Worth Repeating: Driving to work may cause planning problems

Here is another look at my contribution to the Waterloo Region Record’s Community Editorial Board, printed June 18th:

(http://news.therecord.com/article/730072)

“Driving to work may cause planning problems

June 18, 2010

By Jason Hammond

When my friends and I pass a major construction site, one of us will often remark, “Oh look, they’re installing a mess!”

Development is messy. Bring in heavy equipment, and before long all sorts of dirt and dust end up floating away on the breeze and choking passersby. Sometimes, as in the recent dispute over the Lang Tannery demolition proposal, it is the politics of development that is messiest of all.

The debate at Kitchener city council meetings and in this newspaper has had the positive effect of bringing many citizens, including myself, to a deeper engagement with our urban heritage. We learned about the past of the Lang Tannery, the present of the adaptive reuse being implemented by the developers, and the future of both parking provision and the pedestrian experience in our downtown.

It appeared at first to be a simple issue of heritage versus parking. We would knock down historical buildings, put up a gravel parking lot, and lose our recent momentum toward a more vibrant, sustainable and dynamic downtown. Of course, projects guided by public policy and millions of dollars are rarely so simple, and assignment of blame for the situation quickly became hard to pin down.

The first suspect was the developer, Cadan Inc, who has transformed the first site of the Tannery from a dilapidated complex of factory buildings to a rediscovered space that will focus the working lives of hundreds into a key area along the region’s central corridor. The tragedy is that they believe, likely in concert with many of their prospective tenants, that a lack of immediately available free parking would be the automatic termination of success for the project. So, the result is that the second site is sacrificed to bring the first site a better outlook for survival.

Of course, I wouldn’t be excited about knocking the buildings of the second site down in favour of parking if I owned the property, but I do not. It appears that the necessary steps have been taken to satisfy the official processes that would guide the development, so we are introduced to the second suspect: the city.

After extended public engagement to develop the official plan, we have a document that captures a common vision for the evolution of our community. Our neighbours have given their opinion, with the hope that the end product will prevent our urban changes from heading in the wrong direction. Among the assertions available in the document: protect heritage buildings, and avoid surface parking. Whoops!

Unfortunately, it is not this citizen-driven vision that directs staff as they process requests for such projects. The “applicable law,” as it is known, is the zoning bylaw. These bylaws do not always reflect the official plan, a consistency challenge that is likely unmet by a great number of communities across the province.

What to do? It seems that everyone is just doing their job. Perhaps a core problem is how we get to those jobs. Most of us drive to work alone, and much like the development approval system, it just seems to be the way things went yesterday and will likely go tomorrow.

Municipal staff, elected officials, developers and employers all have key roles in shaping our community. By combining their efforts with adherence to new priorities, we can allow the latent radical shift in commuting behaviour that awaits improved options. As the dominance of parking demand in the Tannery project has shown, how we are able to find our way into a neighbourhood has one of the greatest impacts on how it looks when we get there.

Jason Hammond of Kitchener is the president of Grand River CarShare.”

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