At first I was skeptical of the new Scarborough transit plan. A one-stop subway? I lurched to twitter with the best of them. But after studying the full proposal, I’m mostly on board.
Mostly – because I agree with many experts that a less expensive right-of-way rail option would do the job just as well as a subway, and liberate millions of dollars to invest in other public needs. But what Toronto also needs is a transit peace treaty to break the LRT-subway stalemate at City Hall, and this plan looks like it just might do that.
And what Scarborough needs is an opportunity for city building. Scarborough is the poster burb for car-dependent, low-density built form. Unlocking this stubborn pattern of development requires a proactive planning strategy for which a transit investment of this scale must command.
An important rationale for the extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway, we are told, is to help activate growth in the Scarborough City Centre, which is the only urban growth centre in Toronto not connected by higher order transit.
So invest in real grown up transit and developers will follow? Perhaps, but not without pro-active planning. “Build it and they will come” won’t cut it anymore. For decades we’ve built transit infrastructure without requirements to achieve specific density targets or land use priorities along transit infrastructure, resulting in densities that are too low to support appropriate levels of transit ridership. Examples include the Sheppard subway, the University-Spadina subway line and the current York subway extension.
The Centre of it all
The Scarborough City Centre area (174 hectares in size) is one of 25 “Urban Growth Centres” in the GTA earmarked by the Province’s Growth Plan for intensification, which means building “in and up” rather than out and meeting prescribed densities. It’s a key objective of the Growth Plan to limit sprawl and build mixed-use walkable compact transit-friendly “complete communities”.
However, after a full decade of being an urban growth centre, the Scarborough City Centre isn’t close to reaching its density target. By comparison, Yonge and Eglinton growth centre has far exceeded its density target (see graph below)
Ontario’s “growth plan” is currently under review, and a strong report led by David Crombiereleased in December makes a number of recommendations to require and enforce intensification and higher growth densities for transit corridors and station areas.
The Growth Plan review is a timely opportunity to ensure that provincial investments in transit projects – especially the really expensive ones like the subway extension to SCC- come with clear rules and expectations to achieve transit-supportive densities and land use plans that are transit-oriented. Without this quid pro quo, the funding should not be approved.
Actions are also needed to remove policy barriers and subsidies that make compact place-making initiatives cost prohibitive, with developers defaulting to cookie cutter houses in greenfields or uninspiring condos and commercial boxes in within the urban footprint.
The Crosstown LRT – Making the grade
For me the big silver lining in the Scarborough subway compromise is the Crosstown East LRT, a version of the former Transit City Malvern LRT resurrected with money clawed back from the scoped down subway. This LRT is a jackpot of transit bang for the buck with 17 stops, 12 km of track and 54,880 people and jobs within 500 m of transit. And the Crosstown East LRT is shovel ready – meaning the environmental assessment has been completed and construction can begin.
Just like the plan for the Eglinton Crosstown under construction, Kingston Road is a designated “Avenue” which means it’s ripe for retrofitting old plazas, parking lots, low rise commercial buildings and auto body shops into mixed use midrise and pedestrian friendly streetscapes, for which an at-grade LRT can stimulate.
By comparison, the two stops included in the previous Scarborough subway plan offer little potential for development within a landscape of stable subdivisions which cannot be transformed, thus currently not justifying the investment in these stations in the new plan.
McCowan Corridor – one study area of original Scarborough subway. Subdivisions limit the potential for high-density intensification, which is needed to support high-order transit. Image: Google Maps
Kingston Road – proposed location of Crosstown East LRT. Parking lots and low-rise commercial buildings present opportunity for intensification and creation of a pedestrian friendly mainstreet. Image: Google Maps
The making of a main street. A rendering of Eglinton Connects plan for a complete community and compact development, including mixed-use midrise activated by the at-grade Eglinton Crosstown LRT currently under construction. Image: City of Toronto
Is Scarborough the future of city building?
The future looks brighter for Scarborough. Not only does it have a transit plan with the probability of being built, but it has some of the right ingredients for city building. Instead of being poster scape of car-oriented development, imagine if Scarborough became a model for how to retrofit and reimagine our suburbs.