Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Two Debates in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

I've been following two debates recently going on in Vancouver related to the Downtown Eastside--one was triggered by the city's Historic Area Heights Review and the other by future locations for social housing--and thought it would be helpful to compile some of the discussion in one place.

Historic Area Heights Review

The Historic Area Heights Review sought higher building height limits in the DTES and Chinatown. You can read the document here (I know it looks long, but after page 16 it's appendices only). If you don't want to read all that, you can check out the presentation version, which also discusses view corridors and height reviews in other areas of the city. It also has the benefit of looking very slick.

Basically, what the study recommends is rezoning in the DTES and Chinatown to allow for higher buildings of around 120 - 150ft at certain locations. The study also notes the distinct character of this historic area should not be compromised and that the higher densities should bring public benefits.
(image taken from the HAHR report)

This prompted a slew of Vancouver professors, planners and politicians to write a letter to council expressing their concern that the added density and height would compromise the low-income nature of the DTES, ultimately contributing to higher rents that would push out at-risk tenants. Mike Harcourt, former premier, wondered why there was a "height-only" study when the needs of the DTES required a broader social and economic study. Sounds like a reasonable request to me.

Michael Geller argued on his blog that the real issue was preserving the heritage nature of the district, something that higher buildings would encroach on.

Ultimately, city council cancelled the public hearing set for January 20, 2011 (which had a large number of speakers signed up) in order to call for a social-impact study to be completed and a community committee to be formed with the intent to create a local area plan for the DTES. A Georgia Straight article noted the public hearing led to an outcry against council for anti-democratic tactics, but that it was ultimately seen as a victory (for now). The Vancouver Sun's Jeff Lee wrote that city council had simply split up the area, so that while the DTES height reviews are on hold, the Chinatown ones will proceed with public hearings in February. Local action group Fight the Height used the headline: "Council strikes down the heights review...sort of."

Concord Pacific Social Housing Swap

As if that wasn't enough, a deal being drawn up with Concord Pacific (that ubiquitous developer of Vancouver's forest of glass towers) to have the developer turn over two DTES sites to the city for social housing development instead of including those units in the development of the North False Creek area, has triggered another debate. This time about where future social housing should be built--mixed with the rest of the city or located to the DTES?

On the one hand, the city has found it extremely difficult to build social housing units in developments in other parts of the city, the most publicized recently being the problems at the Olympic Village site. Compounded with this is the fact that the DTES has an established community and network of services for low-income citizens so it makes sense to provide social housing there.

On the other hand, you have Michael Geller's argument that we shouldn't be relegating Vancouver's poor to the DTES and should instead be including them in other areas of the city. A pretty hateful and vitriolic article by The Province (no surprise there) takes the view that the Downtown Eastside should be destroyed and social housing should be built outside of the DTES, but totally ignores the fact that in Vancouver NIMBYism on such projects is quite high.

I have no idea what is best. My instinct tells me that we should be providing low-income citizens with opportunities to share in the wealth of the city by including them in these mega-condo projects. While many residents of the DTES feel a connection to the community and wouldn't want to leave (nor should they have to) there are probably some that would rather live in other areas of the city.


Friday, January 21, 2011

A Video Homage to Toronto's Lost Buildings

A friend of mine who is currently residing in London, England made this video homage to Toronto's lost buildings. It's difficult to watch the video without wondering about the evolving face of Toronto, and how the decisions to demolish buildings can so change the landscape of a city.

One of the biggest changes to me is Trinity College in what is now Trinity-Bellwoods Park. You can still see the gates to the college at the south end of the park along Queen Street, but all traces of the building are gone.

It's interesting to note too some of the buildings we still have that were once threatened with demolition, or partial demolition, like Old City Hall. I think one proposal had the whole building gone with its replacement being an Eaton's Centre tower, while a revised proposal kept just the old clock tower. Thankfully neither of those were realized and the building was left standing.

But with the neglect, partial collapse, then fire and planned demolition of a heritage building on Yonge street recently, it's clear that we still have some ways to go in protecting our heritage buildings.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Every City Needs a Stairway to Nowhere

When the entries for the Toronto Entertainment District BIA's competition for a public space at John and King were announced, I was immediately drawn to the proposal for a King St. Staircase--or, really, a staircase to nowhere. The vision statement on the website says:

It will be a piece of urban sculpture and a landmark. Since the stair will be a destination in itself, then its shape can take cues from the surrounding buildings and pedestrian movement. Its forms can be designed to support the area's activities: bleachers during the marathon or a Walk of Fame commemoration; a viewing platform for celebrity sightings or events during The Toronto International Film Festival.

Instead, what won was the Urban Ballroom, which consists of spherical seating (reminiscent of those giant, rubber excercise balls) scattered underneath a net of solar-powered globes. Although a nifty idea in itself, it looks like one of those ideas for a public space that look great for a year or two before upkeep and maintenance costs cause it to slowly degenerate. It's also a space with less flexibility as it would probably look way better at night than in the day, much like how Christmas lights on houses look nice at night, but like ugly lines of wires and bulbs in bright daylight. Also, what is up with the elderly lady carrying WAY too many shopping bags? Clearly someone needs to help her home.

There are two great spots in central downtown Vancouver for people-watching, lunch-eating, outdoor-reading, sitting-and-staring, and various other hyphenated activities. These are the public steps to the Vancouver Art Gallery (both the south and north sides, which offer different levels of public display and privacy depending on your needs), and a few blocks east on Robson at the half-circle steps leading to the Vancouver Public Library. The funny thing is that neither staircase necessarily leads anywhere. The entrances to neither the art gallery or the library are at the top of the stairs. Essentially, they go nowhere.

But there's something about a staircase, even when they lead to nothing, that draws people. It's the ability to sit, obviously, but also the ability to rise above the action of the city, providing a better vantage point from which to look. They also provide ready made seating arrangements for outdoor buskers and various political rallys and other events, something that the steps at the art gallery and the library are used for often.

I've often thought, wandering around Toronto's downtown as I did in the summer, that there weren't enough spots from which to just watch the action. There are scattered benches and public plazas here and there, but nothing like the Vancouver Art Gallery steps where you are treated to a steady stream of people. Yonge & Dundas Square is too frenetic for me, and also doesn't really contain very much seating so that the effect is kind of a concrete field amidst towering advertisements. The King St. Staircase could have filled this vacuum, providing a locus for people in the area while being flexible in its uses and easy to maintain.

I suppose I could always just bring a step ladder to a crowded area, set it up, and sit atop for a few hours, but somehow it just doesn't have the same effect.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Feminism or Cats: A Toronto Graffiti Quandary

Walking down Harbord Street just west of Spadina you may find yourself facing an interesting quandary: feminism or cats, which does the world need? I'm inclined to say both. Who says this is a zero-sum game? Do we really have to choose between women's rights and our favourite feline friends?

I found the one below in an alley nearby, although I somehow doubt that it was created by the same feminist.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Toronto's Separated Bike Lanes: Just Build Them Already

When Rob Ford was announced Toronto's next mayor, I think many cyclists buried their face in their handlebars and gave a great bit frustrated sob. So it was a surprise when Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, public works and infrastructure committee chair, announced his proposal for a network of curb-separated bike lanes in the city. These lanes would mostly create separated bicycle lanes on streets that currently have painted lanes, such as Wellesley, Sherbourne, and St. George but would also see one on John St and the creation of a new two-way separated lane on Richmond Street. Below is a map of what the gist of the network would look like, give or take a few blocks.

In this same area, separated lanes on Harbord/Hoskin, University Ave, Jarvis Street, Bloor east of Spadina, College, and Bay would be nice as well, and there are many other opportunities across the city to have them installed. The lanes would be separated by a curb and use a line of parked cars as a buffer, much like they do in Montreal as seen in the photo below (source).

Although the Ford administration did some back-pedalling (thank you Globe and Mail for that gem), it's encouraging that the idea has even been raised. Of course, the usual criticisms have been trotted out: But how would we do garbage pick-up? What about parking and delivery? How do we snow plow them? Can someone help me tie my shoelaces? I mean, c'mon. In a city as innovative as Toronto, one filled with both great thinkers and doers, are you telling me that the reason against separated bike lanes is that we can't figure out how to collect garbage or get deliveries?

If we have an issue bending our mind around that problem, then we can, of course, always look to other cities like Montreal, New York, Copenhagen, and most recently Vancouver to see how they solved that issue. I doubt they have garbage piling up on the side of the road and delivery truck drivers idling in roadways scratching their heads. Below is Vancouver's reworking of Hornby Street to accomodate a separated lane (source), which has since been built and is open. (Note: even though parking was taken away, parking was incorporated into the plan and 160 spaces are planned on neighbouring streets)

Only one of the proposed lanes (Richmond Street) actually takes space away from cars as well, which should assuage the fears of those that get riled up about the imaginary war on the car, which apparently is now over anyway.

The fact is that every driver in downtown Toronto should be behind this proposal. Physically separating bikers from drivers doesn't just increase safety for both parties, but also creates predictability--ie, you know exactly where the biker is going to be and where the car is going to be. Tired of white-knuckling your steering wheel wondering whether that crazy cyclist is going to weave out in front of you? Easy! Put a curb between the two of you.

Sure, there are some kinks to work out, but some problems are just worth taking the time to solve.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why I Am Terrified Of Robarts Library

When I first saw Robarts at the University of Toronto I thought: Strange, why would they build a fortress in the middle of campus? And then I saw people leaving with books and I thought: Oh.

There is something compelling though about its monolithic stature and futuristic design. If someone had asked George Orwell to design a government building for the future, it would probably look a lot like Robarts: intimidating, foreboding, and comprised of concrete peaks and towers with very few windows. Basically, a real good place to conduct top secret illegal business and immoral public experiments without anyone finding out.

I've attempted to study a few times within its hulk, but haven't lasted long. There's something horror movie-like to me about its layout and design. Maybe it has to do with the flickering, buzzing halogen lights that come slowly to life as you walk by as if some ghost is trailing you turning them on and off. Maybe it's the glass-enclosed study rooms that bare a frightening resemblance to the cell that housed Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. Maybe it's the skinny doorways lining the edges of each floor that lead, so I'm told, to PHd study rooms but which look more like small torture chambers.

I recently made a trip to Robarts after Christmas to get out a few books and found the place eerily empty. If I thought Robarts was scary even when it was filled with sniffly students then this new, deserted Robarts was absolutely terrifying. I walked past the "guard", flashed my U of T card and entered the bank of elevators, which whisked me up several storeys and opened onto one of those atriums that look more like the set for a lazer tag battle than a place to study.

As I walked through the stacks, lights flickering to life and then extinguishing behind me, I couldn't help one thought creep and take hold at the edge of my mind: zombies. I imagined them coming out of the darkness between two book shelves, banging their decaying hands on the glass walls of a study room, sneaking up behind me as I attempted to find my call number. If I was going to film a zombie movie in Toronto, the first place that would get overrun with the flesh-eating monstrosities would be Robarts.

Of course, not everyone feels this way about Robarts. For example, these gents felt that their love for the library was best expressed through a rap song.

photo one: credit
photo two: mine
photo three: mine