Downtown revitalization and selling off parking lots

My hope for Barrie is to be a complete community, not a bedroom community – what a clever person on Twitter called “a living room rather than a bedroom”.

To do that we need more jobs in Barrie, we need more services in Barrie (eg. trades schools, university), and we need prosperous and safe neighbourhoods.

We don’t often think of downtown Barrie as a neighbourhood, but we should.  Residential development is key to downtown becoming safer and more prosperous; it means there are more customers for downtown shops and restaurants, and more eyes on the street at night, more residents with a commitment to seeing the area well-maintained and protected.  That’s part of the reason the City is interested in seeing some of it’s downtown parking lots redeveloped, which is the subject of a staff report on tomorrow night’s Council agenda.

Two years ago in our downtown, there were some 25 vacant storefronts on Dunlop Street downtown.  Today there are only 7.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that during the same period, we’ve seen both new public facilities now bringing people downtown (Mady Centre) and new apartments going up (33/37 Ellen Street, Maple Tower, Collier Centre).

Building an office building or a condo on a parking lot doesn’t necessarily mean losing parking spaces.  The Collier Centre, currently being built on the former IGA and City parking lot across from City hall, will have public underground parking replacing the spaces lost on the surface.  But as the staff report makes clear, downtown parking lots are only 53% used at the peak time ie. the busiest period.  Most of the time it’s less than that.  So while we’ll definitely want to retain parking spaces in strategic parts of the downtown, we’re clearly not short on parking overall.  And the staff report proposes to sell off only about 10% of the overall supply.

If these properties can be redeveloped, they can bring thousands of residents or new office workers into our core.  That would make a big difference on a whole number of fronts – safety, economic activity, social cohesion (as above), and fiscally.  These parking lots today basically just cover their costs; redevelopment generates tax revenues and development charges that can help pay for other improvements downtown and around Barrie.

All of this said – one of these lots contains a very, very important heritage building, the Mulcaster Armouries.  Council spent about $250,000 restoring this building in 2009 to allow it to be used as a museum (currently Grey and Simcoe Foresters).  Anything that happens with that site must maintain that building.  We need to be open to new ideas as we revitalize our downtown – but never lose our history, either.

Gridlock – why should we care?

Last week, Metrolinx released it’s list of potential ways to fund improvements to the GTA’s highway and transit network, to try and reduce the gridlock that has made greater Toronto one of the worst cities in North America to try to get around.   So why should we in Barrie care about gridlock?

Well, for one, there are something in the order of 30,000 residents of Barrie that commute to Greater Toronto to work.  These folks (I was once one of them) are losing thousands of hours of their lives every year to congestion – time that could have been spent with their families, on recreation, or in the community.  As one small example, it’s a lot harder to find soccer and baseball coaches when a significant chunk of our population can’t get home before 7pm due to traffic.

An even larger impact is economic.  While this may be less obvious, gridlock is a huge drag on our economy.  It’s costing us jobs, because companies can’t get their materials or their goods in and out of our region, and spend far more in terms of time and fuel to do so.  Employees are caught in traffic, reducing productivity.  And of course, the environmental costs are substantial as well.

The solution sounds simple – add capacity to move more people and goods.  But of course, the costs of new highways and new transit lines is enormous, especially in established urban areas where land has to be acquired for new corridors.  In practice, the costs make this  nearly impossible.

So reducing gridlock needs to be about using existing corridors better.  Anyone who commutes down Highway 400 in the morning from Barrie to greater Toronto knows that there are pinch-points, particularly at major interchanges like 401/400.  To some extent, additional lanes can help.  But we also need to make transit a realistic alternative for more people.  GO Transit today carries nearly 1,000 people a day from Barrie to jobs in the GTA, but almost all of these are in downtown Toronto or nearby, since the GO system is really only designed to serve one destination, Union Station.  As one example, if Barrie riders could take a GO train to Highway 7, then switch to light rail along Highway 7, they could access jobs in Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Markham, and near Pearson Airport in Mississauga – which by the way is the largest concentration of jobs in Ontario (bigger than downtown Toronto).

Now this is not to say I think that’s a good thing – I want the jobs in Barrie, and my view is Barrie needs to be a complete community where fewer people have to commute.  But the pattern of jobs and employment will only change slowly over time, and in the meantime, I think we need to face the reality that people from all over southern Ontario are spending far, far longer than they need to be, commuting.

The fact is, however, we are not going to see the investment needed to address gridlock without some sort of new revenue tools.  Both the Federal and  Provincial governments are  deep in deficit.  Municipalities are struggling already with the ever-expanding burdens on them today.  The money will have to come from somewhere.

Expecting it all to come from motorists through tolls, or from everyone through taxes, is not going to be popular, and it can’t be the only part of the solution.  People are taxed enough: while some may accept voluntary charges such as tolls for HOV lanes, there is unlikely to be any degree of support for something like tolls on existing highways, nor do I think that’s the way to go.   I think there are better ways.

Development charges or (better) land value capture through Tax-Increment Financing or other new tools needs to be part of the solution.  I for one think the Toronto parking levy – a charge on each parking space in Toronto – is a good idea.   It is transparent in the sense that it’s directly related to the proposed expenditures (transit/roads).  A Toronto region-only luxury sales tax such as a hotel tax or on high-end vehicles may be another part of the solution.  Local sales taxes are common in the US, although since this would likely only apply in greater Toronto, it might just drive people to shop in satellite cities like Barrie (!) – an interesting possible side effect.

Regardless of where this ends up I think it’s long past time to stop talking, come up with a plan, and start building the road and especially rapid transit that greater Toronto needs to get out of gridlock.