Out walking the street I bumped into an acquaintance with urban planning interests and we popped into Simply Biscotti for a tea. After listening to Mr Whineypants (me) for a bit, we played a simple mind game. He played devils advocate, throwing intractable civic problems at me, and I had to bat back a solution. Fast. We didn’t go into exactly how the solutions would work out in great detail. Actually, there was no detail at all. But by the end, we agreed the city suffers a terrible lack of imagination in addressing its problems, and rigid bureaucratic mindset, and a adamant refusal to see opportunity when it arises. (What else could armchair critics think?).
Here’s an example.
Problem: the proposed shared car lanes on Byron, with painted bike lanes on both sides of the street. Response: why are we ignoring the apparent decision that of the scarce space on Byron, one lane has to be used for storing cars? For free, no less. I gather many are commuter parkers from the cablevision offices, and another bunch are from the townhouses on the north side of Richmond that have one parking space per unit but owners have two cars. Let them find their own solution to their extra cars (create on-site parking; have fewer second or third cars, add a car share space). Why does the city taxpayer have to provide the solution? Furthermore, on almost any residential street in the city built pre-1970, if there are parked cars then opposing vehicles have to yield to each other, with one slowing and pulling off a bit. Why is it acceptable for a motorist to yield to a motorist but outrageous to yield to a cyclist?
Problem: the old Trudeau gas station at Richmond and Island Park is now designated heritage, and the builder seems unable to see a solution (or may be tightly constrained by an unimaginative planning dept). How can it be developed profitably and so the community would love it? My first idea was to put the gas station on top of the building, as a roof top destination Starbucks or cafe. Even better, why not jack up the building 21′ on stilts, glass-in the ground floor with the gas station visible and restored as a retail use? The winter garden would be a community benefit, the architectural design could be exciting, and the development rights for whatever number of floors would be transferred to the top of the stilts. (Yes, the total height would now be higher than the zoning, but remember we got a potentially fab garden space out of it). I think that would be a real destination solution worth walking to.
Problem: there is no public appetite for higher municipal taxes, and 2% is a recipe for slow decline. My solution: the city hasn’t a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. It spends too much on the wrong things. Step one: put parking meters on every street north of Carling Avenue/the Queensway. This should earn the city not millions, but hundreds of millions of dollars. Share the revenue with the community where meters earn the bucks. That sharing will mute criticism and provide locals funds to spend on local priorities rather than the clerisy at city hall.
Related solution: The city wants intensification, but the immediate neighbours of infills don’t see the benefit, and especially resent apartment buildings. Solution: by policy, allocate the first one or two years of increased tax revenue from the new building(s) to the immediate community. Suddenly, I predict there will be competition for infills in neighbourhoods.
Problem: should water bills go up by a fixed amount to pay for storm sewers? Answer: first, assess where the storm water comes from. A lot comes from the streets, and the salt destroys the sewers. So charge the road department for their volume of water and damage. This will remove their “free rider” problem where they do things that are cheapest for them but impose external costs on others. Maybe it will be more economic to stop using salt. Or install more curbside swales that absorb storm water rather than putting in the sewer (see picture at top of this story).
Second, tell every new development and infill that they have to handle 100% of their stormwater on their property, not dump it onto the city to handle “free”. And finally, offer exceptions to the storm surcharge to any homeowner who can prove they have absorbency, for example, gravel driveway, permeable patio, storage tank, etc. You gotta reward the behaviour you want, and charge for the behaviour you dont. Right now, the city socializes too many costs and provides too many freebies to select voters and election contributors.
The city looks too often like a giant protection racket, protecting favoured interests and dumping the unwanted on the less powerful and organized.
Gotcha ! He said: when they build that arena on LeBreton Flats you’ll be drowing in traffic and parked cars! “No we won’t, I answered,” and leaned forward conspiratorially: “we’ve got a line on buying a whole bunch of parking meters. We’ll wheel them out on game nights, and during Bluesfest, and charge $20 for evening parking. We’ll have the richest community association in town!”
And so our little game went on, until the tea pots were empty, and the refills evaporated, and the final bit of hot water couldn’t even darken the pot.
See, isn’t solving city problems easy? Just pour some tea and think out of the box.