Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Knee-Jerk Reaction on Parking Lot Approval Another Missed Opportunity to Prioritize Livability in Greater Sudbury

Here we go again. Today, Greater Sudbury's was asked to approve approximately 1,000 new surface parking spaces at Health Sciences North, Sudury's (relatively) new one-site hospital. Parking has been at a premium since the day the one-site facility opened, having been constructed with a shortfall of approximately 225 surface parking spots. Employees, for whom today's approval of the additional parking spaces is intended to largely serve, have been taking shuttles from the parking facility at the former St. Joseph's Hospital site, which will soon be unavailable due to a condominium project.

The Costs of Traffic

Rather than looking at any alternatives, Greater Sudbury's Planning Committee simply accepted the need for a significant amount of new surface parking at our Hospital by greenlighting the zoning by-law. The zoning request sailed through Planning Committee on the recommendation of municipal staff, despite a number of what appear to be pretty significant planning obstacles for new parking in this location. The 1,000 new parking spaces are certain to have an impact on traffic volumes at the Paris/Centennial intersection, and at the intersection of Paris and Ramsey Lake Road. A major traffic study to look at intersection redesign options, estimated to cost about $300,000 will now be moving forward, with just $75,000 being contributed by Health Sciences North. The remainder of this bill will be picked up by municipal taxpayers. The study is only necessary as a result of the parking lot approval.

The intersection of Paris and Ramsey Lake Road is already very congested, especially at peak hours (which happen to coincide with shift changes at the hospital). The Ramsey Lake Community Improvement Plan, a municipal land use planning document, discourages new development which would significantly increase traffic on Ramsey Lake Road - the very sort of development that our Planning Committee today greenlighted. The Community Improvement Plan provides some very good guidance to our municipal decision-makers: rather than compound traffic problems along this corridor, it indicates instead that future travel needs ought to be addressed through improvements to transit.

Currently, transit access to the Hospital is pretty good during the day. Are there opportunities for further improvements? Absolutely - but none of them were explored before Planning Committee rushed into today's decision. The Council-accepted Sustainable Mobility Plan (2010) provides some recommendations for alternatives to facilitating motor vehicle traffic at each and every opportunity. It encourages the Sudbury Transit to consider partnerships with major employment centres, offering up the "Sudbury Regional Hospital" (now Health Sciences North) as an example of a facility for which partnerships should be explored. Currently, Sudbury Transit partners with Laurentian University (whose campus is located at the end of Ramsey Lake Road) to provide inexpensive bus service. Why weren't similar options explored for the staff of Health Sciences North prior to moving ahead with rezoning for 1,000 additional parking spaces?

Protecting Our Drinking Water

Other than being a major traffic generator, one of the other issues with this proposal is the fact that a new and significant hard-surfaced area will be introduced into the Ramsey Lake watershed. Surface runoff from the parking lot will end up in Ramsey Lake. Additional contaminants in the form of road salt and motor oil will end up in one of Sudbury's major drinking water sources. Additional natural filtration for surface runoff wasn't considered as part of the rezoning request. It's unclear whether existing stormwater facilities for the southern end of the parking lot are up to the challenge of handling run off in that location. Between the northern part of the parking lot and Ramsey Lake, there's nothing in existence of planned to help further filter runoff. This situation is further exacerbated by the loss of natural vegetation in this location; storm water filtering vegetation will have to make way for the new parking lot.

We continue to develop in the Ramsey Lake watershed at our own peril. Already, contamination from road salt exceeds 20 micrograms per litre - the level at which the medical officer of health has to be notified, due to potential health-related impacts. While still within provincial drinking water guidelines, sodium content in the lake is trending upward. This is entirely due to runoff from urbanization.

A Preference for Livability

Look, this post isn't about being against something - it's about being in favour of alternatives which would truly make our community more livable - and questioning why none of these alternative were explored prior to making a decision which will adversely impact our City's livability. At the very least, natural options for stormwater infiltration, such as the permeable pavers and bioswales already at use at the Living With Lakes Centre (also located on Ramsey Lake Road in the Ramsey Lake watershed) should have been a condition of approval. Another asphalt parking lot is, frankly, the last thing the watershed needs.

And do we really need to have 1,000 more spaces? This is a pretty hefty increase over the previously-identified shortfall of 225. The application for rezoning indicates that the intention is that most of these spaces will be used by staff. What about car pooling options, along with transit and cycling? Is there really a demonstrated need for all of these additional spaces?

Clearly, there is a real issue with accessibility for users of Health Science North, including for its staff. With that in mind, there should have been a number of different options explored to address the issue, rather than quickly jumping on the very costly solution of creating a massive number of new parking spaces. With a budget increase proposed next year totaling 4.9%, our Council really should be looking at all options before committing to forking out hundreds of thousands of dollars on a traffic study and improvements for intersection upgrades for intersections which were "improved" within the last 5 years. Especially when less expensive options might have achieved the same results.

Frustrating Our Future

To me, it seems that our Planning Committee has made another knee-jerk approval, without considering all of the options. In defense of Planning Committee, however, the staff report presented to them today also failed to consider many of the options under discussion, or assess a complete range of potential costs resulting from this decision. Both staff and Planning Committee were, however, in possession of an eye-opening letter from the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, which explains and expands on a number of the issues I've identified here, but much more succinctly and without my angry editorializing.

Yes, I am angry. We had a chance to start doing something right, to start building for the future that we want to have here in Greater Sudbury - for the future that we need to be competitive and prosperous in the 21st Century. Instead, we've continued to embrace the status quo's expensive solutions, which would have been a much better fit for the mid-20th Century and cheap fuel prices. We've chosen to yet again ignore the need to get things right the first time, especially those things which pertain to our drinking water, in favour of doing what's expedient because we've always done things a certain way. No, this isn't the way forward. Today's decision takes us only backwards. We can do so much better than this. We must start. We can't afford to keep going down this road.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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