Once and for all, is it Beach or Beaches?

beaches

A slightly abbreviated version of this story ran on Feb. 4, 2006, in The Globe and Mail. Singularists prevailed in the online poll weeks later, the new street signs were installed without protest and the Beaches BIA changed its name to The Beach BIA. Sandra Bussin was defeated as city councillor in 2010 and Glenn Cochrane died in June 2012. I was raised in the area but won’t have a firm opinion until I see better evidence.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Toronto’s budgetary shortfall looks impossible, there’s no end in sight for gun violence or poverty, and no imminent start dates for long-discussed waterfront and transit proposals.

So maybe we should have known it was too good to be true when word leaked out of old Toronto’s east end last month that the seemingly interminable and sometimes nasty Beach vs. Beaches fight was finally over.NEVILLE.sign

“It’s going to be ‘the Beach’ — not ‘the Beaches,’” Neil Macdonald said with conviction on Monday about the wording of new street signs planned for the lampposts of Queen Street East between Lockwood Road and Neville Park Boulevard this summer.

“Personally, historically, I think it’s more accurate to call this ‘the Beaches,’ but this time we’re taking the path of least resistance,” said Mr. Macdonald, chairman of the Beaches Business Improvement Area. “The [Beach] singular crowd are the most militant, while the ones who call it ‘the Beaches’ don’t seem to care too much.”

Maybe Mr. Macdonald underestimated the passion of the pluralists — by Thursday, the BIA’s landmark decision was rescinded and the odds of peace in our time appeared as slim as ever. If anything, the war is in danger of serious escalation in the coming weeks as the BIA prepares its website for a little community consultation.

“Well, here we go again,” former CFTO-TV reporter and long-time Beacher Glenn Cochrane said with a loud laugh when told that Mr. Macdonald believes that the impending cyber-battle will provide “a definitive one or the other, a final choice” — maybe within a month.

As far as anyone can tell, Beach/Beaches hostilities go back at least 50 years, and in that time neither side has produced the arsenal of evidence needed to settle matters once and for all. Hard-line Beach types have long tolerated names such as the Beaches Lions and the Beaches Library (where it’s Beaches in stone on the 1916 branch building). They have also embraced the Beaches International Jazz Festival, and haven’t been overly vocal about the relatively recent naming of the political riding, Beaches-East York.

Street signs are something else.

Locals on both sides of the issue haven’t forgotten August 1985, when blue and white signs proclaiming “The Beaches” appeared between Hammersmith and Bellefair Avenues. Anger erupted within hours, but it took until October for the Beach faction to get the city to remove them.

“It was ugly,” said Gene Domagala, who was on the city’s historical board at the time. “I was called in by the mayor [Art Eggleton] along with both city councillors [the late-Dorothy Thomas and Tom Jakobek].

“The media got involved. There were hundreds of letters. A lot of people turned nasty,” Mr. Domagala remembered. “The old-timers said only outsiders and newcomers would ever say ‘the Beaches.’ They were livid that the Queen Street businessmen [who were behind the initiative] hadn’t consulted residents.”

Mr. Domagala, a fount of local historical knowledge, tends to say “the Beach” in casual conversation, but he doesn’t try to tell others what to say. He liked the decision that the BIA has now rescinded, but said, “We’ll never placate everyone.”

At the height of the battle in 1985, long-time resident Mary Campbell told a Toronto newspaper that even though many people say the Beaches, “It’s always been the Beach . . . This [the Beaches signs] only feeds the error.”

Ms. Campbell, whose views haven’t changed, is president of the local historical society. She says her parents, who came to the area before the 1920s, always said “the Beach.” Early in the week she was pleased upon learning the BIA plan: “The Beach” at the top of the new signs with a designation on the bottom of each for one of the area’s four beaches — Balmy, Scarboro, Kew and Woodbine.

But she’s upset with the new BIA plan not because she’s against choice or consultation, but because she thinks a Web poll will be unfair.

animal“I don’t have Internet, and that’s probably true for other older people who know the truth,” Ms. Campbell said. “Maybe it’s time to organize and find out who else won’t take this lying down,” she said, adding that a possibly acceptable compromise would be Queen Street signs for the Balmy, Scarboro, Kew and Woodbine beaches that drop “the Beach” and “the Beaches” altogether.

Of course, the fact the area once had four distinct beaches is used by pluralists to argue that “the Beach” is an illogical term. They also say that “the Beaches” has a long history of common usage. Singularists counter that “the Beach” is just as logical because it has been one community since the four neighbourhoods merged.

And round it goes.

Mr. Cochrane doesn’t take sides, but he correctly predicted early in the week that the BIA would find it had foolishly jumped the gun by not consulting residents first.

“There could be a severe chastising this time too,” said Mr. Cochrane, who moved to the area 40 years ago and writes a column called Beach(es) Beat for a local weekly. He doesn’t think a similarly diplomatic use of parentheses would work on street signs.

He also sees danger in consultation because Beachers can’t agree on neighbourhood boundaries. “Will someone’s opinion count if they live north of Kingston Road? Real estate agents have long had a very flexible view of what they can sell as the Beach.”

There are two things that nearly everybody in the area can agree on: The older the Beacher the more likely he is to be a singularist, and that the views tend to be passed down through families. And an informal poll taken this week outside two neighbourhood institutions — the Garden Gate restaurant and the Beaches Library — showed both sides fairly evenly split. When asked which name they prefer, 24 residents said “the Beaches,” 19 said “the Beach,” while four were undecided and two abstained.

One of the abstainers noted that he has lived in the area since the 1930s and hates the Beach/Beaches debate because it always turns to pejorative talk about outsiders and newcomers. He said that in his youth, it was Catholic-hating Orange Lodge members who insisted on Beach rather than Beaches.

So perhaps a compromise is in order: Might alternating Beach and Beaches on every other post work?

beachNot in the opinion of the local city councillor, Sandra Bussin, who also refuses to state her preference. Ms. Bussin, who says she doesn’t believe a Beach/Beaches battle will become an election issue, said the citywide replacement program in the area is on hold until matters are settled.

Mr. Macdonald says it will now be fall at the earliest before new signs — however they are labelled — are up.

Meanwhile, some Beachers, like Hugh Cooper, just can’t take the debate seriously.

“The Beach? Wasn’t that Kramer’s cologne on Seinfeld?” he asks with a laugh. “It would be just like this neighbourhood to have it out again. It’s a great place to live, but it would be better if people took stuff like litter more seriously, or if they put their energy into helping seniors or Cubs and Brownies.”

Could Toronto go it alone?

Some of Canada’s smartest urbanists figure Toronto’s financial problems would be over if it became the country’s 11th province, but voters don’t seem to care

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on March 5, 2005 and despite the amalgamated city’s continued slide into dysfunction and left-right whipsaw politics, nobody appears to have seriously discussed 416 secession since. Among the bits trimmed to fit the print section was a comment from Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), that Toronto did indeed have a wasteful and extraneous level of government before amalgamation was imposed, but it was Queen’s Park, not the lower-tier municipalities that made up Metropolitan Toronto. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

David Vallance wishes Mayor David Miller all the best in his battles to wrest more funding and power from Queen’s Park and Ottawa. But now more than ever he thinks anything less than making Toronto Canada’s 11th province is a waste of time.

The idea isn’t new, nor was it when former mayor Mel Lastman threatened to pull the city out of Ontario during a spat with Queen’s Park in late 1999. The difference now — in the wake of a new budget that will see the city sell off land and lampposts to cover a shortfall in its operating costs — is that well-respected opinion-makers such as Jane Jacobs and Alan Broadbent feel Torontonians may be ready for a serious discussion of secession.

That encourages Mr. Vallance, 67, “a retired insurance salesman and a flea on the dog’s back” of municipal politics who has toiled for 10 years in obscurity for an idea most still consider loopy.

“Many people will take separation seriously when you present the truth about the fiscal flows,” says Mr. Broadbent, former head of the Canadian Urban Institute.

Mr. Broadbent, who’s now CEO of Avana Capital Corp., figures if the city could keep just 5 per cent of the estimated $11-billion that Queen’s Park and Ottawa siphon out of Toronto each year, it could balance the budget and invest seriously in crumbling infrastructure.

Ms. Jacobs, who has been convinced Toronto needs provincial status since Mike Harris and Ernie Eves ran Ontario, thinks we’re facing “a financial and power [governance] crisis” that is being played out in cities across North America.

“If Toronto were a province, the municipalities within it could be quite separate and autonomous, as they were before amalgamation,” the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities said in an interview last week.

Separation might solve it, she says, adding that transit, taxation and planning decisions suffer when provinces and states impose “a one-size-fits-all” approach to cities, suburbs and rural communities.

Eighty per cent of Canadians live in urban areas (including suburban sprawl zones), but cities have no constitutional standing in Canada. City officials can’t even adjust a speed limit without the province’s okay. But any serious talk of separation is more likely to be triggered by the fact cities must rely on property taxes, user fees and senior governments’ largesse to help cover costs.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, acknowledging the city lives in “a fiscal and legislative straitjacket that would baffle Houdini,” agreed in September to talks on a new City of Toronto Act, and Phillip Abrahams, the city’s intergovernmental-affairs manager says they’re going well.

But considering Ms. Jacobs has been described as a muse to the Mayor, Mr. Miller may have interesting views on what to do if the talks bog down.

Is provincial status a fallback position? Have we fully studied the ramifications of secession? What are our legal options?

Repeated requests for a brief interview with Mr. Miller were denied. Spokeswoman Andrea Addario sent a terse e-mail stating only that “his views are that the city should have the powers of a province, not that the city should be a province.”

“I guess it’s a touchy subject right now,” says Mr. Vallance, who expects the City of Toronto talks to stall over money. “We may have to go further into crisis before we get a leader with the guts to take the necessary action.”

Ward 22 city councillor Michael Walker says the crisis is here and that we should put a referendum question on the ballot for next year’s city elections.

“The fact that we’re selling assets to finance operating costs makes it clear we’re headed for total bankruptcy unless we do something drastic,” says Mr. Walker, who also proposed a referendum five years ago, to no avail.

A referendum also appeals to Paul Lewin, a criminal lawyer who for six months in 2003 gave up most of his caseload to run for mayor. (Mr. Vallance organized the campaign, which tied for 37th place in the 44-candidate field.)

Mr. Broadbent, meanwhile, thinks a referendum could do more harm than good if we don’t have that serious public discussion first. “If you rush ahead and get defeated by about 90 per cent to 10, you’ve dismissed the argument for a decade.”

Mr. Broadbent, who isn’t convinced full separation is the only path to study, says talks must include “a strategy to win the day.”

University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman laughed aloud when asked if the day can ever be won, even though he says, “From a technical point of view, Toronto would be better off in almost any respect you can think of if it had the powers of a province.”

Others who have laughed off separation argue that a constitutional amendment is needed, and that would require the unlikely approval of Ottawa and seven of the 10 provinces with at least 50 per cent of the national population.

Mr. Vallance and Mr. Lewin say that’s nonsense, arguing that the Constitution Act of 1871 allows Parliament to “increase, diminish, or otherwise alter the limits of a province with the consent of only that province.” They also say the Clarity Act, based on a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that Ottawa must negotiate with Quebec if a clear majority were to pursue secession, must also apply to Toronto.

“Provinces have been created before and they will be again,” Mr. Vallance says, adding that “the craziest idea” about new provinces came from Prime Minister Paul Martin last year, when he mused on provincial status for Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. “The three combined have barely 100,000 people.”

There are divisions among those giving serious consideration to secession on what a new province’s boundaries should be.

Richard Gilbert, an urban affairs consultant and former city councillor and university professor, thinks some variation on the Greater Toronto Area would be best, pointing out that “more Torontonians now commute to jobs in Mississauga than vice versa.”

Mr. Vallance, who originally preferred the old, pre-amalgamation city of Toronto, thinks any new province should be based on the 416 area code. “If it becomes the GTA, we just continue funding an exodus of jobs,” he says, blaming provincial policies for making business property taxes much higher in Toronto than in 905. “Queen’s Park talks about a greenbelt, but forces us to subsidize sprawl.”

George Teichman, a civil engineer and commercial landlord who was a pioneer supporter of the cause, now has a different idea about where the boundary should be drawn. If any jurisdiction separates, it should be Ontario, he says.

“The problem started with Paul Martin downloading on Queen’s Park, which then downloaded on Toronto,” says Mr. Teichman, a leader in the North York campaign against amalgamation in 1997.

“Senior levels of government make it look as though we’re asking them for money, but it’s a case of them taking too much from us,” he says. “I own property in other cities, so I know it’s bad elsewhere. But Toronto is Canada’s economic engine and it’s getting hammered.

“Then Ontario has a $5-billion deficit and it has to send $23-billion a year to Ottawa to subsidize other provinces. If it loses the city, it’s in real trouble.”

But Mr. Vallance and Mr. Lewin feel Toronto has to be Torontonians’ priority. They expect to meet this month to start work on another mayoral campaign.

“I’d gladly step aside if we can get a big-name candidate,” Mr. Lewin says. “But if nobody comes forward, I will run again to carry the banner.

“I’m never discouraged,” he says. “I might say the song High Hopes is my inspiration.”

POST SCRIPT: David Vallance ran on the Province of Toronto platform in 2006 and got 486 votes, 36th place among 38 candidates. He ran again in 2010 and got 444 votes, 34th best in the 40-candidate race won by Rob Ford. The province passed the City of Toronto Act, allowing for a slightly reformed political structure and more opportunities to raise revenue. In 2010, MPP Bob Murdoch from the Owen Sound area called for Toronto to be hived off as a separate province.

 

 

A Reality Check on MP Doug Holyday’s Transit History Lecture

Lauding the Tories’ record makes only slightly more sense than thanking her royal highness, Queen Elizabeth, for Toronto’s subway system

Prime Minister Lester Pearson rides the Bloor-Danforth on opening day in 1966, possibly the only time he ever rode Toronto's subway. Like all senior governments, his was guilty of fare evasion.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson rides the Bloor-Danforth on opening day in 1966, possibly the only time he ever rode Toronto’s subway. Like all senior governments, his was guilty of fare evasion.

According to 680News on Wednesday (Sept. 18), new MP Doug Holyday said that under Conservative leadership, 64 subway stops have opened in Toronto, and that “in the last 10 years, under Liberal leadership, we’ve not opened up any.”

He’s correct, though it’s a factoid that cries out for explanation.

And before we go further, I should make clear I have no rooting interest at Queen’s Park. The Liberals, NDP and Tories all have  fingerprints on the transit mess that plagues the GTA.

So, as for Holyday’s take on history, it’s worth noting both senior levels of government refused to fund the subway projects that produced our first 38 stations, Eglinton to St. George and Keele to Woodbine. Holyday, the Tories’ new GTA subways and gridlock critic, should know that that’s 60 per cent of the stations, and that they’re all in locations where subway actually makes sense on all levels, from land-use to economics to basic travel demand.

Tory premier Leslie Miscampbell Frost showed up penniless in 1959 for the University-Bloor-Danforth groundbreaking. All he brought was a speech warning Metro and the TTC not to get buried in debt for the project. Toronto went ahead and built, using a property tax surcharge, and we’re still living off the foresight of that generation’s decision.

Frost’s successor, John Parmenter Robarts (and we’re not making up these middle names), eventually guaranteed Metro’s loans, allowing work to be expedited and advance the Bloor-Danforth opening to February 1966 (25 stations and 16 kilometres in 75 months!).

1968_image_3

There were eventually some small grants thrown in, but it’s fair to say the province didn’t get into transit funding until we pushed the Bloor-Danforth into Scarborough and Etobicoke in 1968, and the Yonge line into North York in the mid-1970s.And that’s when we seemed to lose control of transit planning.

The next premier, William Grenville Davis, gave us a funding formula many still pine for, but along with a new suburban dominance on Metro council, delivered an ill-conceived line with stations marooned in the median of the Spadina Expressway.

After less than a decade with the funding model, whereby the province would pay 75 per cent of capital costs and 50 per cent of operating shortfalls, Queen’s Park’s will to back transit withered. One-station Bloor-Danforth extensions to Kipling and Kennedy, opened in 1980, would be our last new subway for 16 years.

By then, Davis’s Tories, unaware that sprawl, not technology, was the root problem, were scrambling for something cheaper than subways to use in suburbia. They lost their minds and bet heavily on the Intermediate Capacity Transit System, developed by the Crown’s Urban Transit Development Corp. That, along with lots of arm-twisting, gave us the SRT that we now need to replace after less than three decades. It’s almost certain the SRT cost us more than a subway would have in the first place, something Holyday and others conveniently neglect to mention.

It’s easy to rip the Michael Deane Harris Tories for officially killing the Davis funding formula and for filling in tunnels that had been started for the Eglinton West subway (and the imposing amalgamation that makes Toronto impossible to govern). But few remember David Robert Peterson‘s Liberals unofficially put an end to urban transit funding at a critical time for the GTA.

Some commemorate June 3, 1971, when Davis killed the Spadina Expressway, as the start of some golden era of transit. But May 24, 1988, was as significant for 21st-century Ontarians in that Liberal transportation minister Ed Fulton announced the province would have nothing to do with Network 2011, the TTC and Metro’s plan for transit expansion.

Fulton, in announcing a 10-year plan for the GTA, shifted funding and emphasis from transit to extending and widening 400-series highways. New transit money largely went toward acquisition of land for “Gateways,” surface parking at GO stations in what we now call the 905. It was a monkey trap from which GO has yet to extricate its paws (though, as land banks, that asphalt holds great potential if anyone on Anne Golden’s new funding panel is smart enough to seriously consider adaptations of the Rail + Property model.

Many Metro councillors pointed out 25 years ago that the Peterson-Fulton legacy would be a massive boost to unsustainable sprawl, and they were bang on. Many of the headaches we now face are due to the fact that landscapes designed for drivers make the delivery of quality transit (and most other municipal services) extremely expensive, possibly in perpetuity.

And what about the NDP?

Three months before Peterson’s snap election call in the summer of 1990, he announced an apparent change of heart on transit with the Let’s Move plan, a disjointed but ambitious collection of lines. The NDP, led by Robert Keith Rae, promptly undercut any Liberal political advantage by backing the plan, but when they won a surprise major majority in September, they froze. Though some lines were of dubious transit value, they might have been good stimulus projects for the deep early-1990s recession. Rae’s NDP had barely started on transit when they were bounced by Harris’s Tories in 1995, and we all know the damage done by that crew in the following years.

But the biggest NDP damage occurred in 1986 at the municipal level.

Behind the scenes in the 1980s, the TTC and transit planners made clear that if we didn’t get started on the DRL soon, the economic health of Toronto’s core and its transit system would suffer, while runaway sprawl would get a big boost in York, Peel and Durham.

The TTC realized that at suburban-dominated Metro, it would have to compromise, so it agreed to allow the DRL to get second billing. Top priority would be a line on Sheppard (even if demand projections would need heavy torquing). Besides, the idea meshed with Metro planning’s hubris, a belief we could effectively decentralize growth by creating instant downtowns in Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York.

But even second priority for the DRL didn’t sit well with downtown NDP aldermen Jack Layton and Dale Martin, who feared “Manhattanization” and increased density in the core. They worked with suburban counterparts and planning staff to get the DRL dropped below Eglinton on Network 2011′s list, effectively killing the TTC’s top priority altogether. They backed us into a corner where now, every transit expansion plan that ignores the DRL’s urgency, whether it’s Transit City or subways to Richmond Hill or Scarborough Centre, aggravates overloading on the inner network and advances an imminent crisis.

For what it’s worth, Holyday’s right: all 64 subway stations opened while the Tories held power at Queen’s Park, but we might as well accord similar credit to the Queen.

Meanwhile, six more stops — wasteful grandiose, expensive, standalone stations — are slated to open between Downsview and Vaughan in 2016. Anyone posting odds on who will be in power? Does it matter?

 

 

 

 

The better way to honour Sam Sniderman and help the TTC

A Toronto museum is a great idea, but putting the iconic spinning-disc signs from Sam The Record Man’s flagship store in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life. Sam’s spirit should be surrounded by life and music, and in doing so we could take care of one of the TTC’s outstanding headaches.

samSam Sniderman was a music man, and one thing to know about music is that, unlike man, it has the potential for immortality.

I love the idea of a Toronto museum, but recent suggestions in the Star and Post that we hang Sam The Record Man’s homeless signs in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life — not just in the city he loved, but across Canada.

Gratuitously affixing the spinning discs to the Ryerson building rising on the site of Sam’s store would be nearly as bad, though it feels as if my alma mater deserves some such punishment for cheesing out in this affair.

samsign2But opportunity to do Sniderman proud, make someone some money and contribute mightily to the Yonge Street strip and the city beyond, lies just south, on the other side of Gould Street. The spirit of Sam and the signs in question deserve a space with music and life, a healthy mix of uses to keep things happening at all hours. The site of the old Empress Hotel is perfect on several levels.

Sadly, we’ll never have the Empress back. It was allowed to slide into disrepair during Yonge’s seediest days. It was then destabilized in 2010 and torched a year later.

I mostly recall the red-brick 1888 landmark as Music World, a latter-day Sam’s competitor. In the early 1980s, when I was a Ryerson student, there was also a dingy second-floor burger joint with uneven floors. The baskets of fries were huge and filling. I loved them drenched in vinegar, with beer on the side.

MUSICBut having grown up in Toronto, I somehow knew the place had been Edison Hotel in the ’60s. I was aware of the former buzz — maybe from radio ads of my boyhood, maybe from osmosis, or maybe from co-workers old enough to legitimately spin tales of the great nights on Yonge. They’d seen the Hawks (later The Band), the Ugly Ducklings, the Mandala, Sparrow (pre-Steppenwolf) and the Mynah Birds; they’d frequented the Le Coq d’Or, The Embassy, The Colonial and The Hawk’s Nest.

The tales made me feel I’d been born too late.

Sam was an essential part of that Yonge Street — and Yorkville and much more. Most of the big names from the second half of the 20th century owe much to the efforts he made, especially in the years before CanCon legislation (though he was also instrumental in getting Ottawa to ensure Canadian broadcasters played Canadian music). He was much more than a retailer with charisma and a catchy sign, he helped get Canadian talent onto  the world stage.

According to longtime Maclean’s music critic Nick Jennings, author of a great 1997 book called Before The Gold Rush, Sniderman “built a reputation as the greatest promoter of domestic talent that Canadian music ever had.” 

Veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc lists the Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Rush, Triumph, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Raffil, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Liona Boyd, Loreena McKennitt, Sloan, Barenaked Ladies and many others as artists indebted to Sniderman.

Not every music fan closed the deal at Sam’s. I often went home with a yellow bag from A&A’s, two doors up the street (only Steele’s Tavern separated the rivals). But every trip to that part of downtown included a visit Sam’s, and we’d often see Sam in person.

Recent commercial property transactions and current condo developments mean big changes and a lot more life are coming to Yonge. I kind of sense a new golden age in the works. With luck, it will bring enough life to support some good new club-style live-music venues. The place to start is at the fenced-off Empress/Edison site, now being used as a staging ground for the Ryerson construction.

As an urbanist, I don’t much care specifically what goes on the upper floors there, though it should be a primary use other than residential. That’s because the lower floors need a big space for bands, dancing and the Sam’s signs, spinning for people who will appreciate them and their Yonge Street context.

But wait, if we exercise a little foresight, we can turn the basement and part of the ground floor of this building into part of the long-overdue north entrance to Dundas Station, which somehow slipped behind Castle Frank and Donlands in the TTC’s controversial and conceptually challenged second-exits program.

Done properly — in conjunction with a larger development — a second entrance for Dundas can be accomplished at a very favourable price (and, of course, Dundas was an essential stepping-off point for so many of Sam’s customers). Ryerson and the TTC had been in talks to work the north entrance into the Student Learning Centre that’s under construction, but we’re told that talks fell apart.

If the Empress site has to be expropriated, so be it. The public badly needs it to bring the sixth busiest TTC station up to the most basic standards of fire safety, not to mention allowing it to connect better with a rapidly growing university. And it’s not as if we were shy about expropriation tactics at sleepy Greenwood and Donlands a few years back.

Maybe, if necessary, we can have Build Toronto carry the public interest from there. Maybe BT can work in conjunction the current owner, Lalani Group, to ensure a solid economic case and an attractive and appropriate structure rises above the musicians and revellers and TTC customers — and that Sam’s sign.

Call the club Sam’s if you like. Maybe it can be a showcase for both long-respected and up-and-coming Canadian bands. Maybe Robbie Robertson could be the host on opening night, with specials guests of his choosing (as long as I get a ticket).

Of course, it won’t all pan out this way, but this type of blue-sky discussion is needed for many obvious reasons.

The only way I can support putting the signs in the same building as a museum, is if that Toronto museum is part of the upstairs space.

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TAO and the politics of transit ideas in Ontario

Backers of an electrified GO-based Scarborough Rapid Transit replacement plan  may be a test for Rob Prichard’s assertion that it’s never too late for good ideas

Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard answers a reporter's question after the Sept. 10 board meeting, while president Bruce McCuaig looks on.

Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard answers a reporter’s question after the Sept. 10 board meeting, while president Bruce McCuaig looks on. Prichard indicated that he and the folks at Metrolinx view the transportation minister’s stripped-down subway idea as “fresh thinking.”

“Usually, the thing that’s in shortest supply in life is good ideas,” Rob Prichard told reporters after the Metrolinx’s Sept. 10 board meeting.

“When a new idea comes into play, our job is to take it seriously, do due diligence and see if it works,” the the transit agency’s chair said, apparently under the impression that Glen Murray’s Scarborough subway idea qualifies as fresh thinking.

“It’s never too late for great ideas.”

Well, those words may soon be put the test.

Folks at Transport Action Ontario, a respected transit activist group, believe they have the great idea for the Scarborough rapid transit replacement project as part of their Regional Rapid Rail Report, released last month.

Even if it’s only a good idea, it appears to have major advantages over the two subway proposals transit bureaucrats have been forced to take seriously in recent weeks. It also appears to have a significant edge over the light-rail plan that would divert the Eglinton Transit City line up to the Scarborough Town Centre, as per the much-vaunted Master Agreement ™ between Metrolinx and the city.

The biggest question is, will those in power seriously consider the idea in time?

The good news for TAO is that their report is on Metrolinx’s radar, though Prichard seemed surprised when it was mentioned in relation to the Scarborough situation – an hour or so earlier, during the seemingly scripted part of the Metrolinx meeting, he sought assurance from one of his VPs that TAO’s report would be considered as part of a Downtown Relief Line study.

In a nutshell, TAO sees the GO rail network as badly under-utilized in a metropolitan area desperately short of time, funding and transit infrastructure. TAO figures if we seriously speed up Metrolinx’s long-range plan to electrify GO’s network, we can get subway-quality service akin the S-Bahns of Germany for $55-million a kilometre – that’s less than LRT.

Key to the plan would be electric multiple-unit trains, which would be bi-level like current GO rolling stock, but would have traction motors in every other car. Rather than use a third rail, these EMUs draw current from overhead wires. According to Karl Junkin, the main author of the TAO report, EMU trains would be cheaper to run than ones hauled by diesel locomotives, with estimated savings of nearly $500-million a year. EMUs can also accelerate and brake like subways, allowing for a near doubling of the number of GO stations without slowing overall travel times. In combination with frequent service, this is massive in that it doubles the number areas where people can walk to a station and multiplies the number periods in which the stations are useful. That in turn can seriously improve efficiencies for transit operators all across the region.

“We’re talking trains every four minutes during the rush hour and every 15 minutes off peak,” Junkin says.

TAO argues the EMUs would provide faster service from downtown to Kennedy, Scarborough and beyond than either of the subway options – a city/TTC proposal for Eglinton and McCowan up to Sheppard for $2.3-billion (plus or minus 30 per cent), and Transportation Minister Glen Murray’s two-stop idea that would largely follow the current SRT corridor. Also, instead of adding ridership to the Bloor-Danforth, which is already at capacity in the morning rush, TAO’s EMU line would actually divert customers – acting as a sort of Downtown and Bloor-Danforth Relief Line.

“I have to emphasize that our plan would not eliminate the need for a DRL, Junkin says. “Not even close, but it buys us time, especially on the Richmond Hill and Scarborough corridors.”

Another potential advantage TAO’s idea has over the Murray plan, and the LRT proposed for the SRT corridor, is that the shutdown period could be shorter than three years, and the shuttle bus service needed during construction would only have to be from STC to Ellesmere, rather than STC to Warden or Kennedy stations.

In creative societies – a concept championed by Richard Florida and former premier Dalton McGuinty – rare good ideas are deemed valuable and creative people are encouraged to get them into circulation. But getting good or even great transit ideas “into play” in this province is nearly impossible if you’re not a well-placed politician. Even our transit agencies are taking their cues from politicians and seem shy about using their many talented people to truly seek and suggest best alternatives.

Prichard tells us Metrolinx will be unbiased in carrying out “confirmatory studies” of Murray’s plan. The provincial agency that was to depoliticize the transit planning process is clearly fixated on a corridor that has failed to produce transit-oriented development or urbanism despite nearly three decades of extremely costly rapid transit service. Those who’ve followed the Scarborough saga for decades can tell you the corridor wasn’t anybody’s first choice 35 years ago, but because it has been a default part of so many plans over the years, it now seems to have been accorded some kind of precedent status.

The TTC, meanwhile, also seems as beholden to politicians who are supposed to oversee the commission, a perversion of the intent when the board was reconstituted about 20 years ago. When asked if the TTC is even considering other options, WorldWideWickens was told the mandate is to study the two options that politicians have suggested. That’s reminds us of quip from Richard Soberman, one of the deans of the local transportation advisory business: “Getting advice from politicians on transit makes as much sense as going to the dentist for a colonoscopy.”

Anyway, it will astonish many, including a few within TTC HQ, but according to Andy Byford’s column in Metro on Sept. 13, the Eglinton-McCowan routing is “supported by myself and TTC staff.”

Soberman, by the way isn’t totally enamored with TAO’s plan. He says Junkin should have taken a more demand-oriented approach and he thinks the technical feasibility and cost estimates are “very optimistic.” Ed Levy, another of the wise local transit elders and author of Transit in Toronto, A Century of Plans, Progress, Politics and Paralysis, has written an endorsement that appears on the home page for TAO’s 400-page opus.

For what it’s worth, I had been supporting a subway plan that appears to be much better than either of the two on the table, but TAO’s report won me over in early August.

Merit aside, Junkin and senior TAO people know there will be resistance to any new proposals that appear to clutter an either-or subway race. They know they need a political champion to put their idea “into play,” to use Prichard’s terminology. TAO people have been meeting with senior planners and politicians throughout the region in recent weeks, and I caught up with them at City Hall on Thursday, during a meeting with Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon.

TAO report author Karl Junkin discusses the GO electrification proposal with Ward 32 Councillor Mary Margaret McMahon during a presentation at City Hall.

TAO report author Karl Junkin discusses the GO Regional Rapid Rail proposal with Ward 32 Councillor Mary Margaret McMahon during a presentation at City Hall.

Not that seniority is likely to help, but it’s worth noting that TAO’s plan actually came out before the July City Council meeting at which the expensive Eglinton-McCowan subway option was approved (It seems to still be under the radar for most politicians despite a good story about by the Star’s transportation reporter Tess Kalinowski). Murray’s suggestion, meanwhile, which most figure has the inside track, apparently wasn’t even a germ until after council voted for a subway less than two months ago.

“This project is about a region-wide network, but the whole Scarborough debate has suddenly made things urgent,” TAO president Peter Miasek admits. “But I think a lot of people are going to be angry down the road if politicians overlook what is clearly the best overall option for all concerned.”

These guys pray Prichard is right about one thing, that it’s never too late for great ideas.

Ten Years To Retrofit The SRT For A Scarborough Subway?

Instead of funding, premier Leslie Frost arrived at the November 1959 ground-breaking ceremony with only a red hard hat and a speech warning local politicians not to go too far into debt for their ambitious University-Bloor-Danforth subway project.

Instead of providing any funding, Premier Leslie Frost arrived at the November 1959 ground-breaking ceremony with only a red hard hat and a speech warning local politicians not to go too far into debt for their ambitious Bloor-Danforth-University subway project. Torontonians went ahead anyway and got digging. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASCO7444)

By STEPHEN WICKENS

So, according to the Star on Friday consultants who are undoubtedly well-paid by you and me have told Metrolinx it will take 10 years to retrofit the Scarborough Rapid Transit line for the province’s Kennedy-to-Scarborough Center subway extension. Maybe that makes sense in a town where it takes a good four years to renovate Pape station.

When I read pieces like these, I think of the Torontonians from that post-Second-World-War generation. Yes, bigotry, provincialism, second-hand smoke and reluctance to party were among the notable but often cliched downsides to Blue Law Hogtown. But Toronto was a hive of energy, optimism and overall levels of goodness to easily match our often smug cosmopolitanism.

Like us, those Torontonians squabbled over subways. They couldn’t even settle on Bloor versus Queen until January 1958.  But even though our city was a much smaller and poorer place, those Torontonians weren’t going to use the province’s refusal to kick in any funding as an excuse to procrastinate.

In 2013 we’re told it will take five years just to plan this SRT retrofit.

For some reason, our old-school slide-rule engineers were much more efficient than their latter-day counterparts and their technology. Maybe they had better bosses and were freer to do their jobs.

Shovels had already hit the ground by November 1959 on what was known as the Bloor-Danforth-University Subway Project. A little more than six years later — despite having problems with soil conditions, underground streams and dense urban webs of unmapped utility infrastructure to relocate or work around — the whole thing, from Union to St. George and Woodbine to Keele, 25 stations and more than 16 kilometres, was up and running.

bloordanforth

The project also made it within the $200-million budget.

You could even claim they got the Bloor-Danforth open a couple of years early, but that’s because the province finally consented to guarantee Metro’s loans.

Then the Torontonians celebrated their victory by hauling the giant hollow horse into the city … or or something like that.

PS: Despite the sometimes flippant tone of this post, we recognize and honour the sacrifices of John Blaney, Edgar Ostkamp, Albert Low, Rosaire Beaudry, Lauri Karkas, Tommy Kerr, Attilio Tricinci, Frank LaPlante and Larry Linyck. All nine lost their lives during construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

PPS: The Leslie Frost photo was taken by the Telegram’s Peter Ward and is published courtesy of York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections.

More Scarborough Transit Indignity

kennedy_rt8

Few will mourn the unreliable 28-year-old orphan dumped on us by provincial bureaucrats who claimed it would be a low-cost alternative to subways. But it turns out the troubled RT didn’t just cost more than light rail, it almost certainly cost us more than a subway would have in the first place. Now that it needs replacing, Queen’s Park is back with another badly conceived plan.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

If there’s a heaven, and if Gus Harris gained entry, you can bet he’s put the harp lessons on hold to follow the current Scarborough transit fiasco.

Harris, Scarborough’s mayor for much of the 1980s, opposed the once-futuristic Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS), designed to be a low-cost alternative to traditional subways, which were proving too expensive for suburban applications.

In 1981, when Scarborough council snubbed Harris to back a switch from conventional light rail to the province’s unproven technology, he dubbed it “The Toonerville Trolley.” When Metro council finalized the switch weeks later, he said, “I don’t think Scarborough should be guinea pigs for this.”

Minister of transportation James Snow and Kirk Foley, head of the province’s Urban Transit Development Corp., had led Queen’s Park’s hard sell that spring. Future mayor Joyce Trimmer led the majority Scarborough council faction. They were feted by UTDC and flown to Kingston to see it on a test track. They quickly bought in on a promise that ICTS would be a huge step up from the then-new streetcars that had been expected to ply the Kennedy-Scarborough Centre corridor as per a 1977 plan approved by Metro Council.

ICTS was to cost $134-million, 24 per cent more than the streetcar option, whose estimate had risen to $108-million by 1981. But Cabinet at Queen’s Park, eager for a working line to showcase UTDC’s driverless ICTS trains to the world, vowed to pick up all extra costs.

So what could possibly go wrong?

A year later, the TTC – a diplomatically reluctant partner in the ICTS plan – announced costs had soared to $181-million. Minutes of an internal meeting available at the archives show the bad news was known months earlier and that the eventual announcement played down the escalation estimates, which had actually reached $193-million.

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To the odd person, me, who remembered the subway extensions from Islington to Kipling and Warden to Kennedy had opened in 1980, under budget at a combined cost of $127-million, even the $181-million RT tab raised red flags.

Might a subway cost less?

It was a simpler time. I simply phoned the main TTC number and was put straight through to a man named Stan Lawrence, who was heading up the RT project. He was friendly when asked if a subway option had been considered. Of course it had, he said, adding that costs and potential alignments had been studied and the determination was that the best subway would be slightly more than twice as much as the streetcar option (estimated at $68-million in 1977, likely the last year a subway estimate would have been calculated). When I asked for a specific subway cost and to see the studies, he shut the conversation down, saying the report wouldn’t be made public because only light-rail and the ICTS plan were on the table.

I then called Harris’s office, and he got back to me about a week later.  I told him if Scarborough’s downtown dream was to ever become reality, it needed a connection via the Bloor-Danforth, some day. It seemed this was a natural single-technology subway corridor that shouldn’t be broken up for ICTS or streetcars. I’ve always liked what light rail can do and I had no problem with a UTDC demonstration line, as long as it went into a fresh corridor elsewhere.

Harris made clear it was too late to for changes. The province had taken charge of the file and was footing the bill (not unlike Glen Murray in 2013). There would be no turning back, though Harris, who had backed light-rail all along, suddenly sounded interested in knowing what a subway would cost.

Weeks later, Harris called and suggested we go for coffee. He didn’t have much more to say than that he’d been talking with TTC engineering staff who told him a subway extension from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre had indeed been studied and that the cost estimate was between $150-million and $175-million. He also said that some day, “maybe in five, 10 or 20 years, we’ll get to say I told you so.”

SRT problems made frequent headlines in the early years of operation and costs eventually topped $220-million as major modifications were needed. TTC staff had joked that ICTS stood for, It Can’t Traverse Snow. Harris called it “Lada transit at limo prices,” when I ran into him on Queen Street one day.

In 1989, Harris, no longer the mayor, phoned with a scoop that there was a serious behind-the-scenes push at the TTC and Metro to scrap the SRT. Queen’s Park had heard about it and was leaning on politicians and staff to shut up because UTDC had pending sales in Asia. (Neither deal panned out, and a Star reporter got the scoop because I was working at a national business paper uninterested in Toronto transit stories.)

It’s total coincidence but highly appropriate that I was reading Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly on my first SRT ride in the spring of 1985. The sound of the surprisingly noisy vehicles also left an impression.

A few weeks later, the TTC and the city released an ambitious rapid transit expansion plan called Network 2011, with a Downtown Relief Line and subways on Eglinton and Sheppard. Shortly thereafter, I got to discuss Network 2011 with the a very senior TTC man, who told me very interesting stuff after he got me to promise that our talk was all off the record. This was at most three months after the SRT opened, and he said the TTC would never consider ICTS again. Also of note was that the DRL was the TTC’s clear priority, even if the official story, for political reasons, was that Sheppard should come first.

As for Gus Harris’s $150-million to $175-million estimate for a subway from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre, he said those numbers were accurate, confirming that province’s low-cost alternative almost certainly cost more than a  subway would have in the first place – a particularly galling thought in 2013.

When I suggested that fact might be the reason for the TTC’s reluctance to release its work on the subway option, he said, again with a warning this was off the record, that the cost-comparison was Queen’s Park’s embarrassment. The TTC was probably more worried about public reaction to the fact that extending the subway cost-effectively would require demolishing Kennedy station, which was then just five years old. (And an all new subway station on a different axis will have to be part of the Murray plan.)

Anyway, this summer, as the Scarborough debate took bizarre twists, friendly staff at the TTC and City Archives tried, without success, to help me track down that never-released document, probably about 35 years old, assessing the subway option. Maybe the fact it was never released made it okay to file it by way of a shredder.

I’m dying to see it, in part because there’s a far better alignment than either of the subway options we’ve seen in recent weeks. There’s a significant chance the TTC had found that better way decades ago.

So, we’re still digging, and the Toonerville Trolley rolls on … for now.

NEWEST

Why Ignore Our Best Scarborough Transit Options?

It should distress everyone in Ontario that the only two official options on Toronto city council’s menu – the Eglinton-based LRT/SRT replacement and a strange, three-station preliminary subway plan – are third rate, at best

For more than three decades, the swaths of land at Kennedy station have provided little return to its owners, the public. But with the Rail + Property model, we could maximize the worth of this real estate, make transit operations more efficient and take profits to reinvest in infrastructure.

(This post was written before the Sept. 4 news that the province has another idea for building this Scarborough subway. Queen’s Park’s latest idea would be fifth best among options considered below.)

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Among the emails awaiting me after a recent offline break in the north woods were requests from some of the usual suspects for my take on the Scarborough transit saga.

For a change, I’ll admit the plan I’d favoured just weeks ago is probably now second best – a realization I hit upon while studying a report by Transport Action Ontario analyzing the GO rail system’s potential – if electrification is tackled promptly and intelligently. Released in July, it’s must reading for all who care about the GTA’s economic health and quality of life.

We’ll examine the 400-page report, titled GTHA Regional Rapid Rail: A Vision For The Future, in a separate post, but we should note here that it makes a strong case for electric-mulitple-unit technology, which among many possibilities, could quickly deliver near-subway-level service from downtown, through Kennedy station to Scarborough Town Centre, Malvern and beyond for less than Metrolinx’s allegedly funded LRT option. Too bad TAO’s report didn’t appear sooner because, as important as many of the recommendations are, they likely can’t become part of mainstream discussion in time. Through the grapevine, we hear some GTA planners and decision-makers are suddenly intrigued by this report but, so far, the Star has been the only major media outlet to clue in.

Anyway, we’re talking Scarborough transit here, and as humbling as it is that my idea – an alternate subway alignment with emphasis on the Rail + Property funding model – might now be second best, it should distress everyone that the only two official options on city council’s menu – the Eglinton-based LRT/SRT replacement and a strange, three-station preliminary subway plan – are no better than third rate.

In this part of the world, we have a history of making bad transit decisions, sometimes because we cling to any ideas that have traction, fearing that if we step back and think for a moment we mightn’t get anything done at all. But dumb decisions are among the things that have killed the public’s will to properly fund transit in recent decades. The RT may be Exhibit A. It’s bad enough that we have to junk a transit line that’s not even 30 years old. Really galling, however, is the significant likelihood we spent more on this politically driven, allegedly low-cost alternative to subway than we would have spent on an actual subway in the first place – and all the while we did not realizing the RT would be temporary.

More obvious to some of us in the early 1980s, was that any serious transit line linking STC with central Toronto via Kennedy station was a natural extension of the Bloor-Danforth and that forcing an en route transfer – especially with Kennedy station lacking any destination qualities – was foolish. In 2013, it’s still a bad idea to build in a transfer for riders going into town via Danforth and Bloor, no matter how much more convenient it may be than the current station setup and no matter how much we’re concerned that the westbound Bloor-Danforth is now at capacity in the morning rush. Encouraging more city-bound Scarborough, Durham and eastern York Region riders to use Eglinton and the already overcrowded Yonge line makes no sense at all. If you consider that an Environmental Assessement is already approved for extending the Eglinton LRT east to Kingston Road and out to Morningside Mall, it’s a bad idea to divert this line to serve northeast Scarborough. Eglinton was one part of Transit City that made sense, on nearly all counts.

As for city council’s now-favoured $2.3-billion subway option, which would provide that all-desirable one-seat service from downtown to the STC (when seats are available), the preliminary alignment, apparent funding assumptions, station spacing and the lack of regard for capitalizing on surrounding real estate are all horrible. The silos that promote or tolerate this kind of “thinking” must be smashed. The only planners who could seriously consider deep-bore tunneling east under Eglinton and north under a dead stretch of McCowan – with three more wasteful standalone stations – are yes-men or yes-women working under duress.

The only comparative benefit of the Scarborough subway plan that was before city council last month is that it would allow the SRT to continue operating while the new rapid transit is built. That’s a tiny gain for the huge amounts of waste that model would entail – at a time when transit funding is scarce. Transportation minister Glen Murray said Aug. 28 that a more firm route preference will be revealed in a few weeks. Let’s hope the powers that be come to their senses in the interim.

If we are going to build a Bloor-Danforth extension to the STC, let’s seize upon it as the long-awaited golden opportunity to demonstrate the worth of the Rail + Property (R+P) business model on this continent. It can deliver far more than big savings on a one-off transit project. R+P is the international gold standard, the model best practice for subway development that proactively links transit and land-use for economic and urban planning objectives.

For some reason, decision-makers in these parts seem hostile to R+P, which has been essential to making transit funding sustainable in Far East metropolises and has kept MTR Corp. in Hong Kong profitable for decades. Adaptation and experimentation will be required for a GTA context, but the Scarborough case presents a special opportunity because the public owns so much underutilized land in the best subway corridor.

R+P considers stations as mixed-use profit centres integrated into their surroundings, while the Toronto model treats stations as cost centres, delivering wasteful standalone buildings that repel development. Don’t confuse R+P with the Ford brothers’ dreams of free private sector subways, or with the narrow and superficial consideration of value capture contained in reports from our transit funding discussions earlier this year.

There’s no way of honestly estimating how much profit potential is available – short or long term – by employing the R+P model to real estate on this route. But then the official $2.3-billion subway extension estimate being bandied about is also vague, and necessarily so. It’s a plus-or-minus 30% number, meaning anything from $1.6-billion to $3-billion (which makes this side spat with the province over $400-million seem absurd).

If R+P is considered from the start, we’d unshackle the thought process. We consider the seemingly radical demolition of the current Kennedy station, which real estate experts agree is a major impediment to transit-oriented development in such a key, potentially urban location – where the Bloor-Danforth subway, GO rail and the Eglinton LRT will meet. The focus needs to be broadened from building a transit facility at Kennedy to fully leveraging our massive publicly owned land holdings surrounding and above the station, through Build Toronto or a new but similar entity.

R+P would require a cultural adjustment for Torontonians. Rather than decrying the unearned value granted lucky or well-connected landholders in station catchment areas, we, the people, would be in position to profit and reinvest. We own that land and should be demanding that our politicians do all they can to maximize returns from our assets and infrastructure investments. Long term, the example of efficiency would also likely nurture the political will to fund transit properly, and that’s important because R+P cannot come close to doing it alone in the North American context.

R+P for the Scarborough extension might also be a great opportunity for a provincial government trying to revive its image after the gas-plants scandal. And if the province were really smart, it would create a Build Toronto-like Crown corporation to bring in private-sector expertise for maximizing the worth of lands surrounding our GO stations. Metrolinx has quite the portfolio of underutilized land.

Making the Scarborough subway extension work economically would require adjusting the alignment through a new Kennedy station and briefly into the old SRT space before turning into the main Gatineau hydro corridor, at least to Brimley and Lawrence. That would allow us to use much-less-expensive cut-and-cover tunneling (and don’t forget that cut and cover was and is plenty good for most of the original Yonge, University and Bloor-Danforth subways). It would mean a bit more traffic disruption during construction, but if it significantly increases the chances that Scarborough residents get their subway – and get a more useful subway with more stations at a better price – it will be tolerated. Brimley is also quite dead, but it is better suited to subway than McCowan, and would allow us to reach the STC via the west side with less underground work.

Burying high-voltage wires and removing the towers while digging cut-and-cover subway tunnels can open up huge amounts of valuable real estate at station sites, such as this spot here where the Gatineau hydro corridor crosses Midland.

Better still, with hydro infrastructure buried in the Gatineau corridor during tunnel construction – a surprisingly inexpensive process – stations at Midland and at Brimley-Lawrence could be designed as the hearts transit villages on newly freed-up lands. The hydro corridor acreage is huge and we would have to get the province to transfer the lands from Hydro One to Build Toronto. But if we blend in office, residential, retail, educational and service uses, and if we focus on the pedestrian, we’d ensure subway-worthy ridership before the long-term and obviate the need for high-rises.

Even where we don’t own the land, at Scarborough Town Centre, R+P can come into play as Oxford Properties should find it worthwhile to provide a station  as part of the basement/foundation of new developments. Where R+P is used, it’s understood the marginal cost of station infrastructure tends to be much less than the upstairs premium available to the developer if the excavation, foundation and platform work is done at once.

Alas, while I love this second-best plan because it can get us past the absurd idea that Toronto cannot afford subways, it would increase Bloor-Danforth line ridership, which is a problem with all the Scarborough rapid-transit options other than the one presented in the TAO report. It’s sad, but as Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford and transit planning veteran Ed Levy point out, we’re short of good network options because the Downtown Relief Line is so overdue for the entire region.

I hold out little hope that the transit bureaucracies and politicians will wake up to the possibilities in time, and that’s a shame. This is a rare and special opportunity.

 

Boom, Bust and Toronto’s condo market

Economist David Foot is not predicting any real estate crash for Toronto, but he is telling developers that they'll pay the price if they ignore some key demographic trends.

This piece originally appeared in the Toronto Star’s Insight section on November 3, 2012

By Stephen Wickens

Considering how well University of Toronto economist David Foot foresaw Toronto’s downtown boom 20 years ago, you might think condominium developers would regularly seek his views.

“No, it doesn’t happen often,” says Foot, co-author of Boom, Bust & Echo, a 1996 bestseller that argued demographics explains about two-thirds of everything. Even in retirement, Foot constantly flies about the country because various industries want insights into evolving trends.

But real estate developers? Not so much. “I’ve spoken at a few conferences and that has led to the odd email. There’s been some contact, but …”

That apparent lack of interest in demographics might be why it’s an industry that tends to repeatedly overbuild and miss clearly emerging trends at crucial points in its market cycles.

So what would Foot tell them after Thursday’s Urbanation report showing GTA condo sales are down 35 per cent from 2011?

Basically the same thing he’s been saying for years.

“What we’ve had over the past decade,” he says, “is the children of the boomers, the echo generation, leaving home, leaving the suburbs and doing what young people do, moving downtown. It’s the same reason college and university enrollments soared. This downtown boom was entirely predictable,” he adds, even if his 1996 book missed that it would come in the form of condos, not 1960s-style high-rise apartments.

Foot is not predicting a real estate crash, but he says developers have to make big adjustments in what they offer. He also says Toronto’s economic health is endangered if we don’t act fast on major transportation improvements.

He sees two crucial demographic keys to understanding where we’re headed, and again it’s boomers, who are nearing retirement, and the echo boom, babies born a 15-year period beginning in 1980.

“The echo birth rate peaked in 1991,” he says. “Add 20 to all that and 2000 is when the echo kids started leaving home, creating new households,” he says. But 2011 should be at or near the peak of the market – at least for small downtown condos. Things should keep dribbling along, but the drop-off in birth rate after 1991 was significant; the big growth is over,” he says, adding that immigration rates could skew things.

Foot sounds upbeat, sitting in beautiful natural light at the U of T’s Max Gluskin building.  He sees opportunities for wise developers and the city. He thinks the urban renaissance will have staying power – if we finally get serious about transportation problems. He sees much of the urban renaissance morphing into suburban contexts (and by suburban, Foot includes much of the 416 area code).

“The children of boomers are starting families of their own, birth rates are rising again,” he says, adding that simultaneously, lots of boomers who raised families in places such as Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York are moving to the next phase of their lives.

“I sort of say, it’s downtown in your 20s, suburbs in your 30s and 40s, and peace and quiet country in your 50s and 60s.” He still holds the concept to be largely true, though he acknowledges many echo families will raise inner-city kids and lots of boomers will downsize to a condo in town because they want big-city convenience, vitality and culture.

“Milton and Markham will keep booming because lots of people still want a big backyard for raising kids. And lots of retiring boomers will do the traditional thing and move further out, to live next to a golf course or at their cottage or in smaller cities where their real estate dollars buy much more.”

He expects many young urbanites starting families to look at houses the boomers vacate, rather than buying new on the 905 fringes. He also sees rising demand in some 1920s suburbs, especially ones close to subway stations, becoming intense.

As for downsizing boomers: “Get real! They won’t be buying 800-square-foot condos, and developers had better figure this out. At the very least, they better start providing units with knockout walls so they can be joined. The boomers, the ones who want the city and its cultural amenities, they have money and they want room.”

Aside from competing with echo-generation parents who want those rare downtown condos big enough for raising kids, Foot sees demand for large units in new mid-rise buildings out of the core, along the avenues, above mall parking lots and in largely undeveloped areas around and above existing subway stations – just the stuff city planners would love to see.

“We’re totally wasting valuable air-space above subway stations and malls, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves on transit,” Foot says. “Lots of these boomers may love city living, but they also have Audis and they increasingly won’t want to deal with stairs at subway stations and overcrowded platforms and trains, let alone the serious overall inadequacies of our transit system.”

He has only one regret, looking back to Boom, Bust & Echo, which he co-wrote with Daniel Stoffman (and Foot gives much credit to Stoffman for the book’s success).

“If I were writing with the benefit of hindsight, I would have connected the lower interest rates and boomer retirement savings to increased demand for housing and increased house prices since the mid-1990s. But I think that’s the only thing.”

Accidental tourist attractions spice up an underrated Caribbean gem

The oft-overlooked island of Grenada has everything that winter-weary Canadians might want from a sun vacation, but with a few spectacular bonuses

Vicissitudes by sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor is part of an underwater art installation that made National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places.”

Vicissitudes by sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor is part of an underwater art installation that made National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places.”

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on October 20, 2012

By Stephen Wickens

Aside from the cows and egrets, Pearls Airport sits deserted.

It’s not in Grenada’s guidebooks and not listed on today’s itinerary. But it’s a highlight nonetheless and everyone on the bus wants off to see the Cuban planes, abandoned to scavengers and the elements since the 1983 U.S.-led invasion.

“It should be a national monument,” says Mandoo Seales, a passionate guide who prefers “rescue” to “invasion” when speaking of Operation Urgent Fury, a Reagan Doctrine strike that snuffed a 4½-year experiment with revolutionary Marxism.

“It’s an archeological site. We shouldn’t let it deteriorate further.”

Ex-U.S. soldiers prompted Seales’ first tours to this 1940s-vintage airport, shut since 1984. “I bring lots of people here now,” he says. “All kinds are fascinated.”

Cuban planes have been left to rot at old Pearls Airport since a 1983 U.S.-led invasion of Grenada snuffed an experiment with revolutionary Marxism.

It’s funny how the accidental tourist attractions are often the best. And Grenada has others, including the Underwater Sculpture Park and Levera Beach leatherback turtle sanctuary.

British sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor originally pitched the underwater park to Grenadians as art that might help restore coral reefs. It succeeded on both counts, with new growth gradually completing the statuary. Now Taylor’s creation is on National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places” and Mexican officials have commissioned him to produce a larger version in Cancun.

I’ll be back at this underwater park, though next time, instead of snorkeling, I’ll have scuba certification and a serious underwater camera.

The leatherback project, meanwhile, was hatched to help save a remarkable species from extinction, even if it meant disruption for locals who had relied on meat and eggs from Earth’s largest sea turtles.

“We now earn revenue from people coming to see this (April to August),” says Kimron Redhead, a supervisor on the project, launched in 1999. “There are definitely more turtles again,” he says. “You can only sell a turtle or her eggs once, but tourists come back again and again.”

And it turns out that the resurgent turtle population has helped the local tuna fishery because leatherbacks feed on jellyfish who had been decimating schools of baby tuna.

Trying to snap photos of the egg-laying can be problematic as leatherbacks work at night and flash photography has to be banned because it would interrupt the mood for mama turtles. But usable photos or not, the awe seemed unanimous the night I visited.

It's tough to shoot pictures of turtles laying eggs, but if you're lucky, a mona monkey might just pose for you in Grenada.

“I must have shot 100 pictures and they’ll all be rubbish,” Ben Carroll of London, England, says, echoing others among us.

“But it hardly matters. The hair on my neck was standing. Seeing how hard she worked to dig a hole, lay the eggs and cover them. That last turtle must have been six feet. Getting to stroke the shell, that’s powerful.”

If you want casinos and nightlife, Grenada’s not for you. But it offers most of what winter-weary Canadians want from sun vacations – with several bonuses. It’s also easily reached from Toronto since Caribbean Airlines launched year-round non-stop service.

Despite being a volcanic island, it has white-sand beaches, including Grand Anse, a regular on Caribbean best-of lists. Because Grenada has just 1,200 hotel rooms, beaches aren’t crowded, even in high season.

It’s a generally affordable island, though, like the expensive ones, crime rates are low and litter is scarce. Once you’ve seen the bountiful gardens, you’ll know why Grenada’s worst finish in 13 years at England’s famed Chelsea Flower Show has been silver.

“It’s like a lusher, much-less-developed Barbados,” says Carroll, who also raved about rainforest hiking in the island’s interior.

Grenadian cuisine is interesting, too, no surprise for “the spice island.” Nutmeg is the big export (though still down 50 per cent since tree damage from 2004’s Hurricane Ivan), but there are constant mealtime reminders of the endless list of spices and fruits that grow here.

Like most Caribbean islands, there are colonial forts for history buffs, but Grenada’s have seen recent combat – battles people still calmly debate, even as the Cuban planes rot.

Graffiti remains on Grenada, thanking the U.S. for leading Operation Urgent Fury in 1983.

Locals seem to see both sides of their place in Cold War history. There’s no clamour to revive socialism, but under the current prime minister – who spent two years as a political prisoner when Communists ruled – the airport was renamed for Maurice Bishop, who led the 1979 revolution.

You’ll hear tales of corruption and brutal autocracy under Bishop, sometimes from the same people who credit him for steep rises in literacy rates and the creation of real healthcare. There’s still graffiti thanking the Americans, though some locals seem convinced the chaos and bloodshed used to justify sending in troops was initiated by a Central Intelligence Agency-driven destabilization campaign, ostensibly led by Bishop’s deputy.

And no matter how real the fears were in the Reagan White House, we’ll never know for sure if the Soviet Empire ever planned to attack the Americas from that Cuban-built runway beside the Maurice Bishop terminal building. But with the Cold War mostly just historical curiosity, we do know the landing strip is plenty long enough for jet-loads of tourists.

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING: Caribbean Airlines flies non-stop from Toronto on Thursdays and Saturdays year-round. Air Canada Vacations has seasonal non-stops and Sunwing operates charters.

SLEEPING: The Blue Horizons is excellent if you don’t mind a 300-metre walk to the beach. Mount Cinnamon and Spice Island  are great spots right on Grand Anse beach. LaSource will soon reopen as a Sandals Resort.

DINING: Even if you don’t stay at Blue Horizons, visit the resort’s La Belle Creole restaurant. The menu changes daily, but it’s outstanding. Other recommendations are BB’s Crabback (bbscrabback.co.uk), The Aquarium (aquarium-grenada.com) and Dodgy Dock (truebluebay.com/resort-facilities/details/dodgy-dock-restaurant).

DOING: The rainforest hike to the interior waterfalls is big fun, but expect to get muddy (grenadatours.com/hikes.htm). Also  worthwhile are tours of the organic chocolate operation (grenadachocolate.com) and the old water-wheel-driven River Antoine rum distillery, though be careful with the high-test fire-water (grenadaexplorer.com/tip/rumfactory).