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Breslau connector road is the least of the development considerations

Woolwich council has gone back and forth on a proposed connector road for Breslau. The project should be put out of its misery, sparing taxpayers yet more misery of their own, wise spending and value being in short supply already.

The $30-million price tag makes the roadway a nonstarter. Any talk of connecting the older part of the village to the much larger development now underway makes little sense, at any rate. There’s little reason to expect the route to carry much local traffic, as ongoing growth means Breslau will be defined by its new areas to the south and, particularly, the east.

If the rationale for the road is a connection to a proposed GO Transit train station and the airport, then it shouldn’t be Woolwich residents footing the bill. Moreover, there’s good reason to say no even with regional or provincial funding, as the through traffic would be of no benefit to local residents.

Based on the province’s current funding model, the GO station will never be built. The massive increases in airport passengers claimed by the region appear unlikely. There’s no reason for Woolwich to get sucked into road-building on spec.

Equally puzzling is the township’s fantasy of a downtown core emerging along Woolwich street in the original part of the village. While it’s certainly the kind of Main Street stretch on which one would expect to have seen retail and commercial development, much like Arthur Street in Elmira or King Street in St. Jacobs, that never happened in Breslau. Just because the township has designated the strip as such doesn’t mean it will happen.

In fact, the main commercial development is earmarked for a power centre location north of Victoria Street adjacent to Ebycrest Road and the eventual northward expansion of Fountain Street.

If there is to be something resembling a traditional downtown core, it’s much more likely to come in the mixed-use construction planned for some of the next phases of the Thomasfield Homes development pushing out to Greenhouse Road and beyond.

Retail and office space are part of the plan there. Given that it’s greenfield development, a core with elements of a traditional downtown could be mapped out – think of an enhanced version of the Williamsburg area of Kitchener. That would allow for a much nicer layout than the not-ideal single main road – something of a grid pattern would be much better.

Even that’s something of pipe dream, however. Any thought of a downtown development would require private investors willing to spend large amounts of money, which doesn’t seem likely given the limited prospects on a decent return. Shopping patterns have altered immensely, with most downtown cores in the midst of a decades-long decline. Short of beautiful surroundings that draw a tourist-type audience, the downtown areas aren’t a draw. (Kitchener, for instance, has spent untold millions to learn this truth, with developers foisting ugly highrises on the core at a record pace just now being the latest experiment.)

Breslau won’t see the kind of misguided urban development seen in the cities, if only because the airport imposed height restrictions, but it is and will continue to be the home of the most significant growth in the region. How well directed that growth will be remains to be seen, though there’s every reason to be skeptical.

The first barrier to any hope of downtown-type development is the sheer ugliness of most modern architecture: there’s no hope for, say, an Elora, or any other beautiful old town or city centre you may have visited in your travels. That alone largely negates any talk of developing a core in Breslau.

In reality, most of what we’ll see is what is already on view: residential growth that is largely single-family homes, with a smattering of townhouses and small apartment blocks to meet density targets that are suspect in the first place given the disappointing outcomes we’ve seen.

The mixed-use development proposed for the east side of Breslau is the type of project – combining residential, commercial, industrial and retail uses within walking distance of each other – that is now touted as the standard to combat the suburban sprawl that has shaped the way we live for the past five or six decades.

The description of so-called compact communities puts me in mind of 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.

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.

Of course, vehicles are more expensive, gas prices astronomical and parking spaces limited, putting a real damper on the kind of automobile enthusiasm seen in North Americans.

Still, when I picture the kind of community endorsed by the so-called Smart Growth strategy, I see the old towns of Dublin or Paris or Munich: striking architecture, walled courtyards, terrace gardens, narrow winding streets, local shops offering fresh-baked bread, quaint cafés and small walk-up office buildings with brass plates announcing the names of doctors, lawyers and architects.

Trouble is, that 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 something to enjoy in its own right. 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 livable city.

On the growth front, the township will continue to be squeezed by the need for expansion and the push to retain the small-town feel and rural qualities that brings new people here in the first place.

Growth brings an increased tax base and, in the case of commercial/industrial projects, jobs and opportunity. But growth also increases demand for municipal services, boosting costs. Then there are the quality-of-life issues.

Unbridled growth, while paying short-term dividends, would ultimately become counterproductive. Even developers with an eye to the future realize Woolwich’s go-slow strategy, while sometimes exasperating, helps preserve the characteristics that create a sustainable market for their projects.

Some kind of city-centre living may be helpful, if wishful thinking just now. Expensive connector roads, train station and airport expansion seem counterproductive to idealized forms of development.

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