Thursday, February 24, 2011

Heritage, Sense of Place, Identity, Culture

This is a picture from today's Record of a school that was torn down in Cambridge this week:

This is where I live (photo from Google Maps): you can imagine why the loss of the school in Cambridge is very sad for me.

A decade ago, my building was saved by the skin of its teeth. After the original school closed it became an adult learning center, then offices... and then the building was condemned.

Developer Shawky Fahel bought the building and turned it into condos. But unlike almost every other historical condo development in the area, he preserved every aspect of the building that could be saved. He preserved the terrazzo floors in the wide hallways, as well as all the doors, stair railings, the little kid drinking fountains, even the original classrooms (although a couple were divided into two units). The birds-eye maple floors, still marked where desks were bolted to them a hundred years ago, were carefully numbered, pulled up, taken away for refinishing and then replaced. All the plumbing, wiring and heating ducts were replaced, but essentially the building was left its charming old self.

Compare that to the Seagram Lofts: only two walls were saved in each building, and otherwise the "lofts" are all new construction, with no historical materials inside. Or the Bauer Lofts, which is just an apartment building that happens to be built next to the old Bauer factory (which itself was completely gutted, with the only original parts being a little bit of the outside brick).

Further afield, sometimes we "save" heritage buildings in a way that doesn't save them at all. The old Toronto Stock Exchange on Bay Street, for example, was a designated building and so had to be preserved, but all that's left is the facade, swallowed up in a glass skyscraper with no attempt to even riff on the style of the original building. Of the fabulous old art deco interior with its pneumatic tubes and brass, nothing remains.

It would have been best if Uptown Waterloo had maintained enough families that the schools didn't have to close, but given the need for finding something else to do with the historic Alexandra Street School, this is about as good as it gets. (Thanks, Shawky.)


Monday, February 21, 2011

Galactic Ruler Xenu Hires a Lawyer

There once was a guy who wrote sci-fi short stories for pulp magazines. Then one day he wrote this story:

75 million years ago, the earth was over-populated with 186 billion people, so its ruler rounded up most of the people and put them in volcanoes and blasted them with H-bombs. But their souls escaped, so he rounded up all the souls and made them watch movies that tricked them into believing they were gods or devils. After that the souls clumped up and invaded the bodies of the remaining people. The souls are still in us today, and the only way we can get rid of them is to join Scientology.

L Ron Hubbard wrote that story over 60 years ago, but the cult based on it is still in existence, and lots of nutty Californians are members. Actually, not that many - it seems that Scientology only has about 25,000 members - but when you think how ridiculous the story is that is (apparently) the basis of the entire faith, it really is a lot.

The Feb 14-21 New Yorker has a long, engrossing story about Scientology, The Apostate, and author Lawrence Wright does a brilliant job. I was glued to the page for hours. This is even more amazing given the awkward writing style which I am certain was caused by a team of lawyers scrutinizing every word to ensure that the aggressive Scientologist legal team couldn't find grounds to sue. In fact, that aspect of the writing makes the article even more engrossing: there are things not said, things teasing me from words I can just barely sense were removed.

At one point the author flies to California for an arranged meeting with the Scientology spokesman, but the guy plays games with him and utimately won't talk to him. A few paragraphs later, the spokesperson flies to New York to meet the author and his editors, and brings with him an entourage of two other executives and four lawyers, along with 48 binders of supporting documents. What did the New Yorker do to cause that about-face? An entire backstory lurks behind the tale.

In my lifetime, the three litigious heavyweights have been Brian Mulroney, Conrad Black, and the Church of Scientology. News articles about all three have had this awkward, overly scrutinized feel. I remember one article about Mulroney in the Globe & Mail (the article that broke the news of the envelopes of cash from Karlheinz Schreiber), which was almost unreadable - and the bombshell $300,000 figure was hidden in a paragraph near the end. The breakthrough of the New Yorker article is that the legal scrutiny actually made the article better.


Monday, February 14, 2011

The "New" Rapid Transit Proposal, Part 2

The proposal is here: Region releases report on Rapid Transit Implementation Options.

A few weeks ago, Regional Council voted to instruct staff to consider a bus rapid transit (BRT) option. The report presents 11 options, nine of which are LRT and only one is BRT. That option is a Cadillac version of BRT. It goes all the way to the St Jacob's Farmer's Market, which is further than the original LRT proposed route went. The entire route is on dedicated lanes built up with curbs: no parts of the route merge with regular lanes of traffic or use cheaper means of creating a dedicated lane, such as painting a diamond on the road.

Why did they do this? It seems obvious that the plan is to make BRT seem more expensive so as to tilt regional councillors towards choosing LRT. In other words, this report is just more manipulation, more obfuscation, more nonsense.

We need a real debate on this issue, with numbers we can trust and honest realistic options. We are not going to get that from our Region. We need an outside arbiter or consultant or board to come in and take over transit planning.


The "New" Rapid Transit Proposal

Only a few weeks after regional council voted to reconsider the BRT option, the Region has released its "new" transit proposal: Rapid transit implementation options.

Is it new? No. The report provides a dizzying array of 11 options, nine of which are LRT and one of which is "status quo" (AKA inflated estimates of the costs of not improving transit). Some of the options, such as the one to run LRT to St Jacobs' farmer's market, seem to be included just to set up easy targets and divert opposition from the main goal - to push through the original LRT proposal.

The report also sets up dates for new public consultation. If I had any expectation that the consultation would be any more honest than last time, when the region spent a fortune disguising a PR campaign as public consultation, I would make an effort to publicize these. As it is, what's the point.

But that, of course, is just the goal of this latest salvo in the war on Waterloo Region to force LRT on us against our wishes: confuse the issues, obfuscate the issues, wear us down. So, with a tired and heavy heart, I'll repeat a few of the reasons that the vast majority of citizens are against this crazed plan to put a train down our main streets:

LRT is a flawed transit plan that will be a costly white elephant that will bleed resources from useful transit routes, will provide inconvenient service, will create congestion on the roads, and will cause unnecessary increases in taxes.

As Jane Jacobs argues in her book Dark Age Ahead, "fixed transit routes were expensive failures when they were not preceded by evidence of sufficient demand." As John Shortreed recently showed, the demand forecast by the Region is wildly overstated. We do not have the demand sufficient to justify a fixed rail route. (I would provide a link for the Shortreed info but The Record is no longer posting certain anti-LRT articles on, a devious tactic that should be stopped. I would be happy to discuss this with anyone interested in rectifying it.)

The report's claims that a BRT would quickly become overused are highly questionable. There are heavily used bus routes in Toronto that operate just fine with heavy use at rush hour. The report's overblown images of an endless line of bunched buses are just scare-mongering.

The LRT proposal is more about creating a flashy legacy project for departing politicians than it is about good city planning.

I am concerned that the ideology behind the LRT proposal is that the way to reduce car use is to artificially increase congestion by creating a route that disrupts traffic. That’s the only way I can think of to explain the route down King, the left turn across King at Erb Street, the disruption of intersections at Caroline-Erb and Caroline-William (in the latter case, the current map has the LRT running diagonally across the middle of the intersection).

In addition, the planned LRT would not be convenient. While the LRT will take away two lanes of traffic on our main arteries such as King Street between downtown and uptown, the stops are so infrequent that the area LRT serves will not be well-serviced. This type of infrequently stopping public transit is suitable for bringing people into downtown from the suburbs, but is not suitable for a transit line that is supposed to service the heart of the city.

If people find transit inconvenient they won’t take it, and then it will not reduce the need for roads at all.

The biggest convenience factors are frequency of arrival and total length of time of trips. Buses, which carry less people, run more frequently. Routes can be extended to require less transfers. And overall time on the iXpress route is similar between BRT and LRT. Meanwhile LRT, being an inflexible fixed route with large carriers, has less frequency and requires more transfers in the entire trip. It is much less convenient.

Buses can be short-turned (run in a loop over the busiest stops at rush hour). Buses can be moved between routes to suit demand. Buses can travel on different routes to avoid slowdowns when there are accidents or other disruptions on the road.

BRT could be an even cheaper option if the route was designated by painting diamonds on the road rather than building curbs around the BRT lanes. There could be a combination of the two techniques: buses could merge with regular traffic when going through Uptown Waterloo, for example (a proposal that was unanimously adopted by the Uptown Vision Committee).

Finally, the LRT route is overly favorable to the university of Waterloo. That helps the Region boost their ridership projections, but since university students essentially ride for free, it does little to help transit revenues. It does very little to meet the stated goals of the proposal, which is to lure commuters out of their cars and on to transit.


Monday, February 07, 2011

Is Waterloo Square in Trouble?

Waterloo Square, lately known as "the Shoppes at Waterloo Town Square," is not flourishing. Nearly half the shops are empty or about to be (the good shoe store and Gizmos are both having closing sales). The remaining clothing stores are not the sort of boutiques that were envisioned as attractions; they're no different from an average mall-type store. The chocolate shop can't be doing well (I never see anyone in there). The "art gallery" and barely-open condo showroom are filler.

What's going wrong?

Some of the retailers believe that business never recovered after the front parking lot was turned into the Public Square. I like the public square and I like the policy to hide parking lots, but it may well be that visible parking attracts shoppers; after all, people flock to malls, where many people walk a long distance across the huge parking lots.

Another problem could be that the mall is just too small. After all, how many malls have barely 20 establishments, including restaurants? But we just spent a pile of money reducing it to a fraction of its previous size (it was not only cut in half, but the tower and basement areas were removed).

Perhaps the stores could be the problem - too expensive and not high enough quality. The vision for Uptown was independently owned boutique stores and gift shops. We haven't had many stores as high quality as Fudge's (which closed due to retirement).

I also wonder if First Gulf, the owner of the mall, isn't setting the rents too high. I wrote a business plan a few years ago for someone who was thinking of renting the coffee shop space, and when I crunched the numbers I saw how difficult it would be to survive with the rent that First Gulf wanted. (They may have lowered it after the space was empty for some time.)

An even more troubling thought is that perhaps Waterloo Square is a bellwether for the Uptown. Uptown has its share of failed or failing stores. Other than Words Worth Books, The Old Goat, Ontario Seed and Lily White, I'm not sure there's anything worth going to Uptown for these days.

Is anyone monitoring the situation, or doing anything about this?