Choice REIT’s plan for Woodbine and Danforth needs to go back to the drawing board

The following is an as-brief-as-possible note on BA Group’s “urban transportation considerations” report, prepared for Choice Properties REIT and pertaining to the development proposal for 985 Woodbine Avenue. It’s dated dated February 27, 2019, and available as part of the supporting documentation at http://app.toronto.ca/DevelopmentApplications/associatedApplicationsList.do?action=init&folderRsn=4533699&isCofASearch=false&isTlabSearch=false

Some of the inaccuracies I point out are trivial, but there’s enough of them to convince me that the sloppiness with regard to basic facts is in keeping with the main impression I’ve received: that the report’s handling of the local transportation context, particularly regarding public transit, is lazy and dangerously superficial 

BASIC ERRORS OF FACT:

Page 1: That 985 Woodbine is “in the northeast quadrant of Woodbine Avenue / Danforth Avenue in the East York district of the City of Toronto.” Close but no cigar. Properties on the north side of Strathmore Blvd. are in old East York, but the site in question is in the old city of Toronto. 

Page 1: That the bus routes feeding Woodbine station are high-frequency routes. The TTC has 47 high-frequency service routes (10 minutes or better) and none of the three routes serving Woodbine makes the list. The error is repeated on Pages 6 and 28. Here’s the TTC link for reference: https://www.ttc.ca/News/2015/June/0615_10min-service.jsp 

Page 2: The proposed development would comprise retail uses and 402 residential units (rental). All the other source documentation indicates that only 14 of the 402 residential units will be rental.

Page 8: On point 15 under vehicle parking, the numbers don’t add up; the implication being that 300+40+60=360, rather than 400.

Page 15: The report says the posted speed limit on Woodbine is 50 km/h; there is no posted speed limit since the signs were removed when the street was modified for bike lanes in the fall of 2017.

Page 15: The report states that the posted speed limits for all four of Woodmount Ave., East Lynn Ave., Coleridge Ave., and Patricia Ave. are 40 km/h. In fact, they are all 30 km/h.

Page 16: A minor quibble, but it is Kennedy Road, not Kenney. And it’s tough to characterize the SRT as the “Scarborough Subway line.”

Page 17: The 92 Woodbine South bus operates at 12-minute headways, not 10.

Figure 3 map: Omits Amroth Ave., which is significant for this particular proposal in that Amroth is directly across Danforth from where the mid-block entrance to the development would be required under the official plan amendment that the developer is appealing. (The developer would actually benefit from the mid-block break and should let planners and architects trump the short-term concerns of Choice REIT’s accountants in this one.)

Figure 4 map: The claim that it’s a five-minute walk from Main Street station is at best exaggeration, but wrong for the vast majority of the population. I’ve walked it several times and, at my brisk pace and it comes in usually around 8.5 minutes. The TTC calls it 10 minutes and even has it as 10 minutes on its sign at Main Street station (see photo).

Page 28: The claim that 985 Woodbine is within 800 metres of the Danforth GO station is also wrong. It’s 1.1 kilometres, or about 900 as a crow flies. 

Page 29: Quibble, I know, but Aldridge Avenue is misspelled.

QUESTIONABLE CLAIMS:

Page 1 and repeated on Pages 6, 17 and 22 : “The site is very well served by higher order transit service.” This was once very much the case, and the subway service is usually quite good outside of the peak periods, especially if you don’t have to change trains at Bloor-Yonge or St. George stations. Alas, this is a neighbourhood filled with people who endured bidding wars or paid extra for a house close to the subway, only to realize there is often no room on the trains in the morning. Without a Relief Line in operation, large numbers of would-be transit users have given up on the Bloor-Danforth, almost certainly in large part because of crowding and reliability issues. According to the TTC’s station usage reports, a.m. peak-hour ridership from Woodbine is down 51.7% since the mid-1970s and 23.1% since the mid-1980s (the file is a massive PDF, but I can forward to individuals who want it). There is spare a.m.-peak capacity, but it’s on eastbound trains. Also, the fact that the Danforth GO station is an 8.5- to 10-minute walk from a subway station one stop to the east (with an extra fare required) is a largely irrelevant transit attribute. There’s very little connection between the TTC’s Main station and GO’s Danforth as is, and for people living a subway station further west there will be virtually none, especially in the a.m. peak when GO trains are jammed, too.

Page 1: Mid page there is a reference to 985 Woodbine being within a mixed-use area. Well, sort of. It used to be an area with a healthy mix of primary uses prior to de-industrialization after World War 2. Within the 800-metre extended pedestrian catchment area of the station, the mix ratio is overwhelmingly residential to jobs, 88:12, and most of the non-residential is secondary use, ie uses that don’t draw people from other parts of town or keep people from leaving the area in the a.m. peak. Unbalanced mixes of primary use make it harder for shops and restaurants to make it as they have to do too much of their business in more limited time periods (the area could use a lunchtime crowd).

Page 8: Point 13 under TDM (transit-demand management) … We’re told the plan “will encourage transit use”? What capacity? Which direction? What times of day? Will it really facilitate reduced car ownership and usage? While not every unit will have a parking spot, the number of spots is being increased considerably, from 149 to 264.

Page 13: Point 55 correctly states the site represents an opportunity for development with a high rate of transit usage, but that is probably not the case for   an overwhelmingly residential development. There is opportunity in the significant spare subway capacity in the a.m. rush, but it’s on the eastbound trains, outbound from the core. If this is to be a development that seizes the opportunity, it would be one with significant levels of employment or, office or institutional maybe, or possibly an education facility. And regular daily visitors to the neighbourhood for daytime hours is what the local economy needs, too. 

Page 17: The various TTC surface routes mentioned are serving as feeders to a subway system with peak-hour capacity troubles. They’re of little relevance to the site unless it becomes a destination for uses other than residential. The GO lines mentioned are not going to be much of an attraction as Danforth GO is not easily accessed (despite claims in this report) and because TTC transfers are no good on GO, even for trips that begin and end in Toronto.

Page 21: Car share is touted as a useful service, rightfully, but if it is so good, why the 33% reduction in the number of car-share spots from the current nine.

Page 23: The claim that the development “will serve to reduce the traffic related impact,” is a stretch. It might not increase the traffic-related impact.

Page 24: The references to planned transit improvements overstate the potential. GO Regional Express Rail (rebranded by the new provincial government as GO Expansion) and SmartTrack might be an attraction to people living within a couple of 100 metres of Danforth station, but it largely missed an opportunity to alleviate transit crowding in east Toronto by ignoring the potential of a station at Coxwell (which scanned better than most of the approved RER and SmartTrack stations). The downtown relief line is crucial to addressing the overloaded subway system, but as many in the area like to point out, it doesn’t come far enough east. All the “To” stations east of Pape, excluding the terminal at Kennedy, have been steadily losing ridership in recent decades, almost certainly because of crowding, and the situation is likely to get worse when the Bloor-Danforth line is extended deeper into Scarborough. And the reference to help from the Eglinton Crosstown makes no sense, at least until the Relief Line (or Ontario Line) gets to Eglinton.

Page 27: The transportation-demand-management argument as presented here ignores the elephant in the room: This site is served by a subway line that has huge spare capacity in the a.m. peak period, but it’s all on the eastbound trains. If the developer and its advisers were serious about the stated goal to “Encourage the use of alternate travel modes (transit, cycling and walking), it would be focusing its residential offerings to seniors or downsizing retired boomers, or putting up office buildings on the site. Without adequate transit-capacity supply inbound in the a.m. peak, we probably don’t want more people at Woodbine and Danforth on the origin end of the trip pairings. And, if there’s not enough of a market for office space at this location from the private sector, the public sector could be helping by relocating workers from costly market office spaces where leases are expiring. The other goals listed — increasing vehicle occupancy, shifting to off-peak periods and reducing VKT — are all good, but likely to be of little help. (Nearly all of the subway’s ridership growth in recent decades has been off-peak because the system is capacity constrained to the point of unreliability and general unpleasantness in the rush hours).

Page 27: Under organizational framework, “Enhance Pedestrian Access and Walkability” … again a fine goal, but the developer and its advisers are fighting a requirement that the long block from Woodbine to Cedarvale be broken up. It might not be the most egregious case of a pedestrian-unfriendly block length in the general area, but it’s still as much as twice as long as the lengths recommended by Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl and the Smart Growth Network’s Reid Ewing. 

Page 28: Again we get reference to “mixed use,” without an apparent realization that it’s the primary-mixed use that the neighbourhood needs, and which the infrastructure can support. Grocery and other retail stores will be almost exclusively secondary-mixed uses, a segment that always underperforms in the absence of a rich primary mix.

Page 28: Aside from the aforementioned erroneous claims under transit use, it seems the advice being given the developer is to add to the crowding in the overused transit flows and ignore the opportunity in the underutilized services. 

The flawed thesis:

The repeated assertions that the generally low use of transit within the neighbourhood “largely reflect the prevalence of low-rise, single family dwellings” seem to overlook the fact that this is a fairly dense neighbourhood, with lots of people who moved here hoping to use the subway, before deciding it’s too crowded.

At 18,291 people and jobs within the 800-metre radius that Metrolinx uses for its standard station-catchment zones, this area is already 83% more dense than Metrolinx’s 2031 goal of 10,000 for its Mobility Hubs. It’s already denser than two-thirds of the current mobility hubs. The area probably can take considerably more residential density — once a relief line/Ontario Line is open as far as Eglinton and once better connections to GO and SmartTrack are in place. But even then, with a serious shortage of sites near the subway stations that can accommodate office uses to help address the neighbourhood’s badly unbalanced mix of primary uses, it would seem both local residents and the city as a whole have strong reasons to be pushing for a better mix of uses on the 985 Woodbine site. The argument that people are driving to work from the Woodbine-Danforth neighbourhood because they might have the ability to park a car at their homes is far less compelling than the one that they’ve fled transit because of crowding.

A quick suggestion:

Page 28: The idea of a pre-loaded Presto card is a good one, but maybe condo buyers might want the choice of a credit worked out with a local bike shop instead.