02/18/12

Why not a Napoleon theme park?


Napoleon BonaparteThere’s a sarcastic, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek commentary in the Guardian this week, called, “Why not have a Napoleon theme park?” In it, Agnès C. Poirier editorializes on a recent proposal by a French MP to build a theme park in France dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. She writes,

Abroad, observers could be forgiven for almost choking on hearing this news: why not a Stalin or a Kim Jong-il theme park too?

That made me choke, almost pushing my half-swallowed tea through my nose. Imaginations must run very high among her set if anyone can associate Napoleon Bonaparte with two of the Twentieth Century’s most ruthless, genocidal dictators. Napoleon was no Gandhi, but he was certainly not genocidal. And by the way, North Korea just revealed a new, 70-foot statue of the dictator Kim Jong-Il, so can a theme park be far behind?

Agnes offers a backhanded compliment:

In fact, in France, many distinguish between Bonaparte and Napoleon, that is to say the man before and after he became emperor in 1804, when the child of the revolution turned insatiable tyrant. During his 10 years of folie des grandeurs, which cost the lives of more than a million men, he still achieved great things, such as emancipating Europe’s Jews.

Insatiable tyrant? No one who had read in any detail the history of Napoleon’s life and career would label him thus.

Calling Napoleon a tyrant was first done by the British press as a propaganda attack during the Napoleonic Wars. A nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people. Cartoons pictures him as shorter than his actual height (he was 5′ 7″, average for the time). In 1908, psychologist Alfred Adler named an inferiority complex in which short people adopt an over-aggressive behaviour to compensate for lack of height; this inspired the term Napoleon complex, and that has coloured popular impressions of Napoleon ever since.

Napoleon was a complex character, and became increasingly dictatorial as he aged. But I find it hyperbolic to compare him with modern-day tyrants. The term tyrant orginally meant “one who illegally seized and controlled a governmental power in a polis.” It later added “connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of an oligarchy over the best interests of the general population, which the tyrant governs or controls.” History, as Napoleon famously said, is written by the victors. Thus he has come down to us as a tyrant, rather than a hero.

Napoleon certainly placed family interests over state interests at various times, but also placed state interests over personal ones at times, when he tried to solidify his Europe-wide union of states through marriage and appointment. His reign was not that simply defined as the label suggests. Poirier realizes this, but it seems a grudging acceptance:

Napoleon is a fascinating subject, the study of which requires nuance and subtlety. The man was a tyrant, a genius, a liberator and a conqueror. What you’d call a bundle of contradictions. More than 80,000 books have been written about him and a theme park, rather than just an awkward idea, fits the current fashion in France for “war tourism”.

She then refers readers to a novel by Anthony Burgess, The Napoleon Symphony, rather than any of the thousands of non-fiction works of history, military history or biography. Myself, I’d refer people to Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon for a better appreciation of the man’s military genius. However, Chandler does not cover his social, cultural and political activities (and does not cover the bloody campaign in Spain, because it was conducted by Napoleon’s marshals rather than by Bonaparte personally).

Napoleon’s life is fascinating and complex, and no one can deny he reshaped Europe (not just France) irrevocably. Some of his changes brought Europe into the modern world – he planted the seeds of a united Germany, united Italy, created a continental trade system that resembles today’s European Union, he changed the way armies fought (and how they treated civilians), he emancipated Jews from their ghettos, he challenged social beliefs in the divine right of monarchs, he rewrote laws, promoted science and learning, restored the church that had been almost destroyed in the French Revolution and established religious tolerance, founded institutes and schools, set up networks of communications, improved roads and sewers. He replaced feudal laws with the Napoleonic Code, based on equality and justice.

But why Napoleonland, a theme park based on Napoleon? Probably because it’s about the rise of nationalism in an increasingly complex and difficult European Union (beset as it is with financial woes), it’s about reaction to the popularity of Disneyland in Paris (which attracts 15 million visitors a year and is Europe’s most popular theme park), and it’s about a changing, modern perspective on French history.

Perhaps Napoleonland will be garish and kitschy, as opponents suggest. But perhaps it will instead help the world remember and celebrate a complex, challenging but ultimately great individual whose life and work still resounds throughout Europe today.

02/14/12

What Shall We Do With the Mountain View?


Globe Hotel, 1913Here’s a new song for Collingwood, sung to the tune of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

Unbeknownst to council, the town wants to own the Mountain View Hotel for $1.9 million. This little-known fact appeared in the 600-plus page budget document without any fanfare. or even any other sort of notice. You’d have to dig through page after page of mind-numbing arrays of figures to find it.

Normally, when the municipality wants to buy property, we go in camera to hear a staff report that justifies the purchase and we discuss the legal ramifications of the offer. This is done behind closed doors to prevent the potential seller from raising the price, and to prevent competitive bidders from becoming aware, so the property can be bought, then flipped at a profit to the municipality. So I wouldn’t be able discuss it under those circumstances.

This time, however, it’s public, part of the proposed budget. Everyone is able to hear about it before we make any move. Page 364 of the budget reads,

This project is for the completion of the First Street (Hwy 26 Connecting Link) at the Hurontario Intersection. Purchase and removal of Mountainview Hotel, Brownfield restoration and construction of the five lane section as per the First Street design.
This project is subject to MTO funding and successful agreement to purchase the Mountainview Hotel. The project will not proceed without prior funding approval of MTO

I don’t see a lot of “restoration” in this proposal, however.

Globe Hotel, late 1800sOdd thing, that process. Not at all expected. Council never had the opportunity to have a say in the matter before this and it wasn’t identified in our recent strategic planning sessions. During the early budget debate I said the process was flawed: first council should decide if it wants to own the building, then what to do with it, and only after that discussion should we be discussing how much it will cost.

And, I added, it should involve the public in the process.

The Mountain View is the former Globe Hotel, one of Collingwood’s oldest hotels, built in the mid-1800s, just after the town was incorporated. It had one of the most beautiful interiors – stunning woodwork and banisters – in the region. I’m told some of that that woodwork was removed for use in a private home when the hotel was closed. The first pavement sidewalk was laid in front of the Globe. Quite a lot of history in that old building.

The Mountain View was purchased in 2004 from owner John Wheeler, and closed. However, neglect led to internal problems and for a while it looked like it would be demolished. The building was not included within the Heritage District boundaries, nor is it designated a heritage building. Why not? I have no idea. I have asked the heritage committee to comment on it.

The provincial Ministry of Transport, we’re told, wants to widen Highway 26 at the intersection with Hurontario Street, and add a fifth (turning) lane. That isn’t possible, apparently, without demolishing the building. The MOT has not conveyed that request to council, however. As I understand it, this is part of the long-term plan for Highway 26, presented and approved a couple of councils back. We have been told by staff that the MOT will pay for the purchase through “connecting link” payments to the town.

In my view, if the MOT wants the road widened, let the MOT buy it. I would not even consider such a purchase without a written request that not only confirms immediate repayment of any costs (including legal, engineering, etc.), but also acknowledges that it is the province that wants to demolish one of the oldest buildings in town, not the town. I certainly don’t want the town to be the agency that tears it down.

In fact, if the town DID buy it, I would move to have it restored and turned into a community arts and cultural centre. Not demolished. Based on the brouhaha over the Tremont and Livery buildings (and comments made at last Saturday’s open budget session), I would suggest the public would not look favourably on the town demolishing it.

Globe Hotel stampEven if the town gets the money back, the cost (almost $2 million) would probably be debentured – adding to our debt. Most debentures have to be paid out over the full term, and don’t have early closing clauses. Would the town be on the hook for demolition costs as well? Legal and other costs? I don’t know, but suspect so.

Once the road is widened, what will the town do with the oddly-shaped piece of land that remains? It will be too small for development, too small for a park. Wait, I know, a commemorative plaque showing a faded photo of the glory that used to be the Globe Hotel. Or sell it, no doubt at a loss.

As for widening the street: why? As I understand it, narrowing is a commonly used method of traffic calming. It’s used throughout Europe to get drivers to reduce speeds. Isn’t that supposed to be important here,too? It’s mentioned in our active transportation plan. The current street design performs the important role of slowing down traffic at a critical intersection, rather than letting drivers race through town unimpeded. Let’s keep it like that.

The issue will return towards the end of the budget debate. I expect financial considerations will put the proposal on hold, and give council the opportunity to properly discuss it, with, of course, public input.

02/8/12

Collingwood’s population on the rise, faster than Canada’s


Census cartoonStatistics Canada has released some of the key data data from its 2011 Census. In the five years since our last census (2006), Canada has grown in population size almost 6% to 33,476,688. That’s ten times larger than we were in 1861. Once again, our growth rate was the highest among G8 countries.

According to the StatsCan analysis of the data, “every province and most territories saw its population increase between 2006 and 2011.” However, it notes that, “The rate of population growth increased in all provinces and territories between 2006 and 2011, except in Ontario, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut… The rate of Ontario’s population growth declined slightly in the past five years to 5.7%, its lowest level since the period between the 1981 and 1986 censuses.”

Meanwhile, as our planner, Mark Bryan, pointed out to council via email this morning, Collingwood’s population continues to grow. Last census the population figure was 17,290; in 2011 it was pegged at 19,241 people. Mark points out that’s an increase of 11.3% in five years, much higher than our growth during 2001-2006, when it was 7.8%. Mark noted:

The total number of dwellings in the town now stands at 10,695, of which 8,339 are occupied by usual residents. In other words 78% of the dwellings in town are occupied by permanent residents while 22% are occupied by ‘seasonal’ residents. This split remains unchanged from the 2006 census.

That means 2,356 dwellings belong to seasonal residents, one in five. That’s significant for our planning, strategic goals, and service delivery methodology.

There were 1,379 new dwelling units added since 2006. I’d really like to know how many of those new units were affordable, and how many were bought by seasonal residents. The percentage of seasonal-to-permanent residents has fallen (78.55 to 77.97%) but not significantly.

Mark also noted that our municipal neighbours have wildly varying growth rates: Wasaga Beach (17,537 in 2011) is at the top, with a growth rate of 16.7%. Clearview (13,734) and The Town of the Blue Mountains (6,453) saw population decreases of 2.5% and 5.5%, respectively. He commented on the population decline in TOBM as “interesting since the actual number of dwellings increased from 5,619 to 6,200, an increase of about 10%… It is likely that the seasonal population is increasing with new and converted dwelling units adjacent to recreational opportunities. The permanent population, likely due to aging and out migration, appears to be decreasing.” So where are they going, one wonders.

Wasaga Beach’s split between permanent and seasonal residents is also quite different: 65% of dwellings are permanent, or one in three is seasonal, a modest increase in the percentage since 2006. The town saw 1,929 new homes since last census, roughly 50% more than Collingwood in that time. However, Collingwood has 33.46 sq. km with an average density of 575.1 people/sq. km. Wasaga Beach has 58.43 sq. km with a density of 300.1.

Simcoe County rose from 422,204 in 2006 to 446,063, a 5.7% increase.

More data will be released in May, 20102, including age and sex numbers. I’ll fill in some of the blanks when that is available.

For now, read some of the news stories on the census: National Post, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and of course the CBC.

02/5/12

Why Admiral Collingwood should go ahead


Juxtaposition.

That’s the issue Collingwood Council has to wrestle with, Monday: what effect will the juxtaposition of the proposed development’s size and height have on the existing, smaller buildings? Some people are afraid our existing heritage buildings will be diminished by this project.

Last week I was in Toronto. At the corner of York and Wellington Streets, I saw the Toronto Club; a beautifully preserved, late 19th-century red-brick, three-storey building. It’s in the, heart of financial district, surrounded by tall, modern skyscrapers, some 30 or more storeys high. What made this building stand out was the contrast with, not the similarity to, the buildings around it.

Art Gallery of OntarioI later walked along Dundas Street to the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a big, modern building redesigned by architect Frank Gehry. At 21m, It is roughly the same height of the proposed Admiral building, but much longer. Across the street are typical three-storey, Toronto brick homes, many turned into galleries and businesses. Further west along Dundas Street, Chinatown is a mix of two to four-storey buildings.

The gallery dominates the visual landscape, but instead of diminishing the others, the contrast makes them stand out more.

JerusalemA few decades ago, I visited Jerusalem. The Old City has 2,500 years of history visible in its walls and narrow streets. What makes the Old City so spectacular is how it contrasts against the modern city just outside its walls. The beauty of the Old City shines in the juxtaposition.

Duke of York pubIn London, England, this fall, I walked through 13th century cathedrals, and 15th-century castles where Henry VIII lived. I had a beer in an 18th century pub in the heart of the city, a small building surrounded by much taller and more modern ones.

England has some very rigid laws about heritage buildings to make sure they are preserved and maintained. But when there is nothing to preserve, they allow builders and architects to be creative. There are some stunningly modern and exciting buildings in London within a stone’s throw of well-preserved 17th and 18th century heritage sites. The contrast between them makes London vibrant.

It is contrast and the mix that makes any city dynamic, not its homogeneity.

I love the old buildings, I love the preserved cultural heritage sites I’ve had the privilege to visit.

But heritage is a sentimental concept, a romanticizing of an ideal past; it is not a technical term. In fact, it’s difficult to get people to agree on what it means. The whole history of the architecture conservation movement is not much older than our own town.

Our heritage district is not a museum of empty buildings: it is a place where people live and work. We want our heritage buildings to look old from the outside, but not inside.

No one wants outdoor privies and gas lanterns, no one wants to get water from a well or keep groceries in a cold cellar. We want all the modern conveniences the original owners never had: electricity, refrigeration, insulation, modern plumbing and air conditioning. Our heritage is skin deep: it’s just the façade that matters.

The definition of what is heritage changes with every generation. Many of the buildings in Collingwood’s heritage district would have been new in my grandfather’s youth. Some would have been new when my father was a teenager, a generation later. Both men would have thought of these buildings as modern, not as heritage sites.

banks in the heritage districtA generation or two from now, our children and grandchildren may see the Admiral development as heritage, something they want to protect and preserve. They may also want to preserve the blocky modern buildings like several downtown banks, the former bingo hall and former drugstore, even the town hall annex – because they will be heritage sites in the future.

is this future heritage?Today many here would like nothing more than to have those buildings torn down and something that looks more 19th-century erected in their place. Even though these and other modern buildings are within the heritage district, does anyone care if this proposed development diminishes those modern buildings? Of course not.

Admiral Collingwood developmentProtecting our heritage doesn’t mean we can only erect fakes that externally conform to our current sentimental ideal. We can allow contrast, we can allow change without in any way diminishing the value or appearance of our existing heritage buildings or district.

We have a duty to the community as a whole, not just to one segment. The economic wellbeing of our downtown is at stake, not merely its look.

Let’s stop agonizing over this and let it go forward.

01/29/12

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.

01/29/12

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.