Too much of a good thing

There’s a plan afoot in London Ontario to renew our existing City Hall built in 1971. I am no huge fan of the current City Hall (it’s rather ugly, the square it sits on is squalid, it turns its side to Victoria Park, it’s no doubt of dubious quality from a technology-hosting perspective, and is asbestos-filled.) I’m also not a penny-pinching taxpayer who resents government – quite the opposite and I believe London needs more local government in its life, not less. I worked at Toronto City Hall after all and firmly believe in the power of a building to act through its architecture and design as the embodiment of the body politic and to send a clear message to employees, politicians and citizens, about the City’s approach to community. The ‘arms’ that extend from Toronto City Hall welcome residents and visitors alike – whether the politicians inside listen or not is a matter for another debate. Nathan Phillips Square, while in need of some TLC, also provides a marvelous civic space for all to enjoy at all times of year.

Nathan Phillips Square provides an interesting point of comparison for London’s City Hall, which while it has its own square to the north (no, not well used and quite derelict) also sits beside the historic Victoria Park, surely the emotional heart of London. While London’s birthplace is situated at the Forks of the Thames and the County Courthouse, it is London’s military history that powered its early growth and establishment as the capital of southwestern Ontario. City Hall’s location immediately east of Victoria Park is therefore ideal and we should not so quickly forget the valuable heritage buildings  that were sacrificed for its construction.

As is often the case in London Ontario, details of the plan are currently very shady. There are a number of issues of concern based on what I’ve heard to date (from someone reliable who attended the ‘Downtown Summit’ where this was the primary issue.) From the video I’ve seen of the event, London’s Mayor Joe Fontana played the role of booster and talked about the investment opportunity and the inquiries about downtown development that he’s receiving. I have no doubt this interest has been sparked, in part, by the involvement of Commercial Real Estate giant CBRE in the creation of the City’s accommodation review. While spark is not necessarily a bad thing, rampant speculation on properties in any neighbourhood is an absolute threat to economic stability, growth and success and leads to block-busting and overly quick gentrification.

CBRE is calling for open-heart surgery even though the patient has a common cold.

Their report (all I’ve actually seen is their Powerpoint) appears to present a case that because other municipalities have built great City Halls, in their ‘downtown’s’ and created Civic Pride through such exercises, so too should the City of London. Their report is a little more detailed (including land cost assessments, value of property, lease payments etc.) than I’ve just made it but there are a lot of questions left unanswered prior to making the leap to the need for a new City Hall on another site. For instance, left completely out of the study is the potential for re-use of the existing London City Hall, Reg Cooper Square and Centennial Hall and what function this neighbourhood would have after City Hall’s presumed demolition (after all, it’s filled with asbestos, can accommodate a large unknown workforce but would cost millions to renovate, etc.) While this might not be a concern for a private developer, the City is, well, the City and should have concern about the appropriate use of this prominent site.

The hole left in that part of downtown would be tremendous and have serious implications on downtown and the immediate neighbourhood. Relocating City Hall to areas that are already predominantly of a commercial use also makes little sense to me. The primary site mentioned is ‘the Fullarton Block.’ Presumably this is the block bounded by Ridout, Queens Avenue, Talbot Street and Fullarton. It’s a triangular site bordered to the south by the brutal Court House and Federal government on one-way Queens Avenue, which is a dead zone of traffic lay-bys and unusable first-floor. On the west is Ridout Street (also a one-way) with historic (like first buildings in London historic), privately owned two-storey buildings and Eldon House to the north of those. The building across from Eldon House is reasonable enough, if its tower sits too far forward on the podium and if the lack of setbacks makes Eldon House seem an insignificant relic of modest times best found in a pioneer village rather than the first stately Manor of London. One can only imagine the economic pressures that would be exerted on the remaining parts of the block to the north, bounded by Fullarton, Dufferin, Ridout and Talbot or on the aforementioned two and a half-storey heritage houses immediately west of the building site.

Over the long haul, major building projects have had a disastrous impact on London’s economy and growth after injecting the cash brought from building permits and planning permissions. The worst mistakes made are obvious but some are held up as marvels of London’s growth. The ‘Galleria’, which further drew prime retailers and shoppers off downtown streets much like Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and created a bleak windowless highway on King Street and the ‘Mews’ (later Smuggler’s Alley) which turned its back on the entire outside world are the most obvious marvels of bad planning.

But more highly regarded by Londoners is One London Place, which I think is actually a monument to the disastrous impact the Sifton family has had on their City. This building sucked life off London’s streets and put it in a gated vertical community of elites, no longer in touch with the daily life of Dundas, Richmond or any of the other vital downtown streets. It’s taken years to recover from the vacancies created by this building though I do love the reflections it casts on a summers’ day. It stands alone and says look at me and is not a very nice neighbour (try walking past on a fall day.)

I am also not completely sold on the ‘success’ of the John Labatt Centre. While it has drawn many more people to downtown, the building dominates its block, half of which is a surface parking lot, creates little activity outside of events and even then a predominant proportion of visitors leave as quickly as they come and has as usual, created greater demand for parking and an increase in ‘cruising’ for parking before events. The building lacks at-grade retail and/or restaurant uses, save for one that never appears to be open or welcoming to anyone but event attendees. Other than week-long tournaments, events are predominantly held on weekend nights, when there are plenty of other draws to downtown London. All in all, in my estimation, it is a break-even project in terms of its impacts on the downtown and its immediate neighbourhood. To say it has done more is to view it with an uncritical lens as to what else the site could have accomplished and what its full impacts are or the people it may keep away at other times.

A New City Hall in London affords us yet another opportunity to ruin downtown with a Master Plan concept. First, the site I’ve talked about is a mere one block south of the current City Hall – hardly a massive leap ‘downtown’ from a suburban location. To say that City Hall isn’t downtown is definitely drawing lines on maps instead of walking and living in the City.

Secondly, the proposed location is already a daytime-use dead zone. 1200 apartments (very rough guess on # of new condos/large buildings) within 8 blocks do not make a mixed-use community, particularly when the daytime population is as large as it is in comparison. The evidence of this is in the continued reluctance of any major food retailer to propose a downtown grocery store (notwithstanding rumours of a mini Sobeys on the way.) Not only is there no food grocer but the nearest restaurants, variety stores and other retail is on Dundas or on Richmond Street near Talbot and Dundas. These locations already have enough day-time business but continue to suffer slow evenings, particularly in the early week. And what would be the impact of the loss of City Hall employees on the restaurants and shops near Wellington and Dundas, many of which surely opened due to the presence of daytime workers in that area of town?

London’s downtown core continues to primarily need residences and secondary uses, rather than more primary uses, particularly at its western edge. A mixed-use complex with residents, small commercial and retail space would seem to make more sense in the proposed location. Perhaps a live-work concept could be included to promote the presence of the Arts community. I see little value in drawing a line of commercial vs residential use on a buffer lot such as the Fullarton block which would allow perfectly for a transition from the stern, brutal, daytime-use Courthouse, the modernist Museum London to the historic Eldon House and its predominantly low-rise neighbours.

Simultaneously, the Mayor has introduced his own idea to commercialize London’s ‘waterfront.’ He’s brought in planning consultants to show pictures of Copenhagen, Cincinnati and other much larger, more tax-efficient Cities to suggest that the Thames River is the same as the Mississippi, Lake Ontario or Pacific Ocean. I’m not sure where any of this is headed but surely the destruction of our natural heritage is not far behind these tacky ideas. For some reason, City Hall wants to forget the new park and square that was built at the Forks and has already done a marvelous job animating this part of the City. Any lack of activity is due to the lack of nearby residents, not from lack of commercial amenities in this natural setting. One thing that could be done to make Harris Park more enjoyable is a Goose abatement program. And let’s not forget that no matter what is done in this area of the City, it will by By-law, have to cease at 11 pm so as not to disturb the neighbours.

In addition to the new basket they’d build, City Hall would further consolidate offices drawing other eggs of their operations into one location. This incremental effect, reducing trips for coffee, newspapers, lunches, etc., would have incremental impacts on the businesses close to their current locations. There is no need, other than convenience, for City Hall to consolidate operations in Ontario’s largest municipality outside Toronto (I’m speaking geographically.) City Police have consolidated operations and are already out of room and face increasing fuel costs to serve an increasingly sprawling community. Why would City Hall make the exact same mistake twice? Many Cities operate with their offices spread out.

Parts of City Hall’s function and service will also continue to be offered in outside locations. So consolidation shouldn’t necessarily drive this agenda. London is massive and unless we start to inject different economic activities and uses in different neighbourhoods we will continue to see the growth of blighted brown-belts as older suburbs age and commercial users leapfrog outwards to locations with cheaper land – at least for as long as Oil remains cheap (and parking remains “free.”)

One suggestion that I think bares closer inspection is to create a new office in Old East. Perhaps the McCormick’s site is worth a review. The City’s parking payment office is located on Dundas East and perhaps it makes sense to visit this site for some intensification of use through re-building. The City can act as a catalyst to revitalization in places where that it is not occurring by itself. One could suggest that the downtown area is at a tipping point of doing so by itself, as the recent interest shown from Sobeys indicates, the opening of the Met, the very worthwhile heritage refurbishment that now houses City Planning office and the planned Synergy Centre and Fanshawe downtown Arts Campus.

Finally, if we are to dream big then we should do so rather than attempt to build Mel Lastman Square in North York, cheaply, to the windfall profit of developers and real estate speculators, with shoddy landscaping that falls apart before its namesake does. Joe Fontana City Hall, if it is to be rebuilt, should be rebuilt exactly where it stands today, with a mix of housing and Performing Arts Centre, sensitive to the buildings around it and ideally, subtly and sensitively renewing the Housing project that sits behind City Hall. The Victoria Park location is the best in the City for such an opportunity. The City could assemble the entire block from the western boundary of Central Secondary School and together with the School Board ensure renewal of the entire block (saving and restoring to the Heritage elements) providing a healthy mix of housing opportunities and tenures, day and evening uses and at the same time, build a Performing Arts Centre that would actually create Civic Pride rather than continue to stifle the dreams and ambitions of London’s creative and artistic community. Leveraging a portion of the site to private development (live in the Lombardo Performing Arts village,) potentially as a mix with the renewed senior’s housing project creates an opportunity for revenues to offset some of the costs. One parking structure for the entire site, a City Hall that turns its face towards the park, creating a beautiful civic square and allowing for better site transportation management and more pedestrian-friendly frontages and linkages would surely be the result. Surely interim leases could be pursued that would allow the City to operate while a new building/complex is constructed on the current City Hall site.

However, as with all public processes, this should all see the light of day. Perhaps the public needs a Lobbyist Registry to understand who these mysterious unnamed ‘investors’ are and what exactly they are proposing for downtown London. Private developers have already left blight in their wake and it’s no need for secret deals to allow that to happen again. Transparency is a key part of this process if it is to be successful.

The City has pursued a fantastic strategy of attracting more residents to the core. The lack of viable businesses downtown, particularly on main streets such as Richmond Street and Dundas (yes, there are some fantastic niche and long-term businesses but there’s also a lot of head shops, turnover and vacancy) remains a concern. Incremental growth is always more desirable than Shock and Awe spending that leads to upheaval and the uprooting of communities and can be used strategically to build struggling neighbourhoods. It is a bad idea to stop with the slow and incremental approach to reviving downtown to return to a 60’s style planning mindset that says cataclysmic spending, single primary uses and more parking are good ideas.

As always, this is just my opinion based on my research, experience in Toronto municipal government, knowledge of London, my personal views about rational development and economic equity and thoughts about the future of our City. I am only one citizen. I am not an urban planner but I have been involved with 100s of planning applications and approvals. Please feel free to add your thoughts (in a calm, respectful tone as always.)


2 Responses to “Too much of a good thing”

  1. May 20, 2011 at 8:35 am

    I’d love to add something “brilliant” to this. It’ll take some time for it to be absorbed, and still I don’t think I could say much. Throughout the read I was thinking, when is City Think going to run for Mayor? I like the way you think. I like what you have written here. All I can really say is, thanks for this.

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