Last week’s Land and Development conference for the Greater Golden Horseshoe held in downtown Toronto carried the innocuous subtitle “Insights on Trends, Issues, Strategies, and Opportunities in Land Investment and Development Activity.” A better title might have been “Dealing with Decades of Urban Sprawl.”
From keynote speaker and urban planner Paul Bedford to other speakers and panels, an overriding theme was coping with the effects of the GTA’s torrid growth, from the downtown office towers sprouting like weeds on Toronto’s skyline to the booming suburban office markets.
One such session, entitled “The 905 Explosion,” illustrated starkly how suburban cities are suffering the ill effects of poorly planned growth along with the big city at the center of the GTA.
‘Burbs such as Mississauga were built for and around the automobile as much as they were for people and now redesigning the city for a post-car or car-light future is a huge challenge, noted Andrew McNeill, Strategic Leader for the city of Mississauga.
Getting People (and Cars) to Mississauga Downtown
Mississauga, Canada’s sixth-largest city, with a population of 738,000, has been about cars from its earliest days. “The framework of our city was designed around automobiles so we are focusing (on) nodes, corridors, places where you can achieve higher urban transit. Our downtown master plan is directly about this, building walkable places, bringing mixed use developments.”
Cities of the 905 ring such as Mississauga have a number of “carrots and sticks” that they can use to attract desirable development. Sticks include design guidelines and zoning bylaws, he said. The city is currently looking at a mix of carrots it could offer developers to create more density to its downtown.
Four Keys to Mississauga Remake
McNeill identified four things that are getting in the way of the transition to less car-centric suburban cores. The first, ironically, revolves around vehicle parking. “It is much cheaper to go and build particularly for office, out in the suburban office parks, than it is in downtown urban areas. That is one of the critical issues that is facing downtown Mississauga. We haven’t had any new office built in our downtown in almost 20 years and what we are hearing from the development community is it is because of the cost of parking.” That means the city will likely get into the business of parking, he said.
Beefing up Mississauga’s bus-heavy transit system is another part of the city’s plan to lure development downtown. The LRT now under construction will link the downtown with Pearson Airport. Planning is also underway for a light rail line on Hurontonia. “[Transit] is one of the missing pieces,” he concluded.
Mixed use development is another. “This is one of the areas I think we are relatively weak in the 905 and actually also in Toronto,” he said. “There are very few developers out there that can deliver great vertical use mixed buildings. We are working on some policies and also a business model that can make that viable.”
Finally, attracting great, small-scale retail to the downtown is the fourth key, McNeill said. “Great mixed use buildings, the quality of the retail is really what makes those buildings sing. It is the bottom 30 feet that makes those buildings and contributes to a great place and vibrant cities,” he said. “Urban format Home Depots and Canadian Tires are great but that is not what is going to create great place making, beautiful places.
“There needs to be a movement to smaller retail, stuff that we have forgotten how to do. All the great villages, Oakville, Bloor West, they are all smaller scale.” The city is working on a plan to attract those smaller retailers to its downtown.
Height No Restriction But Not Enough for Developers
Mississauga scrubbed building height restrictions for its downtown but has failed to attract office developers, McNeill said, because of the previously mentioned parking expense and the fact that LRT transit is either under construction or on planning tables. “Landowners want commitment and they want to see shovels in the ground on these urban transit projects.”
He was also brutally honest about his city’s current shortcomings. “[Employers] are looking for better quality of place. Right now our downtown, to be quite blunt, it doesn’t offer the quality of place that a lot of people would look for – for their employees. That is what we are trying to address – we are trying to build. A new vibrant main street within our downtown….It is clearly not there in the 905 yet.”
Design Review Has a Place in the Burbs
Quadrangle Architects Ltd.’s Richard Witt, a proponent of design review panels, asked McNeill about the success of Mississauga’s design oversight over the years. “Has it had a positive effect? Absolutely,” McNeill said, adding that he is an urban designer and came from the city’s urban planning and building department.
“All you have to do is look at the quality of architecture we are getting downtown,” noting observers can see the difference between 80s-era construction and more recent buildings. “The quality is definitely getting better, largely a result of the design review panel.”
The Mississauga urban designer added that great design and development can happen without the construction of trophy buildings. “Unlimited height and iconic buildings do not create a great place necessarily. They can contribute to it and Mississauga’s skyline is becoming very attractive…but I think what we are focusing a lot of our energy on is simple fabric buildings, paying a lot of attention to the bottom 30 feet, making sure these buildings engage with the street and create great urbanity.”