Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Hurontario-Main LRT and Redeveloping Brampton

Tomorrow is a crucial vote for the future of Brampton. The City Council will determine whether or not they will accept the proposed Hurontario-Main Light Rail Transit line that will stretch from Port Credit in Mississauga to Downtown Brampton. The debate within the city has been highly contentious and has largely focused on the potential impact that LRT will have on the downtown.

The proposed route for the Hurontario-Main LRT (Metrolinx)

I am on record supporting the route through the downtown. Most of the objections to the Brampton section of the LRT boils down to a few main points. The first is heritage. That section of Brampton is designated as a heritage district and there are those who are concerned an LRT will ruin that character. In my opinion this is a flimsy argument. An LRT would ruin downtown just as much as the current automobile traffic does. The next is the concern about the impact on downtown businesses. There seems to be some legitimate concern that construction can negatively impact businesses along LRT routes. In some cases it is quite minor, but the potential is very real and is dependent on the local construction. Hopefully the city works to minimize impacts and has a support program for affected businesses.

Of course the main criticism is the impact this will have on automobile traffic. I believe the plan is to remove on-street parking along the route and let cars pass on either side of the LRT. Parking downtown is plentiful at the moment, this would eliminate the ability to park directly in front of certain businesses. These businesses would then benefit from being directly on the route of the LRT and all the additional foot traffic that may be generated. The final concerns is that the LRT will just make it easier for Brampton shoppers to get to Mississauga and divert more sales away from the city. My argument would be that the LRT will make it more attractive for shoppers to travel from Mississauga to Brampton. It is up to local businesses to attract them to come. Perhaps the Downtown business association should place some ads in Square One, or the new trains, or Mississauga's Mi-Way to help promote the Brampton core.

A number of counter proposals have been made for the Brampton Hurontario-Main LRT. Divyesh Mistry has written a series of pieces about these alternatives such as why tunneling isn't practical, the problem with using Kennedy Road instead, and the incredible costs of tunneling.

The LRT is only one part of the problem. Brampton needs to embrace a more urban future. The city has a greater population than Hamilton yet often behaves like it is still a little suburb, like say Pickering. When I look at downtown Brampton the main problem I see is that it is too small. I lived for a number of years in the city of St. Catharines, which has about a quarter of the population but a much larger, more vibrant downtown. Downtown is unfortunately hemmed in on the south side by the beautiful heritage houses on Main Street. The city should rezone the areas east, north and west of downtown for greater intensification and mixed residential and commercial use. For the sake of argument, use the rail line in the west as the new boundary, go north as far as Vodden and east to the Etobicoke Creek. This will mean losing a lot of beautiful houses, but I fear the downtown as it is is too small to build a critical mass. I think that the stretch of LRT that will run down Main Street downtown might be best served to become a train, bicycle and pedestrian only space. Removing autos from the equation might make it more palatable for all involved and create a rich plaza in the heart of the city.

Blue marks locations of potential redevelopment/intensification outside of Downtown.

Finally, the LRT offers a real, and much needed opportunity to redevelop Main Street south of downtown. Most of Main Street is banked on either side by low-density development or the Etobicoke Creek. We cannot develop the park so we are left to look at the rest of the properties. If/when an LRT stop goes in at Nanwood it would be a perfect opportunity to redevelop the Brampton Mall and perhaps the adjacent plaza with the convenience store and veterinary clinic. I've heard plans to a condominium tower in this location.  The piece of land the Brampton Mall sits on is clearly large enough for a sizeable development. The one to the south could fit in a couple of medium sized apartments, similar to the one already on Nanwood and both should provide ground-level commercial services to the local neighbourhood in Peel Village and the new residents.

I think it is fair to say that Shopper's World at Main and Steeles is struggling. I do not know what planning can do to improve the situation. Perhaps increasing densification in the area will draw more casual shoppers and as it grows into a transit hub that may help as well. The mall across from Shopper's World could be developed into two good-sized mixed-use towers from my estimates. I would hope that the development would make these places less automobile dependent and move away from the low-density designs they currently have.

It is tough to redevelop detached single-family homes which are dominant along the Main Street neighbourhoods in Brampton. Areas such as Mill Street, Elgin Drive, Clarence Street and Nanwood Drive should perhaps be designated for intensification. Not towers, but duplexes, fourplexes, row houses, or three-storey developments. Basically take the next step in density and create a more urban space around the Main Street corridor.

These proposals go in the face of much of Brampton's tradition and self-conception. The reality is the Brampton is a city and on track to only get larger. If we continue to build sprawling subdivisions on the edge and give no thought to redeveloping our old neighbourhoods and how to make our downtown meet our needs then we risk decline. It's time for the city to grow up, literally, and accept a future where apartment buildings, condominiums, row houses, 3+ storey buildings, the LRT and transit-oriented development become part of our heritage too.

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