Parking – Red Herrings, Real Issues, and your money

First of all – happy new year.  How on earth did it get to be 2014 already.

Lots of talk about the City’s parking budget recently.  Just before Christmas, Council approved the first rate increase for downtown parking since 2006, an additional $0.25 per hour.  This was in part just to keep up with inflation in costs, since some costs, such as electricity, have gone up dramatically over that period.  But the bigger issue is that even with this increase the City’s parking budget has about a $600,000 deficit, which if it is not covered by additional revenues, has to be covered by the taxpayer.  This is driving City staff and Council, rightly, to look for a solution.

However, look a little deeper into those numbers.  In 2011, the City’s parking fund generated about $1.3M in revenue, and had $1.2M in costs.  In fact, on an operational level, the City’s parking operations are self-sustaining.  With the rate increase, it will actually be net positive on an operational basis.

The fiscal problem is that the are debt costs for the downtown parkade are also sitting in the parking budget, to the tune of $964,000.   That’s what is causing the parking fund to run at a considerable deficit.

The debt for the Collier Parking garage is 15 year debt, which will be paid off completely in 2024.   At that time, the Parking budget will of course dramatically improve.   So the issue is plugging this hole over the next ten years.  It’s therefore a bit of a red herring to say that the fund is “unsustainable” – the current practice is unsustainable, but the real problem here is a cash flow issue for the next ten years, caused by a single large annual debt payment.   By and large, all other elements of the parking budget are in good shape.

With a daytime rate increase having already been approved, there are some who see the only option for Council to be to extend parking hours into the evening.  There are good reasons for that particular move – for example, why should only daytime customers of downtown businesses have to pay to park, and evening customers get a free ride?  Shouldn’t restaurant or bar patrons be charged just the same as patrons of retail stores or daytime offices?

The counter argument to that one goes like this – there are also a LOT of evening parking users who are coming to the downtown for special events, charitable organizations, et cetera.   Seems harsh to ask a volunteer from Out of the Cold to pay for parking, particularly if it’s for an 8-hour shift.   Also, very few other municipalities charge until 11 at night – Councillor Ward calls it “uncharted territory” and he’s not wrong.  Most charge until 6pm, a few until 8pm.  All of this said, I do agree with Councillor Brassard’s views on this, there is a basic inequity between daytime customers and evening customers right now that makes little sense.   Side note – John is doing great work in the background on this issue, he is meeting with the downtown merchants (BIA) tomorrow, and will chair the Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday next week where we address this issue.

Anyway – I think there are also some other options for Council and I continue to beat the drum about #1 below!

1.  Charge Visitors for Waterfront Parking – the 2012 study estimated that by giving all Barrie residents a pass for free parking on the waterfront, and just charging out of town visitors, would generate a net of approximately $400,000 in revenue.  I have been in favour of this for some years.  While I would like to see our residents continue to park for free at the waterfront parks that were built with their tax dollars, I think we have hundreds of thousands of visitors per year who would reasonably expect to pay to park, especially given virtually all other municipalities charge for this (Innisfil, Oro, Wasaga Beach, and others).  With all our special events, this is a good opportunity to raise revenue.

2.  Sell parking lots for redevelopment, if it replaces the parking – Parking lots downtown are a great redevelopment opportunity and can raise revenue through sale of land, development charges, and tax revenues.   Developers can be asked to replace all the lost public parking as part of their redevelopment, as is happening with Mady’s Collier Centre project across from City Hall.  I blogged about that previously, click here if you want to read more. This could generate considerable revenue, but it’s hard to count on it because the timing of land sales is difficult to forecast.  It would not be unreasonable, however, to assume this could generate $2-3M over the next 10 years, even with a relatively slow pace of redevelopment.  This would take the 10 year shortfall of about $6m due to the debt and reduce it to $3-4M.

3.  Make some smaller, money-losing lots, seasonal use only.  While overall the parking operation breaks even net of debt, there are some lots that don’t see enough activity to cover the costs of maintaining them.  This may seem an oddity, but think of the snowploughing and lighting costs alone associated with a parking lot.   Some lots could be closed in the winter, especially the smaller ones near the waterfront.  There are probably $50,000 and maybe $100,000 annually in savings from this that are possible without hugely reducing the parking supply.

4.  Get a little more inventive about parking pass sales.  Annual parking revenues from pass sales are about $350,000 per year.  Even a 20% increase in pass sales would bring in another $70,000 per year, although there could be an offsetting loss to some extent as people who pay cash convert to passes.  One approach could be to market parking passes to property owners who do not have enough off-street parking at their downtown properties.

5.  Deal with this for what it is – a cash flow issue.  This may sound strange, but the fact is that the parking fund is sustainable and perhaps this is being made out to be a little bit more of a problem than it is.  Hypothetically, for example, if Council was to take a few of these steps to putting us on a sustainable fiscal path, with land sales making the difference between a small deficit and a small reserve contribution every year until 2024, there public would continue to see good service and we would not need to dramatically drive up rates, paid hours, or expanding paid parking.

At a minimum, however, Council probably needs to take one more major step – either paid waterfront parking for visitors, or evening parking charges, to get us over the cash flow crunch of the next 10 years, and prevent homeowners around the city from having to subsidize downtown parking.

Comments as always are welcome.

What is Barrie doing about Affordable Housing

We have a housing problem in Barrie, and it’s not overstating it to call it a crisis.  This post is about a few of the steps we are taking to help, but some context is important first.

The waitlist for affordable housing in Simcoe County is about 2,700 households, roughly one-third of whom are from Barrie (click here to read the County’s 2012 centralized waitlist report).

The rental vacancy rate in Barrie in 2012 was 2.7%, and was actually zero for three bedroom units, important for families.  Average rents are just under $1,000.  The net effect of this, I believe, is driving some of the increase in food bank usage and other demands for assistance, even as unemployment in Barrie drops and the number of people on Ontario Works (welfare) drops as well.  Low wages and the rise in temporary work is also probably a factor.

Now, I’m someone who looks first at whether there’s something not working in the housing market.  There are a lot of reasons for the low rental vacancy rate in Barrie, both on the demand side and the supply side.  I think part of the problem is that we are not seeing a lot of rental housing created.  There are many reasons for this as well – NIMBY, restrictive planning policies, regulations (mostly provincial) that scare aware landlords, the popularity of condominium apartments, and others.

So what is Barrie doing?  Not enough, but we are taking some steps:

1.  Investing More in Expanding Housing – This year, the City will contribute $1.8m more toward Simcoe County’s social housing than last year, to help fund the construction of a new seniors-oriented affordable housing project on Brooks Street.  This will provide 54 new units for seniors living on low income.


2. Supportive Tax Changes – I blogged about this earlier in the year, here.  Barrie is equalizing its tax ratios so multi-residential properties pay the same tax rate as single residential (generally multi-res properties are rental apartments; condos are “single residential” rather than multi).

3. More Supportive Planning Policies  – to support the construction of more townhouse and apartment units, the City has designated areas of the city for higher densities.  To date, many of these projects have been high-end condos.  However we are now starting to see a broader mix of built forms and a range of target prices.  The increased supply can only help with keeping rents reasonable.  There’s a report coming to Barrie Council early in 2014 on other steps than can be taken to ensure a broader range of housing choices are available.

4. Supporting the Pathways Project – in 2011, Councillors Prowse and Nuttall brought a motion to Council to support the concept of a new social services hub.  This has taken shape in the form of the proposed “Pathways” project, which is an alliance of some 23 non-profits, charities, and social service agencies, dedicated to co-ordinating efforts in support of reducing homelessness.  The City dedicated a staff member to this project, and the proceeds of my Big Roof Fest concert in January of 2013 were partly put towards this initiative.

Despite these steps, more clearly needs to be done.  Fortunately there’s a plan – Simcoe County has a new 10-year Affordable Housing and Homelessness Prevention Strategy.  It’s a plan to build 2,600 more units over the next ten years around the County, about three times the number of units built in the last ten years.

However, local government is not going to be able to solve this problem alone, not without a major effort by all three levels of government, and both the federal and provincial governments show no signs of making affordable housing a focus for the foreseeable future.  All levels of government will need to commit to this issue if homelessness and affordable housing are to be meaningfully addressed, and in the past both the Federal Government (through CMHC) and the Provincial Government (through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing) have played a much larger role in ensuring a reasonable supply of affordable housing.  Barrie and Simcoe County need them to commit to a shared effort to address our housing problem.

Last – if you’re wondering if there is a financial case for making this investment, consider these numbers, which I’ve taken from page 28 of the County Affordable Housing Strategy:

$49.5 Billion – the amount of money that Canadian taxpayers spent between 1994 and 2004 to fund
emergency services to manage homelessness. Homelessness continued to increase
across the country
$4.5 Billion – $6 Billion – a conservative estimate of the annual cost of homelessness in 2007 for the provision
of emergency service to manage homelessness in Canada. Homelessness continued
to increase.
$66,000 – $120,000 – the annual cost of institutional responses (health and/or corrections) per homeless
person that uses a lot of services.
$13,000 – $18,000 – the annual cost of emergency shelters per person.
$1,268,479 – total cost of emergency and community based shelters in Simcoe County in 2012

A Plan to Fix More of What We’ve Got…and Grow Smarter

Last week, Council gave initial approval to a development strategy that will guide the way Barrie grows for the next 20 years. By 2031, Barrie will be home to 210,000 people and 101,000 jobs.  This plan, years in the making, includes six infrastructure master plans for the whole city, plus a new financing strategy to pay what seems like a dauntingly large number:  $3.1 billion in infrastructure over 20 years.

This plan is fundamentally different from the last plan, in the 80s, when almost all growth was on the edges of the city. This is a plan where nearly half of the growth is within the existing urban area, and much of the infrastructure investment is also within the existing city.

As Councillor Brassard put it, we’re essentially building two cities the size of Orillia—one within Barrie’s old borders and the other in the former Innisfil land. This is a huge undertaking for our City, and one that carries a significant cost—which brings me back to the 3 Billion dollars.

In terms of annual spending, 3.1 Bn over 20 years is about $155 million a year. These costs are not just for the cost of growth, but also to fix our existing infrastructure. The $155-million annual price of the strategy will cover capital expenditures, which include $90 million for growth and $65 million for infrastructure renewal (road reconstruction, replacing water and sewer pipes, etc.).  Our current annual city capital budgets are in the $130-million range, of which $30-$35 million is infrastructure renewal. So this plan doubles what is spent on infrastructure renewal, will help us to do a lot more of what our residents want—fix aging roads, pipes, sidewalks, and buildings.

It’s no surprise that growth comes with a cost, but I don’t believe that our existing residents should have to pay for it, and the certainly doesn’t have the fiscal capacity to do it. This is why we will be asking the development community to make an extra contribution.  It is asking a lot of developers, but it’s the only way it’s going to get done. What we’re asking is not unprecedented, but it is new for Barrie and is the right thing to do.

To be clear:  developers already pay a lot.  In fact, they pay most of the costs of growth.  They also – especially many members of the Barrie Homebuilder’s – do incredible charitable work in our community and are pillars of our community.  Ultimately, higher City charges are passed on to new homebuyers, who will see homes get more expensive as a result of higher city fees.  But without them, the City would need to either borrow money, or bring in very high tax increases, to fund the infrastructure.  Both of those actions will also drive up the cost of home ownership.

So we will also need the federal and provincial governments support. Over the next 10 years, Barrie will hopefully be successful in securing senior government support, including drawing on the new $70 Billion dollar Federal infrastructure plan, which we will be pursuing in the coming months.

This plan has been three years in the making, and to this point, the development community and the City have worked collaboratively, very well together.  That needs to continue, to get the land use, infrastructure, and financing plans across the finish line.  That will be good for the economy, good for business, and good for the taxpayer.

Our City was once again given a stable rating from Standard and Poor this year, and we intend on maintaining it—regardless of growth. We will grow and develop while paying down our debt. In 2031, Barrie will be a City of 210,000 people who all have access to safe drinking water, a clean and healthy environment, walkable neighbourhoods, connected communities and convenient access to transit with manageable debt and tax levels. I think we have a very good plan—one that provides us with a roadmap for growth and how we will afford it over the next 20 years. It requires creativity and support from our development community and governments, but it is definitely achievable and will ensure smart and sustainable growth for the future of our great City.

For more on the plans for growth, click here.

Rethinking Garbage

Garbage – it’s personal; we all create it and that’s why the City needs to rethink waste.   Not just for today, but for the future of our community.

In January 2011, Barrie began work on a Sustainable Waste Management Strategy and action plans for responsible changes to our waste collection, diversion and disposal systems over the next 20 years.  The new changes to curbside collection being considered by Council are not only financially responsible, it is environmentally responsible and needs to be part of our long term sustainable growth.

So here’s why we did it.  More than 70% of our garbage should actually be going in our green, blue, or grey bin.  We just aren’t using our recycling and organics bins to the extent we should – only 45% of our waste is diverted, 55% still ends up in our landfill.  Because of that, we’re running out of landfill space. Run out of landfill space, and we will have to truck our garbage to Michigan at enormous cost to all of us.

Biweekly pickup increases waste diversion by 10% which will extend the life of the landfill and save all of us big time down the road. Blue, grey, green bins will still be picked up weekly and you’d be surprised how much of what you throw out today can actually go in one of those bins. Short version: this is an unpopular decision, we know it will be unpopular, but Council made it because its the right thing to do for us and for our kids.

It’s about rethinking waste and what we do with it each week.  Garbage is for waste that cannot be composted or recycled. Recycling is for mixed household containers/packaging and paper products.  The Green Bin (organics) is for food scraps, food soiled paper and meat, bone and dairy products.

It might appear to be easier to put everything in a black garbage bag, but with unlimited access to recycling and the green bin every week, and new items being added to the program, you will actually have less waste around your home every week; which also means less waste in our landfill.  What garbage you are unable to recycle or put in the green bin can be placed at the curb every other week beginning January 2015.

How you can rethink waste:

–      Unlimited recycling and organics every week; plus new items are being added to the program, such as film plastic, including plastic bags and empty paint and aerosol cans. These new items can be added as of April 2014

–      Two bags of garbage every other week beginning January 5, 2015.

–      Put food scraps, food soiled paper in the green bin which will be picked up curbside every week.

–      Residents are able to put out an unlimited amount recycling boxes and green bins.


I know a lot of people aren’t going to like this change.  It saves all of us $400,000 per year, but that’s not why we did it.  We did this because if we don’t do it, we’re all going to be paying for it in the long run.  And it’s far better for the environment than what we are doing today.

I’d like to think that this Council has the guts to make an unpopular decision when we know it’s the right thing to do.  I think this is one of those situations.  Comments welcome as always!


Tax information and city spending

Had a few requests through Twitter for information on Barrie’s property tax levels compared to other cities.   Here’s a link to a study of all Ontario municipalities that compares tax rates – pages 212 and 219 are probably the most relevant for those wishing to compare how much homeowners pay in property tax in Barrie compared to other cities, but to save you the trouble, here are the key numbers.  Barrie’s taxes are below average compared to other medium size cities in Ontario.


For an average detached bungalow (smaller home):

Barrie annual property taxes: $3,033

Survey average (27 cities over 100,000 population): $3,378

Survey average (all 79 cities): $2,995

For an average executive home (larger home):

Barrie annual property taxes: $4,996

Survey average (27 cities over 100,000 population): $5,931

Survey average (all 79 cities): $5,659



Here’s a recent letter to the editor I wrote regarding City spending and taxes:

When staff recently reported cost pressures that could lead to a 5.8% tax increase in the 2014 budget, Council supported my motion to reduce that to 2%, along with six specific actions I have laid out to cut spending.

New capital spending this year was reduced by more than 50% from 2012, and refocused on the repair projects that are needed most in our City.  Council has also cut debt and deferred projects, and as a result, our independent auditors recently reported that the City’s 2012 net debt is $11M less than forecast.

On salaries – Barrie’s new collective agreement with its police personnel is being held up across Ontario as an example of the restraint needed in the public sector today, by ending the banking of sick days.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Barrie City Council is taking a two-year pay freeze, and all of Barrie’s senior staff voluntarily froze their own pay – the only city anywhere I’m aware of that has done that.

Frozen executive and political salaries.  Ending bankable sick days.  Capital spending reduced, and refocused on critical renewal work.  Forecast debt reduced.  This Council is (finally!) making the tough decisions needed to cut costs. 


Here’s an email I recently wrote to a resident about taxes:

I am very aware of the impact of tax increases – of bill increases of all sorts! – on those with fixed incomes.  I’ve spent the better part of seven years now, every year, making cuts to the budget to limit them, out of my awareness of how hard it is for some to afford those increases.

Although we have had tax increases every year in Barrie since 2001, in fact, we have been able to limit these to between 2.3 and 3.3% for the last seven years.  As you may have read in the newspaper, I recently moved a motion at Council to target 2% flat for this year.

While 0% would be nice, of course, the City pays for the same cost increases as everyone else out there – you should see what our gas bill is like, let alone our power bill.  So without at least a small increase, every year, we will have to cut services to some extent.  We are always on the lookout for efficiencies or waste that can be cut, but this rarely totals in the millions of dollars (a 1% tax increase is about $2million in revenue).  We also have a lot of roads and pipes to maintain, and for too many years, these have been left to rot.  We’re trying to do at least a little more on this front.

Now with growth in the City, you would expect that the City’s revenues would go up.  That’s true, but unfortunately, so do costs!  With all those new homes comes new roads to plough and maintain, new pipes to maintain, new parks to maintain, and demand for more police, fire, etc.  We do what we can to reduce these costs, and in particular, to change how we grow so we’re not sprawling so much on the edges of the city, which is the most expensive form of growth.

The City must constantly work to reform the way we deliver services if we are to keep up with growing demands.  But to ensure we were delivering services as efficiently as possible, in 2011, I asked for reviews of 6 City departments who’s metrics were not performing in terms of cost for service or revenues. These reviews have resulted in a net $2M in fiscal benefit (mostly cost reductions).  But the work will need to continue.

One other thing.  When I was a Councillor, I convinced Council to start a program where anyone over 65 can defer their tax increases until they sell their homes.  This is not something everyone wants to do, but it does mean that no senior ever need be taxed out of their home in Barrie.

You may or may not agree with the above but I hope it at least explains my position – which is the city should not have 0% increases, as these are irresponsible, but should do everything it can to limit tax increases to about the rate of inflation (2 to 3% most years, lower right now).

Paying for the Costs of Growth

Three years ago, following the growth of Barrie’s boundaries, the Council of the day established a principle that “growth should pay for growth”.  With existing Ontario legislation – that’s easier said than done.

In fact, paying for the costs of growth is one of the biggest challenges Barrie has had for decades.  Right now Council is facing this challenge again.  It’s my view that today’s taxpayers should not have to shoulder the costs of growth.

Last week at Development Services Committee there was an update on the plans for growth in Barrie.  First off, growth over the coming years will be fundamentally different than in the past.  Nearly half of new population, and more than half of new jobs, will be housed within the existing urban area through better use of vacant lands and intensification.

This typically has it’s own fiscal benefits, for obvious reasons.  Where existing roads and pipes can handle more development, no new infrastructure need be built (although if existing pipes and roads have to be expanded – that can be very expensive.  Where you intensify is therefore hugely important).

With regards to the new lands, costs for all the infrastructure needed for growth were presented to Committee.  This includes (among others) highway interchanges, expanded arterial roads, community centres, the network of water and sewer pipes, and some some proposed service level improvements for things like additional bike lanes and transit service.

Of course, in addition to growth-related costs, Barrie City Council is committed to doing to more to fix what we’ve already got.  So in addition to growth, add to these costs the substantially larger amounts needed for rehabilitation of existing infrastructure (asset management), such as resurfacing roads and repairing pipes, buildings, and equipment that is at or past the end of it’s useful life.  Add it up and the total costs are substantial.  Highway interchange costs alone were very high, as one example.

Over the past few months, the growth planning team has been working to reduce these costs through a variety of measures – addressing essential needs first, and spreading out costs where possible, while still building the infrastructure we need when we need it.

The short version is a revised scenario would see an annual capital plan of $127M – although the plan is heavier in the first ten years as that is when more of the growth-related infrastructure needs to be built ($140M annually is the forecast for 2012-2021).   This includes water and wastewater capital plans.  Although this may seem like a massive number – it’s worth keeping in mind that Barrie had an annual capital budget of about $100M for many years, until the current Council reduced spending substantially as part of fiscal austerity.

I’ve been working on the numbers as I would like to see this Council adopt a fiscal plan for growth that does not put any of the costs of growth on our current taxpayers, or incurs any long term debt.  This is a stretch goal, but I believe it is achievable.  Here’s what it could look like:

As reported to Development Services, the reduced cost scenario at the moment is:

  • Growth related costs at about $72M per year.
  • Asset management (fixing what we’ve got) costs at about $55M per year.

There could be some shifting between these two categories but this is a reasonable ballpark).  Very roughly, about two-thirds of growth-related costs are eligible for development charges.  In my opinion this should be higher, but there are a series of limits in the Development Charges Act that limit the calculation of DC eligible costs, and some growth related costs are deemed to also have benefits to existing residents.  As a rough number, however, we might expect $48M a year from DCs, ultimately.  This leaves a balance of $24M annually to fund growth-related costs that has to come from elsewhere.

In addition, ALL asset management work must be funded from the tax base or from other sources.  At an additional spend of $55M per year, that’s a total of $79M – call it $80M for argument’s sake – that has to come from sources other than DC’s.

One approach to funding this could be as follows:

  • Transfer from reserves – average $35M annually
  • Powerstream dividends – $6M annually
  • Federal gas tax funding – $11M annually
  • Federal/Provincial grants – $10M annually
  • Water/Wastewater funds – $18M annually

Total – $80M

A few notes on this:

–       Transfer from reserves will need to continue to increase at $1.5M annually for 20 years, from roughly $20M today to $50M by 2031.  This will need to be accommodated in the operating budget, however, the Provincial upload is producing more than this annually in savings – assuming the uploads continue.  It’s my opinion that we need to do more work on a “pay as you go” basis and ultimately we need to the City to be able to fund more asset management work – roads, pipes, building repairs, etc.  This will take 20 years to get to a level of $50M/year.

–       Fed gas tax – the Federal government has recently indexed the gas tax and provided a calculation of future revenues.  We receive about $8.5M today but this will rise to $12.5M by 2031.

–       Fed/Prov Grants – this is admittedly a “finger in the air” amount.  But $10M a year would be less than what we have received annually in recent years, even after the stimulus period.  The Federal government has recently announced a new $53 billion infrastructure program over the next ten years – which on a per capita basis would translate into more than $200M for Barrie (or $20M per year!).  So $10M is probably a safe estimate, given that there is also Provincial funding that will be certainly be available for growth-related costs such as highway interchanges.

–       Water/Wastewater – this would be $6M annually from water and $12M annually from WW, which is an increase, but achievable without substantial pressures on rates, given substantial additional DC funding is also expected within the water and wastewater budgets.


The capital numbers and development charge numbers are still in flux.  Much may change as the numbers are finalized over the coming weeks.  However, I wanted to provide you my views on how we will be able to address the substantial costs of growth without impacting current residents and taxpayers.  As always, comments welcome.

Supporting Affordable Housing

A little noticed but important milestone was reached in Barrie back on April 29th.  Council approved the 2013 tax ratios.  Now, this is  a topic that could put even the most dedicated municipal watcher to sleep.  But buried in the six decimal points of the tax categories was an accomplishment many years in the making.

For decades, Barrie has had a higher tax rate for multi-residential buildings than for all other residents buildings.  To be honest I am not sure why that was the case, but I suspect back in the day there was some notion that apartments required more services than single detached residential development, or perhaps it was an attempt to put a higher tax on “luxury” apartments.  But that’s not how things turned out, because with the arrival of condominium developments (some of which are very high value), most apartment buildings ended up being taxed at the “other” residential rate – the only buildings left in the multi-residential class were rental apartments.  This is where most affordable housing units (market and subsidized) were classified.   So affordable housing providers were paying more tax than all other kids of residential development.

Realizing this several years ago, Barrie set out to slowly lower the multi-res tax ratio so that it would be the same as all other residential development.  This took several years, but on April 29th of this year, Council approved a 1 to 1 ratio – finishing the process of removing this barrier to affordable housing.

It may not sound like much.  And certainly, there’s a lot more that needs to be done to help lower the massive waiting lists for supportive housing in our area.  But it’s something, and for someone thinking of building an affordable housing rental building, it’s a big deal.  The difference is many thousands of dollars a year, which (one hopes) will translate to at least a little relief on rent, making rental housing a little more affordable, and possibly encouraging a little more development of new rental units.

This is not something I would cheer to the rafters – Barrie is late to this , many other cities our size have already done this (although Toronto’s multi-res rate is sky-high compared to all other residential).  But these unnoticed little steps can make a big difference.  I hope this one will.

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.

The Beautiful Home

This is the kind of story that makes this community such an incredible place.

A Barrie couple, Tim and Rhonda Kent, wanted to do something to assist women and their families with transitional housing in Barrie, a huge need.  They took a VERY run-down historic home in Barrie and have transformed it into housing units for women trying to get back on their feet after leaving abusive relationships.  Aside from helping fill such an important need in the community, this project took on a life of it’s own as they used their network of friends and supporting organizations to donate time, labour, and materials to make the project a reality.  The result is incredible, as you can see on their website (link below).

This project happened without any organization pushing them, without a program or a government grant – they just went and did it.

Reason #467,931 why I love this town!  Please give this a look and consider giving them your support.

Click here to visit their website.

« Previous PageNext Page »