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Your Voice Matters! What’s Wrong with the Richmond Hill Centre and How to Fix It.

DON’T JUST THINK “PLACES TO GROW”.

THINK “PLACES TO GO”.

A long read by resident Graham Churchill

In the past 25 years, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has been one of the fastest-growing large urban centres in North America. Its exceptional growth is expected to continue. In the next 25 years, the GTA is projected to grow by a further 2.9 million people, with 80% occurring outside of the City of Toronto itself. Growth might be even higher if climate change drives migrations of people to Canada from countries and regions that are disproportionately impacted.


To contain urban sprawl, reduce carbon emissions, and preserve critical farmland, the government of Ontario, in 2006, passed the Places to Grow Act. A greenbelt was drawn around the extended city and a selection of locations were identified and designated as urban growth centres. One of those designated growth centres was the hub currently being planned for Richmond Hill/Markham at Yonge Street and Hwy 407.


Fast forward to today and the plans for that hub are becoming real. The Yonge Subway has been approved for extension to Richmond Hill and plans for buildings in the centre are being drawn up. There is just one problem -- the plans need to be sent back to the drawing board.


The centre being proposed is too dense and too condo-centric and is not burying one of the centre’s biggest obstacles – the electrical transmission lines. What’s more, if the original objective of the Places to Grow Act was to get people out of cars onto transit, this plan will not succeed. Instead, it will add to the crush of people on the Yonge Street subway during rush hour making it impossible for people in central Toronto to get on the train, let alone have a seat.


There is a better way. It entails building an integrated development plan for southern York Region, including an integrated rail transit using the corridor of Hwy 407 and the GO lines. It also entails implementing a more cost-effective model for funding and operating transit projects and concentrating urban growth along connected urban corridors -- highways, rail lines, electrical transmission grids. It also entails preserving a sizable strip of nature linking the urban centres.


Until the end of January, feedback is being taken at www.engagehightech.ca (for the Richmond Hill Centre) and www.engagebridge.ca (for the Langstaff Gateway).


Richmond Hill Centre -- One of the Three Most Important Traffic Hubs in the GTA

The transit hub being built at Yonge Street and Highway 407 is being billed by the province as one of the three most important in the GTA – the other two being Union Station and Pearson Airport. The hub will indeed have more modes of transport than most -- the Yonge Street Subway, GO Trains, Go Buses, YRT and VIVA buses, and, one day, the 407 Transitway -- a future rail link running alongside Hwy 407 joining Halton, Peel, York and Durham.

The hub in discussion is actually two transit hubs – High Tech Station -- at the intersection of the current CN rail line and High Tech Road, north of Highway 407 and east of Yonge St., and -- Bridge Station -- on the same rail line but to the south sitting directly under Highways 7 and 407.


Richmond Hill Centre and High Tech Station

The first hub is the Richmond Hill Centre (High Tech Station), which fits into a few small blocks north of Highway 407 just to the east of Yonge Street.

Plan for High Tech Station

It’s an irregular shape that one could describe as two adjacent land pockets:

1) Pocket 1:

  • North-South – from Beresford Drive to Connector Road/Hwy 7, and

  • East-West -- from the rail tracks to Yonge St;

2) Pocket 2:

  • North-South -- High Tech Road to the utility corridor, and

  • East-West – from Red Maple Rd to the rail tracks.


The most recent iteration of the High Tech plan, presented at the Engage High Tech public open house open on Dec 9, 2021, shows this centre attempting to squeeze 21,000 housing units (45,730 people @ 2.13 persons/unit) and 9,500 jobs into this area.


The proposal shows 32 towers, with 18 of them 60 storeys or higher and seven of those at 80 storeys.


To put these heights in perspective, First Canadian Place, Toronto’s tallest office building, is 72 storeys. To say the least, these densities and heights are grossly excessive.


The Langstaff Gateway and Bridge Station

Richmond Hill Centre (High Tech Station) is twinned with a second station just to the south called Bridge Station, which will sit underneath and between High 7 and Highway 407. Just to its south, in Markham, sandwiched between Langstaff Rd to Holy Cross Cemetery, and stretching from Yonge to Bayview, is a sister high-density development called the Langstaff Gateway.


Phase one of the Langstaff Gateway, as presented at the Engage Bridge public open house on Dec 14, 2021, shows only the western section of the project, Yonge St to Cedar Ave.

For this phase, the proposal is to squeeze in 20,500 housing units (43,665 people @ 2.13 people/unit) and 9,500 jobs.


Thirty-four towers are proposed; 22 of them are over 60 storeys and 4 are up to 80 storeys. Like the Richmond Hill Centre, these densities and heights also seem ludicrously excessive.

It is also worth noting that these are not the only two developments in the area. The following adjacent areas are also being primed to grow dramatically:

  • The west side of Yonge Street, across from the Richmond Hill Centre as well as the rest of Yonge St up to Carrville Rd.

  • The intersection of Carrville/16th Ave and Yonge St.

  • Phase 2 of the Richmond Hill Centre, south of High Tech Rd. over to Bayview Ave.

  • Phase 2 of the Langstaff Gateway, from Cedar Ave. over to Bayview Ave.

If you add the populations of the hubs and all of these developments together, it appears Infrastructure Ontario is attempting to put about 130,000 to 250,000 more people into this small area. This plan is unrealistic, especially given that Richmond Hill’s entire population is currently just over 200,000 people.


What are the Problems with these Plans?

1) THE DENSITIES AND HEIGHTS ARE FAR TOO HIGH AND FAR TOO CONDO-CENTRIC

The Ontario government’s strategic growth plan calls for more densities at specific urban centres as a way to offset urban sprawl, retain critical farmland, and ensure the health of our water table. Unfortunately, the heights and densities being planned for these two centres are completely out of proportion with the rest of the community.


The marketing material from Infrastructure Ontario, the Ministry of Infrastructure for Ontario, which is overseeing the development, says the aim is to build Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC). Scrutiny of the details suggests anything but. Richmond Hill and Markham already had reasonable housing densities that included employment targets. Infrastructure Ontario doubled the housing densities of the municipalities and in the process also shrunk the number of jobs. They also removed Markham’s planned community centre from their proposal. It is difficult to see how the new proposals meet the Ministry’s own goals.

The reality is that they are proposing a condo-wasteland.

The reality is that they are proposing a condo-wasteland.


One can speculate how this came to be. Developers always prefer to build condo towers over commercial spaces. The costs of building condos are less than that of commercial properties. With condos, the risks are lower and offer shorter payback periods.


Unfortunately, while this kind of development might be good for developers, it is not good for people. The density and height plans for these two centres must be reworked. Residents must have their say and the decision-making must be transparent.

2) THE GOVERNANCE MODEL IS BROKEN

These two projects are being managed by two separate entities – Richmond Hill and Markham – when in fact, they should be tightly interwoven. The fragmented structure is making it difficult for the project to get organized. For instance, the two areas could share schools, fire services, and other elements. Residents cannot get a unified view of the projects or assess the impact on their community.


Furthermore, many of the decisions regarding these two projects appear to have been removed from the hands of the municipalities. Infrastructure Ontario has taken over. One might think that is a good thing, but it appears that developers, who may have better access to the Premier’s ear than municipalities, may be wielding too much influence. For example, without the approval, or knowledge, of Markham Council or York Region Council, Infrastructure Ontario doubled the density of the Langstaff Gateway from 10,450 units to 20,490 units. At the same time, they reduced Markham’s employment targets. They did the same to Richmond Hill.


For a project as consequential as this to succeed, the municipalities, and their residents, need to be involved. Far more transparency is required on how these projects will impact people’s lives. The project needs a new governance and accountability model.


3) THE HIGH VOLTAGE ELECTRICITY CORRIDOR MUST BE BURIED

If the Ontario government is serious that this development is important, one would think they would be presenting a plan that buries its most obvious eyesore– the electrical transmission corridor which traverses from Bayview Avenue to Yonge Street north of Hwy 407. This corridor, which through most of the region runs east-west south of Highway 407, only jogs north at Bayview Avenue and then south again at Yonge Street. Presumably, it was built this way because of a decision made long ago when a long-gone settlement impeded the electrical corridor. If the location of this transmission corridor is not addressed now -- before major construction begins -- it will become a permanent barrier for this regional centre.

Electrical transmission corridor

Why aren’t the transmission lines being moved? Infrastructure Ontario says it can’t be done. They say that high-voltage transmission lines cannot be buried because of the magnetic fields they produce. This answer fails to stand up to expert scrutiny.


Gas Insulated Lines

There is a well-known technology used throughout the world for burying high transmission electrical lines. It’s called Gas Insulated Lines (GIL). In short, a tubular aluminum conductor is used to carry the current, enclosed in a rigid metallic tube that is filled with an insulating gas. The Electric and Magnetic Field (EMF) of GIL is much safer than the 55kv overhead wires, a mere 3-5% of that. It is, therefore, safer than what exists today. The technology is very stable and can last untouched for 50-60 years.


The more likely reason the GIL option is being ignored is that the developers do not want to pay for it. According to one of Markham’s Regional Councillors, Siemens Canada already looked at this corridor and estimated that the cost of relocating and burying the lines using GIL would be between $200 - $250 million. That may sound like a lot, but considering that doing so would free up approximately $2 billion in land value, there is more than enough money for a business case, including the building of a great park.


But there may be another reason why Infrastructure Ontario is not pursuing this option. Who pays? Richmond Hill and Markham zonings require developers to provide the cities with a certain amount of parkland with their developments. If a developer’s proposal has a parkland deficiency, they are expected to pay the city money (cash in lieu) to buy and protect parkland elsewhere.


For the Richmond Hill Centre, it appears that the hydro corridor is being offered as parkland. Should residents accept this? What kind of premier city park sits under hydro lines? Perhaps this is a tactic? They give the land to the city for a massive density exception and the city pays to bury the lines? We need some answers.

At the Markham Special Development Services Committee meeting held on December 21, 2021, it was revealed that cash-in-lieu had not even been offered to Markham in exchange for the change of plan that doubled the project’s density. Who is taking the money? The public is left to speculate. Is Infrastructure Ontario negotiating parkland directly with the developers? Are they waving Markham’s cash-in-lieu without Markham’s approval? Is Infrastructure Ontario taking the money to fund its own projects? This is an item that needs more transparency and scrutiny.


The bottom line is that the transmission lines are an impediment that needs to be moved south of the 407 and buried. To make it happen, residents and municipal politicians need to start screaming for it. If the Premier’s Office were to order the lines buried, they would be buried without question.


4) THE PROVINCE’S TRANSIT NETWORK FUNDING MODEL NEEDS TO BE REVAMPED

One of the reasons that Infrastructure Ontario may be pushing for such high densities is because they are also overseeing Metrolinx and the building of the Yonge Subway extension. Public transit is expensive to build, and even more expensive to operate. The TTC only generates 75% of its income from fares; 25% of it is subsidized by taxpayers. The only Toronto subway line that pays for itself is the Yonge St line. Subsidies on GO services are even larger (approx. 50%). With all the additional subways and transit that the province is funding, one has to imagine it is putting a substantial burden on future Ontario taxpayers. The government is therefore putting pressure on Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario to provide a return on investment. Hence, they have increased the density.


The problem is that this plan is doomed to fail. To get more money from fares, public transit needs to increase utilization, but this plan is not going to achieve that goal. As anyone who takes the Yonge Street line knows, the subway is already heavily congested at rush hour. The only way to increase utilization is to increase simultaneous traffic in both directions.


That is the problem. By doubling the housing density at the Richmond Hill Centre and Langstaff Gateway, all Infrastructure Ontario is doing is turning the Richmond Hill Centre into a pass-through for people heading to downtown Toronto. The effect will be increased congestion on the Yonge Street line during rush hour making life miserable for Toronto transit riders who get on halfway down the line.


People avoid public transit for three reasons:

  1. Transit is not comfortable, and as we have seen throughout the Covid pandemic, it’s not safe.

  2. Transit does not take people where they want to go. Maybe it works if your destination is downtown but that is not the only place people want to go.

  3. It takes too long to get to one’s destination via transit. It comes with transfers and long delays.

Infrastructure Ontario and Metrolinx should maniacally focus on three goals as they plan transit:

  1. Reduce crowding and physical danger and improve comfort.

  2. Integrate the subway with GO lines.

  3. Designate all major intermodal transit intersections as growth areas so that people can easily get from where they are to where they want to go.

To do that each growth area needs to be thought of as a centre in its own right– not just a pass-through. That means these centres need not just housing but office space, retail, entertainment, and parks and leisure.

THINK PLACES TO GO!


What Needs to Be Done?

1) CITIZENS MUST MAKE THEIR VOICES HEARD

The decisions being made by Ontario for the Richmond Hill Centre will have a massive impact on the liveability of Richmond Hill, Markham and the GTA. If the residents understand what is happening and make their voices heard, especially to the province, we might be able to effect a change. For now, the best option is for citizens to provide feedback to Infrastructure Ontario via their Engage High Tech and Engage Bridge feedback mechanisms, but all mechanisms are welcome.

Until the end of January, feedback is being taken at www.engagehightech.ca (for the Richmond Hill Centre) and www.engagebridge.ca (for the Langstaff Gateway).


MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD!

2) MUNICIPAL POLITICIANS MUST SHOW MORE LEADERSHIP

Citizens cannot take action by themselves. They need the active support of their municipal politicians. That is why the Richmond Hill Mayoral By-Election taking place on January 24th, 2022 is important and why the candidates each need to lay out their vision for growth for the Richmond Hill Centre.

Richmond Hill Votes

Some municipal politicians may have track records of taking money from developers and giving the developers exactly what they want. Others may have track records of fighting for citizens, preserving spaces, and coming up with creative solutions that are good for all parties. These are the kinds of people we need.


Richmond Hill needs a mayor who will stand up to developers for the good of the people of Richmond Hill. Where do the candidates stand on the Richmond Hill Centre? Do they understand what is being done?

3) RETHINK THE FINANCING MODEL FOR GROWTH – RAIL + PROPERTY + PENSION FUND FINANCING


RAIL + PROPERTY -- HONG KONG -- MASS TRANSIT RAILWAY

Unlike the TTC, where fares pay 75% of the cost of operations and the rest is subsidized, in Hong Kong, transit fares cover only 28% of the cost of operations, and the government doesn’t subsidize any of it. Furthermore, the independent company that runs their transit, Mass Transit Railway (MTR), makes a profit. Even more impressive, fares in Hong Kong are the equivalent of about $1 CDN.

How do they do it?

  • Hong Kong has optimized two-way concurrent utilization of its infrastructure. Centres along the lines are destinations, all with significant retail, many with significant businesses, and some with significant leisure.

  • Hong Kong has turned the transit funding model on its head. Rather than viewing transit as an independent standalone service, they few it as a means of bringing customers to the centres – RAIL + PROPERTY. They invest in both. In fact, 40% of MTR’s revenue comes from property. The government retains certain “air rights” above the stations, and they use it to ensure that mixed-use communities are built, including public housing. MTR also owns most of the advertising on the lines and they use it effectively to draw customers to their centres. MTR builds its transit in conjunction with its urban centres for mutual financial benefit.

PENSION FUND FINANCING -- MONTREAL -- Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM)

It may seem difficult to build the same kind of model in Canada given our established practices, but it is already being done. In Montreal, they are having great success with the Réseau express métropolitain (REM), a new transport network for Greater Montreal.


The Caisse de Dépôt et placement du Québec, a pension fund, is providing long-term financing for both the train network and the urban centre property development.


HOW TO MAKE THIS WORK IN THE GTA

The challenge with the way the Richmond Hill Centre/Langstaff Gateway is being developed is that private developers own all the parcels of land. Their focus is only to maximize the return on their particular project – not the transit and surrounding amenities. Their approach makes them generally averse or unable to take the long-term risks needed for the bigger picture.


A better approach would be for the developers to sell their lands to a consortium of pension plans and have the pension plans oversee the broader integrated development of both the transit and the urban centres. Developers can still make money in this model, but their focus should be limited to particular projects.


4) USE CORRIDORS AS TARGETS FOR GROWTH

Transit infrastructure becomes much more profitable if you concentrate growth in specific centres along a corridor so that if people commute, they can do so from centre to centre without needing a car.


Where should we put growth?


THE HIGHWAY 407 CORRIDOR

It may seem that the GTA does not have the same opportunities as Hong Kong or Montreal, but it does – starting with Highway 407. The Ontario government owns the land for the 407, although it leases it out to 407ETR for operations. But the controlling owner of 407ETR (50.1%) is the Canada Pension Plan CPP.


The province should take advantage of this serendipitous situation. Work with CPP to oversee the financing of a comprehensive growth plan for both the 407 Transitway and a set of urban developments along the Hwy 407 corridor. If further financing is needed, extend ownership to OMERS, OTTP, the Caisse de Dépôt, LNC Lavalin, and Brookfield Asset Management.


HYDRO CORRIDORS

The Ontario government also owns the land for the hydro corridor that stretches across southern York Region. As we have discussed, GIL technology could be used at strategic locations along the corridor to bury the cables so that developments could be built on top.


GO TRAIN LINES

The Ontario government also owns the GO lines and stations that weave through the GTA. Why not look at each of the intersections of these GO lines with other transport services – subway, LRT – and establish connector stations? Each GO station generally has a large parking lot owned by the government. Why not use this land for growth and put the parking underground? Doing so would assure better utilization of the GO system by enabling two-way traffic.


5) BUILD AN INTEGRATED PLAN FOR YORK REGION

As discussed above, to increase transit utilization, centres must be viewed not as ‘PASS-THROUGHS’ but as ‘PLACES TO GO’, i.e., places where people want to be, and places where tourists want to visit.


A future 407 Transitway provides a ready opportunity to link them all. What is missing is a comprehensive development plan for growth along this corridor and a way to fund the project with growth.


THE YORK REGION ENERGY PATH

All the great cities of the world have great landmarks -- parks, waterfronts or rivers near their centres. Some examples are New York (Central Park, The Hudson River), London (Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Richmond Park, The Thames), Vancouver (Stanley Park, Vancouver Harbour), Chicago (Lincoln Park, Lakefront Trail, Lake Michigan, Paris (Luxembourg Gardens, The Sienne). For York Region, there is an almost ready-to-go natural feature to take advantage of for a great park -- the hydro cut through southern York Region.


In addition to providing a transit line, this land could serve as a great park linking the centres -- Downtown Markham, Richmond Hill Centre, and the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. A sizable portion of the hydro cut could be set aside as a natural preserve that includes a world-class biking trail. Ideally, this bike trail could link to the ravine trail system that winds through Toronto.

This natural park already has supporters who are calling for a South York Greenway. Alternatively, it could be called The Energy Trail in honour of the fact that it is both an energy corridor and a place where weary families can go to re-charge.


Conclusion

Residents of Richmond Hill, Markham and the GTA need to get engaged with what is being planned at Yonge and Highway 407 and up Yonge and across to Bayview. The Richmond Hill Centre and Langstaff Gateway should be sent back to the drawing board.


A better plan is needed that integrates the community, the long-term vision of the region, and the overall GTA. The centre must provide realistic heights and densities, it must bury the hydro corridor between Bayview and Yonge, and it must provide an integrated rail system linking the centres. The flagship project should be an integrated park that runs right across the region.


The funding model used for this corridor should marry rail + property + pension funds. Selectively build over parts of the hydro corridor and, in built-up areas and bury parts of the hydro cut using GIL technology. This model can be applied to all of Ontario’s corridor assets -- highways, hydro corridors, and train lines.


The objective of Ontario’s Places to Grow plan was (and is) to increase the density in urban centres, to get people out of their cars, and to minimize urban sprawl. But to do so, the government must build comfortable, liveable communities connected by transit.


It’s time to change the focus from uncomfortable condo wastelands to places where people want to go.


Until the end of January, feedback is being taken at www.engagehightech.ca (for the Richmond Hill Centre) and www.engagebridge.ca (for the Langstaff Gateway).


MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD!


DON’T JUST THINK “PLACES TO GROW”.

THINK “PLACES TO GO”.

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