Category Archives: Downtown

CONVENIENT OR QUICK FIX?

After hearing the news about a Costco approved to be located on the former GM site in Oshawa, Ontario, I was inspired to write something in order to look at it from a professional and factual point of view. I started off writing about my disagreement with this approval, and what could be done with the site instead. The more I wrote, the more I learned, and the more I added. And I continued writing until now – many months after full build-out. I followed the story closely and I found the whole process very interesting. Since I spent a lot of time researching big box stores to understand the positive impacts of this development to reduce my innate bias as an urban planner, I will begin by summarizing my findings regarding big box development, and then use Costco as my case-study.
____________

What is a big box store? In a nutshell, it is pretty self-explanatory – it’s big, and usually box-shaped. But what does that mean? Why does that matter? Why is that ‘bad’?

SmartCentres, Oshawa, Ontario

SmartCentres, Oshawa, Ontario

Big box development usually attracts and surrounds itself with other big box development. A great example of big box development is Canada’s largest developer and operator of unenclosed shopping centres – Smart Centres. Why ‘smart’? They are a full service developer and operator that focuses on bringing together big names such as Walmart and Home Depot to one location in order to provide convenience serviced by ample user (driver) friendly parking.

IKEA

There is no denying the convenience of this type of shopping. Everything you could possibly need, all in one spot. All you have to do is get in your car, find a parking spot as close to the door as possible, and hope you don’t get hit by another driver diving in for the next closest spot while you cross the clearly marked pedestrian crossing towards the entrance of the store. Ok, ok I admit – I am clearly hinting at something here. 3 words: Car oriented environment. As a well known fact, big box store development does not aim to foster a pedestrian oriented environment. This means big box stores target the driving demographic. If you are a pedestrian on your way to Best Buy good for you, but you are a minority. Even if they live on the other side of the street, most people feel uncomfortable walking to these places, and that is because they are not designed for walking,  biking, and usually transit. They provide large parking lots for drivers, and they provide everything you need because they know you can put it in your car to bring home.

walmart

I know what you’re thinking – why does multimodal mobility matter? I’m not trying to advocate walking to Walmart. If I go to Walmart, I drive. Period. But what if Walmart was brought down to a pedestrian scale? Would you walk then? At least sometimes?

Do you dare to be this guy?

Do you dare to be this guy?

I realized that big box stores are constantly characterized by remote locations, impermeable exterior design, and vast parking lots. What would it take to bring them closer? A new design perhaps? Increased multimodal connectivity would reduce the need for 3/4 parking lot space, and stores could face the sidewalk. Same product, same convenience, but more human-friendly. Right?

5463188408_360a122c79_z

This is where Oshawa comes in. Oshawa was given a golden opportunity on a silver platter. The GM plant was demolished, and a very large brownfield opened up in the Downtown Shoulder Area (DSA). If anyone knows anything about Oshawa, they would know that it is often plagued with snarky nicknames like ‘the dirty shwa’ or ‘the shwa’, which is usually said with a demeaning or embarrassed tone. The thing is, not all of Oshawa is ‘the shwa’. ‘The shwa’ is really a name for parts of it, including downtown. Downtown Oshawa doesn’t have a great reputation – many would characterize it as dirty, sketchy, and uninviting, which is unfortunate because a lot of the City’s heritage originates from those very blocks (many murals, statues, plaques and public spaces are dedicated to commemorate its history) and because the City has been making efforts such as with the GM Centre and City Hall renovations, and integrating UOIT campus extensions into the downtown fabric.

oshawa_misc-00664855-bond-st-outside-door

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed so much easier to grow out than adapt inward, and that is exactly what Oshawa did, making it the fastest growing City in Canada for a few years in the early 2000s. This type of sprawling growth neglected its downtown, and before we knew it people were dealing drugs on the corner of Coffee Time (people called it ‘crack time’ – probably why it eventually moved out), and there was not much left to do there to attract people from all age groups.

street

GMCentre_EltonJohn_Crowd

The GM centre was and is a big success, but that place attracts people for small periods at a time (events). Durham College and UOIT are trying to integrate their campus into the downtown, but it is very hidden and has not made a large impact. The point is, when people want to go out and do something in Oshawa, they are more than likely not going downtown. So the gigantic space that the former GM plant opened up for the City right on the DSA really gave Oshawa an amazing opportunity to create a place that would act as a catalyst for image improvement, appearance improvement, business improvement, activity improvement, and to give people a reason to come back to the core, the true heart of the City.

downtownoshawa

This opportunity was quickly scooped up by a membership warehouse club that provides everything you could possibly need for the cheapest price and at the best value – Costco. David Tuley, Oshawa’s Downtown Development Officer explained to me that – from his perspective, the Costco site is on the fringe of downtown and will therefore have no negative impact on existing retail, and will also act as an ‘attraction’ by bringing more people into the core as opposed to pushing them out further. “In my personal opinion, box stores are a plague upon the earth, but until we have a new retail paradigm, this is our reality,” he wrote.

IMG_20130309_143433

I agree with Tuley for the most part, but what I disagree with is that a new retail paradigm is already underway. Many communities around the world have adopted a higher level of architectural treatment and regulations to ensure that the big box stores relate better to their surroundings. Many regulate signage, landscaping, permeability, and facade measurements/materials. Here are just a few examples of where big box developments have been implemented in more pedestrian- cyclist- and transit-oriented ways, while also adapting designs for a new environment:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

PROS & CONS LIST FOR IMPLEMENTING COSTCO ON FORMER NORTH GM SITE IN OSHAWA:

PROS:

  • WORK: Creates jobs.
  • ENVIRONMENT: Saves periphery lands from sprawling further (it’s a great thing to develop within the urban boundary instead of using up more untouched land in the suburbs).
  • Nearby communities will travel shorter distances to access the store, reducing their carbon footprint (statistics show that enough Costco, Ajax shoppers are coming from the Oshawa area).
  • BROWNFIELD REMEDIATION: This business can afford remediating the previously industrial land.
  • DOWNTOWN EXPOSURE RIPPLE: Increased customer traffic in the Downtown Shoulder Area (DSA) might bring surrounding businesses increased revenue (many people travelling to the subject site might be influenced to spend more time in the DSA or Core Area [DCA] if they are exposed to discover places they fancy).
  • CONVENIENCE: Product is all about quality AND quantity for attractive prices.
    IMG_20140509_144057

CONS:

  • INVASIVE: The nature of this development does not suit the character of the DSA or DCA in any way, shape or form (following in the courthouse’s steps), forcing the Downtown Area (DA) to stoop further away from any chance of regaining a sense of place.
    IMG_20130309_143319
  • UNFRIENDLY: The nature of this development will strip the DSA of its identity, forcing it to adapt into a car-oriented environment.
    IMG_20130309_144100
  • EYE-SORE: Two-thirds of the site will comprise of parking, and one-third will comprise of the store itself, which is going to be +/- 146, 560 SF (almost the size of 3 football fields) of two-storey high light-beige stucco and cladding shaped into a big box with 1 huge entrance (to swallow and spit out the entire population of Durham and their fridge-sized carts).
    IMG_20130309_143326
  • DETERS MULTIMODAL CONNECTIVITY: Not only is the general appeal of the building offensive to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders, but its design is too – its entrance faces away from the street and directly into the chaos of the heart of the parking lot. Its backside ironically faces the DCA.
    IMG_20130309_143910
  • UNFAIR: Just like Wal-Mart tends to ruin businesses and communities, Costco has a pretty good chance of doing the exact same thing, and may even do a better job at it – the store offers unbeatable prices, selection and quality.
    IMG_8589
  • PLAYS BY ITS OWN RULES: This development completely and utterly contradicts the City’s Downtown Action Plan, and the City is therefore taking many Costco-sized steps away from potentially achieving any of it. As everyone knows, Costcos generally all look the same, and it’s because familiarity helps from a business perspective, at the expense of adapting to their surroundings.
    IMG_20130309_144046
  • EXCLUDER: Costco only sells to members who pay a yearly fee to shop there, and it’s only worth it if the member shops there all the time. This excludes many people from wanting to shop there on occasion or who can’t afford the membership, dividing the social fabric of communities across its target zones.
    costco-retail-web

At the end of the day, most people would agree that Costco is extremely convenient, and that having easy access to one is a great idea. However, it is unfortunate that this greed outweighs the importance of place. If Costco could consider adapting different store designs for different types of environments (anything from suburban outskirts to downtown cores) that originate from a base design in order to have a more appropriate design out of respect for its surroundings and the City that houses it, then maybe the Costco in Oshawa could have more of a positive impact. As it is now, it’s simply not working.

Advertisements

THE THING ABOUT THE EMERALD CITY


Short visits to foreign places can often leave a percieved impression on travellers that may stray to a certain degree from what those places are really like. However, these short visits can sometimes be insightful to permanent residents who naturally disregard certain details of where they are from, simply because those things seem normal to them. What may be special to you may go unoticed to someone else: like the bicycle culture in Copenhagen to someone from Orlando, or the grand new-age architecture and car-oriented built-form in Dubai to someone from Bordeaux.

The following text outlines the city elements that embody the character of downtown Seattle (WA) to a short-term traveller:

 

Attention to detail

What stands out the most in Seattle are the little things. Seattle is a great city for its investment in all sorts of urban pockets – interesting car parks, miniature squares, miniature parks, resting spaces -, in public art, in informative signage, in facade and street materials, in facade details, in crosswalk and bike path clarity, in restaurant/cafe/bar density (even hidden and facing the back alleys like Bathtub Gin & Co), in street decor, and what it’s most famous for – trees and other greenery.








Independent Retail Competition

There may be a Starbucks on every corner (and if not, on every block), but that doesn’t seem to change the fact that independent restaurants, cafes and bars have the upper hand in downtown Seattle. There is a culture of visiting cool and unique places, and they make for a cool and unique sense of place. Having so many different and unique shops makes a street so much more unpredictable, vibrant, interesting, and desirable. It’s always about – let’s go to THE Unicorn. Let’s go to THE Poquitos. Let’s go to THE only place that can make you and your belly feel that way. Seattle most certainly does not allow people to feel like they have to settle for a Starbucks to ensure a decent cup of coffee, a Molly Blooms for a decent beer, or a Jack Astor’s for a decent dinner.




Traffic Flow and Patience

Seattle is nestled between mountain ranges and is overall extremely hilly and full of sharply sloped streets. So sloped in fact that if a car’s brakes stop functioning or if a child accidentally runs into the middle of the street, a collision of some sort is bound to occur. Due to the geography of the land that the tightly knit street network grid is placed upon, there is very little reaction time to avoid collisions.

This is why, even after a long red light and no cars, people do not jay-walk in Seattle and most drivers do not speed. This city must have some of the most patient, respectful and educated travellers anyone has ever witnessed. No one seems to be in a rush. It is no wonder their dangerous-seeming intersections still exist – it is because people know how to use them (not that I am crazy about roundabouts or anything, but take that roundabout complainers!!).



Urban Pockets

Space is very well used within the downtown urban core. No nooks or spaces go wasted, and are always used up by something to make a space or a journey more enjoyable or interesting. One of the most impressive aspects of Seattle’s public realm is how many urban pockets there are, and how many of them are used to illuminate the streetscape with a node, a feature, or an activity. These pockets bring the streetscape to a pedestrian level, add character, and make it easier to get around by using cognitive mapping – “meet me by the popsicle sculpture…”.











Punks and Street Kids

Yes, punks. They stand out. And not just any punks – Seattle punks. They have this thing about them that makes them distinctive. A distinctive grunge/streetkid culture. Sometimes it’s as if they are always the same group of them because they all kind of look the same and act the same and do the same things (all-black clothing, usually involving chains, tattoos, funky hair cuts and hair colors, smokey makeup, and random piercings, usually hanging out with 2 or more people and one or more dog, usually smoking, and can usually be seen like this hanging out in parks and public squares). But then again, this is just a generalization and an outsider impression from someone who was slightly intimidated! It had to be mentioned because it really does add to the character of the city.

So the thing about the Emerald City is – the little things. The little things, like public art details, resting spaces and overhead canopies, manicured and interactive little spaces and nooks, and interesting facades. The little things are what give short-term first-time travellers a good impression of this City.

PS: To any Grey’s Anatomy fans, no, Seattle isn’t what they make it look like on the show.

HUNTSVILLE

From an aerial point of view the town is located in what seems to be the middle of nowhere Ontario, the urban boundary is small and the built up area is even smaller.

Huntsville Urban Centre (Watson & Associates Economists Ltd., 2006)

From a pedestrian point of view, density is relatively sparse for the most part and very low-rise.

But something more is happening in Huntsville other than lacking the basics for a typical interesting destination city (like rows of skyscrapers and intricate subway systems). Huntsville is a place to get inspired because it has an incredibly distinct, strong and consistent small-town sense of place. This persona can be sensed immediately from the groups of teenagers walking around and hanging out together, to the representative outdoor Group of Seven paintings and murals plastered in every dull corner or wall in order to bring it to life.

It can also be noticed by taking even a quick glance at the main downtown commercial strip – every shop is a family-run or small business giving the whole space a down-to-earth feel, and most of the shops have heritage facades with detail and effort put into the looks of every sign, entrance and awning – a breeding ground for strolls and window shopping.

The best part about Huntsville is the layering of multimodal connectivity, and the efficient use of unused space within the built-up boundary (even though there is a lot of room available in the outskirts). Facing the river at the swing bridge at almost any given instant, one can observe the following movements all at once:

  • Cars [inconveniently trying to get through]
  • Buses
  • Active and passive Pedestrians almost everywhere including the sidewalks, the public space in front of the river, and on patios
  • Cyclists commuting or cycling for pleasure
  • People passing by on boats
  • Etc

This kind of movement makes people from all levels feel like they are part of something – a community. And where the layers cross, life is bursting!

Neighbourhing the downtown core are several cottage-style resorts such as Hidden Valley Resort (for a more simplistic, natural and low-key, yet still beautiful and relaxing getaway) and Deerhurst Resort (for a more upscale experience). There are cottages and resorts for everyone’s taste, and they are a great place to stay overnight in order to access Huntsville by day or by night. These touristic accomodations are popular summer long-weekend destinations.

This place is like a little world on its own – truly a place to be inspired from and to grow fond of.

STREETSVILLE – FIRST IMPRESSIONS

 

Originating in the 1800’s, the Village of Streetsville in Mississauga is advertised as the historic downtown of the area. The idea of a ‘historic downtown’ is popular in many cities throughout the GTA and North America because it acts as a tourist attraction or a view into the past that exists in the present. It is original, interesting and different because it contrasts with modern day North American city development which is highly influenced by auto mobility.

A historic downtown differs from a regular downtown in the sense that it is intended to include and emote the elements of history and preservation, whether they may be through architectural styles, materials, building footprints, streetscape style, or connectivity.

Many downtowns are situated where they always have been simply because development would have always grown out and spread out from there. But when it comes to rapid-growth cities like Mississauga that are custom-made for automobiles and purposely designed with inward-facing bubble spaces, historic downtowns don’t get the appropriate preservation and respect they need to survive over time.

Today, Streetsville seems caught in the middle of an auto web, and it is clear that most of the remaining historic downtown can only be found  in its name. Building facades are altered using cheap or unfamiliar materials, infill development has no overall design mindfulness for surroundings, and spaces are not well maintained. The effort to preserve the historical buildings is not evident enough to help them stand out in most cases. From a first impression, Streetsville does not appear to be interesting and different – rather, it just looks kind of… boring.

Even though Streetsville appears to have had a poor preservation treatment it still has its inner city gems, one of which is the Starbucks. It is located on the corner of Queen and Thomas in an older building. It clearly has an adaptive-reuse look, which is in line with general historic downtown principles. The front facade is no wider than 5m long (typical of a true downtown storefront width) and is glazed with a large window and divided into squares with wooden beams. The interior of the cafe reflects its past state – narrow and long, and it leads to a small and enclosed outdoor patio with umbrellas that interacts nicely with the sidewalk. As much as accepting a Starbucks into a historic downtown is not a good idea because local businesses should be promoted over international chains, this particular Starbucks fits in better with the intended historic image than most of the other family run businesses in the area.

Click here to view more heritage buildings in the area.

Streetsville could be saved if more consideration is put into its character before it is completely lost. As it is now, a faint wisp of a time when things were different can be sensed. It is only a matter of time before Streetsville gets swallowed up by its successor along with all of its roads and cars.

On account of the Business Improvement Association (BIA) of Streetsville there is some hope for a better and improved Streetsville. A strategy session was held by their council in 2007 which concluded in a 5 year vision with goals to work towards. The goals include: a vibrant gathering space, a show of civic pride, a green Streetsville, a commitment to Streetsville’s heritage, a way to celebrate the river, redeveloping the centre plaza, creating an improved destination location image, and improving access and movement in Streetsville. The vision states:

A five year vision of Streetsville promotes the Village as a desirable location for discerning patrons. Driven by a strong and dynamic BIA, the vision includes a greener Village focused on preserving it’s heritage and celebrating it’s origins in the Credit River Valley. Properties and gathering places will be developed to reflect Streetsville’s historic past, created a ‘Village in the City’ of Mississauga that will make all members proud!

This this vision sounds like the key to Streetsville’s future success, however, exactly 5 years later there are no clear signs of moving forward. Pat Donaldson, the General Manager of the Streetsville BIA says that it is a matter of money. The 5 year improvement plan could have been realized if adequate funding was available, however there are not enough funds to realize their goals. The process is therefore slowed down.

Streetsville acts as a meeting point for many celebrations involving the community such as Canada Day, the historically significant Bread & Honey Festival, and the Santa Claus Parade. There are also many community events that are held throughout the year. Because of these special occasions many residents in the Mississauga area know about Streetsville and have some amount of place attachement towards it. This means that the location has a base and a reputation to work and build on. Streetsville needs to give visitors more reasons to visit, shop and relax regularly – not just a few times a year when the entire community gets together to celebrate special events.

A good work-in-progress case study to consider is Uptown Waterloo, Ontario. Although this area is not labelled as a historic downtown, it does have many heritage designated buildings and a character that is maintained and followed through with the newer or renovated buildings. For a long time the City of Waterloo had a hard time figuring out how to get people to visit Uptown for more than large community gatherings. These are the main reasons why Uptown Waterloo is more successful now:

1. Business
Many people come in to Uptown to go to work. This gives the area more exposure and gives other types of businesses the chance to open up shop to cater for the workers. The force of agglomeration has caused the spot to flourish.

2. Shopping
This category is arguable, because it is still lacking. However, there is a good handful and a variety of great shops to visit such as Death Valley’s Little Brother, The Princess Cafe, The Princess Cinema, Barley Works, MyThai, Starlight, Skirt, Shoppers Drug Mart, Value-Mart, Starbucks, Eating Well, American Apparel, the LCBO, Thrive Juice Bar, and Vincenzo’s. Some of these are substantial or international chains, however they draw a variety of demographics to the area and give other shops the chance to be exposed. A german bakery opened up shop across from the Starbucks a few months ago and it is already a popular destination for office workers to buy breakfast and lunch even though world-renowned Subway is directly abutting.

3. Public Realm and Public Space
It is very important to create an outdoor space that fosters an environment for pedestrians and cyclists in order for the shops to be successful. There is a very small chance that a person in a car is going to stop in the middle of a busy place because  they saw a dress in a window that they liked. The only way businesses can be successful is if the pedestrians feel comfortable enough to be pedestrians in the first place – this means creating a sense of enclosure, safer street crossing, a lot of seating and overhead shelter, and an interesting streetscape, which is achieved by breaking up facades and making sure that they are not too long and by creating some form of repetition with planters or attractive light posts. It is also important to break up these progressive spaces with passive spaces such as squares. The Waterloo Town Square is a very inviting node and it is used by all demographics for a variety of reasons and activities all year round.

4. Multimodal Connectivity
Uptown Waterloo is connected with the rest of the city on a multitude of levels and is working towards advocating the theory of complete streets. In Streetsville, it is unclear as to how to find the park, river or arena, and it seems to be more convenient to drive from the heart towards that space. In Uptown Waterloo they have created a multimodal system called the Uptown Loop which advertises little informative signs throughout Uptown that helps new and returning visitors get around by foot with confidence, and also helps them become aware of what they can do and where they can go. The nodal Waterloo Town Square is also home of several bus stops including the iXpress which connects riders to the north or to Downtown Kitchener in about 10 minutes.

5. Sense of place
Again, Uptown Waterloo is not there yet, but regardless it does have a strong sense of place and a distinct character. A sense of place plays a critical role in creating a space that people will want to use night and day, summer or winter. A place needs to have a very recognizable and memorable feeling, look, and use. A clear sense of place is vital for the success of a place.

As a first step, the BIA council has done a great job at coming up with some very strong goals that are sure to improve Streetsville. However if their methodology is influenced by what the planners have done in Uptown Waterloo and by other successful historical downtowns in North America (such as the Distillery District in Toronto, the Historic Downtown Bowmanville in Bowmanville, and Pioneer Square in Seattle), then maybe they can achieve their goals successfully.

%d bloggers like this: