The 200 hectare limit: addressing growth in Downtown Brampton without the Riverwalk

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Brampton CAO Harry Schlange, albeit very briefly, at a community town hall organized and hosted by City Councillor Jeff Bowman and Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros.  In particular, I wanted to voice my concerns about Brampton’s approach to growth in the Four Corners given the environmental constraints. After all, given that Downtown Brampton is only 200 hectares, and given government ownership of lands in the area represent, easily, 35% or more of the area, that only leaves about 130 Hectares of remaining lands to be developed. It’s a serious constraint on growth.  And once the University sets down roots, they will be taking up some of those 130 Hectares, as they are expected to build at or very near the GO Station (think the corner of Nelson and George, currently private enterprise, soon to be converted to yet even more institutional use).

Mr. Schlange observed, and rightly so, that we have begun the studies to lift or ease the environmental restrictions contained in the Special Planning Area (SPA) regulations. I am a big supporter of all things “Riverwalk.” The easing of the SPA limitations will enable more development of the existing lands to yield increased density; thus enabling us to achieve the provincially mandated density and growth targets.

But being an ever persistent bear, I challenged him on that plan. After all, there is still only so much one can build within a 130 Hectare area. He reassured that my concerns could be addressed by building “up” and at that point we had to put a proverbial pin in our discussion for another day.

Now bear in mind, reasonable people will differ.  I take no exception or umbrage at the views of Mr. Schlange or of City Hall in general when they talk about building up. I also thank Mr. Schlange for taking the time to talk with me, which he didn’t have to do.

But is it really the answer? Will a few highrises really be the difference maker between Four Corners as it is today and the elusive, loosely defined “Downtown” that we all seem to agree we want to see develop in our Core?

Let me illustrate the point. Here is “Downtown Brampton” as it is today, with the yellowish areas on the image marking business areas. The image is a little unfair, in that it doesn’t highlight uses such as theatres, PAMA, City Hall, etc., so Downtown is a little more developed than the yellow shading would suggest, but overall, it does give an indication of the size of Downtown Brampton and the areas that we want private enterprise to develop and grow:

downtown as it is

But here is the rub, even if I edit that image to include the developments on George Street, a few places on John Street, and of course, Tracks Brew Pub hiding under the label for Four Corners Branch Library, we still don’t have a vibrant area ripe for growth. We are still talking two to three square blocks of surface area nestled and resting comfortably within a mature residential neighbourhood on all sides. There just isn’t a significant amount of room to grow. And this, I argue, is truly the problem. The GO Station is not the “anchor for growth and development” it could be, it is an outlier on the northwest end of the area we want to grow and develop. This is a recipe for perpetual stagnation.

Below, I present what I argue should be the target growth and commercialization area of Downtown Brampton:

how to really rezone for growth

In it, the existing residential neighbourhoods would be re-zoned to a mixed use commercial area, not unlike the large eastern portion of downtown London, Ontario, and the GO Station would be more aligned to be the Centre of the Commercial zone. From Rosedale Avenue south to Queen Street, from McMurchy Avenue east to Centre Street, excepting some residential area that are already high density areas, we can use other planning tools such as heritage designation to preserve the historical character of these neighbourhoods. Below, I have used a Google Street map image to demonstrate how businesses like Hahn Spa, and the law chambers beside them, along John Street can infill a residential area with commercial uses in a way that preserves and enhances the neighbourhood street scape.

hahn spa template

Businesses such as these offer a living template for converting settled areas into mixed use areas, while other properties can be turned into higher and better uses through multi-unit housing developments such as New York’s vaunted brownstone style developments.

Building up is great, but ultimately, is a developer going to build in a SPA with increased construction, compliance, safety and flood remediation costs in an area where real estate prices are not depressed (ie: where there is less profit)? Or will they develop in an area such as along Thomas Street where none of the SPA limitations would even apply? If we can re-zone the area without putting the developers through all the expense and delay of driving the rezoning themselves, we can really start to transform the entire Four Corners area into the commercial core we want it to be.

In this author’s opinion, we can no longer insist on forcing the development of Square Buildings on Round Lots. We have to embrace the geography we are given, and expand our definitions of “Downtown” if we ever want a Downtown at all.  This will mean that Building Up will have to wait, and the increase in supply of land will mean there will no overnight explosion of cranes and skyscrapers … but let’s be honest, that vision’s not really going to happen anyway, no matter how long we keep chasing that particular paper tiger.

 

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