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A spat over spots: Can places like the Brick Works succeed without parking?

October 31, 2009
By Diane Peters, National Post


The Royal Canadian Military Institute, a squat, dun-coloured oddity nestled between two glittering office towers on University Avenue, has attracted some fuss lately.

No one is terribly upset that this building with limited historical value is being torn down; the developers plan to replicate its 1907 façade as part of the new tower. And few care that the new 42-storey building going up in its place will be double the height of its neighbours.

The hype, instead, centres on the fact that staff and visitors of the institute — who will inhabit the bottom six floors — and the residents of the 315 bachelor and one-bedroom condominiums above will have no parking spaces in which to rest their wheels.

Instead of a recommended 194 spaces, the new condo will have just nine, all of which will be devoted to shared vehicles.

This is not the first building to go up without complementary parking. It’s happened in such cities as New York, Chicago and London, and we have a few venues of our own that, in recent years, have chosen green space over parking spaces.

It’s all part of a trend to turn cities into paradises for transit users, pedestrians and cyclists while making life for drivers a lot more annoying. “We’re beginning to design a city that does not require people to own a vehicle,” enthuses Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Yes, our thinkers, leaders and some of our developers might be ready for a city without cars. But this is North America, land of the drive-in, strip mall and Sunday drive. Are we ready?

When the opportunity to develop 426 University Ave. first crossed Stephen Deveaux’s desk, he quickly realized the 38 x 16 metre site didn’t even have enough space to accommodate a proper ramp for an underground parking garage.

“Most developers would look at the site that had a challenge like this and say: ‘We’re going to pass,’ ” says Deveaux, vice-president of land development for Pickering-based Tribute Communities. “We looked at it as an opportunity to do something new and different and progressive.”

Granted, it was also an opportunity to save a little coin. It costs about $27,000 to build a single underground parking space in Toronto.

Both car use and car ownership are declining in the city thanks to gas prices and the availability of shared vehicles through AutoShare and Zipcar. According to a survey commissioned by the City of Toronto in 2007, only half of bachelor-size condo owners in the city own a car, and the ownership rate for downtowners in tiny condos is correspondingly small — just 0.2 cars per condo owner.

That’s why most condo parking lots are vastly undersold — and at a considerable cost to the developer.
Deveaux took this rationale — plus data about the ample availability of parking in the neighbourhood, the fact that the entrance to the subway would be next door and promises about seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification — to the community and the city.

While the city’s planning department was against the plan, earlier this month the Toronto and East York Community Councils recommended the city amend the site’s bylaw. City council was to vote on the proposal yesterday.

Tribute’s plan got support from the likes of Councillor Adam Vaughan, who got his driver’s licence a year ago and uses his car twice a week. “The reality is when you live downtown, you live downtown the way people for eons have lived downtown: You walk, you cycle, you find other options.”

He’s happy to draw new residents to his ward who won’t bring cars with them, and he thinks the car stackers the building proposes to put in its basement to cram in nine cars are “amazing” — they’re common in Europe and cities like New York.
But if built as proposed, this will not be the only building in Toronto that breaks with our parking expectations.

Artscape Wychwood Barns at St. Clair and Christie opened a year ago to much praise over its clever reuse of five dilapidated TTC sheds, but its lack of on-site parking raised eyebrows.

Bruce Rosensweet, the site’s director of properties, says city planners wanted about 50 parking spots for the 26 live/work apartment tenants, staff and farmers selling at the weekly market. “It was a challenge to make an argument with the city that we didn’t require parking,” he says. But a paved lot would have encroached on the three acres of outdoor space that’s now a city-run park with a dog run, play park and sports field. As well, a chunk of asphalt’s heat island effect would have been an obstacle to landing LEED certification.

So Artscape commissioned a transportation-demand management plan to highlight local transit and availability of street and lot parking and promised loads of spots for bikes.

Rosensweet says neighbours called frequently during construction to complain about noise, dust and trucks. Since the opening, no one has rung with a problem about parking. Local residents say it’s tough to get spots near their homes on Saturday mornings, but the inconvenience is outweighed by having a great market and park nearby.

Meanwhile, the city allowed Evergreen Brick Works to build its environmental community centre on Bayview near Pottery Road — a stone’s throw from the Don Valley Parkway — with just 368 parking spots.

“If you think of typical driving habits and our location, that’s pretty low,” says Robert Plitt, manager of sustainability for the site. When construction is complete next spring, the Brick Works will have 250 employees and hundreds of visitors a day. Already, parking is an issue on summer Saturdays when upwards of 2,000 people visit the farmers’ market — it was even tighter this year when construction left only 120 spots open.

But Evergreen wanted to send a message about car use, as well as preserve more land for green space. Already, it’s been able to get a TTC bus to detour up Bayview every Saturday. Evergreen runs a shuttle from Broadview on market days, and will eventually make it a daily thing, at a cost of $170,000 a year. Meanwhile, staff are working with the city to improve access and signs to the trails near the site. Once the venue is in full operation, it plans to initiate programs such as ride-sharing.

Evergreen’s efforts are having some effect. Plitt says people still drive to Brick Works, but the ratio of those taking transit and biking has increased.

Environmentalists are loving this effort to discourage cars. “The more you want to look like L.A. or Houston, the more parking you require,” says Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA and an expert on parking. “The more you aspire to be a great city, the more you should aspire to do this kind of thing.”

Drivers who whip along the Bayview extension this morning will see a familiar sight: dozens of cars parked along the side of the road. The Brick Works’ lack of parking has not deterred drivers completely. The illegal parkers are a source of anxiety for Evergreen because of safety concerns. Meanwhile, they’re a boon to the city’s coffers when parking enforcement officers show up and hand out piles of tickets.

Plitt admits that merely having scant parking doesn’t automatically convert drivers to alternative transit users: “Many people will stop coming because they’re so connected to their cars.” Likewise, the streets around Wychwood Barns are crammed with cars every Saturday while the lengthy row of bike racks is half empty.

There’s no denying that limited parking is having limited success at these venues. As for the condo? Joe D’Abramo, the city’s acting director of zoning and environmental planning, says Torontonians drive less, but many still own cars. “You may not choose to drive your car, but that car, like yourself, at the end of the day has to have a place to call home.”

While many initial buyers at 426 University may be car-less, over time, some may acquire vehicles to drive to a new job orto shuttle a growing family. Many units will be rented out to Ryerson and University of Toronto students who may luck in to hand-me-down vehicles from parents.

“If you don’t have a place, you’ll find a place,” D’Abramo says. In New York, lack of spots in apartment buildings has led to more private lots that use stackers to pack cars in four-high.

But this is just one condo in a parking-rich part of town — it’s not like half the city’s high-rises have no spots for cars. However, parking requirements will soon catch up with our rejigged relationship with the car: The city is revising its standards and downtown locales will be asked to provide fewer spots starting in early 2010.

For now, with Tribute’s new building likely moving ahead, we’ll see if the units sell. Deveaux says the office has already been flooded with calls, and it makes sense: It’s a great location, the units will be relatively cheap and Tribute will be tossing in AutoShare memberships. Although we love our wheels, we also love saving a buck.

[One of the last above-ground parking lots on Toronto's Front Street at John Street, Photo by Peter J. Thompson / National Post.]

As posted here: http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/toronto/archive/2009/10/31/a-spat-over-spots-can-places-like-the-brick-works-succeed-without-parking.aspx