Author

Shawn Topp

Browsing

Can Toronto afford NOT to build Rail Deck Park?

Last month, Toronto Mayor John Tory unveiled grand plans for the Rail Deck Park – an ambitious proposal to cover the rail lines between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way with an urban park. Indeed, this is a bold, optimistic vision for Toronto.

And yet, we must not look past the ugly truths of economics. This is a project with funding requirements pegged in the billion-dollar range. Simply put, it’s a massive undertaking, especially with the sort of thirst for transit, housing, and waterfront development this city has demonstrated. Mix that with our city’s fiscal perspective generally being a short one, there’s no telling whether or not council will approve the cost. The real question, however, is whether we can afford not to build it? Rail Deck Park represents the most audacious boon to the future of our city, quite possibly, in its history. Think about it. We’re talking about 21 acres of real estate smack dab in the middle of one of the city’s busiest, densest, and most sought-after neighbourhoods. It touches the Rogers Centre and the CN Tower, all the while covering up an unfortunate smudge of an eyesore.

We’ve all heard the comparisons to Chicago’s Millennium Park, New York’s Central Park, and Hudson Rail Yards. This is the sort of thing that happens in big, grown-up cities – the types of places we so desperately aspire to be compared to. Toronto itches for the recognition as a “Global City.” We are consistently ranked near the top for livability, safety, cleanliness, opportunity, and overall quality of life. And yet, we just can’t seem to compete with the likes of the New York’s, the Chicago’s, and the London’s of the world. Of course, our history is much younger, and we’ll most likely never be on equal footing with New York or London, but that’s okay. We are a city trying to figure out who we are, living through our awkward teenage years with feet too big for our body. We’re trying so hard not to trip over ourselves that we so often miss what’s going on around us.

Although our history may not be as rich as our contemporaries, our future has not yet been written. And if we want that future to be a bright one, where the world finally takes notice of us, a future where we finally grow into ourselves, a future where we cease to trip over our own feet, well, it’s visions like Rail Deck Park that help us get there.

Building the park may cost a lot today, but not building it will almost certainly cost us far more tomorrow.

Let’s use Section 37 funding for what it’s meant for

It’s not everyday that a city councillor gets the opportunity to stand beside the mayor while he announces a project with the potential to change the face of our city forever. Joe Cressy, City Councillor for Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, is most recently known for his collaborative announcement with Toronto Mayor John Tory for the Rail Deck Park. I wrote about this idea in February and in 2014. It’s fantastic to not only see progress, but to know that the city is actually listening to those of us advocating for better services and improvements in city projects and policies.

High-profile appearances aside, Councillor Cressy has been working diligently to leverage Section 37 funds for several community improvement projects such as art, affordable housing, and community safety. Section 37 of the planning act allows for community benefit programs to be developed in exchange for changes to zoning regulations. If the owner of a property wants to build something that does not comply with regulations (like height for example), they may provide community benefits in cash or amenities in exchange for approval. The specific benefits are negotiated by city planning staff with local councillors in the area where the development is happening. While the agreements are approved by city council, the use of funds are generally controlled by the local councillor whose ward the project is taking place within.

A recent initiative with Block 22, Concord City Place’s upcoming development of two large towers at Spadina and Bremner, proposes the use of public art to cover the full length of the buildings, with funding from Section 37. The funds that Councillor Cressy is seeking would also be used to add lighting to the pedestrian bridge that presently spans the rail tracks, connecting City Place to Front Street. This latter component provides a much needed improvement for safety at night, especially for women walking alone.

The hope, of course, is that art projects like the one at Block 22, remain public-focused from conception to execution, instead of trivial attempts by a developer to appease the city with a half-hearted attempt at integrating “art” into yet another set of massive glass condos. It takes the efforts of councillors like Joe Cressy to ensure the public’s interests are not only kept at the forefront, but that the outcome is one of authenticity when they can so easily fall into the trappings of appeasement.

The unfortunate shame of Liberty Village

The towering condos loom ominously over the brick factories, converted warehouses, and swarms of young professionals who have descended upon the area known as Liberty Village. It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon and the sidewalks are busy; 20-and 30-somethings scurry about with grocery bags in hand, coffee cups in clenched fists, and sweat dripping painfully into their eyes.

No one seems to notice how absurd the area has become.

What could have been a showcase neighbourhood for the city, a place to proudly demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, forward-thinking design, and a beautiful juxtaposition between old and new, has instead become a laughing stock, courtesy of an over-built, under-designed cash grab for developers. We are left with a wall of condos, each one more spectacular in their hideousness than the next, the lack of beauty the only real cohesion between them.

Why does this happen? Why is there no governing body to ensure neighbourhoods have at least some semblance of uniformity and complimentary appeal? Liberty Village looks like a dumping ground for the reject designs no one else wanted — like each condo was built as quickly and cheaply as possible with a malicious lack of thoughtfulness.

It really is such a shame. So, what then, would I, an unqualified citizen with a ranting opinion have done differently? What alternative, un-apocalyptic state would I have preferred for Liberty Village?

I’m glad you asked.

Firstly, I would want a municipal committee in place to oversee special projects. These projects would include new neighbourhoods that are being built where a rich selection of heritage buildings exist. The mix of new and old can be a beautiful thing – if approached with patience, empathy, and vision.

Secondly, each project within the neighbourhood should not be viewed in a silo, at least from a design and function perspective. Part of the committee’s duty would be to develop an overall vision for the area to guide all new developments, land plots, and the type of mix required between retail, residential, and commercial. Forward-thinking designers, city planners, and architects would be amongst those involved to ensure that a beautiful vision is also a realistic one. Look to other cities who take a more advanced process towards urban design (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tokyo, to name a few).

Lastly, with guidelines in place, the process for developer selection would be a scrutinized approach to ensure they fit – both from a functional and a cultural perspective.

Of course there are other factors that come into play – the economics of it, the push back from private landowners and developers who feel their liberties were being trampled on, my lawyer friends who’d tell me I’m crazy, etc. But you know what? If it’s crazy to prefer a city that values good design, understands the benefits of thoughtful neighbourhoods, and would rather be proud than ashamed of new areas, then so be it.

The world of tomorrow, today

A former professional life brought me to New York City every couple of weeks. Routinely flying into LaGaurdia Airport in Queens, (no, this article is not about the horrendous state of the terminal Air Canada is located in) I was afforded a wonderful view of the New York World’s Fair location as we approached the runway. The skeleton globe, the monolithic structures, and the tree-lined paths remain an iconic reminder of a time when the world would gather with pilgrimage fashion to be awe-struck by the grand possibilities of the future.

During its heyday, the fair held a sense of wonder and aspiration for its visitors. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, in 1893 the world was introduced to the Ferris Wheel in Chicago, and in 1939, broadcast television was inaugurated in New York. Expo ’67 held in Montreal left the city with iconic architecture and, for a time, a Major League Baseball team named after it. Themes such as “The World of Tomorrow”, “Dawn of a New Day”, and “Peace Through Understanding” captivated the world with the promise of unimaginable spectacle. But today, with the proliferation of the Internet, there is less need for the Expo. Our present inundation of information about new technologies, new designs, theories, advances, and plans for the future are readily available in an endless stream of images, articles, tweets, websites, and data.

Today our pilgrimage has been reduced to a drooling stare into an LCD screen. And so, I wonder whether there is still value for cities to host the World’s Fair?

Held every five years, the World’s Fair (or World’s Expo as it’s also known) is a six-month long showcase of trade, innovation, and products from around the world. The Expo was held in Milan last year and the next one will be hosted by Dubai in 2020. Lately, and most likely in part because of the success of the Pan-Am Games, there have been rumblings about Toronto bidding on the 2025 World Expo. It is a chance to once again showcase our city on the world stage while continuing to push our mandate as a place rich in innovation, financial stability, and livability.

But still, is it worth the cost? Toronto Mayor John Tory, while not opposed to the idea, has intelligently taken a cautious approach; there are many unanswered questions related to cost and effort – questions that must be ironed out before any sort of decision is made.

Now, cost and effort aside, the other question that must considered revolves around theme. What grand proposition will be used to inspire the world to once again care about the World’s Fair? How are we going to put our stamp on an event that’s become largely irrelevant? How can we harken back to a time when the world of tomorrow was not so easily available through a few clicks? And most importantly, how do we balance the need for commercial capital without an overly branded marketing experience for the companies that foot the bill?

Here are a few areas of inspiration that may help:

  • Apple and Tesla Product Launch Format: the ability to keep new product designs and details under wraps from the media, while driving excitement and anticipation, is the fuel that powers both company’s marketing-driven sales. If the Expo could showcase things that were truly ground-breaking with a hotly-anticipated reveal, it would certainly help drive buzz.
  • Influencer Participation: gathering the best of the best in all fields to not just showcase their ideas, products, and plans, but to buy-in to the World’s Fair concept will help spread the word by association. If the most influential people in their fields participate, the rest will follow.
  • Integrated Projects: gather experts and leaders from a variety of industries to create conceptual works that fit into their unique visions of the future. Don’t worry about feasibility, worry only about inspiring people’s imaginations.
  • What Happens After: when the Expo is complete, what will be left? What types of architecture will remain permanently that future generations will look at with awe and wonder. Let’s build something that lasts.

Regardless of whether or not we bid on the Expo, the process of discussion should provide a valuable template for how we aim to push Toronto into the future as it relates to innovation. The notion of the world of tomorrow is still very much alive today.

Renewable vanity is the future

As Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX took the stage at the recent Model 3 unveiling, the world watched what many people claimed to be Tesla and Mr. Musk’s defining moment. They’d been building towards that moment since their inception; a relatively affordable, fully electric car that appeals to the masses. And they did not disappoint. The Model 3, like all of Tesla’s vehicles, appears beautiful and sleek, while promising to go far and fast on a single charge.

Musk, perhaps better than anyone, understands what it takes to get us to a future without the burning of fossil fuels and into the brave new world of sustainable transportation: people like nice things. That is a fact and not necessarily one we should stick our noses up at; it’s just the way we are. And Musk knows it: to have any chance at all of transforming an industry, a mindset and an utterly unsustainable addiction to fossil fuels, we need to appeal to the vanity that’s so innately baked into human nature.

This line of thinking should extend into all areas of renewable tech. The design process should encompass not just the visual appeal of things, but the function and usability as well. Tesla’s cars, while beautiful, are just as much about the entire experience. From handling to speed to software updates that help drivers avoid the costly regular maintenance found in traditional dealership models, they offer consumers the first real end-to-end all-electric experience that is actually exciting.

It’s as much an exercise in branding, communications, and marketing strategy as it is about the vehicles. They present themselves with all the appeal of a luxury car maker with the added benefit of sustainability. In fact, unlike other electric cars which sacrifice certain benefits such as speed and power, Tesla positions themselves as a contemporary to traditional luxury brands like Porsche, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.

For other renewable energy sources to find success they must learn from Tesla’s approach. While the heart of any sustainable product needs to centre around its technology and environmental benefits, it still needs to appeal to consumers. And as they know, that appeal must drive straight into the heart of people’s vanity.

Here are a two other renewable products doing just that:

  • Solar Shingles: These shingles combine thin-film PV (photovoltaic, i.e. solar panels) cells with modules based on flexible CIGS (Copper Indium/Gallium di-Selenide) technology. Dow Solar’s version is designed to integrate inline with composition asphalt shingles, laminated architectural shingles, concrete and clay tile, cedar shake, polymer and traditional slate. Instead of attaching the shingles to a thermoplastic base with messy adhesives, Dow’s version features a mechanical interlock system to link the shingle-modules to each other. The system not only lowers installation costs, but also makes it easier to repair or replace a damaged module while integrating in a more visually appealing way to the over design of a home. Say goodbye to those traditional clunky solar panels.
  • Trinity Wind Turbine: this portable turbine converts into a three-blade, horizontal type wind turbine that comes in four sizes – the Trinity 50, 400, 1000 and 2500. These are basically larger versions with increasing size and levels of power generation, and which also convert from horizontal to vertical axis turbines. The Trinity 50, costing around $400, provides 50-watt generation and is only twelve inches high when folded. The minimum speed for the Trinity to work is 4 mph (6.5 km/h). Once speeds reach 25 mph (40 km/h), the turbine can be converted to the vertical setting. The Trinity also comes with a smartphone app, which allow users to monitor the battery level, turn the blades on or off, see how much electricity is being generated as well as the historical data of wind and energy generated. How cool it would be to have a wind turbine you can carry with one hand.

What do you think? Is vanity the key to a successful renewable energy technology? Let us know in the comments below!