Hume: Planning chair eyes Etobicoke’s urban future

Sun Jan 09 2011

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By Christopher HumeUrban Issues, Architecture

So far, Etobicoke’s great gift to the city has been Rob Ford. But that could change.

If councillor and newly appointed planning committee chair Peter Milczyn (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) gets his way, whole swaths of the former borough will be transformed in the decades ahead to a denser, more urban, transit-based, model.

“The idea is to urbanize those parts of Etobicoke that need to be urbanized,” Milczyn explains. “I want to create opportunities for people to live near the subway and places for people to gather. The hope is to give people a sense of community and a sense of place.”

In answer to the only question that matters today — who will pay? — the councillor, and trained architect, proposes to sell city-owned land, but not before it has been pre-zoned and pre-approved for the kind of urban-scale growth appropriate in the 21st century.

As Milczyn points out, the city holds the deeds to a number of sites in Etobicoke, including the Westwood Theatre Lands and the Etobicoke Civic Complex. They range from 4.5 to almost 15 acres, enough to make a difference, and set a new course.

It won’t be easy; just unravelling the mess that is Six Points, better known as Spaghetti Junction, will be a major feat. How it got built remains one of the great mysteries of modern traffic engineering. The great unanswered question is, What were they thinking?

That may never be clear, but Milczyn insists that the whole interchange will be remade in a more rational manner. The environmental assessment has already been completed. The land freed up, all city-owned, will be sold for development.

Another site, a dreary triangular parcel on the northwest corner of Bloor and Islington, has already been the subject of a city-sponsored report. Today, it’s the location of the Islington subway station and several parking lots. Planners envision a row of three towers running along Bloor, the tallest at Islington. The rebuilding would also feature a more generous pedestrian precinct, something noticeable in Etobicoke for its absence.

“I harbour no resentment about what we do downtown,” Milczyn says. “It’s the heart of the city. But we need to do the same for the rest of the city, Scarborough and North York as well as Etobicoke. The problem is that planning in the suburbs tends to be more piecemeal. If there’s land to develop, it should be developed well. But to get developers to move off their formula is difficult; they’re so successful.”

Already, a design review panel has been created to pass a critical eye over proposed projects. “The development industry balked originally,” Milczyn reports, “but it has come to appreciate the panel. It has had a huge impact; and it costs almost nothing. It’s more about the smart use of what we have than huge outlays of public money.”

That may be, but what developers have done so far doesn’t inspire confidence. Mistakes have been made and opportunities squandered that will determine the look of Etobicoke for decades to come.

But as Milczyn notes, “We’re still dealing with the first wave of development; cities go through five or six waves.”

Already there are stretches of, say, Dundas St. W. where a smarter and more urban future has started to appear. Squint a little and you’d swear you were in a city, rather than the unresolved, even contradictory, accumulation of malls, towers, subdivisions and highways that characterizes the suburbs.

Still, it’s refreshing to hear the city’s planning chair talking about Etobicoke in such ambitious terms. He even suggests getting superstar architect Frank Gehry involved. Stranger things have happened — even here.

______________________

Mon Jan 07 2008

Jim Byerscity hall bureau

If the late Jane Jacobs had nightmares, they looked like this.

Standing in the parking lot of the old Westwood Theatre at Kipling and Bloor, you see a couple of small storefronts in a mostly deserted building. Off to your left is an abandoned dump where the city used to empty its trucks of filthy, salty snow. Behind you is the Six Points interchange, a nightmarish series of ramps and roads that twist and turn and confuse even long-time west-end residents. Giant stretches of vacant land sit forlornly between the ramps, serving mostly as collection spots for coffee cups and fast-food wrappers and other urban detritus.

It’s going to take a few years, but Toronto council this month endorsed a massive plan that calls for an entire new downtown focus in this long-neglected corner of the city.

Called the West District Design Initiative, the scheme features three major components.

The Six Points ramps and bridges – known as the “spaghetti junction” – would be reconfigured into a pedestrian-friendly intersection that gives better access to the Westwood Theatre lands and provides the chance for new development on a traditional grid-like road system. A new YMCA would be built and parkland added.

Raggedy bus bays at Bloor and Islington would be dragged down to create space for new development that gives the area more of a traditional urban look. Mississauga Transit’s terminal would be pushed west to Kipling and the area will given a new, polished look with added trees, better paving materials, improved lighting and new street furniture.

The old Etobicoke Civic Centre at Burnhamthorpe Rd. and Highway 427, which is now surrounded by acres of grey parking lots, would be redeveloped; likely with both office and residential buildings with a higher density than now exists. A new civic centre would be built along Bloor, probably near the Kipling station.

“We’re looking at all three properties together to see how we can move things around and make some money and get some assessment growth,” said Toronto councillor Peter Milczyn, who helped push for the changes. “We want to knit these various pieces together. We’re looking at everything from roads to subway stations to bus terminals to recreational facilities, as well as parks and residential, retail and office space.”

North York has its downtown, although it’s hardly what some imagined. Scarborough has something of a central focus. Downtown Toronto has been given a facelift at Yonge and Dundas. But Etobicoke has sat quietly on the sidelines, waiting its turn.

“It’s something I wanted to do when I was in Etobicoke prior to amalgamation,” said Toronto councillor and former Etobicoke mayor Doug Holyday. “We’ve wanted to do something for a long time but it’s always been just out of reach.

“We built Dundas Square in downtown Toronto at considerable cost. But there hasn’t been much thought given to Etobicoke.”

“Etobicoke has never had a central focus,” Milczyn said as he drove a reporter around the area. “We’re getting residential development already, so we don’t need that as much as we need offices, employment lands and community facilities. This is the biggest chunk of city-owned land outside the port lands, so we can do a lot with it.”

SNC Lavalin already has committed to beefing up Bloor and Islington with a new headquarters building.

Milczyn said discussions are underway with a “major public institution” about joining the company in the area.

“It makes sense if we do it the right way,” said Holyday. “I do worry about the costs. I’d like to sell the civic centre and use the money for the rest of the project but I’m afraid someone on council might have other plans for it.

Milczyn and Holyday agree the Bloor-Dundas Six Points junction at Kipling is a mess.

“The roads take up a lot of room,” Milczyn said. “It was all planned in the 1950s and built before the subway was extended. That was the edge of the city when it was built. It’s now all surrounded by development, and it doesn’t work on any level.”

“I used to have a business in the area and I had a hard time myself telling people how to get there,” Holyday said with a laugh.

The redevelopment will cost around $37 million, but some of that money would’ve had to be spent to fix up the existing system, anyway, Milczyn said. By creating new space for development, the city will be able to sell off some one and a half hectares and use that cash to help pay for the road work. Redeveloping most of the old civic centre site – some historic elements will almost certainly be kept – could raise $36 million, Milczyn said.

Not everyone is enamoured of the redesign of the 2.8-kilometre strip.

“It’s simply not necessary,” said Terry Reardon of the Islington Ratepayers Association. “I’ve been in the area for 30-odd years and there’s never been a hold-up around the Six Points interchange. Even people who support the changes admit the extra traffic signals will mean a slowdown.”

Reardon says people who want to avoid the signals will start using side streets more often and that traffic will increase on Bloor west of Kipling, which is primarily a residential street.

Asked if he didn’t consider the current interchange an eyesore, Reardon chuckled.

“It works. It might be ugly but roads aren’t there to be beautiful.”

Reardon said residents want parks and community space on the old theatre lands, not more condos. He also said they worry that some of the units are “fairly low-priced and we could have another St. Jamestown unless there are lots of activities for the kids.”

“It’s a good idea to redevelop Six Points,” said Peter Quach, owner of Thyme 4 Pizza on Dundas W. “It would probably help businesses in the area. Right now, people travelling eastbound have to make a U-turn to get to some of the businesses. It’s very dangerous.”

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4 thoughts on “Hume: Planning chair eyes Etobicoke’s urban future

  1. “Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or peoples. Places said to have a strong “sense of place” have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence.” – wikipedia

  2. Great article. It’s good to see (read) some of our public representatives are thinking and not just talking . Try thinking outside the box, forget all the usual land treatment uses . How about a Community College , Now that’s a motherhood issue. It has all the class rooms built in and a cafeteria etc. and we get money back from the Provincial coffers.

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