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, while world leaders are working to master land-value capture.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Imagine First Gulf controls 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 five or so 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, 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 it into the urban east-downtown fabric will be a challenge.

The comparison’s timely because one site needs urgent attention – and despite media coverage and city hall chatter, it isn’t Unilever. Transformation on several levels should be inevitable at Kennedy, but it’s a hub without a champion, institutional support or gainfully employed minds offering vision. Shame on us.

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 real estate in ways that underpin sustainable funding for the world’s urban transportation leaders (almost all of them in east Asia).

But time’s running out at this hub: Options disappear every time Metrolinx and the TTC award contracts. The greatest urgency stems from the fact 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. But although one-seat service to STC by subway now looks like a lock, station plans weren’t adjusted (at least as of a May planning meeting I attended at City Hall).

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 to Guildwood and beyond (the Scarborough-Malvern line EA is already done); 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 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 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 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); MTRC of Hong Kong, captures land-value through development and property management. Yes, we know Hong Kong is denser and the 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 planning discussions and must be free to operate at an arms 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 the use of funding 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, apparently fearful of anything that smacks of public-private partnerships, willfully ignores 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, though an August 2013 discussion paper commissioned by Metrolinx was somewhat encouraging.

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 costly notion that stations are costs when 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, and if we go with the likely but wasteful four-stop Eglinton-McCowan subway plan, most terminal needs shift to the Brimley/Danforth Road station.

– 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 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 may 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 offset soaring operating costs from the all-day, two-way service promise.

– What thought is going into creating easy and pleasant pedestrian links between the 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 4 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 come across as chastened, bracing for further hits on the Spadina-York extension cost overruns and 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. Metrolinx has dipped a toe in the waters of sanity by auctioning off Crosstown station sites – prior to excavation, no less – and sources tell me rail-plus-property is actually on the radar.

That’s progress, and maybe the rapidly shrinking window for getting things right at Kennedy might just allow us to focus in a timely and productive way.

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 they succeed). And it’s obvious that First Gulf has worked hard to get the ear of the mayor’s office; maybe we as a citizenry should try to do the same.

Last chance for sanity on the Scarborough transit file

scarbsubway3

So we now have a short list of three Scarborough subway extension proposals, none of which makes sense. It’s tempting to conclude that we’ve been presented with a couple of hopeless straw-man options that serve only to make the indefensible but politically popular Eglinton-McCowan alignment look good by comparison.

But let’s forestall the usual Torontoish blackthought, especially considering at least one excellent alternative hasn’t yet been stifled by politicians or the wasteful last-century assumptions that often still guide otherwise bright and well-meaning transit bureaucrats in these parts.

Though the last-chance-for-sanity option doesn’t involve actual subway, it might be most attractive, even in Scarborough’s subway-or-bust circles, offering fast one-seat service to Union station and easy links to the Bloor-Danforth subway and the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT at Kennedy station far sooner than any subway proposal can.

The idea, to my knowledge, first appeared in an excellent but largely overlooked 400-page regional rail report published by Transport Action Ontario in July 2013. The Star’s Tess Kalinowski was one of the few to clue in, and she wrote about it back before we’d heard the term SmartTrack, before the strange subway-centred by-election in Scarborough-Guildwood, and before then-transportation minister Glen Murray proposed his two-stop subway extension from Kennedy station to Scarborough Town Centre using the existing SRT corridor.

The TAO idea enhances the worth of SmartTrack, rather than siphoning ridership from it, so it might have a political hope, especially in the mayor’s office. SmartSpur, as we might call it, can be built faster than any other option and at an attractive price. Costs of the connection to STC from the SmartTrack line, using the east-west part of the current SRT corridor, were calculated at $425-million in 2010 dollars, with the full route to Malvern via Centennial College’s Progress Campus for around $1.7-billion. That’s about $2-billion less than preliminary estimates for the Eglinton-McCowan subway idea with a fourth station added.

karlsmap

The ideal Eglinton-Crosstown approach to Kennedy station would now be on the surface to make an extension east toward Kingston Road easier and less expensive.

Just think what we could do with an extra $2-billion – putting it toward the decades-overdue relief line comes to mind, as do Eglinton-Crosstown LRT extensions east of Kennedy or west of Mount Dennis (those EAs are already done).

On the downside, shuttle buses would be needed to replace the SRT during construction on the east-west phase, and the TAO estimate does not include SRT demolition costs. And, of course, SmartTrack will eat up some very finite capacity on the Lakeshore East GO lines. But while all subway extension ideas would aggravate crowding on the Bloor-Danforth, which is already at capacity westbound from Main Street in the morning rush, SmartSpur would provide a little temporary relief both on the line and at the dangerously overcrowded Bloor-Yonge transfer point.

Of course, this is Toronto and there’s the possibility the idea makes too much sense.

Simple and brilliant as SmartSpur may be, it was my second choice for most of the past two years: A 10th subway alignment – shorter, more direct and with major value-capture possibilities from publicly owned real estate – would almost certainly have delivered the best value long-term. But Alignment 10 died behind the scenes at City Hall in recent weeks and didn’t even make city planning’s menu of nine, likely because transit entities and bureaucrats still don’t seem ready to wrap their heads around international best practice for funding and achieving returns on subway investments.

Anyway, for now, there’s a ray of hope, and I’m calling it SmartSpur.

Here's the branch line in the broader context, and we've taken the liberty of fixing the SmartTrack station spacing in east Toronto to improve the line's ability to relieve subway crowding.

Here’s the branch line in the broader context, and we’ve taken the liberty of fixing the SmartTrack station spacing in east Toronto to improve the line’s ability to relieve subway crowding.

Yeah, we’ll do that downtown subway next … right after we extend the Yonge subway north from Eglinton

It wasn’t the top story of the day, what with details emerging about James Earl Ray’s stay in Toronto after gunning down Martin Luther King. But even with a federal election campaign moving into the home stretch, the TTC’s recommendation to Metro Council that we make our next subway-building priority a line through the core at Queen Street was front-page news on June 12, 1968.

Toronto had opened Bloor-Danforth extensions into Scarborough and Etobicoke the previous month and would break ground on the Yonge extension north from Eglinton less than four months later.

Here, in the interests of adding historical perspective to the current Downtown Relief Line discussions, we provide the non-bylined Star story from that day, with a few footnotes at the end.

Map is from page A4 for the Toronto Daily Star (two-star edition) on June 12, 1968

Map is from page A4 of the Toronto Daily Star’s (two-star edition) on June 12, 1968

$200 million Queen subway proposed; TTC to curtail University service

The Toronto Transit Commission yesterday proposed construction of a 7.75 mile, $150- to $200-million Queen St. subway and almost simultaneously revealed it is reducing service on the already existing University Ave. subway.

The 15-station Queen subway stretching from Roncesvalles Ave. in the west and curving north to meet the Donlands Ave. subway station on the Bloor-Danforth line in the east was proposed to Metro Council. If approved, it would probably be built after the North Yonge extension is completed in 1972. (1)

The decision to cancel University Ave. subway service all day on Sundays and after 10 p.m. on other days as an economy move (2) was apparently made in secret session some time ago and was revealed in a terse report by J.G. Inglis, general manager of operations. It is effective June 23. During the off-hours, trains will be replaced by bus service.

Mayor William Dennison estimated the move could save up to $250,000 a year in operating costs. But the TTC admitted today that the saving will be only $80,000 for the rest of this year (less $15,000 to instal new signals) – and 24,000 people will have to take the bus every week.

It’s expected the reduced hours will stay in effect until eventual new routes like the Spadina rapid transit line feed more riders into the University line.

The TTC told Metro Council the first stage of the proposed Queen subway would be a $37-million underground streetcar line from Sherbourne St. to Spadina through the downtown core. The commission said this line should be built so it can be converted into a full-scale subway as soon as Metro is ready.

The Queen line is considered to be the next in priority to North Yonge, despite the fact that a rapid transit right-of-way is being built into the Spadina Expressway. The alignment of the new line would be a partial “U.”

In the east, the subway would bend north at Berkshire Ave., cut across Leslie St. and Hastings Ave. north of Queen St., follow for a few blocks an alignment along Alton Ave. to the west of Greenwood Park, then swing north to the Donlands station. Besides the Roncesvalles and Donlands stations, …            See $200 million, page 4
$200 million Queen subway proposed
Continued from page 1 …       there would be stations at Lansdowne Ave., Northcote Ave., Givins St., Bellwoods Ave., Bathurst St., Spadina Ave., University Ave., Yonge St., Sherbourne St., Sumach St., Broadview Ave., Logan Ave., Jones Ave., and Gerrard St. E., at Alton Ave.

The station at Queen and Yonge Sts. has already been roughed in and is below the Yonge subway. Commuters use part of it to travel from one subway platform to the other in Queen station.

The $30,000 report on the TTC’s studies came as a surprise at Metro Council. (3) Only a brief one-page letter indicated that the report, which consists of pages of functional drawings of routes, had been distributed to Metro Council members.

The plans had been discussed in secret by the commission and released directly to Metro without first being discussed in a public meeting. The TTC report, signed by Inglis and W. H. Paterson, general manager of subway construction, recommended against merely building a short underground line to take streetcars.

The two officials recommended instead that a hard look be given to a full-length Queen subway on the alignment suggested in the report.

Four possible alignments were mentioned in the report. The two officials all but rejected an alignment south of Queen St.  A review of properties along the south side of Queen St. revealed that excessive underpinning and demolition would be involved, the report said.
They suggested tunneling directly under Queen (4).

The decision to cut service on the University line was attacked by Controller Allan Lamport.
He said it would stunt Toronto growth and might ultimately cost the city more money than it would save, by creating more traffic congestion as persons who would otherwise use the subway turned to cars. Lamport said it was ridiculous for the TTC to expect people to stand out in the open after 10 p.m. waiting for a bus “in these days of violence and muggings.”

FOOTNOTES:

1. Unlike previous subway projects, Yonge line opened late and went over budget. It opened to York Mills in 1973 and to Finch the next year. (Okay, for those who quibble, the commuter lots didn’t open on time in 1968 for the Warden and Islington stations.)

2. Economy was increasingly a concern in 1968. Even though Metro agreed to stop charging the TTC property taxes on its real estate and even with operations turning a $2.4-million profit in 1967, staff feared it was slipping back into the red and would have to tap reserves to cover operating losses. (1968 and 1969 saw $1.2-million-dollar losses). Tax revenue was not used to fund operations, and the TTC didn’t run deficits until subsidies first became available in 1971 (after that, it never turned a profit again).

3. It’s unlikely that the reports were a surprise to council as the report was comleted and being discussed for at least 10 days before being formally presented to council in front of reporters.

4. Tunneling directly under Queen in the core, but preferred plans included cut-and-cover tunnels or even subway trenches north of Queen St. outside the core.

That 1968 DRL plan was slated to connect with the west side of the Greenwood yard (TTC still owns the real estate) and connect with the Bloor-Danforth at Donlands.

That 1968 DRL plan was slated to connect with the west side of the Greenwood yard (TTC still owns the real estate) and connect with the Bloor-Danforth at Donlands.

 

 

 

 

Unicorns, the DRL, Six Points and a bite on the ass

STEPHEN WICKENS

Most who care seriously about Toronto affairs will already have read Marcus Gee’s Globe and Mail column about how the DRL has become the unicorn of transit projects. Well, funny how things come full circle to bite us in the ass … and being bitten on ass by a unicorn may be doubly painful.
Below is a map of the east portion of the TTC’s planned June 1968 DRL alignment (even if we called it the Queen subway then). The Bloor-Danforth extensions to Warden and Islington had been completed the previous month and work to extend the Yonge subway from Eglinton to Finch was under way.
The DRL, meanwhile, was going head-to-head with Spadina for next spot on the priority list.  Key to the discussion (but largely overlooked in the current consultations) are the yard functions essential to any rail project.
The pink area below is Greenwood yard, and it was decided in 1968 that the Queen line’s only real yard option would be to take over Greenwood from the Bloor-Danforth line, which would then get a new yard in the west end. That’s why Metropolitan Toronto bought the Westwood Theatre lands, which, after languishing for decades, are suddenly not available as Build Toronto finally redevelops them as part of the Six Points project.
So the fact that the Bloor-Danforth is now largely locked into the Greenwood arrangement (unless something related to the Scarborough extension can be worked out) makes it even tougher to do Phase I of the DRL … unless it includes Phase II up to Eglinton (allowing for a possible yard near Bermondsey). That wouldn’t be so bad because key to making the DRL really pay off is to get it to Thorncliffe and Flemingdon, two of the densest and most transit-dependent neighbourhoods in the country. But making the initial phase longer further reduces the likelihood shovels will ever break ground.
Alas, the chain reactions and the lack of institutional memory now make the DRL less likely than ever, even as the enduring desire for this line is further indication that it really should have been a priority city-building project all along. And it’s sort of ironic that the Westwood lands were taken out of play right at the moment when the long-forgotten reason for their purchase becomes apparent again.
Those who ignore history and all that.

Greenwood yards are indicated in pink and the connection with the Bloor-Danforth is at Donlands station in this 1968 plan.

Greenwood yards are indicated in pink and the connection with the Bloor-Danforth is at Donlands station in this 1968 plan.

 

Metrolinx dips a toe into a pool of Eastern transit wisdom, and Toronto is all aflutter

Black Creek station on the York-Spadina subway extension, slated to open in 2017, is an example of how suburban stations tend to be designed in the absence of a land value-capture regime.

Black Creek station on the York-Spadina subway extension, slated to open in 2017, is an example of how suburban stations tend to be designed in the absence of a land value-capture regime. Space above the station will be difficult to redevelop profitably, though the parking lots could eventually deliver much potential through land value capture.

I’d expected the social media messages and emails to die down today after a flood in response to a story I did for yesterday’s Globe and Mail, regarding Metrolinx’s move to seek RFPs on four Eglinton-Crosstown station properties. Instead, it took all morning to work through comments related to the Globe’s follow-up story.

For the most part, I’d tell people to relax. These are still early days in an important and long-overdue discussion. In the interests of brevity, I’ll address only three key but recurring  points from the feedback.

1. Build Toronto cannot take over or redevelop TTC stations unless they’re declared surplus, and we’ll be needing these stations for the foreseeable future. This isn’t such a bad thing because Build Toronto was set up badly on a few levels and, as currently structured, would not be an appropriate entity to take on rail-plus-property style land value capture (LVC). Existing TTC stations, except the ones surrounded by lots of land won’t yield much anyway because to capitalize properly, you need prepare for redevelopment while excavating for the stations. Many opportunities have long since been blown.

2. Andy Byford is right to point out that Toronto is not Hong Kong, just as Steve Fry and Richard Gilbert did in the original story on Tuesday. A Hong Kong comparison requires a nuanced understanding of the differences. Most who poo-poo the possibilities don’t know what they’re talking about. Aside from the obvious density contrasts, how land is owned and how the public accepts top-down decision-making are points people could make to further argue that Toronto cannot do what MTR does. However, such arguments affect only the scale of likely returns. None undercuts the fact we can profit mightily from big lessons learned over recent decades in Asia. We can’t adopt MTR”s model as is, but, with a few wise adaptations, transit will work much better for Toronto and the region at a significantly lower cost, and that should in turn nurture the will of voters and politicians to fund transit properly. (I’d add that, contrary to popular misconception, about two-thirds of MTR’s developments are midrise, not highrise.)

3. Though Steve Munro and I disagree on occasion, I respect him and all of us in this town should pay attention to what he says. His warning, “that the idea of developing transit stations sounds good but might not generate as much as proponents believe,” is absolutely fair. The words may have been poorly chosen in that they have many Globe readers today believing he has lumped realistic LVC proponents in with Ford supporters. Alas, calm rational discussions are too rare in the city scarred by absurdly divisive LRT-versus-subway debates.  Hucksters promoting free subways have done much to short-circuit important discussions about getting real returns on our transit investments. Gilbert and Fry, quoted in Tuesday’s story because they are knowledgeable and reasonable, don’t expect free subways to happen in North American cities in the foreseeable future. But they would ask: What’s wrong with saving a half-billion dollars on a transit project, or even a billion, especially if it gets more people living and working sooner at new stations? And even if we get back only, say $200-million on our first foray, that too can buy a lot of buses.

 

 

Timeless David Gunn quotes about the TTC bus fleet

One of the Orion 7s, a huge improvement over the Orion 6s, hitches a ride to the shop.

One of the Orion 7s, a huge improvement over the Orion 6s, hitches a ride to the shop.

When David Gunn ran the TTC in the 1990s, he stood up to city politicians on the commission and cabinet members at Queen’s Park and extricated us from a deal to buy 600 locally made Orion 6 low-floor buses. He chose instead to rebuild old General Motors New Looks, including vehicles Montreal had scrapped.

Here are some of his thoughts about that deal from a 2011 interview.

“The Orion 6 was total junk, and Queen’s Park was telling me we had to buy 600 of them. Some commissioners were telling me I had no business standing up to Queen’s Park because the province was footing the bill. It was nuts. The politicians were determined we would have low-floor buses. Fine, but they weren’t considering the cost.”

Gunn got the Orion 6 order cut back to 50, and the vehicles arrived in 1998.

“Even 50 of these lemons were a burden on the system. Can you imagine if we’d been forced to take 600? They lived in the repair shop and all were scrapped by 2006. Meanwhile 38 of the reliable rebuilt GMs — rebuilt at a fraction of the price and all more than 28 years old — remain in service. What does that tell you?

“If we’d bought those 600 Orion 6s, it would have brought the TTC to its knees. There was huge political pressure to buy them, but the technology wasn’t ready. They weren’t road-tested. They were a disaster.

“The low-floors also carry 15-per-cent less passengers than the GMs. That meant you would’ve needed 15-per-cent more buses and operators – and an extra bus garage – without a cent in new revenue … just to carry the same number of passengers.

I’m all for low-floor vehicles, but you have to consider the cost. Even the more reliable Orion 7s cost the TTC far more to run than the old GMs.”

We might also add, that the extra bus operating costs were dumped on the TTC right about the time that the province pulled out fully from its funding promises.

The Death and Life of a Great Canadian Street

Danforth and Woodbine, looking west on Sept. 16, 2014, 98 year and 51 weeks after the photo below right, Woodbine and Danforth has changed plenty. And after about 60 years in decline, the area is getting new investment and is clearly on the way back.

Danforth and Woodbine, looking west on Sept. 16, 2014, 98 years and 51 weeks after the photo below right. After about 60 years in decline, the area and this intersection are getting new investment and they are clearly on the way back.

Urbanist Jane Jacobs may never have written about the East Danforth, but after a few long walks on a Toronto strip that was in decline for much of the latter 20th century, she developed firm views on what is needed for revitalization.

Danforth and Woodbine looking west, Sept. 22, 1915, with the new streetcar tracks and actual paving. (City of Toronto Archives photo)

Danforth and Woodbine looking west, Sept. 22, 1915, with the new streetcar tracks and actual paving. (City of Toronto Archives photo)

By STEPHEN WICKENS

When the writing wasn’t going smoothly, Jane Jacobs would take a long walk. During one stretch of gorgeous fall weather in the early 1980s, with writer’s block delaying progress on Cities and The Wealth of Nations, the renowned author of books on urbanism, economics and ethics visited the Danforth “three or four times … the whole strip from Broadview to Victoria Park,” with several detours to the nearby rail corridor and the surrounding streets.

She never wrote about the Danforth jaunts but she spoke with me about the area in 2004 and 2005, while I was both writing occasional Toronto features for The Globe and Mail, and working with people attempting to start a neighbourhood group (prior to the eventual and very successful establishment of the Danforth East Community Association).

Watercolour of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

Watercolour of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

Though she was nearly 90, Jacobs’s memory was excellent. I was raised in the east end and live in the immediate area. I walk a lot, too. She visited a few times – decades earlier – yet what she said helped open my eyes.

In one discussion, she bristled and became quite animated when I mentioned the usual received wisdom, that the East Danforth’s decline in the second half of the 20th century was likely a result of transportation changes, most notably the replacement of streetcar service with the Bloor-Danforth subway in 1966 to Woodbine, and 1968 farther east.

It is an enduring theory, given legs within weeks of the subway’s opening as media latched onto attempts by the area’s “business men’s association” and locals to restore some form of street-based local transit, either streetcars or buses, that would run parallel to the subway using existing, frequently spaced stops. The group produced a 15,000-signature petition (huge numbers for a small area in the pre-social media days), but it fell on deaf ears at the Toronto Transit Commission.

Jacobs said far too much weight had been given to the arrival of the subway, and called it a ‘lazy man’s theory.’ She agreed that underground subway stations – spaced much farther apart than the old streetcar stops – sped the processes that were sucking life off the street (better planning for second station entrances could have alleviated some of the problem in her view). But she argued that commercial strips of blue-collar neighbourhoods had gone into similar declines during the same era, “all over Toronto, the continent, even the planet – and almost none of these other strips would have had new subways.”

The larger transportation-related factors in her view were that car ownership was soaring in the post-World War II era, and that people were suddenly traveling farther to shop – to malls and bigger stores where parking was easier. People also became increasingly less likely to leave home on foot, and whole neighbourhoods and cities suffered as a result.

“Transportation matters to the discussion, to be sure,” she said. “But if you’re serious about revitalizing this street, you’ll focus on broader changes to the overall local economy, and you’ll look for adjustments to form that will naturally attract pedestrians.”

Among the things that first struck Jacobs on her walks, especially east of Pape where the nature of the street changes suddenly and considerably, was the complete lack of Victorian or Edwardian buildings. She also found a sudden increase in the length of the blocks (see No. 2 in her seminal list of conditions for generating diversity).

——————————————————————————————————–Jane Jacobs’s four conditions to generate diversity, from the The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Page 150:

  1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.  These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.  This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there.  This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

——————————————————————————————————-

She advised me to compare the block lengths east and west of Pape on a map. “Better still, walk and time them if you have the opportunity,” she said.

It turns out that most blocks on both the north and south sides of Danforth west of Pape, the much livelier Greektown neighbourhood, can be walked in a minute or less. Many to the east take two minutes or more. When we touched on this in a subsequent discussion she said I would probably remember for the rest of my life that blocks in the liveliest places in cities around the world will tend to be well under two minutes in length at my pace (try this yourself, no matter where in the world you live).

But Condition No. 1 on her list, The East Danforth’s mix of primary uses, would in her view matter most to people puzzling over how to reinvigorate the area (the emphasis on the word primary was hers).  She felt strongly that if redevelopments merely added residential condos with retail on the ground floor, we wouldn’t be adding the type of real and effective mixed use that could have a major regenerative effect on the strip.  We might merely be adding to the number of empty stores, was her view.

Jacobs suggested I go to the Central Reference Library and use city directories and old maps as an introduction to the timeline of Danforth East’s development. Correctly, as it turned out, she told me to expect that the area was first developed largely in the 1920s, a point she said meant this was in fact a hybrid, not the pure streetcar suburb that some academics would label it. Private cars would have been a factor from the beginning, even if the area had still developed largely around a main street on which streetcars arrived in 1915. She told me to look for evidence the area developed with a significant amount of employment, mostly industrial and most of it likely focused on the rail corridor to the south.

Prior to the area’s initial development, but well into the 20th century, lands on both sides of the East Danforth were largely operating as market gardens, providing fresh produce to the nearby city. Farming operations got larger farther north, toward the Taylor Creek valley, with several dairy operations in what was the Township of (and later the Borough of) East York, amalgamated into Toronto in 1998. Most of the area immediately north of Danforth had been Church of England reserves, known as the Glebe (and usually leased to farmers). South of the Danforth (east of Greenwood and over to the town of East Toronto at Main Street, was known as Upper Midway, part of the Midway area annexed to the city in 1909. It was very rural compared with the main parts of Midway, south of the tracks, and appears as a virtual blank on maps as late as 1907.

Jacobs asked me to come up with a plausible explanation for the delay in development until after World War I, especially since areas farther from established Toronto had developed sooner, around the Grand Trunk/Canadian National station and yards at Main Street. I’m open to arguments, but it seems probable that the biggest delaying factor was that five creeks crossed the Danforth (a.k.a. The Second Concession and later The King’s Highway No. 5). The railway tracks had also established themselves as a barrier (and though they had brought the Town of East Toronto to life, the corridor barrier itself would increasingly become a drag on the area in the later 20th century, especially as it got closer to the Danforth heading east and as industry moved out to the suburbs).

Though the Danforth (originally the Don and Danforth Plank Road) had opened in 1851, the imposition of a concession grid, forced the street to follow a predetermined straight line, despite ravines and marshy areas that would not have been apparent in the kingdom’s Colonial Office in the 1790s. The Danforth was a nightmare to maintain (a job left largely to the farmers who used it and paid tolls, a source of protests and legal disputes). The rickety wooden bridges often got washed out. And even when they weren’t, travelers to the city still had to get to down to Queen, Gerrard or Winchester streets to cross the Don Valley.

Rickety wooden bridges on the east Danforth often washed out in storms. City of Toronto Archives photo

Rickety wooden bridges on the east Danforth often washed out in storms. City of Toronto Archives photo

Even though streetcar service and proper paving came to the East Danforth in 1915, development didn’t happen until the housing shortage after the Great War and the opening of the Prince Edward Viaduct in 1919. Something that held up residential development in the immediate Coxwell-Danforth area was a stench from the Harris abattoir and rendering plant, which was eventually driven away in the early 1920s (even though this is a clear instance where employment and residential don’t ideally work in close proximity, the Harris plant did attract a small enclave of kit housing).

In the city directories, Jacobs suggested I look for trends related to the stores: Aside from the fact that many store owners lived upstairs from their businesses, the most stunning thing was the lack of turnover. Vacancies were listed when buildings were new in the 1920s, but were almost non-existent again until the late 1950s. There was also very little turnover among businesses through the Great Depression, 1940s and early ’50s, indicating a healthy local economy despite great challenges facing the macro-economies. Even when Woolworth moved from east of Woodbine to snuggle up next to department store rival Kresge in 1942, the displaced shops found ways to stick around, some at Woolworth’s old site.

The variety of shops, especially close to Woodbine was remarkable. Though supermarkets in the 1950s were much smaller with limited offerings, there were nine of the Loblaws, A&P and Dominion variety from Greenwood to just east of Woodbine), as well as butchers, bakers and produce shops. There were also many clothing stores. The three movie theatres would have contributed to sidewalk life in the evenings.

These were all things Jacobs expected me to find, and she said it was important to note that the turnover and vacancies started appearing well before any subway construction began, even if that’s when locals started to really pay attention to the strip’s decline. Some feared the subway would bring over-development, yet the opposite happened.

There is also a strong likelihood that plans for an extension of the Gardiner Expressway into Scarborough, through the neighbourhoods straddling the railway tracks, hung over the local real estate market in the 1960s and ’70s. Hundreds of homes were to be expropriated for the interchange at Woodbine, not far south of the Danforth.

The Ford of Canada main assembly plant became Shopper's World mall after the company moved operations to Oakville. The loss of jobs and the shift of stores from the street were "a double whammy" for the neighbourhood.

The main Ford of Canada assembly plant became Shopper’s World mall after the company moved operations to Oakville. The loss of jobs and the shift of stores from the street were “a double whammy” for the neighbourhood. PHOTO COURTESY FORD OF CANADA

Another thing Jacobs wanted me to look at was industry and employment, not so much on the Danforth itself, though it’s worth noting that Canada Bread had its main Toronto plant just east of Greenwood (and the folks at the Linsmore Tavern said the plant workers kept them very busy on breaks and shift changes). Ford of Canada, before moving to Oakville in the 1950s, had its main operations at what, in 1962, became the Shopper’s World Mall, west of Victoria Park, right by the eastern loop of the streetcar line on a small strip where East York actually reached the Danforth.

Jacobs called the loss of that employment and the fact that some Danforth stores moved to the mall in the early 1960s a “double whammy” for the strip. Car dealerships and the TTC streetcar barns at Coxwell (now only partly used, and mostly as parking for subway staff) also brought lots of workers to the neighbourhood, where they would patronize local shops and restaurants. Along the rail corridor, less than a half-kilometre to the south, were major industrial enterprises, including a John Wood plant, the largest source of hot water tanks in Canada from the 1920s on. Service Station Supply was an assembly plant for gas pumps and hydraulic lifts. There were many light industrial operations as well as quarries and brickyards on either side of Greenwood.  Major suppliers of coal, lumber and other building materials were located all along the tracks from Greenwood to east of Main, as were CNR shops and freight yards.

Jacobs wanted us to see that, while many preferred to drive the noise and trucks that increasingly accompanied industry out of our neighbourhood, the shift to an overwhelmingly residential area undercut many facets of the local economy, including the shops and restaurants on the Danforth. The loss of industry meant the rail corridor bordering the southern parts of the neighbourhood shifted from attracting much economic activity to the East Danforth to being a barrier and a drag on the area.

In pure residential terms, the neighbourhood actually got denser because housing was built on former industrial land, but the mix of primary uses – usually residential and employment, with a few specialty shops or large theatres that can draw people from other parts of town – was getting badly depleted.

“Residential density itself won’t be enough of an answer if you really want to create or recreate a vibrant neighbourhood,” she said, adding that residential density by itself, especially if it becomes high-rise, high-density could be a big problem if we don’t pay attention to all the generators of diversity.

On that count, she said the options are limited. There might be small gains to be had by breaking up the long blocks, but the new passageways or streets would almost certainly never penetrate more than a block or two into the surrounding neighbourhoods. Creating a deep inventory of buildings of different ages is a long-term organic process; the key would be to ensure that the 1915 TTC barns and much of the 1920s ones remain (likely not a problem with the fragmented ownership and often shallow lots). Density increases, especially right on the Danforth would be helpful, but we might need less than many think, especially if employment is included. “There’s opportunity in bringing employment to sites at the subway stations,” she said (and she agreed that the TTC lands and some north-side parking at Coxwell and the Valumart parking lot at Woodbine are probably our only significant options for bringing mid-rise office buildings into the local mix).

The five-acre TTC lands at Danforth and Coxwell were used as a bus garage when Jane Jacobs studied the strip. These days much of the site is used, ironically, to provide free parking to transit workers.

The five-acre TTC lands at Coxwell were used as a bus garage when Jane Jacobs studied the strip. These days much of the site is used, ironically, to provide free parking to transit workers.

She added that we were lucky to be approaching things at this time (she was speaking in 2004) because much of the GTA’s employment gains are likely to be in office work, and that even just a few mid-rise office buildings near the stations might bring enough workers to help “rebalance the local economy.”

Though she died in early 2006, Jacobs lived long enough to see a resurgence of life  downtown when usage restrictions were lifted on “The Kings,” and when a new wave of residential development was able to complement the dense employment zones, allowing secondary-use shops and services to come back in the core. She saw it as encouraging.

Returning employment to the Danforth area could, in her view, have a similar effect by getting more people out on the sidewalks for different reasons at different times of the day, helping lots of small shops and restaurants to “get over the hump … it often takes just a handful of extra customers a day to make a difference in small-scale retail.”

“You won’t get industry again, and few would tolerate it, but office work and some new residential density right on the Danforth could be great for the city and your area.” She felt the Avenues focus in the city’s Official Plan could be life-giving for the East Danforth.

She also noted that the Danforth has spare subway capacity in what transportation people call the ‘contra-flow,’ – half-full trains going in the opposite direction of the main rush-hour crowds. She called that “untapped potential.” She remembered surface parking near the subway stations and called it  “a waste of potential.”

“This may come as a surprise to you,” she said, “but part of the area’s empty-store problem is that there’s too much retail space for the current size and makeup of the local economy. Most of that retail is going to be secondary-use stuff.”

It’s almost certain that she would have been a huge supporter of DECA’s pop-up shop program. She also said: “Vacant storefronts certainly feed vicious cycles of decline, but if you’re smart, long-term, you’ll view them as mere symptoms of bigger problems.”

Anyway, it’s a gorgeous September day and signs of new life have been popping up on the East Danforth for nearly a decade now. Even though the writer’s block isn’t necessarily holding me back, I think I’ll go for a walk.

————————————————————————————————-

Stephen Wickens is a journalist and a board member of Danforth East Community Association. Much of the material gathered from talks with Jane Jacobs (directly and indirectly) forms the basis of an annual Jane’s Walk, ‘The Death and Life of Upper Midway.’

 

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.

.

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.