Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A sanctity of trails

The city of Waterloo has to ask itself, at what price intensification? Is it worth rerouting a critical trail whose unique right of way could never be regained?

Mady Development and the city are looking at a proposal for a second tower at the 144 Park development, to be called 155 Caroline. The proposal would consume much of the block north of the Sun Life parking garage, growing the green section below to encompass the orange section in one contiguous block.

View 155Caroline in a larger map

The purple represents the corridor set aside for an Iron Horse realignment. What could go in there is still up for debate, but the developer is proposing separate cycle path (2m) and  walking paths, with various improvements for walkers.

The number of units is set to more than double, as is the amount of parking on-site. The bulk of it would have access to Park St., while 62 spots at ground level (covered) would enter and exit from Caroline. (These spots are a requirement imposed on the Bauer lofts developer, who currently owns the gravel surface parking, and who wants to maintain that parking supply.)

At the informal meeting tonight with councilor Melissa Durrell and representatives from Mady and the consultants involved, some new developments came to light in response to concerns raised at a previous meeting. Focusing on the Iron Horse Trail, a 3m multi-use trail connection was added to the plan along Caroline St, and factors to mitigate the ugliness of a parking garage across the street from the thriving Bauer retail have been introduced.

So, the question needs to be asked: Is this worth moving the Iron Horse for?

To be sure, concessions have been made to make sure that the trail connects to Allen at Caroline. The point was made that a perpendicular crossing at Park St. may be safer. The functional connectivity is maintained.

But it comes in exchange for a main apartment pedestrian entrance, a townhouse entrance (at the Allen/Caroline corner) and a potentially busy parking driveway now crossing the Caroline trail segment. It eliminates a natural and historic corridor (reflected in the trail's very name) and replaces it with a canyon between a wall of windows inaccessible to the general public on one side, and an eyesore of a concrete parking garage on the other.

Worst of all, though: it sends a signal that the city of Waterloo is willing to sacrifice its trail corridors for development. At a time when the region is trying to build another rail-trail through the Waterloo Spur to connect downtown and uptown, the most popular cycling corridor in the city would come in second place to developer interest. If they can reroute Park to Caroline, why not the Park to John segment too?

Still, here's the rub: the corridor is owned by the city of Waterloo. The developer and the city are discussing a land swap. To make this happen, the city has to declare the lands surplus, and hold a public meeting. This needs to go through council.

There's a large number of local residents who are concerned at the scale of this project for reasons which differ from these, primarily traffic and parking. There are urbanists who see the ground-level presence of this development as lipstick on a pig at best, but more likely a terrible wasted opportunity for growing a vibrant uptown. And there are 144 Park condo owners whose great vista will disappear much faster than they could have expected.

This might be a situation where trail enthusiasts, urbanists, new residents and the old guard all have aligned interests. If you don't like it, talk to your councilors.

Personally, I think Mady is very close to making out like a bandit at the city's and region's expense. A land swap that turns an awkward piece of property into a large-scale development opportunity? Even if I supported this proposal, I think the city should be able to extract a lot more out of the developer for what they stand to gain from the city's concession.


  1. Thanks for summary, and the advocacy at the meeting! I use that segment of trail a couple of times per month in the summer ... If the city goes ahead with the land swap, Maddy should be required to make things better for the trail users (i.e. make it worth our while):

    - Some sort of benches / rest area at start of the trail
    - Sufficiently wide well kept
    - Well marked start of trail
    - Possibly improve the ground level amenities for the site
    - and no interruption to the trail! i.e. the extension along Allen should be ready before the current segment is closed down.

  2. I wouldn't object if the changes actually improved the experience of the trail, but that's definitely not the case here. I wonder if any studies will be done to understand wind tunnel effects?

    An area where I would actually be open to discussion about trail re-alignment would be Victoria and West. If the bowling alley were to ever close (it's legal non-conforming, zoned residential) I would almost propose routing the trail through the parking lot to allow for a crossing at the intersection. (Of course, the ideal situation would be for the existing crossing locations to be properly marked and even signalized on Victoria, but a realignment might be more palatable to engineers and planners who might be adverse to adding another intersection in a busy area)