Categories
Brampton Development Ontario Urban Planning

Requiem for Ontario’s regional malls

IMG_8782-001Shoppers World Brampton, 2016, before the Target store was replaced by smaller stores, including Giant Tiger

Recently, I wrote about the history of Ontario’s downtown malls. Most of these shopping centres, built in the 1970s and 1980s in the downtown cores across the province, failed by the end of the 1990s. The collapse of the Eaton’s department store chain and competition from larger, suburban malls and new big-box retailers drove customers away from Ontario’s downtowns. Only in Toronto and Ottawa, with large downtown office employment, residential development, and good urban transit, did these major shopping malls thrive.

But that does not mean that all suburban shopping centres are doing well, especially after the loss of Target in 2015 and Sears Canada in 2017. For TVO, I wrote more about how smaller regional malls in Ontario are re-positioning themselves.

The Brampton house that I grew up in was a ten minute walk from Shoppers World, which, in the 1980s, had a full line department store, Simpson’s, as well as Marks and Spencer, K-Mart (where I had my first paying gig, delivering shopping carts back to the store abandoned in nearby parks), a Pascal hardware store, and two supermarkets, Food City and A&P. Larger, more popular malls like Mississauga’s Square One and Bramalea City Centre were one bus ride away, but Shoppers World held its own, even if it was second tier. By the 1990s, though, it was clear that the mall was in decline: national retailers were leaving and there was a noticeable lack of investment in the property.

When RioCan REIT purchased Shoppers World in the late 1990s, it made some improvements and attracted big-box retailers like Canadian Tire, Staples, and Winners. Zellers took over the K-Mart store, which was expanded. But The Bay (which replaced Simpson’s) was closed down and the store later demolished. I had left Brampton in 2006, but I was still sad to see my one-time local mall decline. Now RioCan has talked about downsizing the mall, and redeveloping part of the property. Competition from larger, stronger shopping malls, newer retail power centres, the mismanagement of several retail firms, and internet shopping have all taken their toll. Shoppers World isn’t a dead mall, but like many smaller malls, it will be adapting to changing times.

In the TVO article, I take a look at a few other malls, like London’s Westmount Mall, in similar circumstances.

ShoppersWorld.jpgShoppers World, 2018. Despite many store vacancies, it’s still a community hub.

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 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
Brampton Cycling Infrastructure Roads Transit

A better Hurontario Street – an LRT update

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Metrolinx light rail vehicle mock-up at Gage Park, meets a Brampton Transit Zum bus, 2013. 

Earlier this week, I visited Brampton City Hall, where at a public open house, Metrolinx and city staff provided an update of the Hurontario Light Rail Transit project. Brampton City Hall was an ironic location for the open house; before Brampton Council voted against building the LRT up to Downtown Brampton and the GO/VIA Station, the LRT line would have stopped right here. Even with Brampton’s decision, there will be three stops in the city, so an open house for local residents to provide their feedback was still needed.

hurontario_lrt_map_en-850x550
The Hurontario LRT project, map via Metrolinx

The open house was quite interesting as more design details were displayed. There`s a focus on promoting active transportation — walking and cycling — and urbanizing much of the corridor. Three lanes of motor traffic will go down to two in most places, and right turning traffic will be tamed. This will make Hurontario Street a safer and more pleasant place to be.

Along the entire LRT corridor, Hurontario Street will feature separated bike infrastructure — for the most part, there will be separated bike lanes, with multi-use paths in a few areas, especially south of the Queensway, where Hurontario Street is narrower. Sidewalks are also wider. With only a few exceptions, cyclists will be able to ride across intersections without being required to dismount. Those exceptions are at the Queen Elizabeth Way, and at Highways 403 and 407, where Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) standards at interchanges will force the “stop, dismount, wait for gap” regime; pedestrians will also still have to yield to motor traffic.

img_8334-001Typical cross-section once the LRT is built. The orange paths are the separated bike lanes, the green paths are sidewalks. Hurontario Street will only have two traffic lanes in each direction. 

img_8328-001At expressways, like at Highway 407, pedestrians and cyclists still must yield to motor traffic at on-ramps. 

In another benefit for pedestrians and cyclists, channelized right turns are eliminated along the entire route. Channelized right turns (like the one shown below) are convenient for motorists, but they increase conflicts with foot traffic and are incompatible with lower speeds and safe cycling infrastructure. Their removal also creates new room for streetscaping opportunities.

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An example of a channelized right turn

The northern terminus of the LRT, at least for now, will be at Steeles Avenue. As Brampton debates other LRT alignments (Kennedy Road and McLauglin Road are indirect alternatives to reach Downtown Brampton), the stop was moved to the south side of the intersection. This is unfortunate: the Brampton Gateway bus terminal, which opened in 2012, was designed to easily connect with the planned LRT stop on the north side of the intersection, with two short crosswalks across southbound Main Street.

img_8331-001
Planned LRT terminus at Steeles Avenue, including tunnel between the LRT platform and the Brampton Gateway Terminal. 

Instead, a more expensive tunnel is required to accommodate transferring passengers between the LRT and buses. Elevators and escalators will provide direct access to the tunnel; crosswalks at Steeles Avenue and Lancashire Lane will also be accessible from the platform.

The final contract is planned to be signed in mid-2018 and construction should begin in Fall 2018. As the City of Mississauga backs the LRT project, hopefully any change in the provincial government will not jeopardize this plan. Not only will Mississauga (and south Brampton) get a fine new transit service, it will also see a tamer, more urbanized main street.

And maybe Brampton City Council will come to its senses and extend the transit corridor via the direct, least-expensive, Main Street alignment.

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.

stcatharinestransit
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.

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
Politics Transit Urban Planning

The subway is coming. Let’s improve Scarborough Centre

As the readers of my blog probably know, I am not a fan of the Scarborough Subway extension. Even though the subway will be expensive and less useful than a fully-funded light rail replacement of the ageing Scarborough RT, politicians from all three major parties have backed the subway, promising “respect” and “fairness” for Scarborough.

Neethan Shan, the New Democratic Party’s candidate in Thursday’s provincial by-election in Scarborough-Rouge River, has been pushing this messaging hard, though all three candidates — including City Councillor Raymond Cho, running for the Progressive Conservatives — are all in favour of the extension. That conveniently ignores the fact that the subway won’t even stop in Scarborough-Rouge River — though the LRT would have.

But it’s now time to move on. Scarborough is going to get a six kilometre long, one-stop subway extension, which was confirmed by a vote at city council in July. The focus should now be on getting the best value out of the $3.2 billion project. That must include improving Scarborough Centre.

The subway extension is currently in the environmental assessment/detailed design stage. I expect that construction will actually begin probably just before the next provincial election is called in 2018. It won’t open for another four to five years after that, in 2022 or 2023. That is plenty of time to make some necessary changes to the street grid, the built form, and the public realm.

A few weeks ago (during a rare summer rain storm), I explored Scarborough Centre. With too many surface parking lots and a hostile road network, there’s a lot of work that has to be done to make the improve this suburban hub. Employment and residential growth is currently stagnant; that has to be addressed. All that said, there are also a lot of great community assets already in place, and there are some opportunities to make it better.

Categories
Toronto Transit

On transit ridership in the GTHA

Earlier this week, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) released its agenda for the next board meeting, to be held on March 23. Among the items to be discussed are updates on the delayed Line 1 subway extension to York University and Vaughan, plans for the Line 2 subway extension to Scarborough Centre, the new MiWay/GO Transit terminal at Kipling Station, the planned new 514 Cherry streetcar line and other Waterfront bus improvements, and a ridership update.

As always, Steve Munro is on top of it all, and I encourage you to read his post.

I wanted to make a few observations about ridership, especially in Toronto’s suburbs. Growth in the TTC’s ridership has slowed down in the last three years, from a 2.1% annual increase in 2013, to a much more modest 0.5% increase in 2015.

Ridership figures are not detailed enough to know at what times of the day ridership is changing, nor on what routes. But ridership growth has fallen (or even declined) for other major Canadian transit systems, including Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa. There are many causes for changes to ridership — population and employment growth or decline, fare increases, service improvements or cuts, even the cost of gas, which has been declining in the last two years. Much of the employment growth within the City of Toronto has been in the downtown core, but so has the population growth due to new residential highrises. (I’m one of thousands who live and work in or near the downtown core — my TTC use is now mostly during the evenings and weekends as I mostly walk to work).

Hopefully, the Commission and the city don’t use this short-term trend as  an excuse to hold back on needed service improvements or projects such as the Relief Line — for one thing, many buses, streetcars and subway trains are already overcapacity, and it is impossible to know whether slower ridership increases represent a long-term trend, or a short-term blip.

There was one table in the TTC ridership update that caught my attention. The table, on page 5, shows the ridership for every Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area transit system (though excluding Milton Transit). I reproduced that table below.

Ridership

GTHA transit agency annual growth rates, 2013 to 2015. Adapted from TTC 2016 Ridership Update, page 5.

While the TTC’s ridership growth has slowed, ridership in many suburban municipalities have either flatlined or declined. Only Mississauga and Brampton show consistent, positive growth over the last three years. MiWay, previously known as Mississauga Transit, hasn’t expanded transit operations that much in the last few years, but that city continues to enjoy modest employment growth and improved connections to the airport, Brampton Transit and the TTC. It is currently building a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line, the Mississauga Transitway (more on that in a later post), and city council is backing the Hurontario LRT line, which would largely replace bus service on its busiest corridor.

Brampton’s growth has been, by far, the most impressive. That suburban municipality is growing thanks mostly due to new sprawling subdivisions, but since in the last decade, Brampton Transit has been introducing annual system improvements, including the Zum “BRT-lite” network of limited-stop bus routes. Brampton’s ridership is now almost that of the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR). Unlike Hamilton, Brampton doesn’t have two major post-secondary educational institutions, nor a dense urban core, though it serves Humber College, York University, and two secondary Sheridan College campuses in Brampton and Misssissauga.

In Hamilton, ridership dropped by 1.8% in 2015. Most ridership in Hamilton is concentrated in the lower city, as well as a few trip generators in the suburbs, including Mohawk Collage on the Mountain, and Lime Ridge Mall. Many parts of the lower city have been hit hard by job losses in that city’s major industries, though new subdivisions (and, to a lesser extent, downtown gentrificaton) have contributed to modest population growth. Hamilton is going ahead with a provincially-funded east-west light rail line that will connect McMaster University, Downtown Hamilton, and the east end.

Elsewhere, transit ridership growth has been quite disappointing. Burlington Transit saw a drastic 13.3% decline over the last three years, Durham Region, which I recently visited, saw a major decrease in 2015. However, there is lots of promise in its five-year service strategies, which will improve and simplify the agency’s route structure and provide enhanced service.

2015 Ridership
2015 ridership for GTHA transit agencies (Milton excluded). The TTC, with narly 75% of the region’s ridership total, dominates. GO Transit holds another 9%. 

York Region Transit, serving a population of 1.2 million, has only 1 million annual riders more than Brampton, whose population is nearly half of York’s. And despite adding new subdivisions (and a few new residential towers), ridership declined in the last two years. As illustrated in the table below, YRT’s ridership per capita is less than half of Hamilton’s or Mississauga’s.

YRT Ridership StatsComparing York Region Transit to other Canadian transit systems, 2013. From the VRT/Viva 5 year service plan, page 7. 

It’s interesting that despite poor transit ridership (amid York Region Council-mandated service cuts and steep fare hikes) York Region, with senior government assistance, is spending $1.4 billion on dedicated median busways on Highway 7, Yonge Street and Davis Drive. York Region will get the Spadina subway extension in 2017, and it pines for an extension of the over-burdened Yonge Subway to Richmond Hill Centre.

In York Region, there’s a troubling disconnect between spending money on capital projects and funding the services that will use the shiny new infrastructure, or feed ridership to it. Brampton has proven that growing service, not necessarily fancy infrastructure, will grow ridership. That said, it remains disappointing that the suburban municipality with the best record for ridership growth in the Toronto region rejected a funded light rail transit line to its downtown core.