Friday, January 19, 2018

Standing Up for a Sustainable Long-Term Vision for Community Development

It has been remarked by a member of Greater Sudbury Council that the citizens will have "no reason" that has a land use basis for a member of the public to appeal a decision by Council to approve an arena/events centre and casino in an industrial park on the Kingsway.  This member of Council has clearly indicated that any appeal filed by a citizen will be for the purposes of delaying the projects, at a cost to the City.

This member of Council appears to believe that all opposition to the Kingsway Entertainment District is coming from a handful of people who live or have businesses in the Downtown.  To bolster this clearly false narrative, the council member has publicly opined about how the Downtown is trying to put its own interests ahead of the rest of the City, and constantly reminds people that there are many other "downtowns" in Greater Sudbury.  He has also offered his opinion that the City's existing downtown really isn't a downtown at all, and that the 'real' downtown of Greater Sudbury includes the big box stores at Kingsway and Barrydowne, and the New Sudbury mall - both of which are actually identified as important "Regional Centres" in the City's official plan - but clearly are places that no sensible person could ever confuse with an actual "downtown".

And some people in my community are starting to echo all of these sentiments, for whatever reason.

With this in mind, I've tried to provide a little evidence-based information here with regards to why strengthening all of our core areas is an important pursuit for our City - and one contemplated by strategic planning documents.  I've also tried to point out why a decision to locate an events/centre arena in an industrial park on the Kingsway is contrary to that vision - and why many members of the public from all over the City are speaking out against what can only be described as a small group of special interests on Council who are trying to make decisions which are contrary to a long-established commitment to sustainable development that our City has promised it will pursue, as articulated over time in numerous planning documents.

I will show that contrary to statements made by one of these special interests who currently occupies a seat at the Council table, our City has made a strong commitment to sustainable development that won't be easily set aside - and that citizens who are engaged in the process of evaluating current community development proposals have every reason to be concerned about the impacts of recent applications filed with the City to permit an arena/events centre and casino on the Kingsway - and that those reasons have everything to do with sensible, sustainable development contemplated by the City's own policies, that have been shaped by years of public consultation and based on an understanding of experts regarding the actions and initiatives that our City should be taking to meet the needs of current and future residents.

The Building Blocks of Healthy Communities: Main Streets and Downtowns

With regards to the function of “Main Streets” and “Downtowns” – another way of looking at this which might be familiar to some is the concept of “local” and “regional”.  Keep in mind that our current Official Plan was put together with this framework in mind – with the downtown core of the former City of Sudbury forming the core of the larger regional community, with local “downtowns” or “main streets” forming the backbones of local communities.  And those local communities aren't all located in the outlying areas, either – they include places like Val Caron, Hanmer, Capreol, Chelmsford, Azilda, Coniston, Dowling, etc., for sure – but they are also the Flour Mill, the Donovan, Copper Cliff – and to a lesser extent, the West End on Regent between Douglas and Victoria.

Strong, vibrant local core areas are extremely important to the health of local communities.  And a strong, vibrant downtown which becomes the focal point of jobs, commerce, entertainment, public services and commercial activity helps create regional identity .  Greater Sudbury is certainly not alone in wanting to re-invigorate local cores, along with building up our regional core.  Think of how the City of Toronto functions with a strong downtown that was not as negatively impacted by the shift of retail out of the core as other, smaller cities like ours were – and how Toronto’s regional core is complimented by numerous local cores, like the new Liberty Village, and certainly other areas like The Annex, Cabbagetown, Yonge-Eglinton, etc.  If you look at most cities that have urban/suburban elements, you'll see the same patterns again and again.  With that in mind, there isn't really anything unique about how the Sudbury region developed - and nor is the prescription for success here any different than elsewhere.

Our Vision: Strengthening Weakened Core Areas for the Overall Good of the City

Keep in mind that the City of Greater Sudbury’s strategic planning documents were not put together from scratch. Our official plan built on local, municipal plans from the former amalgamated municipalities, as well as the Region of Sudbury’s Official Plan, which provided pretty much the same general direction that the City’s current Official Plan does with regards to the desire to see both local cores and the regional core succeed.  Unfortunately, numerous development decisions have led in opposite directions of these long-stated desires, and have impacted negatively on the ability of both local and regional cores to prosper.  Those decisions – especially the decision to locate major retail uses in auto-centric locations, have led to problems for cores – and ultimately higher servicing costs for the City and taxpayers.  They’ve also contributed to a higher degree of car-dependency in our City than in some other similar-sized North American regional centres, and the attendant issues which come with car culture, including health issues and higher costs for homeowners – even with lower-priced housing in suburban and ex-urban areas are considered (the costs of transportation often offset the purchase price of less expensive homes).

The sprawl culture just isn’t as sustainable as following the route long recommended in our official planning documents (and in those documents of other regional centres, too): develop strong local and regional cores which include a significant element of residential uses at higher densities to better discourage car dependency for private individuals and to maximize servicing cost/benefits for the municipality.  This recipe has been used over and over again to create some of the most vibrant cities on the planet.

Communities in Greater Sudbury have had a very difficult time attracting residential development to core areas for a couple of reasons: 1) we’ve been losing population for the last 45 years, so the need for new residential development is quite limited to start); 2) decision-makers in our municipality and predecessor municipalities never really bought in to the vision of strong core areas and made land use decisions which conflicted with stated policy directions; 3) the prevailing notion that suburban living is more desirable and less expensive than urban living has been prevalent throughout North America – especially at times when gasoline for personal vehicles was inexpensive (and I’d go so far as to argue that gasoline remains inexpensive for consumers to this day).

Planning for the Future

As our official plan notes, one of the ways to encourage residential development in the regional core is to develop the amenities which an urban population base needs to prosper.  These include jobs; commercial uses such as retail (including places to purchase food); entertainment uses; and, public facilities.  Since an arena/events centre is both an entertainment use and a public facility, the official plan specifically identifies this use as being an important one for the downtown regional core to retain as part of the effort to attract residential uses.

Who will be these residents of the downtown core?  Downtowns typically attract younger people for a number of reasons: 1) Downtowns often have a higher number of rental units in comparison to ownership units, which is desirable and more affordable for a younger, more transient, less wealthy age cohort. 2) Units tend to be smaller, making them more attractive to younger people who tend more often to be singles, or in a relationship that does not include children. 3) Downtown areas tend to be better serviced by the municipality, including the provision of transit, bike lanes and sidewalks which act as incentives against the need to own and operate an expensive vehicle, and help create more livable public environments (and lately, downtown areas have seen growth in bike-shares, car-shares and programs like Uber - all of which help mitigate against the need for personal vehicle ownership); 4) Downtown areas tend to be places where people want to congregate, creating a vibrancy that is particularly attractive to younger people.

By calling for a focus on local and regional cores, our City’s official planning documents have long been forward-thinking. Our official plan has been complimented by the development of the Downtown Master Plan – a document to help guide municipal investment decisions to help strengthen the regional core, and making the entire City stronger as a result.  Our Economic Development plan recognizes the role that a strong, healthy and vibrant downtown plays in generating commerce and wealth for the city-region, as well as creating opportunities for local businesses to thrive.  And our Community Improvement Plans include programs for the City to work with private businesses to strengthen our core areas (and while the Downtown CIP may be the best-known community improvement plan in the City, there are CIP’s in place for other core areas, including the Flour Mill/Donovan, West End, Capreol and a new Town Centre CIP for many of the local core areas in the outlying communities).

Strong and vibrant core areas, which include residential uses built at higher densities that cost less to service have always been good ideas for communities.  Going forward into the 21st Century, our core areas will play an increasingly important role in creating sustainable communities.  Already, municipalities like Mississauga, Calgary and Los Angeles have started wrestling with the retrofitting of suburbia, in order to better meet resident needs in the 21st Century.  What they’ve been doing is allowing for development at higher densities in traditional suburban areas, often through an approach that sees intensification occur first along major streets where transit is available.  Often, these major streets are transformed from 6-lane highways to more modest roads for cars and other transport users, including those taking transit or using bicycles.  Road diets and other forms of rehabilitation help create desirable outcomes for residents (in the form of livability) and municipalities (in the form of lesser costs).  Continuing to build sprawling, car-dependent communities using a 1950s model of development has rightly deemed to have been a costly mis-allocation of resources, leading to a built form which we’ll have to figure out a way of dealing with, going forward.  Perpetuation of this form of development is clearly not in the interests of any municipality that is serious about wanting to be fiscally responsible.

We All Win with a Strong Downtown

Calls to weaken programs to assist with creating vibrant regional and local cores run contrary to the City’s vision for development.  But there are some on Council who are nevertheless doing just that – by defunding the Downtown CIP, and recently by calling for the Downtown Master Plan to be expanded in scope, so that projects outside of the City’s traditional and identified regional core will compete for scarce municipal infrastructure funding that has in the past been used to help bolster the regional core, for the overall good of the City.

And more over, decisions made by elected officials that perpetuate a car-dependent built form at the expense of creating strong, vibrant local and regional cores not only run counter to our City’s long-established vision for healthy, economically sustainable development, but they are also not in keeping with recognized trends away from minimizing sprawl.

That’s one of the biggest reasons that many citizens in our City, whether they live in proximity to the downtown area or not, are opposed to Council’s recent decision to select a site on the Kingsway for a new arena/events centre – an important public facility and entertainment venue that could otherwise help strengthen our regional core for the good of the entire City.  It’s not just that locating this public facility in an industrial park with limited opportunity for access for those dependent on transit, cycling and walking – it’s about what it means to move this kind of important public facility outside of the regional core, and the impacts that the decision to do so will have on local businesses and the overall health and well-being of the regional centre and the rest of the City.  The decision means that we will have lost an opportunity to do things for the overall betterment of our City, as we sink $100 million into a car-dependent public facility that is intended to serve residents for the next 30 years. Many have recognized that not only is the Kingsway location a poor one to meet our current needs, but a disastrous one to meet our future needs – which includes bolstering the core areas of our City – and especially the City’s regional core, Downtown Sudbury.

Every Good Reason to Oppose the Special Interests on Council

I know that one municipal member of Council has opined that there are no land use planning reasons to file an appeal against a (presumed) favorable decision by Council on the application for an arena/events centre on the Kingsway.  I don’t see it that way.  After careful study, it seems to me that there is no good reason for Council to approve an application for an arena/events centre on the Kingsway – or anywhere else outside of our City’s regional core area, given the long-term vision for the City that has been articulated in successive planning documents.  I believe that Council has no choice but to say “No” to the arena/events centre development proposal due to the zoning by-law amendment’s lack of conformity with our Official Plan.  And a "No thank you" ought to be the response of this Council to Gateway Casinos for a new casino - an economically toxic land use that will do little other than suck money out of our community.

But I am not under any illusion that Council will make a sensible decision that favours enhancing all of our communities when they vote on the Kingsway proposal later this year.  I fully expect that Council will opt to take another step backwards and act against the long-term interests of the City and we residents in an act that sacrifices our long-standing vision for sensible, economically sustainable development.

The good news, however, is that I expect that the citizens of my community will fight for the progressive development vision that we have worked so hard over the years to pursue – even as past one-off decisions ran contrary to that vision.  I know that citizens are standing up and having their say about how our community is to face the 21st Century, and are taking exception to the expensive and costly decision to relocate an important public facility out of the City’s regional core in pursuit of an untested vision for an Entertainment District on the Kingsway in an industrial park – a vision that appears to be largely advanced by a hand-full of municipal councillors who are at odds with not just our City’s official plan, but with the needs and desires of current and future residents of our City.  I have faith and confidence that we citizens will prevail in this latest attack on a sustainable development vision for our community.  Citizens will use the rightful public processes to oppose any poor decision of Council – even as members of Council engage in a public shaming campaign designed to silence opposition.

It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves here, given all of the good work that has gone into developing plan after plan for how our City should grow with sustainability in mind.  But it does highlight the importance that municipal decision-makers play in the development process – and it shows that even the most sensible, evidence-based plan that has received overwhelming public support can be sacrificed by a small group of “special interest” elected officials who want to take city building in a contrary direction – one that continues to erode the health and vitality of local and regional core areas to the overall expense and detriment of our City, and contrary to the evidence and analysis of what we ought to be doing to promote sustainability.

And it illustrates why we all need to pay a lot closer attention to just whom we are entrusting our votes to when we head to the ballot box for municipal elections.

(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 Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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