has struggled with de-industrialization and poverty. The census metropolitan area has the lowest median family income in Ontario; the city also has one of the highest obesity rates. Access to fresh, affordable food, especially for those without automobiles, should be a priority. It’s a shame that the built form isn’t smart enough to help.