St. Lawrence worthy of emulating

By Stig Harvor –

Big plans in the works for waterfront, portlands

During the indolence of summer, our awareness is deflected from many issues that occupy us other times of the year. Vacations and enjoyable outdoor activities fill our time. An understandable lethargy develops as temperatures approach 30 degrees Celsius.

Yet work on many matters of city planning and design do not stop. Some public meetings are held but the media tend to ignore them. Now that fall is here and children are back in school, more normal routines assert themselves. It is time to review various developments:

Waterfront planning by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC) is advancing. Most progress has been accomplished on the West Don Lands community between Parliament St. and the Don River.

The physical plan of streets and buildings, called the precinct plan, was approved by city council in May. The first preparatory site work is expected to start this winter. Housing construction is to begin next year on the first of the planned 6,000 units. The income mix of the new community, however, will not even come close to that of the successful, adjacent, now 25-year-old St. Lawrence Neighbourhood of the same size.

West Don Lands will have only 20% of what is called “affordable” rental housing. This is defined as the average market rent for private rental housing in Toronto. If built and rented today, that means a household would need an annual income of $42,000 to rent a 2-bedroom unit and $51,600 to rent a 3-bedroom one. This is hardly low income.

For the numerous low-income households in our city, just 5% of the total of all units built in the West Don Lands will be rent-geared-to-income (RGI). By contrast, when the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood was planned, 25% of the total number of the publicly funded rental or co-operative units were RGI. RGI means the government makes up the difference between the market rent and the tenant paying 30% of their income. It is the only way low-income households can afford decent, stable housing.

The remaining private for-sale or rental housing will cost more. Only 5% of units will be for sale at the low end of market. Means must be found to prevent speculative, quick and profitable resale of such units.

A sad aspect of the new West Don Lands community is that it is being built on land bought by our city some 18 years ago with the intent of extending the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood. Yet the new community will fail to welcome a significant segment of our population as was achieved in the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood.

The reason for this failure is the shameful abandonment of social housing programs, first by the federal government in 1993 and then the provincial one in 1995. Lately, some slow and feeble attempts to reverse this situation are being made by them.

Residential Toronto street widths have been studied over the summer by the city with some public input. The question is relevant to new areas such as our waterfront.

Streets serve many purposes. These vary according to their district. Suburban streets serve light traffic, few pedestrians and service vehicles. Downtown streets are much more complicated. They serve heavier traffic, both private and public. They often have stores that need service access and must attract buyers.

Downtown storeowners still insist street parking must be available outside their stores. This leads to narrow sidewalks uncomfortable for pedestrians. In this tug-of-war, cars usually win.

Another factor influencing street widths is today’s large size of service and emergency vehicles like snow plows, garbage and fire trucks. European cities with historically narrower streets have solved this problem, not by widening the streets, but by decreasing the size of their service vehicles. Can’t we do the same?

A contentious issue common to the East Bayfront and the West Don Lands is the width of its main thoroughfares. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) insists on separated lanes for its streetcars, like on Spadina Ave. By adding two lanes each way for traffic, a lane for bicycles, and comfortable sidewalks, the street is widened to a point where it may separate the community by making crossing more difficult and even hazardous, especially for elderly and infirm people.

This is an issue for Cherry St. at 32.5m (107ft) in the West Don Lands. It becomes even more pronounced on Queen’s Quay Blvd. in the East Bayfront. Here the railway spur to the Redpath sugar refinery at the base of Jarvis St. will fortunately be incorporated in the streetcar lanes in order to minimize the street width.

Still, Queen’s Quay becomes 38m (125ft) wide. For comparison, Spadina Ave. below Dundas is 40m (132ff), twice the width of a traditional 20m (66ft) Toronto street. Properly treed, however, and with traffic signals and islands adjusted to pedestrian needs, wider streets may be acceptable. Admired Parisian boulevards built by Baron Haussmann 150 years ago with wide sidewalks and trees, are worth studying.

At the end of June, the Canadian Urban Institute sponsored a 2-day symposium on the promotion of better urban and architectural design. This topic is coming to the forefront in citizen roundtable discussions of a clean and beautiful city initiated by Mayor David Miller.

Speakers from Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston and Britain described various forms of civic design control. All speakers stressed that their particular procedures of control must be adapted to the special conditions of each city.

Attractive Canadian results are best seen in Vancouver. Toronto may see similar results in its new waterfront communities where TWRC has decided to exercise individual building design control. The Toronto Community Housing Corp. is doing the same in its rebuilding of Regent’s Park. The City of Toronto ought to follow suit in other areas.

Despite a well-attended public evening meeting as part of the symposium, the main press ignored it. Only two newspaper columnists commented on the entire event.

But concerned citizens are not ignoring planning matters on our waterfront. Two new groups have formed this year. The first is an umbrella group, Waterfront Action. It tries to exchange information and ideas among the many existing local neighbourhood groups and others using the lake for recreation and pleasure, among them sailing and rowing clubs. It also keeps track of city and other agencies policies and initiatives that affect the waterfront. Waterfront Action can be contacted at dennis@waterfrontaction.ca.

The other new group is called Portland Action. It has been formed to participate in the TWRC planning of the large portlands at the east end of our harbour. Public meetings have been held on overall strategies for the development of this area into a mixed residential, commercial and industrial one over the next many years. It will be a worthwhile but complex undertaking. The Portland Action group can be reached at plac@rogers.com.

A continuing, citywide planning issue is the sprouting of tall towers in many parts of the city where urban design principles would forbid their appearance.

The St. Lawrence-Old Town district and the West Bayfront below Bathurst St. are only two such areas. At Queen’s Park, a high-profile 45-storey luxury condo has just been submitted for city approval. The tower will demolish the McLaughlin Planetarium attached to the south end of our venerable Royal Ontario Museum. This project will no doubt create considerable and justified opposition.

To broaden the debate about proper building heights, the city planning department is hosting a symposium Nov. 24 discussing the value of mid-rise buildings. We badly need a viable alternative to a forest of high-rises. Such an alternative is already found in the pleasant, humanly scaled St. Lawrence Neighbourhood. Why can’t we learn from our past successes?

NOTE: The September front-page article dealing with the Ontario Municipal Board decision on the 40 The Esplanade condo project was incorrectly attributed to Stig Harvor.

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