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.

Mayor Ford’s troubles a lesson for all Canadian mayors

Toronto Mayor Rob FordOn days like this, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford must be banging his head against the wall. This week he – and indeed every Canadian mayor – was reminded that a mayor’s powers are limited to a single vote.

That point was driven home when Councillor Joe Mihevc asked for a legal opinion on Ford’s unilateral decision to kill the Transit City plan, in December 2010, without consulting council. Mihevc also claimed Ford did not have the authority to sign a memorandum of understanding with the province to spend money from the Transit City project to put the proposed Eglinton LRT entirely underground.

The legal opinion suggested Ford did, indeed, overstep his authority. The province, too, has indicated that any agreement must be approved by the “governing body,” not just the mayor. The mayor is not an autocrat, no matter what he thinks his role is.

Unlike mayors in the USA, in Canada mayors have no additional power, and certainly no veto, that are not granted to any other member of council. Much of their authority is assumed by position or given by respect, rather than granted through legislation. They may act as chair, set the agenda, and control their own office budget, but can do little else outside the context of the democratic process. Unilateral decisions are not permitted.

In Canada, municipalities are children of their respective province, a role descended from the original British North America Act and as out of touch with current times as the BNA would be today. Cities, even our largest, have no independence as many American and European cities have. In every province, legislation defines what power, what authority and what responsibility municipalities enjoy. This antiquated – almost medieval – hierarchy puts our major cities on the same legislative level as any hamlet or village. And it puts every mayor on the same level as any other member of council: one vote, no veto.

Whether this is good or bad governance is a debate that provincial municipal organizations should be pressing on the provinces. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities should be demanding the federal government examine necessary changes to federal laws to facilitate provincial changes.

Author Gord Hume discussed this and related issues in his recent book, Taking Back Our Cities. Unfortunately for municipal politicians in Canada, Hume is a lone voice; provincial and federal municipal associations are unaccountably silent on the changes needed (and long overdue) in the provincial-municipal relationship. In fact, there seems to be a slightly too-cozy relationship between the provinces and their respective provincial associations. Association executives exhibit a tad too much reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ and upset that relationship.

The fight with Ford is not about transit dollars. It’s about authority and governance. I can sympathize: in the previous Collingwood council, I argued similarly against what I perceived as overstepping mayoral authority. It’s somewhat understandable that mayors assume they have more significance than their fellow council members because they are elected at large and, at least in Ford’s case, with a larger vote count that councillors get. But that significance is not defined in any legislation. They cannot act alone.

In the Globe and Mail, Patrick White writes,

The controversy has sparked a debate about whether he did or didn’t overstep his authority under the City of Toronto Act and, subsequently, whether it is Mr. Ford or the legislation that needs to change.

The Act may well need revision, but until such time as the province agrees to do so – and the province is very reluctant to relinquish any of its authority to municipalities, regardless of any election promises or claims to partnerships – Ford is the one who has to change.

Do some or all Canadian mayors need powers comparable to what their American counterparts enjoy? That would be a big debate, a fascinating and probably contentious one. It’s not likely to happen under the current Ontario government. None of the parties have expressed more than bland platitudes about the municipal-provincial relationship; their leaders usually smugly calling us “partners” without offering us a seat at the table for any decision that affects municipalities. In the province’s eyes, that partnership is a subservient role and municipalities have to tug their virtual forelocks in obedience.

As for the federal government, it won’t act until the provinces pressure it to do so. That day will come only when our municipal organizations show the spine to fight for a renewed, revised relationship. That will not happen, I suspect, until Hell freezes over.

The colour of the herd

I felt not so much like I was in a city full of undertakers, but rather in a city that was in casual but widespread mourning. A sombre, solemn city where everyone dressed in black in recognition of some great death, but one of which visitors were unaware.

Standing at an intersection, the light would change and a wall of dark would approach, like a funeral procession that had just disbanded and was now going about its daily business in all seriousness.

Okay, to be truthful, not everyone was in black. There were other dark shades among the herd: deep greys and navy blues mottled its appearance, but black dominated. Now and then a tiny flash of resistance sparkled: a turquoise scarf, red mittens, a green hat. A few light greys showed as accents, like some Darwinian random mutation. Sometimes the white earplug wires of an iPod stood out in jarring contrast against all the darkness. But mostly it was monochrome: subtle shades of black.

Black hat, black gloves, black scarf, black coat, black pants and black shoes. It’s like everyone saw The Matrix and decided collectively to emulate Mr. Smith. Yes, even to the black shades worn on overcast days and into the evening.

I stood out like a crazed flamingo in a conservative wildebeest herd in my yellow-and-almond winter jacket. Now and then I’d spot another rebel against the herd instinct: a bright splash of colour like a beacon in the swirling sea of dark. If our paths intersected, and out eyes met, we’d share a secret smile, two rebels sloughing off the herd instinct, fellow travellers in the underground of colour.

There’s an old joke about New Yorkers wearing black until something darker comes along. It seems Toronto has adopted the black-as-fashion statement. I like black. I wear it a lot. Black can be forceful, mysterious, sexy, confrontational, challenging, expressive and strong. But it’s not so much fashion as anti-fashion, if everyone is wearing it. Is everyone in black mysterious and sexy, or just hopeful they are?

Fashionable means rubbing against the grain of the herd: wearing the opposite, wearing the things that make heads turn, being visible. If you accept the notion that doing the opposite of the herd is the front line of fashion, in Toronto this week, I was – for perhaps the only time anyone will ever accuse me of it – exquisitely fashionable.

At the very least I was un-black, which may be close to the same thing.

The return of measles a threat to us all

Measles: The InquisitorHere’s a scary fact: measles seems to be returning to the West. There has been a rise in the number of outbreaks in the last few years, including in Canada: Quebec and recently in London, Ontario. According to the Middlesex-London Health Unit, there have been recent outbreaks of both measles and mumps in many countries, including, “US states (including New York), United Kingdom, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, France, Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey, Peru, Guatemala, Congo, Zambia, Bangladesh and India.”

So why are these diseases coming back?

It seems it’s not because science has failed us. It’s not because the diseases are evolving resistance and spreading beyond the reach of our immunizations. Immunization programs have been proven to work to prevent their spread.

They’re coming back because some dim-witted parents and religious groups have decided that vaccinations aren’t necessary or are dangerous. And these muddle-headed, wrong-thinking people are endangering everyone else. They are violating the herd protection defence that vaccination had raised.

Why? In part, I blame the gullibility of people to believe anything they read online, but there are other suggestions as to why people chose such a disastrous, self-destructive and antisocial path. As The Pediatric Insider notes,

Along with clean food and water, vaccinations are generally accepted as one of the greatest public health triumphs of the modern world. We are safe from diseases like polio and measles, which once ravaged millions. We no longer, really, have to worry about most kinds of bacterial meningitis, and we’re able to even prevent some kinds of cancer. Newer vaccines in development include protection against HIV and malaria. At the same time, immunizations are very safe, compared to just about any other medicine or medical intervention. Yet despite their incredible effectiveness and well-documented safety, suspicions remain. Many families choose to skip some or all vaccinations.
[snip]
There should be no doubt that vaccines are very effective at preventing diseases, and are still necessary to prevent serious illnesses. Just one recent example: a study published in May, 2009 showed that unvaccinated kids were 23 times more likely to contract whooping cough than children who were fully vaccinated. Do not doubt that the diseases that are prevented by vaccines are themselves quite serious and sometimes deadly.

The author writes further that the main reasons people choose not to vaccinate their children is that they distrust the government, science, pharmaceutical corporations or all three. That generally puts vaccination-refusers (aka vaccination-dodgers) on the same intellectual level as those who believe the 9/11 attacks were done by the US government, that NASA was hiding a face on Mars, and that angels protect us.

He also blames “Dr. Google” and “natural” or “alternative” remedy practitioners. These two have helped perpetuate many myths and misconceptions about science and medicine, including offering ineffective alternative preventions and cures. A lot of what goes unchallenged on the Net is simply bunk: but some of what passes off as “medicine” is downright dangerous, not to mention stupid. pseudoscience and superstition haves proliferated on the Web. It’s frustrating that so many people will take the word of an astrologer or self-described “psychic” before they take that of a researcher, doctor or scientist.

Some parents still cling stubbornly to the now-debunked hypothetical link between vaccinations and autism. It must be a government conspiracy because no matter how many times this link is disproven, there seems to be someone willing to revile the debunker (like Canadian actor Jim Carey did -it’s a sad state we’ve fallen to when people will heed the words of an ill-informed actor or a media idol over a scientist who spent years on the research). These myths are memes, not science.

I read one wild, unsubstantiated claim online that, “All vaccines are biological weapons that weaken or destroy the human immune system. They often fail to protect against diseases they’re designed to prevent and often cause them. The H1N1 vaccine is experimental, untested, toxic, extremely dangerous, and essential to avoid even if mandated.” What claptrap. Yet because there is nothing on the site to indicate this is an uninformed opinion, readers who lack critical thinking skills have no way to identify it as nonsense.

According the this article on The Inquisitr.com,

The World Health Organization reports that as of October, there have been 26,000 measles cases, and nine deaths, in Europe in 2011. That is three times as many cases during the same time period in 2007.

The United States – where vaccines are mandatory – had 205 cases of measles in 2011, more than any it reported in the previous decade. Normally the USA reports about 50 cases a year. The rest appear linked to visits to or visitors from overseas. Last May, health officials warned travellers to get vaccinated before flying overseas. As one doctor commented, “Air travel has extended the range of diseases from countries where people aren’t immunized. We’re no more than one airplane ride from being exposed to many diseases.”

As the Ontario Ministry of Health says,

The vaccine protects about 99 per cent of those who get both needles against measles. It protects 95 per cent of people against mumps and about 98 per cent of people against rubella. Protection from measles, mumps and rubella after getting the vaccine is probably life-long. Vaccination also makes these diseases milder for those who may catch them.

Here’s a list of common myths about vaccinations. Give it a read. And please, if you’re one of the vaccine-deniers, do some research and read the science, not just the superstition and pseudoscience.

Why does yogurt aid digestion?

I’ve always wondered why probiotic yogurt was good for you. Yes, it aids digestions, as many clinical studies have shown, but exactly why has never been explained to my satisfaction. Until recently, that is.

According to a story reported in The Scientist last fall, “The bacteria found in some fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, may alter gene expression in human gut microbes…”

Probiotic yogurtOne of the results of the study that surprised me was that eating yogurt did not significantly alter the existing population of your gut microbes. Food microbiologist, David Mills, is quoted saying, “To assume that you could eat a yogurt and numerically challenge what’s in your gut is kind of like dumping a gallon of Kool-Aid in your swimming pool and expecting it to change color.” As someone who swears by the benefits of eating yogurt, especially when on vacation in foreign countries like Mexico, I have always assumed gut populations needed rebuilding when foreign food and water challenged and reduced it. Perhaps not, it seems now. I still believe that one of the reasons we never get sick in Mexico is because we eat yogurt daily. But why?

…probiotic bacteria changed the expression of gut microbe genes encoding key metabolic enzymes, such as those involved in the catabolism of sugars called xylooligosaccharides, which are found in many fruits and vegetables. …[probiotic] organisms are capable of altering the metabolic properties of a human microbial community…

Seems like some recombinant DNA action happening here. Pretty fascinating stuff. A story from Live Science includes this:

Studies have shown that probiotics, such as those found in yogurt, can help with certain intestinal issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Recent research suggests that ingesting probiotics may even affect our behavior and could someday treat depression.

Affect behaviour? That’s food for thought… imagine instead of buying yogurt for its flavour, you’d buy it for its mood-altering effects. Replace strawberry and peach with happy and optimistic?

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.