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Martin Laplante

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Mon, 21 Jan 2008

Places to Grow - Pictures Tell the Story

I have never been a big fan of the approach in Ontario's Places to Grow plan for the Golden Horseshoe, particularly compared to community-centered plans like Vancouver's EcoDensity plan.

The Places to Grow Web Site has just been redesigned. Besides a bunch of links to existing materials, the redesign includes a new image gallery that can be used in presentations. The gallery includes both real pictures and computer-generated models.

Photo Source: Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal
One of those image galleries is a set of hypothetical before and after pictures to illustrate intensification. Unfortunately, and I hope I'm not the only one who thinks this, the after picture often looks worse than the before. See for instance the picture on the right, then change it to the "after" picture by hovering the mouse over the picture.

It goes from a lovely heritage neighbourhood, with lively street level retail and 3-4 floors of walkup apartments and offices above, to one where the heritage buildings look dingy in comparison and the streetscape is interrupted with out-of-scale blank slabs that are completely out of context, where the sidewalk now looks cluttered and some of the retail businesses seem to have disappeared. Ironically, they complete the picture by removing the child in a stroller and the elderly woman in a wheelchair on the left and replacing them with two men in suits. Is it unfair to mention that the street tree right next to the subway entrace can't possibly survive there with most of its root system gone? And in both cases, the transportation planning that makes buses stop in the bike lane is unfortunately typical of Ontario planning, assuming the bus stops somewhere near the subway.

Besides the ugly dehumanizing architecture with the blank walls, and new buildings that pay absolutely no attention to the context into which they are placed, what they have done is to take a functioning main street that could be the bustling centre of a complete urban neighbourhood and changed its character completely into a downtown office area. The change in the type of people illustrated here may be intentional or it may be subconscious: it no longer supports a full range of the people that live in a city, it specializes in a particular demographic. Most of the new buildings are clearly offices, but some may be residential. But think about it. Did children live near that street before? Probably. Do children live near that street now? I don't think so. When they saw what was happening to their neighbourhood they moved to the suburbs. Now consider the price of the land on that street. If your family business owned one of those nice old buildings with some neighbourhood-oriented retail on the ground floor and apartments on top, what would you do? First, the skyrocketing value of the land would mean you are tempted to demolish and redevelop. Second, you need the businesses to make more money per square foot, if the businesses survived the subway construction at all, and you won't get that by catering to the nearby residents behind you. There is a brand new clientele walking by who doesn't live there and whose standards are, shall we say, different. They don't care if people can pick up all the ingredients for a meal here, avoiding a car trip to the supermarket, they just want to buy high-margin convenience food. They don't care if you make noise till all hours of the night. Cater to them and you become richer and the community poorer.

Photo Source: Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal
A lot of the web site's other pictures really are improvements and obviously so, but here is another example where the before-and-after pictures also seem to involve razing or defacing heritage buildings. Have a look at their Underused Employment Area. Here we have some lovely examples of turn of the century industrial buildings. A relatively small footprint, eminently reusable. The problem is clearly that the sidewalks are narrow and the street too wide (clever vitual camera angle) and you also see oppressive shadows from nearby high-rises and if you look at other shadows, it's the middle of the day. On the corner, a little store and above it what looks like a gorgeous expansive apartment with high ceilings and a bay window. To the right, an empty lot and then look at the architecture of that brick building next to it, with the red gabled roof and the windows on the side. Wonderful, isn't it? Across the street a nice intact streetscape. Everything in generous two storeys, with a mix of different types of masonry.

This could all be renovated into something close to the original, using the dominant two-story line. Instead what do we get? Concrete and glass modernist buildings with a bit of masonry cladding. The entire heritage feel, streetscape, and form factor buried underneath an architectural mish-mash. That wonderful building with the gabled roof? It seems to be gone to make way for a boring concrete and glass slab. Those nice old industrial buildings at the left and right of the picture? Buried under modern 6-storey buildings. If I know anything about building methods, they weren't preserved, not even their facades; they were demolished and a similar-looking cladding was built on top of the new concrete structure. One of them has an underground parking lot, which definitely required demolition of the original building. I look at it and think what a travesty, recognizing the value of the original enough to pretend it's still there, yet to not preserve it.

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