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Elmira apartment proposals symptomatic of new development woes

Opposition to a pair of four-storey buildings proposed for Elmira – one a condominium on Ernst Street, the other rental apartments on Church Street – has met with stiff resistance from those in the respective neighbourhoods. Some of that will be attributed to NIMBY-ism, but that doesn’t negate the concerns.

Both are symptomatic of policies that are forcing higher densities on every Ontario municipality,  even though it’s not warranted in most cases. So-called brownfield development – infilling of existing neighbourhoods – is particularly prone to inappropriate development, the kind that doesn’t match the existing homes. That’s why such projects typically aren’t greeted by residents.

For officials, the ends justify the means: it doesn’t matter what the residents want, what’s appropriate or what the long-term problems are (traffic, congestion, crime, architectural monstrosities), as the goal – achievable or otherwise – is to increase density.

The neighbours’ concerns are not unexpected. They arise with pretty much every new development of any size, in every community. There are legitimate worries about increasing densities and how they’ll fit into the existing neighbourhood. Once built – and developer-driven growth almost always proceeds, whether by legal force or complicit officials – the problems are rarely as bad as the worst-case scenario, but the project almost never provides a benefit to the established residents.

That’s where the pursuit of dollars – the reason for development – and a provincially-imposed mandate of increased densities and infilling of brownfield sites conspire against residents of many a neighbourhood.

In theory, these projects are the kind of infilling now touted as the standard to combat the suburban sprawl that has shaped the way we live for the past five or six decades.

In making a case for the projects, developers talk about the need for forms of housing aside from single-family homes, particularly in relation to seniors looking to downsize but stay in Elmira. Last week’s presentation to council also touched on the proximity to the downtown core and other amenities. It’s in keeping with the focus on walkable communities and mixed-use and compact neighbourhoods, though we’ve heard far more talk of this in the region, the province and the country than we’ve actually seen delivered.

Clearly, the more utopian arguments come from those who’ve visited Europe, where densities are higher and people live within an easy walk or bike ride of most of the amenities of daily living. Because most communities developed before the advent of the automobile, they’re very much people-centric as opposed to the car-centered towns and cities of North America. A development like this – or any other project – is not going to change that, so traffic and parking will be a problem. And likely worse than claimed, as officials continue to overestimate how many people will opt for alternatives over having a car.

This is not Europe, where people actually do walk and cycle as a means of transportation, not just recreation. Public transit is convenient and well used. In short, the antithesis of how we do things here. Living there, you can quite easily do without a car. That’s not true anywhere in the region, let alone in Woolwich.

Trouble is, that European ideal isn’t likely to translate here, the land of vinyl siding, asphalt and big-box retail.

In all the talk of more human-scale communities, there’s no mention of aesthetics. For me, that’s the make-it-or-break-it part of the equation: our ugly built environments foster neither pride of place nor a desire to be out on foot, interacting with the place where we live as something to enjoy in its own right. How the two Elmira buildings will look and fit into the neighbourhoods were key issues expressed by residents, though such considerations are typically given short shrift by officials.

It’s going to take a monumental effort at creating something better to get us out of the suburban model: Shifting from our box of a house to our box of a car to the box where we shop and the box where we work. The insides may be nice and comfortable, as we shut out the world and the others who happen to live in the same town, but the shared spaces are not conducive to creating the kind of community envisioned by proponents of a liveable city.

When urban advocacy pioneer Jane Jacobs, for instance, argued that people make the city, she was countering the orthodoxy of pseudo-utopian planning that saw the destruction of inner cities in favour of ugly, soul-crushing concrete highrises that quickly became worse than slums, ultimately torn down as a massively expensive – and not just in monetary terms – failed experiment.

Cities and communities are about people, but the built environment helps to shape our perception of the place we live, either negatively or positively. Far too often, it’s the former and not the latter.

Planning paradigms shift – like anything else, there are trends – but is guided by developers out to maximize profits. That means cheapest and most-est, as in cramming as many units as possible into a given space. Politicians and bureaucrats fixated on unsustainable growth, even though the long-term costs outweigh short-term gains, are happy to oblige. And in the few cases where that’s not the case, the legal system can be brought to bear.

The proposed Elmira developments are just another salvo in an ongoing war, largely of attrition, in which people attempt to have some control of their communities and homes. As anyone paying attention can see, the people are fighting a losing battle.


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