Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Excitement and Opportunity in Sudbury: the Downtown Master Plan Process Begins!

I had the pleasure last night to attend a consultation session for the City of Greater Sudbury’s Downtown Master Plan. This session, titled “Speak Up, Sudbury!” was hosted by the City’s Planning Department, and facilitated by Senior Planner Jason Ferrigan. Joe Berridge, principle of Urban Strategies, a Toronto-based urban planning consulting firm, was on hand to discuss the development of the Plan, speak to his perceptions of the opportunities and challenges which downtown development is facing, and to hear feedback from members of the public. If you’re interested in community planning at all, there’s a good chance that you will have attended a public meeting similar to the one I attended last night.

Only…this wasn’t your typical public meeting. First off, there was an incredible sense of excitement in the air. Maybe that had to do with some of the really interesting and intriguing visuals Urban Strategies brought out to the session. Or maybe it was the slideshow of pictures of the good and bad of downtown Sudbury. I believe, though, it had a lot to do with some of the interesting ways in which the City is going to be reaching out for the public’s input.

In fact, conversations about Sudbury’s downtown started before this event. Sure, the Urban Strategies team had already apparently talked with some of the downtown merchants, and received their feedback. Beyond those conversations, though, things have been happening through social media. The City has developed a Facebook page, on which discussions, suggestions, opinions are all being expressed about our downtown. This lively conversation already taking place really fuelled last night’s consultation session.

And then there were the numbers. The Sudbury Star, which covered the meeting last night along with other local media, estimated the turn out at being approximately 200 people. This for a meeting about urban planning. Impressive. (Aside: here’s a link to the Sudbury Star’s article on last night’s session. As expected, those who disparage the downtown are out in full force on the Star’s website. That discourages me, but I’m not surprised. I believe, though, that these negative-thinkers are in the minority here in my community).

The consultation session kicked off with guitar music in French and English, provided by my Facebook friend (and colleague at work), Edouard Landry. This was followed by a few presentations from local Sudburians regarding what the downtown meant to them. By the time Joe Berridge stepped up to the microphone to explain the specifics of the Plan, to share his opinion with the crowd, the evening was well underway.

I have to emphasize what an absolute success this approach to community consultation has been so far, and to express my optimism regarding future opportunities for public engagement. The use of social media, in particular, is something which I hope the City of Greater Sudbury continues to pursue for other forms of consultation. Many people in my community wouldn’t dream of coming out to a 3 hour meeting (even one as dynamic as last night’s). These people, however, have the opportunity to engage the process through social media, including Facebook and a blogsite. There is an incredible opportunity for the City here, in terms of carrying on a conversation about Sudbury’s downtown.

Joe Berridge spoke about the need for the Master Plan to set realistic goals for the 10 year life of the plan. He explained that there are some opportunities which we already know about, including the lifespan of the downtown library coming to an end, the possible need for a new arena, and the eventual opening of the Northern Ontario School of Architecture. While dreaming big should never be discouraged, ultimately the Plan being prepared will be a plan based on our current reality, with concrete goals and targets which can be implemented. As an example, Berridge was clear that the relocation of the rail lands will not be considered by the Plan.

Berridge then took the audience on a walking tour of the downtown, showing us the good, followed by the not-so-good and sometimes quite bad. What was clear in the minds of all in attendance, though, was the considerable opportunity which our downtown has to continue to build on its successes. While there are people in my City who are not at all interested in the downtown, and who avoid it as much as they can, there are many others who believe that the downtown is worth our attention. I’m one of those, and I’m pretty sure that everyone else out to last night’s meeting can be numbered amongst the downtown’s supporters.

Over 9,000 people work in Sudbury’s downtown, yet only about 500 people live here. Berridge was clear: that has to change. The good news is, according to Berridge, that opportunities exist for people to live downtown which won’t lead to gentrification. Part of last night’s discussion focussed on poverty and homelessness, and some concerns were raised when Berridge described a type of downtown living which Sudbury may wish to consider aiming for, that being residential condominium development for middle-income earners. Currently, there are few units available downtown for young professionals. Berridge was able to clarify, though, that this doesn’t mean that low-income earners will no longer have a place downtown; instead, he was very clear that Sudbury’s downtown has to be a place for everyone.

There are going to be a number of challenges for the development of the Downtown Master Plan, some of which have to do with competing visions of what the downtown should be. Other challenges will deal more with specific downtown locations. I’d like to just take a moment to look at the competing visions first.

The biggest competition in our community is clearly going to have to do with parking. Currently, within the City, there are competing perceptions that there is either too much or too little parking for the downtown. A lack of parking is often sited by opponents of the downtown as a reason why they won’t travel to or stop and shop in the downtown. Some business owners as well believe that a lack of parking is interfering with the operation of their business, as what parking does exist can be expensive (particularly surface lots and garages), and cheaper metered parking is often difficult to find during the day.

Others look at the downtown core and see buildings interspersed with surface parking on an almost 1:1 ratio. They despair that yet more buildings may be knocked down to put up parking lots. All of this surface parking creates physical holes throughout the downtown, leading to less friendly circumstances for pedestrians. The profligacy of parking downtown is seen as yet another example of catering to the rampant “car culture” which exists in this City to the exclusion of all other forms of transportation.

Clearly, parking is going to be an issue for the development of the Master Plan, and figuring out a balanced approach to this issue is going to inform the direction of the Plan in many ways.

I believe that our community must begin adjusting its attitude towards accommodating cars at the expense of other forms of transportation. While I don’t see cars disappearing from our roads in considerable numbers over the next 10 years, I firmly believe that fewer people living in my community will be vehicle owners than we have today. I believe this because I know that peak oil is coming, and my community will be impacted by rising energy prices as a result. This doesn’t mean that I just think that people will be opting to take the bus to work rather than the car, due to increased price. While that’s a part of my expectation for the future, I also believe that with rising energy prices, there will be fewer of us per capita who have work to go to at all. I am very concerned about unemployment and the City’s economic outlook in the face of the end of cheap oil. And I sincerely hope that these viewpoints inform the Master Plan process.

To me, that means there needs to be a specific transportation focus for the Plan, one which puts vehicular transportation on the same level as transit, pedestrian walkways and, wait for it: cycling. Currently, we have a woeful amount of on-street cycling infrastructure in our City. This despite the incredible spending which has taken place through economic stimulus programs over the past two years. Major roads have been upgraded and resurfaced, yet there has been little benefit for cyclists. Indeed, in some case, there have been steps backward for the creation of safe cycling opportunities on our roadways.

One thing which surprised me about Berridge’s virtual walking tour had to do with that part of the tour where Berridge travelled across Paris Street, to explore those sections of Cedar and Larch to the east of Paris. I often forget that those areas too are part of our downtown. I, like many Sudburians I’m sure, have a bit of a mental block about this part of the downtown, due to the very physical barrier which is created by a 7-lane Paris Street. Unlike the rail lands, which are a true, hard edge which defines the extent of the downtown, Paris is merely a physical barrier, one which can be bridged, but reluctantly so. Whereas the Downtown Master Plan will not be looking beyond the hard edge of the rail lands, Paris Street should be considered fair game. We must do something about Paris, even though we’ve just spent all of this money to get where we are today. Synchronization of traffic signals, morning-evening designation of centre lanes for traffic flow (complimented by median removal) could lead to an opportunity to reduce the number of lanes by one or even two, thus allowing the creation of on-street cycling infrastructure through the downtown Paris-Notre Dame corridor. That’s what we need to start thinking about in terms of methods to accommodate all forms of transportation.

Some of the specific locations in the downtown which the Plan is going to have to address include Market Square, the outdoor portion of Tom Davies Square (the most under-used, valuable piece of real estate in the City), the Arena, and the surface parking lots east of Lisgar. There are great opportunities for residential development in these areas, which would compliment development proposals currently in the works for lands located to the southeast of the Paris/Brady intersection. Indeed, this part of the downtown has the potential for becoming a major residential hub. And it’s well-served by access to major streets for cars too!

Of course, that area of downtown is one which currently is identified as being problematic, for a number of reasons related to poverty. Indeed, the issue of poverty is going to be one which can’t be ignored through the planning process, because the very real reduction of personal wealth is going to continue to be an issue for Sudburians. The loss of economic opportunities due to higher energy prices and a stagnating global economy, and negative gains in real wealth are likely to remain our reality over the next decade (and more). Increasing economic disparity between rich and poor is already our reality nationally. Here in Sudbury, despite opportunities for public sector growth (such as that offered by the Northern Ontario School of Architecture), we can expect to be impacted by this trend, particularly as the mining sector continues to shed well-paying jobs over time.

There were a few other things, however, which weren’t discussed to a significant degree last night. These included any discussion about severe weather impacts and addressing the need to reduce carbon emissions in the fight against climate change. In this respect, encouraging green buildings and green roofs for new development, and retrofitting existing buildings will go along way. How will such activities be accomplished, especially given that developers are discouraged from building residential units in the downtown due to a lack of sensible price-points (as Berridge pointed out a few times last night).

Well, it’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure. Greater Sudbury Mayor John Rodriguez commented last night that the City, in an effort to spur downtown development, has a policy to waive development charges for new development. That’s a good and sensible start, but there are a number of other things which the City must do if it is to truly embrace downtown development as a priority. I sincerely hope that, as an outcome of this Master Plan, that the City then begins work on a Downtown Community Improvement Plan, which will establish tax increment financing schemes to aid in the development of small, affordable, green residential units. We must give developers a property tax-break over a certain defined term, so that they will be able to build the development which we want to see. Further, bonusing tools in the Planning Act can be used to for developments which propose densities and heights greater than permissible through zoning, as long as a proposed development is going to address identified downtown needs.

And finally, this can’t be understated. If we are going to truly embrace downtown development, we have to get serious about prohibiting unsustainable and ultimately expensive forms of development in greenfield locations elsewhere in the City. Spending will need to be prioritized in a way which favours the use of existing infrastructure over the creation of new infrastructure. This is true for everything from pipes to roads. Our decision makers must note that this will perforce lead to a reassessment of the need for both the Maley Drive and Barrydowne Extensions, as building these two new roads will absolutely open up additional opportunities for greenfrield development. Rather than building expensive new roads on which fewer people will be driving (due to decreased car ownership), it will be better to address the very real transportation issues facing residents of Valley East, Hanmer, Garson and Capreol by promoting alternative means of transportation. Further, firm commitment to growing the Valley and Hanmer upwards, rather than outwards, must inform decision makers if we are going to find those price points where downtown development makes sense for builders and investors. We already know that residential development makes sense for consumers; our trick is going to be to find a way to build it.

Our past Council was previously discussing the need to create additional opportunities for residential severances in rural areas. This kind of out-dated thinking will not take us in the direction which we need to go if we are going to create a City which is going to function in a world where energy, including oil, is increasingly costly due to climate change and peak oil. In short, we must plan for the reality which truly faces us, and not the reality that we might hope and dream to live in.

I am truly excited about the Downtown Master Plan, for both what it is going to be, and for the process underway to obtain a wide range of input. This is the right way to engage Sudburians. Residents throughout Greater Sudbury now need to respond to shape this Plan for the good of the entire City. As Joe Berridge said last night, though, we need to keep in mind that the Plan itself must be realistic; I believe that the idea of “realism” in the Plan must embrace our current and expected future, which will be impacted by higher energy prices. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here again: Tomorrow is not going to be like today. We need to plan for this reality.

1 comment:

GreenSudbury said...

Wow. Great feedback Steve as usual. Your focus in parking and transportation alternatives are bang on and will certainly go against the ingrained car-centric culture at work in the City. Competing visions will continue to be the millstone around the neck of a new vision for the city due to the political construct of an artificial Greater Sudbury.