Urbanism’s wheels gaining no traction in Six Points interchange

Plans for a downtown Etobicoke, on the books for 40 years, might finally be seeing a little bit of action http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=b4e98d0195ce1410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

Decades later, the lands around the old abandoned Westwood cinema in “downtown” Etobicoke present a bleak side of suburbia to passing motorists and the odd pedestrian. The condos under construction are close to the Kipling subway and GO Transit station.

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 16, 2005. Since then, a few condos have been built, but the 416’s commercial taxation disadvantages remain, as do the barriers to urban vitality created by highway-style ramps, railway tracks and a hydro corridor. It looks as if those trying to land a supermarket for Concert’s development had to settle for a Hasty Market. The litter remains, and it’s no fun being a pedestrian on this turf. Councillor Peter Milczyn won re-election in 2006 and 2010 and has since moved on to provincial politics. Getting a west exit from Islington station that goes under the CP corridor to serve the apartment neighbourhoods at Mabelle would be a huge improvement.


David Holman can’t count the number of times he has driven through the Six Points interchange during 36 years living in central Etobicoke, but he’s certain he has never even considered walking through it.

“I have noticed a few people scurrying to get across the roads, and it doesn’t look like fun,” he says.

The retired accountant’s description may be a marvel of understatement: A steady stream of traffic whizzes through the interchange at most times of day, heading north and south on Kipling Avenue, east and west on Bloor and Dundas Streets and around in sweeping arcs on adjoining ramps surrounded by litter-strewn patches of lawn.

Fearful pedestrians may shun the 1950s tangle of asphalt, and drivers may take it for granted, but pay attention to the Six Points for the next few years and you may see the fiercest battle yet in Toronto’s attempt to turn the tide of runaway sprawl and deepening car dependence.

The city wants to remove the interchange as part of its Etobicoke Centre plan, a blueprint for the next attempt at creating a downtown in Greater Toronto’s suburbs. And while some question whether planners have had much success at developing downtowns in Scarborough, North York and Mississauga, the city’s assertive-sounding official plan states that “the area will develop the feel and function of an urban core,” and that “walking will be an interesting and pleasurable experience in Etobicoke Centre.”

But area residents aren’t so receptive to that idea. Opening shots were fired at a public meeting in 2004, when some concerned residents had to be turned away from an overcrowded Legion hall.

“The people weren’t rowdy,” says Islington Residents and Ratepayers Association director Bob Berry. “But they had a message: Six Points works as it is. I’d say 95 per cent agreed. We’ve had our discussions, and the response always seems to be that people don’t walk any more, they drive. If the city wants to push, there will be a fight.”

Ward 5 City Councillor Peter Milczyn knows there is substantial opposition and says the city is taking seriously “legitimate concerns about traffic spilling over onto residential streets.” But he supports the city’s intent and doesn’t sound willing to back down, even with elections set for next year.

“What was built there was a horrendous mistake and to not try to correct it when there’s an opportunity is irresponsible,” Mr. Milczyn says.

The opportunity he speaks of comes as part of a push to finally act on plans — nearly three decades old — to create a 2.8-kilometre-long, 420-acre downtown between Montgomery Road, east of Islington Avenue, and Shorncliffe and Shaver Roads, west of Kipling.

Already, as many as 5,000 residential units are planned, under construction or recently completed. Land surrounding Islington subway station is to be freed up for a mixed-use high-rise project by moving commuter lots and the Mississauga Transit bus terminal to Kipling.

The city plans to reconfigure the 10-acre Six Points site into a web of walkable city streets with buildings that extend to the sidewalks.

“The city has a key role here. We are the biggest landholders,” Mr. Milczyn says. “If we do this properly, if we create a real live-work-play mix and make it a pleasant walk to and from stores and restaurants, the subway and GO trains, people will get out of their cars. Visitors and office workers will arrive by transit — it will help the city, the TTC and the environment.”

But while Mr. Berry likes much of that vision, he thinks Mr. Milczyn is dreaming if he thinks people will ever give up driving. “And if you take out the Six Points, where’s all that traffic going to go?” he asks. “Who wants to live through the construction and disruption?”

John Alkins, a real-estate broker and the chairman of the Village of Islington Business Improvement Area, thinks cost might kill the Six Points plan. “But either way, development is coming, and for all the right reasons,” he says. “The key is not to have this so much as a place for people to drive through, but to make it a destination.”

Before the car was king — when the Six Points site was a rural crossroads called Wood’s Corners — suburbs gradually urbanized as a matter of course. Since the Second World War, steady road building has made it possible to perpetually develop at low densities with land uses so segregated that car dependence is unavoidable.

Even with infill and public transit expansion into Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and Mississauga, the old City of Toronto remains at least twice as dense as the older suburbs. And the downtowns of Scarborough, Mississauga and North York remain largely car-dependent, even with two subway lines meeting in North York’s case.

So can we go into areas built for the car and create, as the city hopes, “the feel and function of an urban core?” Can we ever “make walking interesting and pleasurable” if residents insist on priority for cars?

“You can’t foist things on people,” says Anne Milchberg, a City of Toronto real-estate manager and former planner who is deeply involved in the Etobicoke project. “But I think many are starting to see the value in having proper urban fabric. Whether that will ever weigh more than things such as road capacity, I don’t know. But I see encouraging signs.”

In the case of Etobicoke Centre, she says the fact the city’s works and emergency services departments would even consider trading Six Points for urban form is “a huge and positive cultural shift.”

Her hopes for Etobicoke Centre are also buoyed by two “organic shopping strips” — Bloor east of Islington and Islington Village, east of the Six Points on Dundas. “They’re already walkable, older-style places. It seems easier to graft onto something organic than to create planned places from scratch.”

But Etobicoke Centre faces hurdles besides Six Points. Most developers appear willing to build only high-rise condos in the area, rather than mixed-use projects that also cater to businesses, largely because tax rates on office and commercial properties are cheaper in nearby Mississauga..

As for retailers, most seem reluctant to deviate from the big-box model, especially in an area that can’t claim to be urban yet. Concert Developments, which is going through a site-approval process to build up to 950 units of seniors’, condo and market-rental housing east of Six Points, tried to comply with city requests to include an urban-style, pedestrian-friendly supermarket. But Concert’s Brian McCauley says the grocery chains are interested only in a suburban format surrounded by lots of parking.

“We approached them all without any luck,” Mr. McCauley says. “There will be a food store, but it won’t be what we’d all like to see.”

Another concern is the unpleasant walk between Islington station and neighbourhoods northwest of the CP and subway tracks. “That’s a deterrent to pedestrians, not unlike Six Points,” Ms. Milchberg says. “We’re working on ideas.”

But she is confident about urbanizing Etobicoke.

“This isn’t just a Toronto-area puzzle,” she says. “I don’t know of any city that has created truly lively, pedestrian-friendly places in its suburbs — at least since cars became so dominant. But we are learning. We’re chipping away and some of us are approaching Etobicoke with the hope this can really be the one, and that [other cities] might look to this as a model.”