Mixing it up in Toronto
By Christine Kreyling
July 8, 1997: Toronto, Canada--"Nuts Make the World Go 'Round," proclaims the sign above Casa Acoreana on Toronto's Augusta Avenue. But the Casa gets its energy from a lot more than goobers. In the wooden bins that wrap around the front of the store, I count 21 kinds of rice, seven different kinds of lentils, and 27 varieties of dried beans. My husband, The Professor, buys Chinese grits: The grains are as big as babies' teeth.
Down the block at the Baldwin Street Bakery, bread, in 32 types, lies cooling on racks. There's Russian black, golden Jamaican cornbread, dietetic white. The baby face in the shop's "Baked with Love" logo strongly resembles the little girl who's playing at the feet of the young man who sells me a walnut-wheat loaf.
"Yes, we have pupusas today," declares a hand-lettered sheet taped to the window of the Perola Supermarket. A white dog pees on a lamppost in front of "Global Cheese: When It Comes to Cheese, We Speak Your Language." That's saying something.
It's 9 o'clock on a Tuesday morning in Toronto's Kensington market. Just strolling the streets, I have heard 10 different tongues in the last 20 minutes.
When I arrived in Toronto in early June, I did not expect to find so pungent a city. Viewed from far away in Middle Tennessee, Canada seems bland, a place that lacked the gumption to revolt against His Majesty and was content, instead, to slide meekly from colony to commonwealth.
Before my visit, the only thing I knew about Toronto was that a lot of American movies are filmed there. Apparently, Toronto streets of the '90s look a lot like New York streets of the '40s. And sure enough, I found the cameras rolling in front of Toronto's old City Hall, temporarily re-identified as the Brooklyn Courthouse.
I also found a human mosaic of 4.5 million people. Toronto boasts the second most ethnically diverse population in the world, right behind Singapore. These many peoples hit the streets at all hours of the day and night. They sip espresso in Toronto's 400 sidewalk cafes. They walk and rollerblade along the sidewalks, they bicycle in specially designated lanes, they hurry to the subway or to trolleys or buses, and, yes, they drive cars.
Toronto has the street life that Nashville and most other U.S. cities lack. "We watch what the United States does, see what doesn't work, and then do the opposite," says Toronto city planner Robert Glover. When they saw our urban-renewal and suburban sprawl of the '50s and the '60s, they considered themselves forewarned.
Separate but equalIn the years immediately following World War II, Toronto, like most other North American cities, was about to explode. City revenues could not keep up with the new demand for services. The city of Toronto tried, unsuccessfully, to annex the surrounding townships. Nashville went through the same growing pains in those years and tried the same unsuccessful strategies. What we finally came up with was Metro government: County and city became one.
Toronto's formula was a bit more complicated. The many municipalities in the Metro Toronto Planning Area were joined into a federation, with a Metro council responsible for regional planning, infrastructure, and mass transit. Local councils continued to deal with local issues such as land-use planning, city streets, neighborhood infrastructure. Some local functions, such as social services, police protection, and education, were gradually moved up to the regional level.
Much of greater Toronto's post-World War II growth took the form of low-density suburbs and downtown office towers surrounded by windswept plazas, the sort of development that would be familiar to Nashvillians. According to former Mayor John Sewell, Toronto's new suburbs weren't a financial drain on the city, however. Toronto's regional government built the regional suburban infrastructure. (Mostly, that meant roads.) Then developers built and paid for the local infrastructure of streets and utilities. The suburbs paid for themselves; they weren't subsidized by the inner city.
Recent battles over the Metro Nashville budget are a symptom of our sprawl sickness. We are divided between advocates for building new schools in the suburbs, and advocates for repairing and replacing the old ones in the inner city. We are split between citizens who avoid downtown and want big branch libraries in their outlying neighborhoods, and city dwellers who want a large main library anchoring a centralized system. We cannot afford both to build new neighborhoods and to fix old ones, so we get mediocre versions of each.
Toronto watched as one U.S. city after another acted out its suburban death wish. Then, 20 years ago, Toronto decided to do the opposite. In 1972, Torontonians elected a "Reform" City Council. They were concerned because of the destruction of historic structures and because of zoning that was turning downtown into an office park. So they charged their new Council with devising a plan to reverse the trends of the '50s and '60s. The Council could carry out that plan because Toronto had two tiers of government. Politically, the new suburbs did not dominate the old city. Land-use and transportation policies could be developed that were urban in the urban areas, and suburban in the 'burbs.
Planned to lastToronto's 1976 plan, like the subsequent 1994 CityPlan, emphasizes the traditional character and patterns of urbanism. One of its basic intentions was to protect existing neighborhoods while promoting new neighborhoods in, or adjacent to, the central core.
City government, acting as the neighborhood developer, built a number of downtown apartment buildings that charged a variety of rents geared to a variety of income levels. When these new structures succeeded, private developers followed suit.
The slow economy of the late 1980s left a number of Toronto's downtown office towers vacant. The city changed the zoning to encourage converting offices to condos and simplified its permit process to attract private investors.
As a result of these initiatives, the city increased the number of residential units within the central city by 40,000. Nashville, by comparison, has approximately 1,200 residential units downtown. With 50,000 new urban residents, Toronto is the only city in North America that has witnessed a net increase in the population of its central core.
In the same years, Nashville used government funds to subsidize downtown retail such as Church Street Centre and office space such as the BellSouth Building. The Metro Development and Housing Agency has provided $6 million in tax-increment financing for Tony Giarratana's Cumberland Tower. So far, it is the only evidence that Nashville believes downtown living is what makes a modern downtown work.
Toronto's plans also promote mixed use within the city's downtown area, bringing to a halt the separation of the city into single-use zones. The most recent mixed-use development project is an area called "The Kings." This is Toronto's SoBro, a warehouse district pockmarked with parking lots and struggling to transform itself into an urban neighborhood.
To kick-start redevelopment, Toronto's planning office got rid of zoning based on land use in The Kings. A few restrictions were retained to forbid projects such as stockyards and nuclear power stations. But, for the most part, design guidelines were substituted for zoning regulations. Developers can now use rehabbed or new buildings for pretty much any purpose they choose, but new construction must adhere to guidelines that mandate a maximum height and require structures that are built to the sidewalk. Off-street parking requirements were reduced to cut down on the blight of surface lots.
A new zoning ordinance, one that greatly increases the number of mixed-use categories, is currently proposed for Nashville. However, Metro Council has insisted that a new zoning map must look pretty much like the one that already exists. Thus, even though new mixed-use categories may be included on a list of zoning options, it will be hard to find a place where they will actually be put into use.
Driving onToronto's planners also emphasize public transportation rather than urban expressways. When city-dwelling Torontonians blocked the Spadina Expressway in 1971, they already had a good transit system. The central city and its ring of old neighborhoods depended on mass transit, and the system was kept in good repair. Toronto's first subway was built in the 1950s, because the existing trolleys couldn't keep up with the demand for public transportation. Today a mass transit user in Toronto takes an average of 200 trips a year. In Nashville, by comparison, the average is 13.
Meanwhile, instead of putting its money into public transportation, Nashville continues to bet on cars. We are building 7,500 parking spaces for the Oilers stadium on the East Bank. When Toronto constructed its SkyDome in the late '80s, the city restricted parking to 400 spaces. The rest of the fans use mass transit or off-site parking.
Our Metro Transit Authority's budget for fiscal year 1997-98 is $17.1 million. That's an increase of $1.27 million over the previous year, but most of it will merely replace cuts in federal subsidies. Nevertheless, Nashville is planning to spend big bucks for roads. The Franklin Corridor project, for example, has a $50 million price tag.
In Toronto, as in Nashville, a lot of ugly buildings have been built during the past 20 years. Yet because Toronto's structures are built to design guidelines that emphasize urban values, the ambience of the streets is not impaired. Toronto shows us that bad architecture won't kill good urbanism. Nashville shows us that bad architecture, combined with bad urbanism, can kill a downtown.
On my last morning in Toronto, I returned to the Kensington Market. I was looking for some exotic food souvenirs, but I was also hoping for a final dose of urban life. I sat in a corner coffee shop and watched an ancient woman in a hot-pink coat, her face so fissured that I found it impossible to guess her ethnic group, or even what continent she was from.
As she pushed a shopping cart down the middle of Kensington Avenue, her shrunken figure blocked a truck delivering fish to the Abyssinian West African Grocery. I waited for the horn blasts and curses that would have resulted from this confrontation almost anywhere in the States. Toronto did the opposite. A man, his arms the size of hams, was waiting to unload the truck. He carefully gathered up the woman, and her cart, and gently deposited them both on the sidewalk.
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