No need for a course correction in Stratford

Being a fan of municipal politics, I follow a lot of races. And, of course, Stratford is at the top of the list. I read with interest what locals are saying. Having kept up with the race online, I found it interesting letter writer Scott Rutherford (Sept. 9/10) was upset with the Mayor’s treatment of his opponent at the recent debate.

The mayor should represent the city well, but when your opponent doesn’t do their homework (the budget is open to everyone), makes wild accusations and criticizes without offering solutions, I believe many would call them to account.

The reality is Stratford has a lot going for it. Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed, including improving the local environment, addressing local social issues, and building on recent economic development successes. No community is not without its challenges, but it’s about having competent leadership that does its homework that is the differentiator between great communities and those that struggle.

Under the leadership of Mayor Mathieson council has had a good run – the Cooper Site issue is coming to a close, an exciting new future with the university is underway, and many of the large infrastructure projects of the past few years are coming to fruition.

Many of course point to the city’s debt as a sign of bad management. But I would challenge any candidate to spell out exactly what infrastructure investments they would not have made. Would it be the recreation centre, the sewers, or the university?

Unlike the province or feds, municipalities cannot run a deficit. This means they cannot borrow to pay staff wages or fund social programs. They can borrow for infrastructure investments (like sewers and community centres), as paying for these items over their lifetime ensures future generations who benefit from these investments also pay some of the costs. After all, most candidates who complain about the city’s debt no doubt have a mortgage, so they too practice the same financing approach.

At the end of the day, many municipalities could only ask for the competent leadership that Stratford has seen under Mayor Mathieson. The last thing Stratford needs now is the reactionary, no solution, no investment mentality that is sweeping other communities, like my current home in Toronto. Great communities need leadership that understands the challenges of tomorrow and makes the investments to address them today. Don’t change courses now Stratford.

A nice victory for Stratford

With the news that the City of Stratford was successful in fending off a challenge to Official Plan Amendment 10 (OPA 10) from Avonwood (Smart Centres), there is a collective sigh from the community. Some are happy at the news that Avonwood, and its proposed Wal-Mart development, have been banished from the community; on the other side, there are those that are angry they will have to continue to drive to Kitchener or London to load up on cheap household items.  However, the reality is, the result of the Ontario Municipal Board's (OMB) decision will probably result in something a bit more in the middle - a Wal-Mart in the city's west-end (as opposed to the east where it wanted to locate).

However, it's what's in the OMB decision that is of most interest, as not only was Avonwood told it couldn't locate its development wherever it wished, but more importantly market-based planning was given the boot and the community's uniqueness was enshrined.

The first element of the decision that was of most interest was how the OMB highlighted the importance of downtown and the success of the Festival Theatre.  The connection between having a successful theatre that resulted in the downtown's heritage being preserved, and the fact that tourists are attracted to Stratford not just for theatre but for the ambiance of the downtown, highlighted how the two are inter-connected - without an unique and successful downtown, Stratford would be just another place to see theatre.  And, if Stratford was just another place to see theatre, it wouldn't be successful.  This is something that people in Stratford have recognized for years and now it has been recognized in law - and was connected to the Provincial Planning Policy Statement (the constitution of urban planning for those that are interested).

The other important aspect of the decision was to protect the city's industrially zoned properties.  While the re-zoning of one parcel of industrial land doesn't seem like much, it removes land-use certainty so that developers begin bidding up the cost of industrial land so much so that they price out industry.  The result is manufacturing (and higher paying jobs) get pushed out in favour of commercial developments that can afford higher land-use costs.  This is something the city cannot afford over the long-term and will help retain industry in the east-end.

The most important part of the decision though was that the OMB preserved democratic and policy led planning, over market dictated development.  Avonwood proposed that the city adopt a process for approving new commercial zoning based on what the market wanted, as opposed to policy-based planning that takes a long-term view to ensure the responsible growth of the community.  At the heart of the debate in Stratford was two philosophies of planning - one based on community consensus and another based on commercial interests.  In the end, consensus and democracy won.  For that, the citizens of Stratford and their council deserve a round of applause.

In the end though, there will be a Wal-Mart in Stratford - but it will on the terms and conditions that Stratfordite's have put in place.  And, as a person who was a city councillor who was there when the battle began - one that was as anti-Wal-Mart as you could get - I do have to say that the Wal-Mart of today is not the Wal-Mart of yesterday.  The Wal-Mart of today is a corporate leader in sustainability - driving it deep into their supply chain and bringing their competitors along for the journey.  I will welcome them in Stratford - as long as they are downtown or in the west-end, just like OPA 10 has dictated.

Misplaced fear grips Stratford suburbanites

While it is always common to see neighbours complaining about new residential developments that propose to bring new people to the neighbourhood, this recent case in Stratford takes the cake for me. The proposal involves the development of 42 upscale townhouses and single-detached dwellings along Romeo Street in the city's north east.  The lands are just north of McCarthy Road on the east side of Romeo Street and were once home to a children's theme park that closed decades ago.

This area is covered by the city's North East Secondary Plan which was approved back in 2007 when I was on council.  The neighbours who are complaining reside in a development called North Pointe - this was a contentious part of the plan, as it resulted in a forest being cut down to make way for new homes.

Of course, this is where it gets interesting, as the residents of North Pointe are now upset that a new residential development is going to be plunked down beside their homes.  This is the typical response of many who move to the suburbs - they want the life of the city with the view of the country.   Yet, without a hint of irony, they complain when a new development that plans to offer the same life to another set of buyers proposes to envelope their homes and cut-off their views.

Given that the proposed development is generally of the same density, they decided their route of attack would be stormwater controls and loss of a natural area.  Admittedly, these are two arguments that I would usually listen to - after all, preserving natural areas and ensuring proper stormwater controls are two issues I always championed on council.  When it comes to stormwater, this was really addressed by the overall plan for the area - stormwater controls were developed to address all future development in the city's north east, including the proposed development.

The second issue, loss of natural space, though is a tough one to sell - first off, I don't have any sympathy for someone who wants to preserve natural space when it's convenient for them, when the very home they bought resulted in a forest being cut down; secondly, the development will have minimal impact on the remaining natural areas, as they are mainly within the floodplain where no development is permitted anyway.

I think the most interesting aspect of this entire story though is that former City Councillor and Chair of the Planning and Heritage Committee, Kathy Rae, was one of the residents who complained about the proposed development.  The irony here is that former Councillor Rae was the one who led the development of the North East Secondary Plan, so she would have known from day one the proposed future uses of the property in question.  She would have also known that stormwater issues had already addressed.  I have the utmost respect for former Councillor Rae and she was always someone you could count on at council to take a big picture view of the issue; however, in this situation, it shows just how short-sighted people become when it comes to the neighbourhood.  Never mind, of course, that she originally voted against creating the exact development she ended up moving into years later.

Yet, despite the opposition, council took the bigger view on this issue, and approved the application.  Good for them.  Too bad they didn't do the same for the proposed development down the road adjacent to the River Garden Inn.  Can't win them all I suppose.

So long Larry Ryan ... maybe

The citizens of Stratford can soon let loose a collective sigh of relief as their infamous protagonist, Larry Ryan, relinquishes possession of the Cooper Site after of over 10 years of in-action and legal bickering with the city. As mentioned earlier, the city had been engaged in an expropriation process to gain the Cooper Site in downtown Stratford for the development of a new campus for the University of Waterloo.  After an appraisal, the city offered Ryan $500,000 (it was appraised at $4.5 million if it was environmentally clean).  Ryan, of course, balked and things continued in court.

However, it isn't hard to imagine that Ryan's mortgagee, Republic Mortgage Investment, was getting nervous that they wouldn't see the $3.9 million they were owed on the property and started putting pressure on Ryan to settle.  After all, Ryan had been offered even more money over the years for the property from large retailers looking to locate in the city's downtown core.  He never sold, continued to hold onto his fantasy of developing the site, and walked away from offers that would have left him with much more money in his pocket.

As part of this deal, Ryan will end up getting $566,935.  It's a bitter pill to swallow for Stratford's taxpayers; however, given that Ryan gained possession of the property for less than a quarter of a million dollars over a decade ago, you can bet most of his windfall will be eaten up by capital gains taxes, and head right back to the government's coffers (just not Stratford's unfortunately). 

And, remember, while the city could have held out through the expropriation process to pay less, this way they avoid court costs and potentially paying an amount that could have been close to what was agreed upon anyway.  More importantly, now the University of Waterloo plans for the downtown core can move ahead without Ryan's dark cloud hanging over the project.  The results of the city's investment will be enormous not only for downtown, but the entire community, so better to move on than to continue the court battle. 

Will this be the end of Larry?  One can hope, but I'm sure he and defeated former Councillor Lloyd Lichti could put on one last show and run for office this fall.  Stay tuned ...

Infill development rejected, must be election time in Stratford

Reading today's Stratford Beacon Herald I was actually surprised to read that council had axed a proposed six-storey apartment development at the corner of Delamere and Romeo in Stratford. Sure the neighbours were upset with the usual list of complaints - "I like density (just not close to my house);" "Apartments are ugly (compared to my house);" "An apartment will lower my property values (as opposed to the real estate bubble doing it for me)."  But the development made sense - it was at a major intersection, made use of vacant land and would provide new apartment units for the community's aging population.

The proposed development was to take place on a portion of a parking lot that services the River Garden Inn.  It has been a parking lot for as long as I remember and single-family homes have sprung up around it, replacing what was once farmland.  The location made sense - after all, building an apartment at the intersection of an arterial and collector road is one of the best locations for such a development.  And, quite frankly, given that it is a parking lot and its location within an expanding city, it will probably be developed in the future anyway.

Yes, the design was probably tough to get over, as these proposals in smaller towns and cities typically are.  However, design is always something you can work with and improve via the site plan process.  You never get what you want, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and trusting design to councillors and bureaucrats is always a crap-shoot, but it has to be better than living beside a parking lot?

I guess I'll never understand the Stratford fascination with parking lots - people really seem to like them in Stratford.  Just like neighbours in this neighbourhood complained to save the parking lot next door from being turned into something more useful, citizens from all over Stratford complained a number of years ago about another multi-storey development on a parking lot downtown.  Some even complained the city was taking away their "historical" parking lot.  That proposal, oddly by the same developer, was also denied.

So while the city's planning department recommended approval, council unanimously voted to kill the project.   The neighbours were happy of course.  Their wild accusations validated and acknowledged.  Whether this goes to the Ontario Municipal Board - as this decision highlights once again the need for such a body - is any one's guess.  My view would be that the proposed development would have a good chance of winning; however, maybe the developer will learn to love the parking lot and the lower taxes he'll continue to pay on that piece of property.

One thing is certain though, this is yet another sign that it is municipal election season.  After all, why else would councillors reject an application based on such sound planning principles?  Or, maybe this is democracy in action - you know, democracy, where people act in the short-term interest of getting re-elected, rather than the long-term interest of the community.

The Cooper Site's End Game

It is finally nice to see things moving in regards to the Cooper Site. We might finally see a day where something comes to fruition on this important piece of property in the community. Congratulations to the members of council who have pushed this process along. The expropriation process is stacked in favour of the municipality – the property will become the city’s, there’s no question on that outcome. The only thing left to decide is how much Lawrence Ryan and his mortgagee will get paid for the property – they could be arguing about this for years, long after a development takes place. Just ask the property owners in Toronto who saw their buildings expropriated for Yonge and Dundas Square, some of which have yet to settle on a price.

However, things are never clean-cut in Stratford, and Lawrence never ceases to amaze and humour me. While there’s no doubt he’s unhappy with the city’s expert’s appraisal of $500,000 as is, his recent suggestion (September 19th, 2009 Letter to the Editor), that he and the city convene a meeting of Stratford residents to decide a fair price is, quite frankly, priceless.

I do think this is a good idea though, as I’m sure locals would show up in droves to tell him how much money he’s worth. We all know citizens love to vote in favour of higher taxes and paying more for things than they’re really worth, and I’m sure as any politician who has ever run on getting more money out of taxpayers will tell you, Lawrence would surely be disappointed by the result of his public form to bilk taxpayers out of even more money.

So, while I will miss Lawrence’s humour, his abrasiveness and his Country Market, I look forward to the day when the burnt out building we all know as the Cooper Site is once again restored to a place of community pride, as opposed to an albatross used to blackmail city residents.

Property tax revolt

I found this article about forestry companies in British Columbia quite interesting - (see here).  Basically these companies are refusing to pay their property taxes because they don't believe they get the return on investment they deserve. It's an interesting dilemma - most municipalities rely on industrial and commercial property taxes to subsidize residential rates and provide services to their citizens.  The bigger the industrial base, the better the services.  For instance, take a look at the City of Toronto's various property tax rates:

Description City Tax Rate % Education Tax Rate % Total Tax Rate %
Residential 0.6027807% 0.2520000% 0.8547807%
Multi-Residential 2.0373418% 0.2520000% 2.2893418 %
New Multi-Residential 0.6027807% 0.2520000% 0.8547807%
Commercial General 2.0431761% 1.8030600% 3.8462361%
Residual Commercial - Band 1 1.9776151% 1.8030600% 3.7806751%
Residual Commercial - Band 2 2.0431761% 1.8030600% 3.8462361%
Industrial 2.1484993% 1.8618110% 4.0103103%
Pipelines 1.1594874% 1.7425120% 2.9019994%
Farmlands 0.1506952% 0.0630000% 0.2136952%
Managed Forests 0.1506952% 0.0630000% 0.2136952%

Notice the difference in how much a single-family residential property pays in relation to the industrial property owner.  There's a big difference.  This despite the fact that factories don't use community centres, libraries, pools, schools, and the other myriad of city services.  At the end of the day, residential property owners live off the fat that industrial development brings to a community, as they not only provide jobs, but more importantly, pay for the services citizens enjoy.

This is a reality that often confounds me.  Take Toronto for instance - the reason it has been successful and was a magnet for immigration was that there was an abundance of manufacturing jobs.  Nowadays, thanks to land speculation and city policies, industry is slowly being forced out of Toronto.  What replaces these industries and their jobs?  Condos or big-box developments.  However, condos don't pay the same tax rate (nor do they provide long-term jobs) and big-box stores don't provide the wages that the former manufacturing plants did.  This can only spell trouble for the city because, let's face it, not everybody can or strives to be a part of Richard Florida's "Creative Class".

It will be interesting to see how this battle in British Columbia plays out - if the companies are successful in getting their demands, it could drastically change how municipalities fund their operations.  In the process though this has the potential to finally highlight who actually pays the bills in municipalities.  Too bad that will mean higher taxes for everyone.

A new look at an old highway

The life of Stratford was the result of one road - without the Huron Road and the search for a route from Guelph to Goderich, Stratford may not have existed; and, if it did, without the commerce the road brought it would surely have been a much different town. The future of the road has been the source of much debate over the years - some in Stratford have tried to get the commerce the road brings to by-pass and go around the city; others have argued for the need for four lanes coming into the city; and others have called for a new highway and by-pass altogether.  And, with the recent announcement of a preferred option from the Ministry of Transportation, it looks like things might be moving in all of these directions.

I've never been a big supporter of a by-pass around the city - I like the fact that trucks come through the downtown core.  After all, if you make it easier for trucks to by-pass the city, you also make it easier for cars to by-pass the city.  Economic development follows traffic - the inevitable result of this is that you get less traffic downtown and lessen the potential that people will stay to spend their dollars in the local stores.  The same idea goes for our friends down the road in Shakespeare - any by-pass around the town there would destroy its commercial activity, as it thrives on the traffic the road brings into town.

Of the various options presented - a completely new highway that would by-pass Shakespeare and skirt the outskirts of Stratford; an upgrade of the existing highway to four or five lanes; or a hybrid that widened the existing highway and constructed cut-off to skirt the edges of Stratford - it's the last one that is the Ministry of Transportation's preferred option.  The details on how it will be implemented still need to be determined through consultation, but a settlement seems to be coming forward after years of debate.

There are issues with this option - for the reasons stated above, I don't like the fact that it will result in a by-pass around Stratford; but the other issues it raises are dealing with the historic Fryfogel Inn and a church/cemetery, along with a number of downtown Shakespeare businesses, that will be impacted to accommodate a widened highway.

That said, there are positives of the preferred option - it preserves a majority of the farmland that could have been taken out of production due to a completely new highway.  This was the biggest issue posed by the agricultural community and local farmers were rightly upset about such a proposal.

However, it now looks like opposition to the highway is moving to the issues I posed above - dealing with historic buildings and sites.  The Perth County Historical Foundation is upset the Fryfogel would be disrupted.  That's a fair concern as no other Ontario Heritage Trust building has ever been moved; however, the Fryfogel isn't in the best shape anyway and this might be the foundation's only chance to find the funds to restore the building.  After all, the province is going to save a bundle simply upgrading the existing highway, which means the foundation could lean on the province to pay for the moving of the building further back on its parcel of land, pay for its restoration and build a proper entrance and parking area.  As to the cemetery and church that will also be impacted by a wider highway, the same applies - buildings can be moved and it wouldn't be the first cemetery to be re-located.

Downtown Shakespeare is a totally different beast - it's almost as though they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.  No highway means less traffic and less business.  A widened highway means some historical buildings in the town will either be torn down or face ongoing damage from increased traffic.  The solution here is to work with the province to maintain the status-quo - widen the road as much as possible, but given that traffic needs to slow to go through the town anyway, maybe it makes sense to have four lanes merge into two through the town.  This way the buildings could be preserved and there would be a natural calming of traffic travelling through Shakespeare.

As to the by-pass that will be created just before the widened highway reaches Stratford - I'll never be sold on it.  I like the smell of hog trucks travelling through downtown Stratford.  Some people may like the idea of getting trucks out of downtown of Stratford, but I'm still sold on the benefits of the Huron Road and the need to keep traffic to ensure commerce thrives.

Please be quiet this is Stratford

The recent push by the owners of the Olde English Parlour to have the city's noise by-law click in at 11 p.m. is a foolish policy for a downtown in need of some life. Stratford's downtown is not the place of old - it has made the transition from a downtown for locals to shop for daily goods, to a place where locals play, procure niche goods and do their banking.  It's sad, but it's true.  The life of downtown isn't in looking to the past, but looking to the future of a vibrant lifestyle choice where residents locate downtown to be close to entertainment, culture, good restaurants, niche shops and business services.  To survive downtown has to offer life - that means action, music, attractions ... things to do.

The Olde English Parlour's attempt to shut down the music emanating from the back-end of Othello's is wrong headed and will only hurt downtown Stratford's transition to a lively place.  Even more so, it could damage Stratford as a tourist destination.  Yes, there is life after the theatre lets out.  If Stratford's theatre is going to be successful in the long-term, it's going to have to diversify it's audience.  Shutting down music at 11 p.m. isn't going to help attract the younger audience Stratford needs to succeed (it's also not going to be that good for the attraction of students with the future University of Waterloo campus).

My suggestion to the owners of the Olde English Parlour would be this - market to your guests that the hotel exists in a lively downtown, full of attractions for them to enjoy after the theatre.  And, if they don't like the nightlife, put them on the other side of the hotel.

Gouged by your own decisions

It baffles my mind when I read letters like this:

Gouged by Hwy. 407 tolls Jan 05, 2009 04:30 AM Re:Toll rates on Highway 407 up in 2009, Jan. 1

When will the government step in to help those of us outside the GTA who are getting gouged by the 407?

I am a working mother of three boys who lives in Durham and works in Peel. As a result I must use the 407 to commute to work each day; there is no other viable option. My monthly bills have now reached $434.92 – almost $6,000 a year – to use a service that everyone else in the province of Ontario enjoys for free – a highway. I am outraged by the lack of government control or restrictions on the tolls charged. My monthly toll bills now equal my car payments.

Carrie Hunter, Uxbridge

I have a suggestion for the young lady - take the 401 if you don't like the cost.  Better yet, move to Peel and be closer to work.  You'll save yourself those dollars.

Yes I know the 401 would add more time to your commute.  But evidently you've weighed the opportunity cost and feel that getting to work faster is worth the expense.  If you no longer think it's worth the cost, change your habits.  Nobody is forcing you to take the 407.

In fact, if the price of driving the 407 was lowered, it would mean more people would take it, resulting in longer commute times.  Cheap driving just encourages more traffic, just like cheap gas made you think it was a good idea to drive across the GTA for work everyday.

We need more roads like the 407 in the GTA.  All of the region's major highways should have tolls with various pricing depending on the time of day and relative congestion.  Not only it would it offer much needed funding to support infrastructure improvements (notice how much nicer the 407 is to drive compared to the pot-holed 401?); but, as suggested by Metrolinx, road tolls would also provide revenue to fund new transit infrastructure that could offer alternatives to drivers in the GTA.  More importantly though, it would force people to consider their driving habits and, just maybe, save a few dollars by making more economical decisions - like not driving from Durham to Peel for work everyday.

A prelude to expropriation

The news that Stratford council is now willing to discuss re-purchasing the Cooper Site is good news.  (After all, they probably should have never sold it back in the 1990s.)  As anyone in Stratford will tell you - they're tired of the eyesore and want the site cleaned-up and developed. It's also good to see the city getting out in front of the issue with the Cooper Site - for years, all they have done is played the re-action game with Lawrence Ryan, responding to his many off-colour and ridiculous claims.  At least now they're forcing him to react for a change.

It will be interesting to see what comes of it.  Former City Councillor Lloyd Lichti (a long time Lawrence Ryan buddy) has suggested the land is worth $800,000 an acre.  He claims the Erie Street parking lot was assessed at this value when he was on council.  Well I was on council at that time and I can tell you it wasn't assessed that high and, more importantly, that was a discussion held in-camera and wasn't to be made public as it hurts the city's negotiating position.  But costing Stratford taxpayers money has never really been a concern of Lloyd's.

And, really, $800,000 an acre for land in Stratford?  Stratford is not Toronto.  Never mind the fact that this is a brownfield that will cost millions to clean-up, Lloyd has even suggested greenfield land in the city's north west is worth $800,000 an acre.  There's something wrong with Lloyd's valuations.

At the end of the day though, there will also be something wrong with Lawrence's valuations.  In the past his estimates for the sale of his property have ranged from $20 to $30 million.  (He got the property essentially for free from Ray Jacobs back in the 1990s.)  So in the end coming to an agreement is going to be tough.

But what this really is, I think anyway, is  a prelude to the expropriation of the site.  The city has to give an offer before they start the process of expropriation.  If Lawrence accepted, or negotiated a reasonable offer, things would move quickly.  But that is unlikely to happen. 

The city has the power and a good legal case for expropriation - the current owner has been unable to develop the site, the university should be put in the core, and the core is in need of revitalization.  These are the types of arguments that worked successfully for Toronto in its expropriation of the buildings/land required for Dundas Square.  No doubt though the process will be long, but fear not - expropriation is a power the city has, so it will get the land, the only thing left to be settled will be the price (and the land can change hands before the price is settled).

In the end, there is only one place the university should go, and that is downtown.  The price should be fair, but the price of neglecting the core will be much higher in the long run than dealing with the blight that is the Cooper Site in the near term.

The Stratford Wal-Mart Shuffle

First it's no, then it's yes, then it's ... It's hard to keep track of Stratford council these days when it comes to their stance on Wal-Mart.

First, they denied the application for Smart Centres to set-up their Wal-Mart in the east-end of Stratford.  Smart Centres appealed to the OMB.  And, then just when it came time to decide if the city would defend its decision, council pulled the plug, opening the door for Wal-Mart to set-up shop in the east-end.

This has been quite the tour council has taken the residents of Stratford on - one day opposed, one day in favour, if we flip-flop enough, nobody will remember what we said anyway.

The reality is though this has all really hinged on one person - Councillor Dave Hunt.  Hunt first opposed Wal-Mart in the east-end, but lead the charge to overturn the decision last week.  His reasoning - Home Depot is allowed to open in the east-end, so Wal-Mart should be able to do the same.  He claims that if he knew a hardware store could circumvent the commercial policy, he would have voted for Wal-Mart in the first place.

The interesting thing here is that Councillor Hunt should have known this from the beginning - he was, after all, the Mayor when the city's zoning by-law was written.  And, given that I spent three years sitting beside him at the council table, where we were both privy to the same reports that indicated this fact, he should have known.  I guess it's really an issue of not paying attention on Councillor Hunt's part.

Of course, the second person to flip-flop on this decision was Councillor Keith Culliton.  He says he wanted to hear more about it from the residents of Stratford.  Fair enough, but risky when the OMB is already involved.

My prediction on all of this - when council comes back into session to review this decision, Councillor Culliton will come back into the fold, holding up the city's refusal of the Smart Centres application; while Councillor Hunt will continue down the road on this grand flip-flop, making it comparable to his decision to deny and then allow Zehrs' move to the east-end years ago.

Let's just hope it doesn't result in the same damage that decision did.

NIMBY goes to the street

When NIMBY goes awry, the street goes with it. Check out this article from the Star and the latest attack on the Ontario Municipal Board in North York:

It's street revenge on developer Furious councillors overruled on condo site name road OMB Folly

Oct 08, 2008 Paul Moloney City Hall Bureau

A street by any other name wouldn't be such sweet revenge.

North York councillors peeved at being overruled by the Ontario Municipal Board – on a condo complex they didn't want – exacted poetic justice yesterday by giving the project an address the developer won't soon forget: OMB Folly.

That's the name the North York community council, on a 7-2 vote, chose for the new street leading into the 36-unit complex.

Councillor John Filion, who has frequently knocked heads with developers, said he was flabbergasted the OMB would allow rezoning for townhouses on a site that lies outside the designated North York Centre development area.

"This one really stands out as the most ludicrous decision that I know of," Filion said. "It takes the cake. I could cite a lot of terrible OMB decisions, but it's the one that's just obviously absurd and ridiculous."

Filion had expected his colleagues to resist his suggestion to name the street OMB Folly. Not today, said Councillor Maria Augimeri, after Councillor Howard Moscoe urged Filion to put it to a vote.

Councillor David Shiner said the move may usher in a welcome precedent: "When we start having the OMB not only go against our council but our planning staff, we may be able to come up with some very creative names to help name these new developments that show up without city council or city staff support."

The municipal board, a quasi-judicial tribunal set up by the province, has routinely been blasted by Toronto councillors without firing back. Yesterday was no exception.

"I can tell you right now we have no comment on that," said Matthew Bryan, of the OMB's communications office. "We have no comment on what North York community council wishes to do."

But the developer, who plans to start construction soon, was not amused.

"Are they nuts?" said Stephen Maizels, CEO of Hallstone Group. "Where is the adulthood? When do they grow up?"

Maizels said the previous owner of the site, Churchill-Basswood Developments Inc., was the entity that went to the OMB. The tribunal ruled in 2005 that the proposed development was appropriate for the site, fit well into the neighbourhood and represented good planning.

Filion, however, said there are lots of available sites within the specified boundaries for intensification – on either side of Yonge St. from Highway 401 to north of Finch Ave. According to the master plan, development isn't supposed to encroach into neighbourhoods of single-family detached homes.

Filion is worried the Hallstone development sets a bad precedent.

"Other developers will follow the lead and say, `Let's just run off to the Ontario Municipal Board and see if we get a crazy decision, too.' It's worth it for them to gamble $50,000 on an OMB hearing and roll the dice."

A city staff report had suggested the street be named Connfield Lane, after John Conn, an early landowner in the area.

City council has given community councils authority to decide street names on their own, but officials are currently pondering whether OMB Folly contravenes the street-naming policy, which says derogatory names should be avoided.

So the issue may be reopened for a second look at the next meeting of city council, Oct. 29-30.

From: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/513835

Affordable Housing V. Stratford Neighbours

There’s no arguing that there is a concentration of public housing units in the Cawston/Buckingham area of Stratford. But does adding another 30 units really represent creating a ghetto as some residents in the area suggest?

Some of the comments from the recent public meeting included:

"There are too many people of low income and no income in the area.”

"A very large increase in criminal activities in all the current facilities and surrounding area which have greatly perplexed many of the past and present senior residents and local private property owners."

And my favourite:

“The increased density will only add to an already explosive environment."

An explosive environment? Wow that is scary. And what are they trying to say? “If you put too many poor people together, crime and degenerate behaviour will become the norm.”

There’s no arguing that dispersing public housing throughout a community and having mixed-income neighbourhoods is good planning. Mixed income neighbourhoods foster greater opportunities for social interaction and understanding, while ghettoizing people according to income tends to breed misunderstanding and contempt.

From a design standpoint, you shouldn’t be able to tell public housing from market housing. Both should be designed in such a way as to contribute to the overall warmth of the community. But given bad design carriers for both the architecture of market and affordable housing these days, it seems if both revel in mediocrity at least there is balance.

Which brings us to whether or not building an additional 30 units (of the 41 unit proposed apartment building) really will result in a ghetto in Stratford?

My answer would be no.

Yes, a majority of the city’s 445 public housing units are in this area of town. But remember the area is also dominated with single-family housing that interspersed and surrounds the area in question. Some of these single-family homes are worth in excess of $300,000. You don’t find many of those in ghettos.

I can understand people’s fears when it comes to change within their neighbourhood. Their concerns, while they don’t necessarily admit it, are centred on property values - the perceived threat that poor people in the neighbourhood will drag down property values.

I’ve done some research in the area of property values and public housing. The studies are varied and utilize different methodologies. But the predominant findings, when utilizing hedonic price modeling, centre on no real change in property values due to the introduction of public housing. And, these same studies, seem to indicate that if good design is utilized, there can be an overall benefit for neighbouring property values.

Given Stratford needs more affordable housing and it can surely use better design in its newer neighbourhoods – you know the ones with garages as the preeminent architecture feature – the residents opposing this development should be riding the good design horse, as opposed to the anti-poor people bandwagon.

Keith Culliton's 100-Year Car Park

During my term on Stratford City Council you could always count on Councillor Keith Culliton to offer up an interesting opinion. And while more often than not that opinion garnered a chuckle from the audience, they also often stretched reality. Take this quote from the Stratford Beacon Herald:

As councillors began wading through grant requests, a tentative allocation of $3,000 for a Market Square project was one of the first items to come under fire.

"We've been parking cars there for the last 100 years. Let's keep parking there for the next 100 and forget about it," said Coun. Keith Culliton.

There's no doubt the debate to turn Market Square into a public space has gone on for some time, has jaded many and resulted in ridiculous claims on both sides, but I didn't know there were that many cars back in 1907.

But, then again, who am I to argue with the stretching of facts?

As Council's longest serving member, Keith was around back then. It’s just unfortunate his vision for the city and Market Square for both the past and future can be summed up in one-word – lame.

A Reality Show About Planners ...

With all of the reality shows out there it was just a matter of time before they stumbled upon the local planning department. And the first out of the gate is the BBC with "The Planners". A description from BBC's website goes like this:

From mobile phone masts to residential developments of over 60 flats, from the vexed question of satellite dishes to the thorny issue of garden sheds, each programme will feature a range of stories which will be resolved in each episode.

Resolved in each episode?

Doesn't sound like a real planning department to me. An application completed in a half hour? Or maybe that's the reason it took them so long to come up with a reality show about planners - they've been trying to tape for years, but the application just took forever to get approved.

This is kind of funny though:

Every day brings new challenges from cheeky extension plans which would deprive a neighbour of their natural light which the planning officers have to make a decision on, to the illegally-built granny annexe at the end of someone's garden which the planning enforcement officers are going to have demolished.

I do find enforcement officers ripping down illegally built structures funny. When they are other people's of course. Please don't look in my backyard at that pool encroaching on the floodplain ... I didn't get a permit and it's not like anybody is using the floodplain.

Yes there's no doubt people try to get away some crazy things. When I was a kid opening my own cafe I built and installed my own washroom without a permit. However, I didn't find the eventual encounter with the Building Inspector that funny.

While I would no doubt watch this show, it's more because I'm a planner and a geek, than the possibility it may be good television. Yes we planners think our lives and careers are exciting and worthy enough for reality television, but the fact is we're a bunch of geeks messing with other people's lives.

And gosh isn't that fun ...

Banning Pesticides in Stratford

To ban or not to ban, that is the question.

Banning pesticides should make a whole lot of sense - they are harmful to the environment, pollute watercourses, poison critters and there have been plenty of studies that point out the harmful effects on health. After all, they don't put those signs warning people to stay off the grass for nothing.

Here in Stratford the debate has reared its head once again. After two committees set up to look at the issue (the first looking at pesticide use on public property and the second set-up to look at use on private property), council has set up yet another committee to educate citizens on pesticides.

With all these committees it's easy to think that council is simply trying to keep the activists busy talking about their outrage out of the public eye in hope that this will serve as some sort of therapy to calm their nerves. Well, it doesn't seem like it is working.

The reality is it is time for a ban on cosmetic pesticides in Stratford. There is no reason anyone needs to apply pesticides to keep their lawns green. There are easy and non-toxic ways and it’s called good old fashioned work – or, even better, replace that lawn with native plants that require less water and provide habitat for birds and butterflies.

But there's a problem with municipal bans - while you can ban both citizens and licensed operators from applying pesticides, the product can still be bought in local stores. And, as everyone knows, just because something is illegal doesn't mean people won't do it - especially when it's still sold legally in local shops.

And having citizens sneaking out late at night to spray their lawns with pesticides - especially being untrained in their application - doesn't remove the environmental and health concerns.

The reality is that upper levels of government to step in and apply a ban. However, much like smoking, it looks like it will have to be municipalities that drag them into the fray.

So in the meantime, before council asks the province and the federal government to get on the bandwagon, council should pass a ban for 2011“ their actions will go a lot further than their word.

And, instead of wasting everyone's time with another committee, it's time to actually commit some dollars in this year's budget to start educating citizens on the alternatives to pesticides.

Is suburbia worth defending?

I read Robert Bruegmann's book "Sprawl: a compact history" awhile ago, but I just found James Howard Kunstler's review. Here are some great points about the fantasy of suburbia from Kunstler's piece: Despite his boatloads of statistics, Bruegmann is just flat-out wrong in many of his positions and virtually all of his conclusions. At the center of his thesis is the unquestioned assumption that the suburban project can continue indefinitely, that it is a good thing, that we will get more of it, and we ought to stop carping and enjoy it. His book fails entirely to acknowledge the fact that we are entering a permanent global energy crisis that will put an end to the drive-in utopia whether people like it or not. This singular harsh fact obviates all the rationalizations brought to the quixotic defense of suburbia. What Bruegmann and his homies overlook is that American-style suburbia, aka sprawl, was an emergent, self-organizing system made possible only by lavish and exorbitant supplies of cheap fossil fuels, and once those conditions no longer obtain, not only will there be no further elaboration of this development pattern, but all the existing stuff built according to that pattern – which comprises more than eighty percent of everything ever built in America – will drastically lose its usefulness and its relative “market” value.

and ...

We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, and the interstate highway system on hydrogen, coal synfuels, tar sand or oil shale distillates, bio-diesel, ethanol, recycled french-fry oil, solar electricity, wind power, or nuclear fission. The stark truth of the situation is that we are simply going to have to make other arrangements – and I’m sorry to have to repeat that this will be the case whether we like it or not. Suburbia will be coming off the menu. We will no longer be able to resort to the stupid argument that it is okay because we chose it.

and ...

Another very troubling aspect of Bruegmann's book is that his statistical salvos fail to address altogether the many questions of quality and character in our everyday environments. The sad truth is that most of America has come to be composed of places that are not worth caring about, and they may eventually (if not already) add up to a nation not worth defending, or a culture not worth carrying on. You can cite the population figures and density trend lines all day long and never come to the conclusion that Hackensack, New Jersey, has become a soul-sapping sinkhole of auto-centric crap with strikingly poor prospects for maintaining its value or utility in the not-too-distant future.

and my favourite line ...

It is self-evident that human beings enjoy living in settings of domesticated nature – and no accident that the archetype for this is the Garden of Eden – but note that there is no mention of parking lots in the standard accounts of it.

Check out the entire review at http://www.kunstler.com/Mags_Bruegmann.html.

A Plan for Market Square

There was a time in Stratford's past when Market Square was the city's meeting place. It was where the area's farmers came to sell their goods. The city's first fair took place there. And it was where public presentations and protests all took place. The square was a place of community engagement, a vital piece in the city's public realm, where citizens could share the day's news and indulge in a little gossip. Today Market Square is a tired asphalt surface where cars are much more welcome than the city's citizens.

There is not another city on this continent that has the opportunity we have with Market Square. In the centre of our city, behind our city hall, we have one of the greatest opportunities to create a public space where all citizens of Stratford can congregate. Many cities are breaking their municipal coffers to create exactly the same opportunity we already have.

Most would not disagree that the current state of Market Square is a blemish on the core of the city. However the debate over redesigning the square has always had two factions - on one side those who want a square and, on the other, transit users who don't want to lose their terminal space. These two divisions have polarized the debate for years, leaving the city's centre a heartless slab of asphalt.

With this in mind Stratford's City Centre Committee has over the past year engaged the community in an attempt to infuse the city's core with the life and energy it once knew. What has been nice about the committee's public process thus far has been that everybody seems to agree they'd like to see the square as a place for people. However, the issue of the buses had to be addressed.

On this front traffic engineer Nick Poulos has been very informative. Basically stating that if the buses were moved even a block, say to the Cooper site or Erie Street Parking lot, transit ridership would suffer. Thus any new design must keep the bus terminal on the square.

This, of course, makes total sense - after all, the idea is to make the square the meeting place of the city's citizens. Thus layering uses, such as a public square, a touch of parking and a transit terminal, would only add to the citizen dimension of the design.

In fact, redesigning the square into a public space could only make transit even more attractive, as the transit terminal would be a public square utilized by a vast array of citizens - from the lunchtime crowd, tourists, business folk chatting and local colour just hanging about - instead of the current stereotype of rowdy kids waiting for buses behind City Hall.

Now there is always the issue of parking downtown, however, Poulos pointed out that the city's most recent parking study showed a supply of 1152 spots in the downtown with a demand of 1085, thus there is a surplus of 67 spots. Now of course the demand has no doubt risen with the addition of the Studio Theatre, but what would you rather have at your city's heart - a parking lot, or a place where you can gather with friends and enjoy a conversation over a coffee? The trade-off between parking and a public square isn't all that great, especially when doing so could increase transit ridership.

An ideal design of the square is shown in the adjacent picture, which extends the square past the current centre median to provide a public square, while bringing the buses in along Wellington and Downie Streets. In this design transit would be retained and a public space would be gained. Street access and parking would still be present along the south side of Market Square, thus only 20 spots would be lost, which is hardly a great loss when considering what would be gained.

Stratford Market Square Redo

The options of what could be included in the new square are limitless - from bringing the farmers market back to square; erecting a fountain for summertime enjoyment and winter skating; or even, as was suggested, building a patio off the back of the second floor of City Hall to act as a stage for special events, such as concerts or the swearing in of public officials.

Whatever is included in the design of a new square will surely be a benefit to the city compared to what is currently there. But it's time to heal the riff between the two camps that have polarized this debate for so long. It's time to take advantage of the potential of Market Square and return the heart of the city back to its citizens.

Stratford: A City of Memory

Growing up in Stratford you take for granted its charm and character. You don't realize what was done to create and save the city's large park system. You wonder why everybody swoons over what you think is an average downtown. And you assume most places are full of such nice, colourful and interesting people. It wasn't until I was a little older, developing a sense of place and history that I became fascinated with my city's past. Stratford has been a town where resisting planning trends in the name of community history has often been the norm. This foresight and respect for the past has allowed Stratford to develop into a unique and successful city.

The City of Memory

Leonie Sandercock points out in the article Towards Cosmopolis: Utopia as Construction Site the importance of cities as memory repositories . Our cities are filled with places where our ancestors lived and struggled - whether it was in their homes, parks, or neighbourhoods, these past efforts have invested our community with meaning and significance . Walking through a traditional neighbourhood, with turn-of-the-century factories, or strolling through a historical downtown, we get the feeling that we are part of something bigger. These buildings transcend our place in time and imprint the past work of our community on future generations.

Our built environment is also an articulation of social relations. In Bricks, Mortar, Memories: Neighbourhood and Networks in Collective Acts of Remembering, Talja Blokland maintains people identify with places and these places have multiple, shifting identities for many people . Social interaction in and around places gives them their identity. This explains why neighbourhoods take on and shed personalities, such as working class, upper class or crime-ridden. Places are made in social interactions and "particular moments in such intersecting social relations, nets of which have over time been constructed, laid down, interacted with another, decayed and renewed." But, while a neighbourhood may gentrify, it always has that past - people will comment on how the neighbourhood has gotten better than it used to be, or visa versa.

This memory of past can be used not only as articulations of social relationships, but also as vehicles that can be used to create, renew and restructure relationships. In Blokland's research she interviews 144 former residents Hillesluis, which is a neighbourhood in the city of Rotterdam. In one situation she describes a park adjacent to a housing complex for the elderly - the park provided for informal social interaction and many elderly citizens often met there and chatted about old times. She describes a conversation where two men talked about the reconstruction of one of the neighbourhood's streets and the shops that used to be there. While they had never met before, they realized they had gotten their first pair of long trousers at the same shop, where you could "buy a suit for a song." This example shows how the built environment and its memories can be powerful tools in bringing people together.

There were also circumstances where shop owners allowed their stores to become carriers of memories - a butcher who continued to prepare traditional recipes by hand and a parlour owner who referred to the interior of his shop as "an untouched painting." By preserving their past and not modernizing, these shops became carriers of memories and derived part of their clientele from sustaining the past.

People enjoy the past - many seeing it as much more positive than the present . This is why we visit the home we grew up in, take a girlfriend to a park that as a child we played in, or visit historical buildings and enjoy museums.

Of course we shouldn't be totally caught up in the past, there is a need for change. However, communities should acknowledge the importance the past has played on the development of their communities - both in the built perspective, but also in social relations. There can be choices in redevelopment - bulldoze or restore, separate or layer, replace or add. And, "If we need to destroy," Sandercock argues, "as part of our city-building, we also need to heal."

Modernist planning has often become the thief of this memory, as it attempts to impose development at the expense of bulldozing our collective past . This has been done with the clearing of slums for housing projects like Regent Park, or downtown revitalization schemes, such as the City of Kitchener's bulldozing of old City Hall. When these things happen, a link to our communities past is lost, making it harder to share the rich histories our communities have overcome with future generations.

A Brief History of Stratford

The Huron Tract was a settlement scheme instigated by John Galt in the 1820s that provided for roads, towns, bridges and churches, while the land was sold to would-be settlers . The Canada Company had set up an administrative office in Guelph and commissioned Dr. William "Tiger" Dunlop to build the Huron Road to the new port located on Lake Huron at Goderich .

While Goderich lay west, Dunlop faced a problem - as he moved west, he confronted impassable swampland, thus he travelled south alongside what would become the Avon River . Surveyed in 1927, Dunlop and his crew found a point where they could cross the marshy lands to head west for Goderich; this point would later become Stratford . At first called Little Thames, it was a place for settlers to rest while making the trek from Guelph to Goderich .

Stratford Takes Shape

Stratford began to take shape in 1832 when Thomas Mercer Jones, a Canada Company director, gave a picture of William Shakespeare to William Sargint, the owner of the Shakespeare Hotel. The Shakespeare was the first permanent building in Stratford; built in 1832 it was used as an inn, school, church and community hall. A stone marks the site of the hotel at 70 Ontario Street.

Jones named the village 'Stratford and the creek'; the creek had been known as Little Thames, and later renamed the Avon River . The namesake came from the English town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was built by Romans when they wanted to cross the river - straeta meaning road and ford translating into crossing .

Surveyor John MacDonald was commissioned by the Canada Company to plan Stratford, as well as Guelph and Goderich, in 1834 . He placed the geographic centre of town at the point where four townships met, not far from today's Wade's Flower Shop. He then created four main roads radiating from the centre. Three of these roads were named for the Great Lakes to which they lead - Huron, Erie and Ontario . Though there were only 39 settlers in town, MacDonald planned for a city of 35,000 .

The early settlers tended to be English, Irish, Scots, Welshman and Germans. Once in Stratford they turned to John Corry Wilson Daly for most of their needs. He was a quick-tempered Ulsterman of 37 when he arrived in 1833. He not only became Stratford's first mayor but also the postmaster, medical authority, banker, officer of the militia, Justice of the Peace, land officer and ran the Canada Company's mills . Daly also built the first permanent residence on the site of what is now the Perth County Courthouse and would be prominent throughout the political history of the town .

Daly would meet his Scottish foe in John James Edmonstoune Linton. Linton would be the settlements' first teacher and would take a stormy, self-selected road to a place among Stratford's forefathers. Daly and Linton mistrusted each other immensely - Daly had the power to grant jobs and stonewalled Linton's attempt to become the magistrate; Linton replied by contacting Robert Baldwin's Reformist government, complaining Daly was misappropriating funds .

A local writer, Linton published three handbooks for the Canada Company and a paper called the Voice of the Bondsman, within which he spoke out on public morals and criticized Daly continuously. Linton would also be a founder of the Agricultural Society and saw the creation of the first fall fair in October of 1842, held in the public square behind what is now City Hall .

However, in 1846 Daly and Linton would become unlikely allies in their pursuit to advance Stratford. The Huron Tract was going to be split into 2 counties - Huron and Perth. Both Daly and Linton would put aside their personal differences, fighting together for the new county seat. Stratford would receive the seat in 1850. Daly would become the first treasurer and Linton the first clerk, while W. F. McCulloch would donate his hill at the junction of William and Huron Streets for the first county buildings .

In September of 1853 the settlement voted to incorporate as a village, detaching 2700 acres from the surrounding townships. The village boundaries were the river, Front Street to the east, John Street to the west and West Gore to the south. Further laying the foundation of its festival roots, five wards were created fanning out from the city's centre - Avon, Falstaff, Hamlet, Romeo and Shakespeare .

These early Shakespeare overtones laid the groundwork for Stratford's destiny. But, culture was always something that came easy to Stratford - early on it had a country club where elegant balls were held. It also had a rash of newspapers in the 19th century, including two weeklies that published in German . Adelaide Leitch points out in Floodtides of Fortune:

"The settlers lugged in over the Huron Road not only practical pioneer necessities, but equipment also for the mind: worn volumes of the classics tucked in their bulging bags, books on architecture and horticulture."

Add to this the skilled workmen of the Grand Trunk and furniture factories, with their young families and money to spend, Stratford began to take on a refined look. Come 1911 there were over 2000 craftsmen in Stratford. Their families built beautiful homes and planted expansive gardens . By 1914 there were 500 members of the Stratford Horticultural Society, which had been in existence since 1878. The Horticultural Society held regular flower shows and tended to over 60,000 tulips in 50 flowerbeds throughout the city .

German's brought the love for theatre and music. In 1857, with a population of 2000, they built the Market Building featuring theatre seating for 500 . This was proportionally more than the theatre today, which draws its audience from across the continent. In the massive hall, locals produced plays and concerts to entertain packed houses. There were also motion pictures and school recitals, along with a prizefight in the late 1890s that was denounced by local churches .

After the Market Building burned down, the new City Hall featured a hall less than half the size. But, Albert Brandenberger, who had backed many of the shows at the Market Building, decided to build an opera house. The 1250 seat Theatre Albert opened in 1901 and would eventually become the festival's Avon Theatre . Smaller theatres and concert halls popped up all over Stratford, including in schools and church basements as well as outdoors. With the movie houses, some claimed Ontario Street was becoming a "little 42nd Street."

The unimaginative and the mass-produced were never good enough for Stratford. Domestic architecture from the very beginning produced some striking local buildings - W. F. McCulloch built "The Grange" in 1840, with impressive ornamental gates and gardens. In an Atlas of Perth County in 1879, the author took note of Stratford's architecture:

"Some of the finest business blocks in any town of equal size in the Province … The Albion, Dufferin, Easson, Odd Fellows, Phoenix, Rankin and Waverly blocks are such as would do credit to any city … some churches that are exceptionally fine in architectural design, mechanical execution and interior decoration - Knox Church is one of the finest specimens of architectural models we have seen."

Stratford Becomes a City

The temperance movement would push Stratford towards cityhood before its population allowed. In 1856 Stratford had 11 hotels, a brewery and a distillery. In 1871 it had 28 hotels and taverns, 4 saloons, 5 liquor stores and it was said you could walk down Huron Street from John to Erie and pass 14 places to get a drink .

The most famous of these drinking holes was The Albion on Ontario Street. Built in 1855 by James and Peter Woods, it pulled in farmers from the townships, as well as locals and travellers. It even had its own driver and neighbouring livery that would bring drinkers from the train station. But like most of the watering holes, it had a special clientele, as it was mainly a Tory hangout . While the Mansion House at the corner of Wellington and St. Patrick Streets was more of a farmer haunt . Farmers were actually the big reason Stratford had so many hotels - as they hauled their wheat to the public weigh scales, they would stay for drinks afterward.

That is why it was odd that the county was proposing to go dry. The Canadian Temperance Act allowed counties to ban the sale of alcohol, providing the entire county went dry. Prohibitionists had strong support in the rural area and this scared the citizens of Stratford who did not want to lose their saloons and taverns. So despite the fact that the city was shy of the requisite population of 10,000 to automatically become a city, it had a referendum on cityhood and separated from the county in 1885 .

Stratford's Memory

I've been lucky to live in a city where its history has often been saved by the memories the community shares. Its parks, downtown and overall urban form have been influenced by people's memories of these places. The rich architectural history of the city's downtown is heavily influenced by the fact it was the drinking hole for the county. It's renowned theatre a continuation of past cultural influences. And it's tree-lined streets and gardens surrounding elegant homes an extension of the hopes and aspirations of those who toiled within the city.

Economic growth and urban renewal have often taken a backseat to community concerns in preserving this past. And, today, thanks to these efforts, Stratford is a place where the past has been preserved and it has left an indelible character on the town and its people.

The River & Parks

The river was the reason Stratford became a city and it also played a huge role in the daily life of the citizens. Of course it was the place where early industrial activity took place, but it was also a place where regattas were held, children swam and hockey games were organized - it was the citizens' playground.

Despite this, come the turn of the century, the river was in poor condition - stumps littered the waterway, the dam was leaking and vegetation clogged the river. The city's early park system wasn't in much better shape. Victoria Park (which would become Queen's Park) was being used for sheep grazing, and Avondale (which would become the T.J. Dolan Natural Area and Avondale Cemetery) was overgrown and used as the city's dump. There was even talk of draining the river and developing it.

However, the city had visionaries among its citizens and Thomas Orr, along with Dr. Edward Henry Eidt, began pushing for a parks board and a restoration of the river. Council resisted at first but the men persisted and in 1904 citizens approved a bylaw creating Stratford's Board of Park Management .

Invited to Stratford were two of the finest park architects to be found in America - Fredrick G. Todd who had designed Ottawa's parks and Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park, along with F. Von Hoffman, the assistant landscape architect for the New York Park Commission. Von Hoffman remarked, "The lake is worth a million dollars to Stratford. Some places, if they had it, would spend a million dollars to beautify it."

The idea was to create a continuous park through the city and along the water, connecting Queen's Park to the east and the T.J. Dolan to the southwest. It was met with resistance immediately. Thornton & Douglas had been a long time furnishing business in town and it wanted to expand from Ontario Street and across York Street, clear down to the River, using lands acquired by the newly minted Park's Board. Council was tough to deny such a business expansion but the Park's Board fought, despite threats from the company that they'd leave town. In the end, the Park's Board won the day and Thornton & Douglas did leave town, only to return a few months later opening in the Albion Block further down Ontario Street .

However, this minor skirmish was nothing compared to the advances of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Stratford was a one-train town and council, along with many businesses, saw competition as good for the economy. CPR wanted to come into town along the river, through the city's park system, which would completely destroy the plans of the Park's Board.

A 1913 bylaw was put to the ratepayers asking whether or not they wanted CPR to come into Stratford. This faced Council and industry off against the Parks Board. The Board responded with a campaign of photos of crowds who flocked along the river regularly, while pointing out that this would be considered trespassing if CPR were allowed to build along the city's beloved river. The river was saved by a slim majority of 127 votes and 850 acres of continuous park now framed the river .

The Park's Board had drawn on citizen's collective memories of the past to save the city's park system. Citizens were shown that they would lose their community's playground, which had played an instrumental part in shaping the city. These memories were too strong to deny and the concerns of Stratford's citizens trumped economic development, thus laying the foundation of the city's future success.

The Whistle Blows

The railway would play by far the biggest role in shaping Stratford's urban and cultural form. The year 1856 signalled the arrival of the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and Buffalo and Lake Huron Line, beginning Stratford's long history as a major rail centre .

Early engineers knew the devastating effect trains had had on downtowns in England, so the early stations were located a good mile out of town. Over the years, John MacDonald's plan for having downtown on the north side of the river at Huron and William Streets would be altered as business would be drawn south closer to the station, thus pulling the core of the city towards what would become Market Square.

In 1871 a GTR locomotive repair shop opened on St. Patrick Street, expanded in 1889 and 1906, with over 313,000 square feet of building space by 1949 . By the turn of the century, Stratford saw 44 passenger trains a day . Trains would be the reason for Stratford's economic success, as by 1905 half the town worked for the railway and it had a monthly payroll of $50,000 .

The Grand Trunk amalgamated with the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway and in 1923 was taken over by the Canadian National Railway. The CNR would continue to be a significant contributor to the town's economy until the closure of the shops in 1964 .

Although the GTR was the biggest employer in town, there were other industries. In 1886 the first major furniture factory, owned by George McLagan, began another industrial boom in Stratford . McLagan designed his own furniture and the Toronto press said he "probably contributed more to the industry than any other man in Canada."

Eventually there would be 20 furniture factories in Stratford's east end industrial area, including McLagan's, Kroehler and Imperial Rattan. Many of these factories were attracted to Stratford because of its rail access, proximity to hardwood, and its relative freedom from labour troubles.

However, that labour peace exploded in the 1933 general strike of furniture workers and female chicken pluckers at the Swift meat packing plant. They were demanding better wages and a shorter workweek. At first, calm prevailed, but soon violence erupted and the police were overwhelmed. The mayor called on the government and the War Measures Act was implemented with tanks and army reserves being dispatched to Stratford. Fortunately their necessity wasn't required and citizens soon protested their arrival, with 1500 locals marching to demand their removal. The Toronto press chastised the city's mayor for calling in the army and in October with the strike's completion, the reservists were recalled .

This breakout of labour unrest would shape the development of the city for the next decade, as the memories of this strike and the blue-collar nature of the city would influence labour minded growth. Whenever factories inquired about moving to Stratford, council would respond with questions like: "What are your working conditions? What are your wage levels? And what are your overtime and holiday rates?" In response, council would not pay for the required infrastructure and stagnation set in.

Stratford, though, was a place where progress wasn't always measured in dollars, population or numbers of factories. In 1951 Stratford's Industrial Commission turned down a plan of General Electric to build a plant that would have employed 1000 people. The president defended his decision in a very Stratford response: "What's the point of crowding our schools, our housing, all our city services? We make the town a worse place to live in, and what good does it do us? We want growth, but we want sound growth. Size doesn't mean anything in itself." The acknowledgement of past labour disputes contributed to protecting Stratford's unique charm and character, which in the long run would be an asset, as the festival would soon come knocking.

The Festival Theatre

The slow growth mindset of the city would preserve Stratford's small city character, while saving the park laid the groundwork for the space of the Stratford Festival. It is hard to imagine the festival taking shape with a CPR train yard in its midst. Keeping a CPR route out of the city was another one of those moments where Stratfordites took a leap of faith, following their hearts, rather than development, which in the long run paid immense economic benefits.

Tom Patterson, the Stratford born visionary who came up with the idea of the festival, said of Thomas Orr, "Stratford's park system make him appear like an aesthetic Jesus, creating the rock/garden upon which I would build my church/theatre." However, Patterson also pointed out an interview with Orr, where Orr questioned in typical Stratford fashion, "Why would we want ten thousand people tramping around on our grass? This park was built for the people of Stratford."

After recruiting Alec Guinness, stage designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch and director Tyrone Guthrie from England, Patterson's dream of a festival took flight and it was July 13th, 1953 when the show began to a packed house . The critics and theatre patrons who flocked to Stratford began calling it the "Miracle of Stratford" and the "Stratford Experience" . Here was a backwoods city, where Shakespeare was taking place with some of the best minds in theatre, under a tent in a park, with picnic goers and trains being heard in the background. A reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer complained to himself, "This is a bit of a put on … When I get to the end of all these wheat fields, I'm not going to see Alec Guinness … It will have to be some other Guinness - Joe Guinness or somebody."

But the festival was really just a culmination of the past - Stratford had always been a town that embraced culture. When the Market Building was lost to a fire in 1897, Brandenberger built the Avon - the town would not lose its theatre productions. Stratford had always been respectful of its past endeavours and built upon them, rather than simply forgot. And, it was really this need to preserve and build upon the past, that was key to the Festival's success. With a required budget of $150,000 Tom Patterson and his crew aimed to raise $30,000 of it from the local community, figuring if they could reach that amount, it would show the community was behind the festival. Within a week they had raised $42,000 . Eventually Stratford's total contribution toward the festival in that first year was $72,000, leading Guthrie to remark to a friend, "I don't see that happening in many of our country market towns, do you?"

The festival would remain in the tent for four seasons, until a permanent theatre was built on the same site with a tent-like design. It would open in 1957 with a young rising Canadian actor, Christopher Plummer, playing Hamlet . The festival launched into continuous expansion, taking over the old Casino (which would become the Tom Patterson Theatre) along the river in 1955 and the Avon in 1956, adding the Studio Theatre in 2002.

In a community with rural and blue collar roots, all walks of life could be seen at the theatre - from the Governor General to a local farmer. You could see Tom Patterson show up at the Queen's Hotel with Ethel Mermen, and Edward Everett Horton once had to stand up at bar because he didn't have a reservation for a table . This charming character of the city continues today - the main theatre of the festival has gone under numerous renovations, but is still settled amongst the park and you can still visit any number of local pubs and chat with celebrities.

Not to say there weren't cultural clashes - many asked why the festival was in such a conservative town. But what the festival really did was impose a new culture on an already existing one, what Adelaide Leitch referred to as, "night people coming into a day people society." There were cases of young Stratfordites calling actors "gearboxes," but there were just as many, if not more, cases of citizens buying actors drinks in pubs .

The social changes were subtle - a broadening of horizons, increased tolerance and wider interests. Citizens opened their homes to guests as hotels overflowed. Locals had walk-on and speaking parts in plays. The face of Stratford was changing, as its citizens would play host to what would become North America's largest repertory theatre. The festival would in turn help preserve the city's downtown and traditional neighbourhoods.

Stratford's Urban Renewal

Painters did a good business sprucing up houses along the city's tree-lined streets with the coming of the festival, as the city took on a self-importance and began cleaning itself up. The CNR also saw a 55% increase in travel to Stratford, so it began renovating the station . Downtown also began changing, tidying itself up and offering finer wares. A church would be renovated as an upscale restaurant, bookstores opened in houses and no longer would the high-class ladies of Delemare Avenue and Douglas Street have to travel to Toronto to buy expensive lingerie .

The festival's success would also bring downtown revitalization to the city. A 1966 economic development report showed 39 million tourist dollars were being spent in the city, with only 8 million of that being spent in the city proper . Many tourists spent their money in hotels and shops on the periphery and merchants downtown wanted to get money back into the core.

Stratford's grand City Hall at the apex of Downie and Wellington Streets was beginning to show its age - offices were cramped, the foundation and walls were cracked, and the building was in general disrepair. The estimated cost of renovating City Hall was $660,000 and a serious pitch to demolish the building was put forward .

In October of 1967, Mayor C. H. Meier produced a sketch of what could become of Stratford's grand City Hall - a round, 10-storey hotel with a revolving restaurant on top . News of the imminent destruction stirred locals' passions - soon the militant "Save the City Hall League" was formed. The plight of saving City Hall became divisive - the mayor received threatening phone calls and preservationists, such as Eric McLean (who had been involved in saving Old Montreal) and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, weighed in on the subject . Due to a public outcry to preserve City Hall, in August of 1972, council scrapped the idea of redeveloping the site and choose to renovate the existing City Hall. Again, Stratfordites choose their past over the temptations of modernity.

The battles in the core continued, however, as the city-owned Gordon Block at the apex of Downie, Erie and Ontario Streets, was in disrepair. The Gordon Block was built by the city's first mayor, William Gordon in the 1890s and was really the centrepiece of the city's downtown. Etched in its profile were four of the city's early hotels and it was flanked to the south by two active banks, the Commerce and Toronto Dominion, which were housed in Victorian quarters.

A plan by the city called for raising the buildings and constructing an enclosed mall that would include the two banks, along with a hotel and six-storey parking garage. There was public outrage immediately and resistance was firm. An Ontario Municipal Board hearing in the fall of 1976 pointed out that downtown business could suffer from the big city solution; however, the city won its case to move ahead with redevelopment .

Heritage Canada disagreed with council's plan and even author Pierre Berton weighed in, calling the scheme "perfectly scandalous." But while the community screamed, they couldn't save the Royal Bank building at the corner of Downie and Albert Streets. The Royal Bank building had been built in 1912, replacing three earlier building that had been demolished to make way for the bank. The original structure was three-storeys and provided a strong corner opposite the City Hall junction. In a sad statement for preserving the past, it would be bulldozed and replaced with a more modern building. As for the Gordon Block at the accompanying banks, the community uproar resulted in a compromise - a developer from London was brought in to preserve most of the Gordon Block, while the Commerce and Toronto Dominion would be demolished and replaced with modern buildings. This ended Stratford's foray into big city planning schemes, as the downtown was slowly revitalized and spruced up to reflect its historical routes.

Conclusion

Stratford is full of buildings and public spaces that air the history of the city. I grew up a few blocks from downtown in what was the city's old industrial district, just down the road from McLagan's furniture factory. It was a working class neighbourhood, with grand three and four-storey brick factories airing Stratford's past onto the surrounding area. I'm amazed to this day the brickwork and ornation these old factories feature - unlike today's industrial buildings, these factories were built to transcend their time and bestow dignity upon the community.

Today the area is gentrifying, becoming an upscale neighbourhood, surrounding the factories that one-time residents walked to and toiled in daily. The old factories and homes preserve the working class feeling of the neighbourhood. But today instead of walking to the factories to work, residents tend to be professionals working from computers or opening their homes for bed and breakfasts. The dignity of the neighbourhood still persists, but a new layer and meaning is being imposed on the old.

There are still residents who remember the days before the areas hardwood was exhausted and the factories manufactured furniture that filled homes across the continent. These residents blend in nicely with the newly settled families, passing on the history of the neighbourhood, explaining what used to go on in each of the old factories.

Just a few blocks west is downtown, filled with many stores that haven't changed since the turn of the century - Watson's Bazaar and Bradshaws. But there is plenty of change in the core, however, as new pubs and restaurants modify the commercial landscape, they are preserving the past, renovating heritage buildings. There are, of course, still buildings that exist in the same form and function as days gone by - one of my favourite being the Old English Parlour, where I indulge in the odd pint and which was originally the Mansion House.

Taking a walk through these neighbourhoods, enjoying the architecture and the ongoing preservation of these old buildings, really gives me a sense of pride in my community. My pride is amplified when I begin to understand what a fight it was to preserve these buildings and character in the face of modern planning proposals. If it weren't for the community respecting its past and fighting to preserve it, there wouldn't be a magnificent park system framing the Avon River or a theatre gracing Queen's Park. Economic development would have overwhelmed the urban form, destroying the character of the community. And, Stratford's well-preserved downtown would have felt the brunt of modernist renewal schemes, no doubt, falling silently into decay like so many other small city cores.

With a respect for its past, Stratford resisted the temptations so many other communities embraced to their own detriment. This respect for its history has translated into economic and cultural success for Stratford.