Bait-and-Switch Development

There’s a proposal for the redevelopment of 890-900 Bank Street. Well, that’s not quite right, there are more like two proposals…even though to the city there’s barely even one proposal.

Sounds convoluted, huh?

A couple of years back, a new development was planned and proposed for the block. It would be a two-storey commercial development. It would have a Beer Store on the ground floor (replacing the one currently there) along with some other retail. Up top would be a Sobey’s. It was an interesting development, despite the planned 60 underground parking spots.

If you walk by the site, you’ll still see the big billboard with the public notice of this proposal. (These billboards are great, by the way…at least, until they’re not.) So if you live in the neighbourhood, you’d imagine that this proposal was humming along through the planning process.

So…when you heard about a public consultation happening this week, and you don’t have any strong thoughts on this proposal, you might not bother to go.

Except that’s not what’s being proposed.

The developer, Canderel, has a new, and rather horrible, new proposal. They want to develop a six- or seven-storey mixed use building, with retail at ground level, a seniors residence up top, and very little setback.

I’m not going to get into all the reasons it’s a bad proposal (even though I just started), no, I’m going to complain about the erroneous communication be presented to the public.

I contacted the city about this matter. Here’s what happened: the original proposal has been put on hold (I’ve been told on Twitter this is because Sobey’s backed out…because they want to get into Lebreton Flats). Before Canderel can submit its new proposal to the city (which we can just call “The Abomination”), they have to have public consultations.

This is all well and good, except that there is no mechanism in place to notify the public that the developer is changing their plan. So, if you’re ok with the original proposal, you may wind up getting blindsided when The Abomination is eventually built.

I’ve been assured by my councillor that nothing nefarious has gone on in this. I have no reason to assume that he’s wrong, except that this is the second instance within two blocks that a proposal has been changed without explicitly notifying the community.

At Bank and Fifth, a two-storey development was presented and had, at least, started through the approval process. It had the nice notification billboard (that was poorly constructed so would blow over in a strong wind). A little while ago, I heard that the proposed development at that corner was for a four-storey mixed use building.

Going to take a closer look at the new billboards (which weren’t erected at Bank Street, where the original one had been), I can see that there is, indeed, a new proposal…but from a casual viewing while walking, driving or biking down the street, that’s not obvious.

So what’s the problem here? The problem is that an unscrupulous developer could propose a modest redevelopment plan. Build up some goodwill, get the community on board…and then surreptitiously change the plan to something more ambitious and unpalatable.

The community will be mislead. And it really doesn’t matter whether or not it was mislead intentionally, it will still result in bad planning, bad engagement and perpetuate the notion that developers get to do whatever the hell they want.

Not everyone can ride a bike

When discussing making our streets safer and implementing proper bike lanes, one of the most banal and irritating counters is that “not everyone can ride a bike”. It came up on Twitter last week during discussions about Bridgehead’s ridiculous stance on street safety on Beechwood.

Not everyone can ride a bike.

You don’t say.

Obviously, not everyone can ride a bike, and, obviously, not every trip is conducive to bicycling. And if anyone was advocating the complete removal of all transportation infrastructure except bike lanes, then that statement might actually mean something.

Because in all our discussions about bike lanes, Complete Streets, sustainable transit, wider sidewalks, pedestrian space and so on, no one is talking about getting rid of car infrastructure. On Beechwood, cars will still be able to drive wherever the hell they please, if the proposed plan is implemented. (In fact, with that plan, there will be even more parking spaces for them.)

Do you know what else is true, yet actually pertains to these discussions? Not everyone can drive a car. Age, income, physical impairment–these are all impediments to driving, and they can, in some cases, be addressed with a bike.

And not everyone can ride a bike or drive a car. That’s why we need transit and proper pedestrian infrastructure. That’s the whole point of things like Complete Streets. Done properly, this philosophy seeks to ensure that everyone is accommodated, not just drivers. It balances needs and vulnerabilities, establishing priorities for street design.

In very few situations does anyone need to drive a car. You want to get downtown? Take the bus. You don’t live near a bus route? Park-n-Ride. Rack-n-Roll. You don’t have to be able to drive all the way to your preferred destination. You just need to get there.

So, no, not everyone can ride a bike. Not everyone can drive a car. Not everyone can take a bus. If you’re going to spout one as a necessary consideration for street design, you need to follow up with the other two, otherwise no one should ever take you seriously, ever again.

Car-agnostic

Recently, I’ve been writing…well, tweeting…a lot about pro-biking, pro-pedestrian and pro-car attitudes and policies. It should be clear where I come out. The city should be operating with a slight anti-car bias. There are a number of reasons for this: it makes more fiscal sense, it’s more environmentally sustainable, it’s better for our health, it’s better for our security and it’s better for the local economy. It also makes for a more liveable city, but that’s more value-based than the other reasons.

Further, street design should prioritize the safety of the most vulnerable. Taking up the operation of a two tonne death machine comes with it burdens. We accept that sort of thinking in just about any other circumstance, but cars are treated as a special case.

All that being said, if I were to get my way in most or all of the policy debates that we’re currently having, the result would not be an anti-car city. It would result in a car-agnostic city. Indeed, it would merely balance all modes of transportation. The city would be mode-agnostic.

All in all, cars would still get the bulk of the space out there. Sure, the downtown would be turned over to pedestrian, bikes, transit and cars, in that order of priority, but as you made your way out of the central neighbourhoods, street space would start to tip towards cars.

Not every bike lane would need to be as wide as car lanes. Not every street will require a bike lane. Some streets may not even require sidewalks. And once you got out to the exurb and rural areas, you’d really see car accommodation flourish.

Yes, there will definitely be places that will be very anti-car. We need to be anti-car for RedBlacks games, for instance. We simply don’t have the capacity to accommodate 27,000 driving to Lansdowne. We’d be turning our central neighbouhoods into freeways for that.

Similarly, there are attractions that will need to be reached primarily by drivers. LRT isn’t going to the Cumberland Museum (that I know of), and I don’t think it’s a big enough draw to demand it. Even on busy days, the traffic infrastructure isn’t overwhelmed, and their parking lot doesn’t eat into the space necessary to present all the Museum has to offer.

So when central councillors and whatever politically-minded urbanists start talking about bike lanes, prioritizing transit and making streets safe for pedestrians, it’s not an anti-car message (even if an anti-car message would benefit the city). It’s a re-calibration. It’s an attempt to bring balance to our transportation network, and provide a little more accommodation, convenience and safety to residents whose needs have long been sacrificed to driving culture.

So if we make some improvements to the core, and if you can no longer drive and park anywhere you want, it’s not a war on cars; it’s not not attacking drivers; it’s merely no longer over-privileging drivers.

The importance of suburban bike paths

Yesterday, there was a public consultation at the Walter Baker Centre regarding new bike paths being constructed in Barrhaven. This would be an eminently good idea. But before we get to that, let’s get to why bike paths aren’t always so great.

Ottawa has a decent network of bike paths (mostly thanks to the NCC). You can ride along either side of the canal, you can ride along the rivers, you can ride through the experimental farm, you can take them pretty darned far. I have and will continue to use these paths for many of my excursions.

But they’re not always so great, and they’re often an excuse used by the city to refrain from building proper bike infrastructure. You just have to look at the Glebe Cycling Plan. It’s a plan devised to take bicyclists around and past the Glebe. Bank Street is a horror story, but it’s also the street has all the actual stuff on it.

If you want to head downtown, you’ve got no infrastructure except the canal path (and eventually, part of the O’Connor bikeway). So if you want to get somewhere on Kent or Lyon Street (for instance), but want safe infrastructure, you have to go all the way to the canal, then all the way back west once you’re downtown (where there’s only one street with proper infrastructure…oh but there’s also the Ottawa River Pathway).

Downtown is a grid, which is perfect for a robust bicycle network. That’s what we need downtown.

But Barrhaven isn’t a grid. It’s a looping community of crescents and cul-de-sacs. It’s long blocks with few intersections that often wind you away from the direction you want to go. It’s built for cars. Walking is horrible. Biking is a good bit better, but still not great.

These paths help bikes and pedestrians cut through the inherent hostility of suburban design. They give direct routes (or, at least, far less circuitous routes), they get you away from traffic and they can give you a safe way to cross railroad tracks (underneath).

I know. I lived out there. I biked out there. I rollerbladed out there (a couple of times). And I walked out there. If you didn’t have a car, these pathways were imperative for getting around safely and, more or less, quickly.

And there weren’t nearly enough, and as Barrhaven grows, they’re going to need more and more of these. They’ll bring a little more liveability, a little more sustainability and a bit of wise urban development to the area.

 

Building Better Suburbs

It may not seem like it, but I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we can make our suburbs better. Really, it’s only fair. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we make our city better, so I should make sure I’m thinking about how to make the entire city better.

Naturally, my first inclination is to think that we should start building the suburbs like we urban areas. They should be walkable, sustainable, mix-use…all that good stuff. It’s pretty common in urban planning circles to hear people note that we’ve been surbanizing our urban centres, and its about time we start pushing back, and expanding urban areas.

Now, I tend to believe this is true. And I tend to think it’s the just thing to do. And I reject the argument that people demonstrate that they prefer the suburbs. Not only is there a strong cultural imperative to embrace the suburbs for the last, what?, five decades? The suburbs are also heavily subsidized by urban neighbourhoods. Don’t tell me that people are merely demonstrating their true preference, when we’re actually paying them to move to the suburbs.

But it seems like it’d be a bit concern troll-y of me to say that I want to build better suburbs when I really want to turn them into urban areas. (Even if it’d be absolutely true, a moral imperative and the most benevolent thing the city could do.)

No, it’s fair to say that if we’re going to improve the suburbs, we should try to improve them within the suburban framework.*

Interestingly, Ottawa has been doing a lot to try to improve the suburbs, and, in fact, it’s been the case of bringing a bit of urban wisdom to the suburbs. When you look back over the past few years, you’ll notice a few different initiatives undertaken by city hall and city staffers.

We’ve slowly, but surely, increased density in our suburbs. Lots are getting smaller. We’re moving away from bungalows, and embracing tall, narrow houses, semi-detached homes and townhouses. New suburbs are fitting more people into smaller areas. This is a good thing.

Further, we’ve been working to improve density in older, established suburbs (including “the bungalow belt” as areas like Alta Vista and Bel-Air are sometimes called). City staff are working to allow corner lots to be split, so that more units can be built on a block. This is the sort of gentle density that can be very palatable but also helps achieve some pretty important goals.

This won’t be a radical change. It’s nothing the city will impose. For it to happen, the lot owner has to want to split the lot. Until that happens, the status quo remains.

A significant policy change occurred when the city decided to allow small businesses to move into residential neighbourhoods. Again, this isn’t going to be a tidal shift in the nature of these neighbourhoods, but adding more corner stores (or what have you) that can be walked to, that can liven up the street and that can demonstrate that mix-use zoning isn’t some urban hellscape is a benefit to both the local communities and the city, as a whole.

There is more stuff going on. The Stittsville CDP is a huge leap for bringing urban planning to the exurbs. Attempts to bring businesses to Orleans could, at the very least, help keep some commuter traffic in Orleans. And if we’re ever able to hold the line on development boundaries, that will create pressure to build up and intensify.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of work to do. Decades of suburbanization and car-centric have taken a massive toll on the city, as they have on most of North America. It is still very important to hold the line on our urban neighbourhoods and to push the urban environment further outwards, but there are hints that we can be doing suburbanization right.

*Personally, I think as we improve the suburbs, they’ll naturally shift to a more urban framework, but that’s a side topic.

The Nature of Suburbia

A while back, I was having a conversation with someone from the city. In part, we were chatting about street safety, traffic calming and speed reduction. I commented that I’m only partially sympathetic to suburban and exurban calls for traffic calming in their neighbourhoods. My sympathy ends when the very same people are unwilling to support traffic calming, safety enhancements and speed reduction measures inside the city.

I was thinking, specifically, of a community event George Darouze hosted in Osgoode ward a month or so earlier. I didn’t know Darouze’s voting record off hand, so I couldn’t say that he was falling into this hypocritical trap…but I’ll decided to keep an eye on his voting habits.

(Harder and Hubley have consistently shown to be hypocrites on this matter.)

I was thinking about this again with a subsequent meeting in Fairwinds about traffic safety and traffic calming. It’s great that the community association wants to make their neighbourhood safer and more walkable (just like it’s great that that’s what should happen out in Stittsville with the new CDP). But how realistic is it?

North American suburban culture is built on the automobile. Its existence came about because of driving and because of driving long distances (hence all the urban freeways). Street and neighbourhood design is also car-centric, with all the cul-de-sacs, curving roads and low walk- and bike-ability. If you want to build a walkable community, you’re better off with a grid and you need short blocks. You need to be able to cross the street regularly, and you need to have amenities on these walking routes. It’s not about having a mile of the Trans Canada Trail running adjacent to your neighbourhood.

Basically, if you want walkability, you have to change the very nature of your suburban community. You need to de-suburbanize suburbia. It needs to urbanize or rural-ize. The reason you can’t walk to Tanger mall easily is because it was built for drivers, as was Kanata, as was the development of Stittsville.

And this brings me back to the hypocrisy thing. I live in an eminently walkable and bike-able community. I live close to transit (it’s not great, always, but it’s there). I live in density and mixed-use development. My community does not need cars to the same degree as Fairwinds or Osgoode. It’s misanthropic to suggest that we need to calm traffic in the car-centric suburbs, but let drivers race to and through our sustainable inner neighbourhoods.

Opposition to Supervised Injection Sites: Hubris, ignorance and grandstanding

It’s pretty bad that Chair of the Board of Health, councillor Shad Qadri doesn’t seem to have done what he “has to” do in order to properly evaluate the issue of supervised injection sites. It’s worse when councillors strip all the humanity from those addicted to drugs, treating them as nothing more than criminal elements.

Enter Stephen Blais:

“Police chief [Charles Bordeleau] is an expert in crime and he’s against this,” said Blais. “[Levy] is an expert in health, not an expert on crime.”

“This is a criminal issue. Use of heroin is illegal and the sale of heroin feeds organized crime. I’m not sure why we would encourage the continued criminal behavior,” he added.

First, I’m pretty damn sure that our medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, is far more an expert on research than is Chief Bordelau. The Chief’s apparent obliviousness to all the research on the matter of supervised injection sites would tend to give that away.

(He also seems unaware that these sites have a positive impact on crime reduction…so maybe he’s not as much an expert in crime as Blais would suggest.)

Second, and more importantly, this is not criminal issue, not primarily. It is a health issue. It is a public safety issue. It is a frigging human issue. It’s about harm reduction. It’s about getting people addicted to drugs into treatment programs. It’s about reducing overdoses.

It is so cold and soulless to reduce the treatment of drug addiction to a criminal issue, as if people are nothing more than a government classification, and the wrong classification gives you a shot at a death sentence.

Shad Qadri and the eternal search for readily available information

You may remember Shad Qadri. He who knows that photo radar is a speeding deterrent, is against it, but needs to learn more about it.

Now, we can’t expect councillors to know everything (and I’m certainly not wanting to keep picking on Qadri), but we can expect them to know some things. And we can expect them to do a bit of basic research…especially on issues pertaining to a committee they might chair.

People in Ottawa are talking about supervised injection sites (ahem). Members of the Sandy Hill community are working towards one. Ottawa’s top doc, Isra Levy, supports them. Study after study demonstrates their success in reducing overdoses, increasing treatment for addiction and reducing crime. This isn’t particularly new.

Cue Qadri:

“My position is [that I’m] against it, but as chair of the board of health I have to look at new and advancing issues that are raised in the public health realm,” said Stittsville Coun. Shad Qadri.

“I want to see the model that is being proposed by the Sandy Hill [Community Health Centre] and other partners. Let me be very clear, I’m not in favour of having an Insite or a supervised injection site with the Vancouver model … I’m in favour of something that would definitely help the opioid issue in terms of overdoses.”

He claims that he “has to” look at new and advancing issues that are raised in the public health realm. So the question, has he looked into this issue and decided to reject all the data (and common human decency), or has he failed to live up to what he “has to” do?

There’s really only one argument against allowing supervised injection sites, self-righteous moral grandstanding.

Let’s be clear about what’s going on. Qadri has something personal against supervised injection sites. I don’t know what it is, but he’s clearly not basing his opinion on the data, on the outcomes of Insite or on empathy.

People who could be saved will die if the city rejects supervised injection sites. I have no respect for those who would put their own personal or moral hang-ups ahead of helping people fight addiction.

Wellington West and the problem with marginal improvements

On Friday, Bridgehead–supposed social justice advocates of the coffee industry–came out very strongly against bike (and street) (and pedestrian) safety. As the city works to improve safety along Beechwood, including implementing bike lanes, Bridgehead decided that the threat to the parking across the street (not to the street parking in front of their business, nor their parking lot) was just too much.

They failed to mention that the proposed re-development of Beechwood would lead to a net increase in on-street parking, but I digress…

Here’s their position:

bridgehead

Bridgehead eventually apologized, though they stuck with their “better balance” argument.

But this isn’t just an issue with a company stepping in it, or with people feeling it’s okay to put cyclists (and pedestrians) (and other motorists) in peril in order to prioritize parking (even if it’s not proven to be a wise economic choice). No, this is also an issue in which a bare minimum attempt to make our streets safer can be used as a rhetorical tool to try to block actual, concrete improvements to our city.

The Wellington West Dooring Zone project is an interesting idea, academically-speaking. Though we know that sharrows, alone, have a deleterious effect on safety, it is possible that including a painted dooring zone (for all the well-deserved scorn it has received) may be a marginal improvement over the status quo.

But, in the end, we know that paint isn’t really infrastructure. We know that the best way to improve bicycle safety (and get more people out on bikes!) is to build segregated bike lanes.

Forget talk about the perfect being the enemy of the good. What we have just seen is Bridgehead making the possibly-not-totally-horrible the enemy of the good. In this situation, the city has created an absurdly low expectation for bicycle (and street) (and pedestrian) safety.

I was open to the Wellington West project. I didn’t want to pre-judge it. I wanted to wait until the research was in before passing judgement. However, if it is going to be used to block other safety improvement efforts, I won’t care what little benefit it might have. We shouldn’t tolerate such half measures.

Uber, and doing the right thing means doing the right thing now.

City staffers and consultants have issued a report on how to (sort of) dismantle the taxi cartel in Ottawa. The Transportation Committee took two days (Thursday and Friday) to review the report and draft some motions. From all reports, it was a rather painful yet somewhat productive experience. Through the final motions, the committee is recommending the city implement most of the consultants’ report.

But they don’t want to do it just yet.

The report recommended that the new rules for the cab industry take effect in June, and that the current by-laws be inforced until then (why? it’s not really my place to say). The committee, on the other hand, has decided that the changes should come into effect in September, perhaps trying to gift the taxi cartel one more tourist season.

It’s pretty ridiculous to keep enforcing the existing by-laws for the next five months, cracking down on an industry and a business you’ve already deemed legal and valuable.

The rationale is that the taxi cartel needs time to react and adjust to the changing marketplace. The rationale is bunk. The city owes no such accommodation to the legacy taxis. The city owes it to residents to open up this market and give people what they need and want.

I have been in favour of a transition period. Cabbies who speculated on high-cost taxi plates aren’t going to reap their expected profits. And they thought a plate would be a good investment because of the city’s throttling of the industry.

As it turns out, they made a bad investment, and it’s generally not in the city’s job description to save people from their bad investments. The city didn’t owe them a protected industry. It provided one, and cabbies have benefited, but there was no guarantee that this government largess would continue.

The cartel was using government regulations (and actively lobbying for them) to extract greater and greater profits. In no other situation would this elicit such sympathy.

But, there will be market upheaval, and people will be hurt and the government created this speculative market, so giving them a transition period to extract the final rents from their government privilege seems fair.

Uber launched in Ottawa in October 2014. They’ve had a year and a half to prepare for the market shake-up. That’s a damned long time. Moreover, Uber was launched in San Fransisco in 2009. This change has been a longtime coming.

So no, they deserve no extra time.

Further, the actual “taxi” industry isn’t really having as much of a shake-up. There is a nominal (if not real) increase in the number of taxi plates out there. Taxis still get exclusive use of taxi stands and picking up street fares. They still have a definite market privilege (but, also, with some accompanying obligations).

The fact is, the recommendations don’t go far enough. The city needs to take the limit off of the number plates issued. That will be true de-regulation. And as I’ve said all along, that’s where the transition period can take effect. In six months time, double the number of plates. Six months later, uncap it.

That’s your period to adjust.