Make it happen, crowd tells council about Admiral Collingwood

Rally in support of the Admiral Collingwood developmentFour hundred people, perhaps more, packed the Collingwood Legion, Sunday afternoon, to support the Admiral Collingwood development, at Hume and Hurontario Streets. It was arguably the most important public meeting of the last 18 months. The clear message, both from speakers at the rally and audience members, was “make it happen.” So many people packed the Legion hall that it was standing room only, with some forced to watch and listen from the alcove.

The rally was called by a group of citizens to counter the recent opposition to the proposed developments at Hume and Hurontario Streets, within the heritage district (but who had no remaining heritage buildings on the property). Despite the positive nature of the comments and speeches, there was a certain underlying anger that permeated the meeting, focused on the opposition.

Historical background: The project had been approved to proceed, legally and democratically, after numerous presentations and public meetings, by the 2003 council under former Mayor Terry Geddes, It was supported by a third-party heritage impact assessment that stated it would integrate well with the recently-created heritage district.

However, early in his term the previous mayor, Chris Carrier, made the unprecedented motion to rescind the project’s heritage review approval. Six of the nine council members of that time voted to support the mayor’s motion (including Councillors Edwards, Jeffrey, McNabb, Sandberg and Foley: the three dissenters being Deputy Mayor (now Mayor) Cooper and Councillors Labelle and Chadwick). This brought a halt to everything on the site.

The developer was required to re-design the project, drop a floor from the previously-approved six storeys, remake the look, and undergo a new heritage impact assessment. Eventually an assessment that reflected the attitude of the majority of that previous council was presented. But by that time, the global recession had changed the economic situation and the project stalled with a mere hole dug as a start for the underground parking garage. For the remaining three years of its term, the previous council was embarrassed by the water-filled pit on the main-street site. Some local wags nicknamed it “Carrier’s Pond,” a name which stuck during the remainder of the term.

Residents Murray Doupe and Ruth Gadway organized a petition asking council to let the project proceed, and eventually garnered approximately 2,500 signatures. However, this was casually sloughed off by the previous council and mayor. The former mayor said to The Enterprise Bulletin that, “..he was offended by the petition and (Scott) Thomson’s presentation, which impugned the integrity of his fellow councillors. He also criticized the organizers for further polarizing the community with the petition, which he said utilized a divisive approach.”

In late 2010, a new council was elected (only one of the original opponents to the project was re-elected). The new council was composed of candidates who promised to get the stalled project started again. Early in this term, the council unanimously approved making changes to the zoning that would allow the development to go ahead. A new design was presented, with the original six storey height. However, complications with a heritage district bylaw passed by the previous council, and debate over procedural issues, have made it difficult to proceed. A small but vocal group of opponents – many of them who had opposed the original design – challenged the plan. In response, a group of residents held Sunday’s rally in support of the project.

Among the audience at the event were several members of council: Mayor Cooper, and Councillors Gardhouse, West, Lloyd, Cunningham and Chadwick. Deputy Mayor Lloyd was on vacation, so unable to attend.

The rally had been organized by a group of five local residents and business people, none of whom have a financial association with the developer or the project: Don Paul, Terry Geddes, Dunc Hawkins, Ron Emo and Brian Hickey. All but Geddes spoke at the meeting (Terry was unexpectedly called away Sunday morning to a meeting in Toronto). Also at the podium speaking in favour of the project – and to support Collingwood Council in going ahead with it – were local residents and business people Wayne Noble, Jack Marley, Penny Skelton, Lesley Paul, and Margot Bulmer.

“We’re the silent majority,” said Brian Hickey, “but we’re going to be the loud majority. Fifty years from now, there will be a heritage committee saying, ‘Let’s keep that building.'”

“I have great difficulty understanding how a small group of people who recently moved to Collingwood could try to stop this project,” said the outspoken Wayne Noble. “We need this project to maintain the life of the downtown. The building needs to be built.”

The latter comment garnered loud applause from the audience. Other speakers took more subtle shots at the opponents to the project, stressing the need to develop the downtown and the mandate handed to this council to move forward.

Rally in support of the Admiral Collingwood development“As a business person, I want this development to anchor the southern end of the main Street,” said Penny Skelton, whose bookstore, The Crow’s Nest is only a few dozen metres from the proposed site. “This is long overdue. Council was elected with a clear mandate to see this development go forward.”

Skelton also mentioned the late Jane Jacobs, who commented on the need for a mix of stores, restaurants and housing within walking distance of one another.

Margot Bulmer warned the community not to “tie yourselves so much to ideals that the Admiral Collingwood can’t go forward,” a reference to the objections by a small but vocal group to the site’s proposed six storeys. In the heritage district, the current bylaw allows only three storeys. Site-specific changes to that bylaw have been proposed by council. If these fail, I have proposed removing the site from the heritage district (something I first tried in 2007, but failed).

Former mayor Ron Emo spoke of the “..cumulative effect of building decisions” that shape our impression of heritage, and encouraged council to be “flexible enough to allow entrepreneurs… to follow their vision.”

Dunc Hawkins was more direct. He said the current council was “handcuffed by a flawed bylaw passed by the last council.” Hawkins also commented on the positive nature of the amount of taxes, development charges and building permit fees the town would receive from the development.

“We’ve still got a group of folks who think this thing should not proceed,” Hawkins warned, then adding that the organizing group supported the current council’s efforts, and encouraged the audience to contact council members to express their personal support for the project.

The project and bylaw decision will come to council, February 6, 2012. Given the widespread community support for the development and for its proposed six storeys, I suspect it will get the approvals it needs. However, it still may be taken to the OMB by its opponents. I suspect there may be sufficient support at council to eliminate the entire heritage district, if the opposition to this project continues. That hasn’t be proposed, of course, by council, but opposition to the heritage district in general has been expressed by several members of the public who are fed up with the delays to this development.

UPDATE: The EB’s take is here.

Google Earth 6.2 gets somewhat better, but it still needs work

It was big news this week that Google Earth 6.2 was released with a bunch of new pictures, and an improved satellite mesh that removed some of the previous patchwork of scans that made up some of its maps.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthThe media are full of articles praising Google Earth’s new release. CNET noted, “The result is a more realistic and less distracting (though still optimistically cloudless) view of the planet. Update: It turns out that by turning on the weather layer, you can dispel Google Earth’s sunny optimism and see if it’s really cloudy by showing live weather data.”

Collingwood from above, Google EarthAs much as I like Google Earth, and as much as I enjoy my virtual explorations of the world using it, it’s still less-than-impressive for local use (or in fact for most of the world outside the USA). First of all is the annoying cloud over our downtown that obscures the view of our beautiful main street. It’s not part of Google Earth’s live weather display. The original satellite image has a cloud. I don’t know if there have been later passes without a cloud, but I’d really like to see my home town unblemished. It has not been changed in several years, however.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthSecond is the grainy, mid-to-low-res of the overhead views. Some of the satellite images in Google Earth are pin-sharp. Look at the views of New York City, for example. But Collingwood is in the lower range that’s at the verge of interesting but not quite detailled enough to be really useful. It’s not too bad when you want a sprawling overview of the while town, but when you want to zoom in for a closer look at neighbourhoods, you get the image on the left: coarse and ugly. Again this may not be Google’s fault, but surely more accurate, higher-res images are available.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthThere are consistency issues, too. Take a look at this street-level image of downtown. Nice sunny day, trees in bloom. Cloudless sky (certainly not the same day as the satellite photo, which has leafless trees and that annoying cloud). Then move a few feet (or metres) north from that spot and what do you see?

Collingwood from above, Google EarthHmmm. The sky is suddenly cloudy. And the trees are different. We can’t see the new sidewalk and downtown design we’ve had the last two years, and it’s very evidently a different day. So many changes in the last two years, none recorded here. Google Earth is not very up-to-date for Collingwood: it’s showing our history, not our present. You can do the virtual drive through the downtown and see the same sort of abrupt changes from cloudy-to-sunny and back at almost every block.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthI’m sure there are many enhancements to this version of Google Earth worth crowing about. But the things that matter most to me – the accuracy and clarity in my hometown – are not among them. I also note the detailled 3D buildings visible in so many cities are not visible in Collingwood. I’m not sure if that’s because no one local has created models or entered any requisite data, or if it’s an oversight in Google Earth itself. But look at Toronto with its 3D buildings and you can see the difference.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthYou can see the difference in quality of images here in this capture of a neighbourhood in San Francisco, California. nice crisp view, lots of detail, and can be zoomed almost to street level with no loss of clarity. That’s the sort of image I want for Collingwood.

Collingwood from above, Google EarthHere’s the same scene, zoomed right down to ground level, but not in Google Earth’s street view perspective. See the difference 3D buildings can make in the landscape at this level? While not perfect it conveys at least some sense of proportion and depth. That kind of view would have helped us understand the visual impact of the proposed Admiral Collingwood development. But for that, and for many areas served only by lower-res, coarse images, Google Earth remains an entertaining but less-than functional tool.

It’s still a work in progress and despite improvements, Google Earth has a long way to go before it serves us here as well as it does in the USA. I’ll rate it a B for effort, but still a C overall. I may have to save my praises for version 6.5 or even 7.

Slowly dies: another bad Internet meme

I came across a fascinating poem, translated into English as “Slowly Dies.” There are numerous translations online, many by amateurs, but some very well crafted. It goes something like this (a portion from one translation):

Dies slowly he who transforms himself in slave of habit,
repeating every day the same itineraries,
who does not change brand,
does not risk to wear a new color and doesn’t talk to whom doesn’t know.
Dies slowly he who makes of television his guru.
Dies slowly he who avoids a passion,
who prefers black to white
and the dots on the “i” to a whirlpool of emotions,
just those ones that recover the gleam from the eyes,
smiles from the yawns,
hearts from the stumbling and feelings.
Dies slowly he who does not overthrow the table when is unhappy at work,
who does not risk the certain for the uncertain
to go toward that dream that is keeping him awake.

It’s a powerful, moving piece. However, the poem is not by Neruda, as is commonly and frequently claimed on the many sites where the poem appears. I became suspicious when I couldn’t find it in any of my collections of Neruda’s works (printed books). A little deeper surfing turned up that uncomfortable fact: it has nothing to do with Neruda.

In the past, I wrote about how quotations and poems have been mis-associated by people online who either were misinformed or were too lazy to actually look them up and confirm the source. Here’s my original piece on a mistaken Shakespearean quote and another post on a bad Thoreau quote. Sadly, these mistakes take on the patina of credibility.

Martha MedeirosThis is now the Medeiros meme. A meme is, as you know, the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination. Like a virus, it can be good or bad. In this case, it’s bad because it’s wrong and contributes to our collective stupidity. It gives credit to the late Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda but it really belongs to the talented Brazilian, Martha Medeiros.

Poetry isn’t the big part of our cultural life that it was a couple of generations ago. How many people actually call themselves poets today? How many books of new poetry are published by mainstream publishers these days? Few, I think.

In the mid-1970s, I had the honour of working as a sales rep for Canadian publisher, McLelland & Stewart, in the heyday of Canadian poetry, when poets like Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Susan Musgrave and others were still publishing and, more important, being read and bought. In fact, books of poetry were even bestsellers then – Rod McKuen’s books sold millions in the late 60s and early 70s (personally I thought his writing was thin and shallow, but apparently I was in the minority).

Did you know that a unique form of poetry – the viator poem – was actually invented in Canada, by poet Robert Skelton? Just one of those bits of trivia to amaze and amuse your friends. We have a quite a rich tradition of poetry in this country, although you’d be hard pressed to tell by browsing through most of the bigger bookstores. You’ll usually find the few shelves of poetry hidden somewhere near a back wall, sandwiched between teen-read vampire trash and comic books (oh, excuse me: graphic novels).

When did poetry slip from its height and become a fringe art instead of a mainstream one? There are poets and poetry sites online, and I’ve seen a minor revival of some forms like haiku (and some entertaining Twitter-based forms). But I’d suggest there are more sites dedicated to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty games than to poetry. There are certainly more sites dedicated to astrology, UFOs, angels and other claptrap than to poetry. That deserves a sprightly limerick in itself.

I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry. Among my books, I have a battered, well-read paperback collection of poems by Wallace Stevens I picked up in 1972. I also have books of poems by Li Po, Gary Snider, Leonard Cohen, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsburg, Baudelaire and other poets> Most I bought in the late 60s and early 70s, but a few in the 80s. I still like to pick up a collection and spend an hour or two in an easy chair reading poetry, savouring the words, the construction, the imagery. Poetry has the power to move me; like music, but in different ways.

As one of the various translations of this poem goes,

Slowly dies he who doesn’t travel, he who doesn’t read,
he who doesn’t listen to music…

to which I would add, “he who doesn’t read poetry…” In poetry there is magic, wonder, and imagination to be found it its swirling depths. But poetry itself is not the point of Medeiros’ poem: the point is rather that life is painted on a large canvas, something to be lived, not merely observed, not ignored or controlled by habit.

Let’s avoid death by small doses,
remembering always that being alive
requires a much larger effort
than the simple act of breathing.

Musing on mixed heights in urban environments

Mixed building sizesI recently spent some time looking online for images of cities where mixed building heights could show me how a varied skyline looks when buildings of significantly different heights are close together in an urban environment. This is, of course, because Collingwood council will soon consider allowing a six-storey building downtown, set amidst what are mostly two- and three-storey buildings. The mix of high and low in the core is common in cities, less so in smaller towns. That’s simple economics, however.

Aurora, ILAll of these images here were borrowed from various sites to showcase the mix. It’s a simple effect, it seems, of growth and time: buildings grow taller as population increases. Height was limited before the development of elevators and modern steel construction. This had the effect of limiting density, as well. There were many six-storey walk-ups built, but not very often outside big cities, at least from what I could find.

Barrie, ONI make no claims as to whether these photos represent good or bad planning, or whether they create a beautiful or ugly skyline. Those judgments are subjective. We will never reach a consensus on taste, so other factors will have to be considered in our decision. I was merely curious as to how such dichotomies of size looked in the real world. Nothing I’ve seen has changed my mind.

Boston, MAI’ve had the pleasure of visiting a lot of cities: I’ve been in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa, London and almost every other Canadian city (the sole exception being Quebec City). I have visited many American cities, including New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Detroit, Buffalo, Seattle and several others. I’ve been to Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City and Morelia in Mexico, and Cartagena and Baranquilla in Colombia. I’ve been to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where ancient and modern share property lines. I’ve seen a wide and varied mix of new and old in every city, often side-by-side in the core of the city.

Halifax, NSMost recently, I was in London, England. England has some very stringent laws about heritage and development, far stronger than anything we have here. I had the pleasure of sipping a pint of beer in a small pub in the heart of London, surrounded by tall, modern buildings that towered over it. I had the pleasure of eating lunch and shopping in 17th and 18th-century buildings that had been incorporated into newer structures much larger than the originals. And I had the pleasure of doing the same in entirely new buildings made of glass and steel. Nothing seemed glaringly out of place.

Toronto, ONThe mix of heights usually also indicates a mix of ages: heritage (shorter) and new (taller), co-existing. But not always: some of the shorter buildings on Toronto’s Yonge Street are comparatively new. Sometimes a lower height is the choice because taller buildings require more extensive engineering, and there may not be sufficient land for anything larger. Downtown Collingwood has such a mix of new and old shorter buildings.

Ottawa, ONMost Canadian cities are new compared to Europe’s, so we lack the volume of heritage buildings there. That makes it more important to retain what we have. But what does that mean for current and future development? For some, at least, it means nothing can be built that does not in some way enhance or mimic those heritage sites, or at least does not in any way overshadow them (aesthetically and literally). To me, part of the beauty of cities lies in their mix, not merely in the areas of similarity.

Philadelphia, PAI am not convinced that the character of a heritage building is in any way diminished by a more modern, or a larger building beside it. In fact, I personally feel that the heritage aspects can be enhanced when they are juxtaposed against another era’s architecture. I don’t feel, for example, that the classic brownstone homes turned into shops and offices in Toronto’s Kensington Market or along Baldwin Street are in any way diminished by the nearby highrises and office towers that can clearly be seen beyond the roof lines. To me, it makes the smaller buildings more human-scale and enjoyable.

Montreal, QCThere are numerous modern, small-scale buildings on the main street of Collingwood. the soon-to-be-vacant Shoppers’ Drug Mart is an example of a mediocre, boxy, modern design that would benefit from demolition and replacement. On its site won’t go a heritage building – maybe in another century it will be considered as such. Instead it will be a modern simulacrum that mimics older designs and their height.

Nashville, TNTo me the height argument has flaws when applied to the property at Hume and Hurontario, as much as it would to property in the Shipyards’ end of town. I see it as akin to my neighbours telling me I can’t plant a maple tree on my property because everyone south of me has older, established lilac bushes that would somehow be diminished by a taller maple at the far end of the street.

Hamilton, ONPerhaps if I wanted to plant that maple between two smaller bushes close to one another on a single property, I might agree that there could an aesthetic mismatch. In the same way, I wouldn’t want the one-storey SDM building replaced with a six-storey micro-tower (if such a thing were possible) because it would look out of place between buildings of three stories. But would a four-storey seem so out of place? What about a two-storey? Must it be three to suit the streetscape?

Markham, ONAt almost the end of the downtown portion of street, the Admiral Collingwood development needs special consideration. I can’t accept the argument that a six-storey building there will be so grossly out of place. There are too many examples I’ve seen where mixed heights complement one another, not detract from the other. I think that would be the case, here. I don’t believe a taller building will hurt the property values of the surrounding heritage buildings.

Fredericksburg, USAOf course, whether it fits or not, no matter what the height, the building will be new, not old. Although it will be tasteful and elegant, it will not be a heritage building. No argument for or against the height will change that. It will not even look much like the late-19th century buildings further up the main street. It will look like what it is: a new building with heritage-like stylistic touches.

Mixed heightsAs council, we have to consider all the factors that are represented by the development – economic, social, impact on the downtown businesses, tax revenue, etc. – not just the height. And if we want to avoid sprawl and live up to those honourable goals and visions we have set for this town – active transportation, active lifestyle, less dependence on automobiles, cultural strength, strong core area – then we need more people downtown. Higher density is the only way to put more people into a small space, and taller buildings are the only way to get more density. That’s why cities grow upwards. Property values increase with the height, too. That’s simple capitalism.

More mixed heightsWe’re still a small town and we have to ask whether a development of that size and scale will negatively affect our community (and the perception of our beloved small-town-ness). Or will it help it be a vital and exciting place to live with a lively and thriving downtown core? Which is most important to the long-term future of this town?