While many fixate on the Unilever site, our Kennedy lands languish in purgatory

An aerial prospective of Kennedy station from the crosstown.ca website.

An aerial prospective of Kennedy station from the crosstown.ca website. The site cautions that “the renderings are subject to change and may not reflect the final design.” Let us pray.

Our traditional approach to public real estate, especially properties at our major transit stations, involves giving away huge amounts of value to private developers (or wasting it on surface parking), while world leaders are working to master land-value capture and land-value trade relationships.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

What if First Gulf controlled the land surrounding Kennedy station, 25 publicly owned acres that for decades have been served by subway, SRT, GO trains and multiple bus routes. It’s a site whose potential value has soared recently, what with the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT to open in a few years and a reasonable likelihood a Scarborough subway extension and the Mayor’s SmartTrack will roll too.

Add in tracts of nearby, largely undeveloped private lands, and the Kennedy site’s size rivals First Gulf’s Unilever (now renamed East Harbour), which sits behind various moats – river, highway, rail corridor, monolithic land uses and long blocks. Unilever might eventually get lots of transit, but even if Broadview is extended south and a bridge to the West Donlands is added, stitching that site into the urban east-downtown fabric effectively will be a massive challenge.

The comparison’s timely because one site needs urgent attention – and despite media coverage and city hall chatter, it is not Unilever. Kennedy was the natural site for a “downtown” or “centre” in Scarborough and transformation on several levels should be inevitable: It already has one-seat rides to Union, Bloor-Yonge, Scarborough Centre and Markham Centre, and soon will offer one-seat rides to Yonge-Eglinton and the airport.   But it’s a hub without a champion. It lacks institutional support or gainfully employed minds offering vision. Shame on us, not just our politicians, bureaucrats and media.

Aside from an opportunity for profitable development to partly offset infrastructure costs and boost ridership enough to justify costly rapid transit priority for low-density Scarborough, Kennedy could pay back for generations if it’s the place that finally gets GTA decision-makers to understand public real estate in ways that underpin sustainable funding for the world’s leading urban transportation entities (almost all in east Asia).

But time’s running out at this hub: Options disappear every time politicians make absurd promises and every time Metrolinx and the TTC award contracts. The greatest urgency stems from the fact that plans still call for the Crosstown to dive underground at Ionview Road, nearly a kilometre west of Kennedy station. Tunneling made sense when the LRT was to swing north into the Scarborough Rapid Transit corridor and functionally replace the SRT as our de facto subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre – albeit with transfer for Bloor-Danforth riders. But although one-seat service to STC by subway now looks like a lock, station plans weren’t adjusted.

Short term, keeping the LRT on the surface and scrapping the tunnels saves us far more than the roughly $85-million the city owes Metrolinx for wasted work since council dumped the old LRT plan in 2013. Long-term, we’ll end up extending the Crosstown east and keeping the LRT on the surface from the west also eliminates the need for costly tunnels to the east. In fact, if we extend the LRT east, kill the tunnels and use SmartSpur (a plan with so much potential that those who promised the Scarborough subway have forbidden city staff from studying it properly) to connect with STC, we’d be able to eventually use a shorter more efficient route than any subway option planners have studied recently – if or when we can ever honestly justify a subway extension.

SmartSpur, branching of SmartTrack, could provide fast one-seat service between STC and Union for about $2-billion less than the subway options the city is pondering.

SmartSpur, the pink line branching off SmartTrack, could provide fast one-seat service between STC and Union for about $2-billion less than the subway options the city is pondering. As an added bonus, it can provide a modicum of relief for the Bloor-Danforth, Bloor-Yonge station and Yonge trains south of Bloor. Leading with a subway extension would aggravate crowding.

But the biggest long-term benefit will come if Kennedy station’s real estate can catalyze a long-overdue revolution in North American transit funding and planning. Kennedy’s special: We own the land; we can be that greedy developer reaping the profits. This is the basis of rail-plus-property, a business model that has played a huge role in making Hong Kong’s transit builder/operator a profitable company for 35-plus years (even if it isn’t perfect and people kvetch about transit there, too).

Historically, in Toronto, we give away land-value premiums to those who own sites near stations, some of which is unavoidable (we also twist transit plans and grasp for logic to justify alignments that mostly serve influential private interests and pension funds). MTRC of Hong Kong, trades its infrastructure spending for land-value through development and property management. Yes, we know Hong Kong is denser and their land-ownership regime is different, as are public-consultation sensibilities. But the big lessons of MTRC’s model can apply here if we’re smart enough in how we adapt the governance.

A huge but largely overlooked hurdle in our planning process is our lack of a publicly controlled entity for managing our transit-related real estate, working within a private-sector set of precepts to maximize its worth. This entity needs an empowered seat at the table from the earliest transit planning discussions and must be free to operate at an arm’s length from politicians and even transit operators. Rail-plus-property cannot remedy all our process flaws, but in its basest form it would generate significant revenue to defray capital costs, help us expedite operating efficiencies and earn the goodwill needed to allow those with taxing powers to use “funding tools” and “revenue tools” considered politically risky.

So if rail-plus-property is such a no-brainer, why haven’t we acted? We’re a riven town, trying to tame a political whipsaw. The right and some foolish mayors, going back at least a decade prior to amalgamation, have damaged the land-value-capture concept with laughable promises of free subways. The ideological left, meanwhile, tends to be fearful of anything that smacks of public-private partnerships, willfully ignoring how some competing international metropolises are getting things done. In 2003, the TTC was asked to study rail-plus-property (councillor David Miller got a motion passed at my urging, but the study was quietly ditched when he became mayor). Provincial and city reports on funding strategies in recent years have demonstrated a thin understanding of LVC. An August 2013 discussion paper commissioned by Metrolinx was somewhat encouraging (though hopes there are waning since the provincial entity quietly shut down its business-case department in the spring of 2016).

Recent off-the-record discussions with sources indicate some of our bureaucrats are waking up, though for now, we continue to rip ourselves off. We talk about transit being an investment, forgetting that real investors aggressively seek ROI.

The lands surrounding Kennedy station provide 1,000 parking spaces, the equivalent of filling one subway train for one trip a day.

The lands surrounding Kennedy station provide 1,000 parking spaces, the equivalent of filling one subway train for one trip a day. The terminal building in the background is an impediment to transit-oriented development on a site that desperately needs TOD.

Viewed through a rail-plus-property lens, current plans for Kennedy would have us asking:

– Why does the TTC cling to the quaint but expensive notion that stations are costs while cities capable of continuous building increasingly view them as revenue properties with trains rolling through the basement? At Kennedy, our thinking manifests itself in an unsubstantiated assumption that there’s net benefit in retaining a big bus terminal, even though it’s an impediment to transit-oriented development on a site that needs TOD. It makes even less sense if you consider that when the LRT is extended east, we won’t need a bus terminal at all.

– Why tie up swaths of valuable real estate for surface parking? The 1,000 or so spaces at Kennedy allow us to fill the equivalent of just one subway train for one round trip per day. Parking can and will be replaced in other formats via redevelopment – if it makes economic sense within a mix of uses that could include offices, shops, condos, schools, public services and recreation facilities. We need destinations around and atop our stations, a doubly crucial lesson for land-rich Metrolinx to learn, especially now that it should be preparing to strategically offset soaring operating costs from the Regional Express Rail all-day, two-way service promise.

– What thought is going into creating easy and pleasant pedestrian links between the Kennedy station zone and the surrounding areas? We think a lot about bus connections, a very good thing, but subways work best when the pedestrian is king of the catchment zones.

– Why aren’t the surrounding private land holders prominent in discussions at this end of the transit planning? Has there even been a public Kennedy station precinct planning process? Given the right lattice of incentive and disincentive, private developers will eagerly help us earn returns on investments and assets.

So, where are our bureaucrats?

Actually, contrary to popular misconception, most are at least okay. In Year 5 of his term, I’m concluding Andy Byford was probably a good hire and he seems to understand much of what I usually prattle on about. But he’s rightly focused first on turning around the TTC’s operating culture. He has some good people working for him on the capital planning side, but the parameters on their thinking appear to be constricted by assumptions desperately in need of re-examination. They lack the tools and direction required re-earn the public’s confidence (some TTC staff come across as chastened, bracing for further hits on the Spadina-York extension cost overruns and hugely wasteful standalone stations).

People at city planning have been good to talk to in recent years and seem to be awakening to the fact that established approaches are inadequate for such issues of organized complexity. Some seem to see the need for an entity that can wisely manage public land assets in the quest to make good on some of the excellent aims of the official plan, now more than a decade old (though spring-summer 2016 developments on the Scarborough subway front indicate the politics is trumping logic).

And the city is doing a real estate review, but the discussions seem to be on the overly secretive side.

Metrolinx dipped a toe in the waters of sanity by auctioning off Crosstown station sites – prior to excavation, no less – (though we’re hearing the first wave of RFPs were so restrictive that developer interest was disappointing). More disappointing is that rail-plus-property has apparently disappeared from the radar after recent behind-the-scenes moves that cost Metrolinx some of its brightest staff members.

So, again, imagine that First Gulf owns this Kennedy site, which may one day rival Union Station for the best, rapid-transit-served location in the GTA. At Unilever, First Gulf talks of 50,000 jobs and development investments worth $6-biillion (and let’s hope it succeeds). It’s obvious that First Gulf has worked hard to get the ear of the mayor’s office, just as Oxford Properties has at Scarborough Centre.

Maybe we, as a voters and residents, should try to do the same.

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.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

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.”