Archives for posts with tag: jane jacobs

20140731-Ontario-Place

Kathleen Wynne, the Premier of Ontario, keeps promising that a revived Ontario Place will not include any condos.

That probably provokes  many-a-sigh of relief to those Torontonians who are tired of the constant construction delays, obnoxious ad campaigns, homogenous design, and iffy quality of overpriced downtown condos.

Ontario Place, a theme park opened in 1971, has been largely unused since 2012, when its amusement park closed. Only a concert venue, an event space and its marina remain in operation. The site, including its iconic geodesic dome, takes up a large portion of Toronto’s waterfront.

I think it’s a lost opportunity to not include any residences in a re-invented Ontario Place. The vastness of the site leaves room for high density, mid-rise development, while maintaining large portions of open, publicly accessible park land.

A newly developed Ontario Place that is purely parkland risks becoming dangerous space at times when it is not populated. As we’ve learned with Jane Jacobs’ eyes-on-the-street philosophy, when there is no one around taking ownership of a space, it becomes harder to defend its positive uses.

Also, not including any residential units in Ontario Place is a lost opportunity to build much needed affordable housing, that is central and well connected.

As a commenter on BlogTO puts it:

Now I am not a condoist. Nor a condophobe. But has nobody learned anything from Jane Jacob’s?

Let me see if I have this right…. we’re going to build a prettier park in what was essentially a not pretty park and magically it will have life and people and interaction?

It’s not like it is High Park or Beaches, etc which are surrounded by residential – this thing is surrounded by the CNE and a busy road. Some residential nearby to the east but to the north it is walled off by CNE and train tracks and any residential access to the west is pretty far away.

So there was no money for Ontario place and since there will be no real development there will be no new money from anywhere other than govt for this. So what we will end up with is a $100m pretty park with crap access by public transit (not too many families gonna lug the cooler all the way from CNE streetcar across Lakeshore) and no residential embedded within. Basically we’ll end up with a $100m unused park.

Would it not make more sense to allow some moderate mixed use development which would accomplish a few goals: integrate residential, generate development income, generate real mixed-use, potentially have critical mass to justify some public transit?

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Retail podium

Depending on your politics, there is much to gripe about when discussing condo development in Toronto. Some qualms are knee-jerk reactions to a lifestyle of hyper-consumerism not cared for. Other criticisms are directed toward the financing of the buildings — reported to be fuelled by international real-estate investors that care little about the quality of a condo’s building materials or its contribution to the city. 

I think one of the greatest failures of recent condo development in Toronto is the homogeneity of retail podiums that seem to be planted at the bottom of every new construction. About a decade ago developers finally got the memo from post-Jane Jacobs planners that mixed-used development makes good city. Retail at street grade, residential above ensures that the messiness of city commerce enlivens a streetscape, creates spaces for social interaction, and fosters citizen surveillance and propriety over city space. 

Retail podiums are certainly a good feature, when done right. Something, however, has gone terribly wrong. The square footage of space provided by retail spaces at street level in new condos is typically so huge that only Shoppers Drug Mart, TD Bank and Starbucks are the only retailers wealthy enough to afford the rent. In the very technical bylaws that now require retail at street level, a bit of urban magic has been lost. The guidelines do not specify minimum or maximum square footage, so in the interest of efficiencies and obtaining reliable tenants, major corporations and banks are the go-to to fill the (very) large retail square feet vacuum. 

There are a number of reasons why this isn’t a great situation. First, it creates a suburban kind of inner-city monotony, where the same landscape constantly repeats itself. The store fronts are so large and corporately sanitized that walking by them feels drawn out, bland and boring — not conducive to the messy, fine grained rhythm of constantly punctuated, organically grown urban space. Second, it doesn’t allow small businesses to thrive. Small businesses ensure localized economic benefits, plus spill-over benefits such as entrepreneurs that care about, and thus contribute to, their neighbourhoods.  

I am always genuinely peeved to see a perfectly fine condo building tarnished by retail that’s too big for anything but Shoppers Drug Mart. That’s why my heart skipped a beat when I saw that “Bari’s Fine Food” had just been opened in the podium of 530 St Clair West at Bathurst (that is, re-opened — it apparently occupied the building that was demolished to make way for the new condominium). Bari’s is a local business, feels unique and at home in its location and is a welcome contrast to the TD Bank and Starbucks that share the condo’s podium further east. 

While the  phenomenon of retail at street level in new condominiums is a welcome step in making good city, it would be all the better if the bylaws went the extra step to assure space is made for small businesses. This would accomplish the above-mentioned goals of increasing local propriety of city space, investing in local economies, and achieving a fine grain of vertically articulated urban space — Imagine a city of sparkling new condo towers, with messy, niche, and unexpected store fronts animating the street and contributing to the city with their hard work — and what a pleasure it would be to walk by.