Cabbagetown reimagines its main streets–with seating or without?

“All politics is local,” said Tip O’Neill in 1935.

He might have added: some issues are perennial, and some elephants—especially those that might want to sit down on Parliament St.—never leave the room. All of which verities manifested on Oct. 25 when the Cabbagetown Preservation Association (CPA) hosted the kickoff in a series of exploration and discussion evenings at a very full Meeting House at Riverdale Farm.

The CPA convened a panel of distinguished and experienced urbanists to lead a discussion entitled “Imagining our Main Streets” to discuss how an urban main street might and should play a role in its urban neighbourhood. The moderator was the CPA’s Rick Merrill, the panelists were Michael Sraga (The Planning Partnership), Eric Turcotte (Urban Strategies, but also a community lead in the revival of Roncesvalles Ave. in the last decade) and Mike Major, a 20-year veteran of the city’s BIA (business improvement area) office.

Nearly all of the community’s institutional players (including CPA, Old Cabbagetown BIA, and Cabbagetown Residents’ Association (CRA) were present. The unspecified but natural focus was Cabbagetown’s own main street, Parliament between Wellesley and Gerrard.

Sraga gave a quick overview of what constitutes a main street, using photographic examples from Cabbagetown. He noted the characteristics of the street—restricted width, narrow and congested sidewalks made more narrow by utility poles, unhealthy trees at irregular intervals, historic building stock but non-continuous retail frontage broken by occasional residential low-rise, a healthy business population mix of mainly small, local enterprises, with a reasonable amount of parking, and a population catchment basin of about 30-40,000. He emphasized that whatever renovation was proposed, success would depend on a strategic plan and coordination with the city and with private utilities.

Turcotte led by example, with a detailed description of how the rejuvenation of Roncesvalles Ave. where a joint city/TTC decision enabled a longer street segment between Bloor and Queen to be created when sewer pipes and the TTC trackage needed to be replaced practically simultaneously. This afforded the opportunity for a coalition of neighbourhood groups to lobby council for a full street replanning and reconstruction, names “Roncesvalles Renew.” Two of the existing major bugbears (aside from the ubiquitous utility poles) were the intermittent “tree coffin” planters and a stepped curb along several blocks, very dangerous for unwary pedestrians.

The street is almost as narrow as Parliament, but one point that played in the planners’ favour was the existence of 24-hour street parking. This enabled them to introduce “bump-outs” of sidewalks with mini-gardens and seating—especially around TTC stops—and cycle tracks between sidewalk and roadway.

During the planning and construction cycles which lasted roughly from 2005 to 2009, there were some issues with access to storefronts. Concerns were also expressed over cyclist/pedestrian interaction and the deliberate slowing of traffic effected by the sidewalk redesign, but both the latter issues have proven ephemeral. As to the business disruptions to storefront merchants—as Major commented—there is no compensation for loss of business: the most that can be done is to mitigate impact during construction by doing it speedily, as was done in the pre-Pan Am emergency replacement of gas mains on Parliament. (The Eglinton and St. Clair experiences were cited several times as examples of how not to undertake main street rejuvenation).

Questions ranged widely over philosophical questions as to what ideally constitutes a main street, and whether a desirable business mix can be created and maintained. (The view generally expressed by the panel was that it cannot be because it’s driven by market forces.)

Discussion then narrowed to a fine, perennial and local point when BIA president Bill Ranieris rose to talk about his organization’s experience with the two mini-parkettes that the BIA has just finished installing on Parliament, one at Spruce (by the No-Frills) and the other at Amelia. Ranieris explained that original plans had included seating but as the projects progressed it became clear that there was vocal opposition to any sidewalk seating at all. Plans for seating have been suspended for now.

Audience responses varied from “I’m a senior and I sure would welcome the occasional place to sit on the way home with the groceries” to “people look across the street at what’s happening in Anniversary Park and they say, ‘we don’t want more of that.’”

Many present recalled that the question of sidewalk seating on Parliament has been agitating feelings in the community for decades without resolution. In a sidebar with The Bulletin, one panelist acknowledged that a major difference between Roncesvalles and Parliament is the density of street people. This issue will not go away any time soon. As one resident noted, “I went to my first BIA meeting around 1975, so long ago that John Sewell was in the room, and the first two questions out of the gate were, ‘what are you going to do about Anniversary Park,’ and ‘when are you going to get rid of the hydro poles?’”

Controversy notwithstanding, the overwhelming consensus was that this type of exploratory meeting is very useful, and since it was inclusive of the whole community it would provide an excellent launch pad for the time when a major city project creates an opportunity for a coordinated initiative around Parliament St.