It looks like Toronto's fledgling Official Plan is going to survive its first serious political test now that three city council committees and the TTC have given their thumbs-up to a dedicated streetcar right-of-way along St. Clair West.
This is a good thing.
True, a final decision won't be made until the end of this month, when the entire council meets to consider the controversial $55-million transit upgrade between Yonge and Keele. But given that the combined vote of councillors who showed up at City Hall on Monday, September 13, for a nearly 16-hour joint session of the planning and transportation committee, the works committee and the transit commission was 19 to one in favour of the plan, the die seems pretty well cast.
Toss in the additional half-dozen yes votes the project received from Mayor David Miller's policy and finance committee and the St. Clair track bed replacement - and all the other streetscape improvements proposed to go with it - appears all the more certain.
This is as it should be. Virtually any other outcome would badly undermine Toronto's two-year-old Official Plan and make a mockery of its well-publicized focus on city-building along public transit corridors.
Indeed, when the comprehensive municipal planning document was approved by the previous council in 2002, St. Clair West was identified as a key candidate for exactly this kind of revitalization.
A planning report presented to committee members and transit commissioners prior to their marathon public hearing this week clearly underlined the OP's basic principle of properly preparing for Toronto's future growth and the many millions of additional residents it will have to accommodate in the decades ahead.
"Improved streetcar service on St. Clair West supports the land use planning objectives of seeing this corridor develop as a vibrant, mixed-use avenue where the emphasis is more on the quality of the pedestrian environment than on the accommodation of traffic."
These objectives have clearly pleased a lot of people living along the 6.7-kilometre corridor, most notably folks who depend on the streetcars for transportation. But a sizable number of residents (particularly among business groups) have not bought into the city's proposal.
The community-dividing nature of the plan, which will reserve the two centre lanes for streetcars while restricting other vehicles to one lane in each direction, was made abundantly clear when more than 150 people signed up to voice their opinions on Monday.
Supportive residents applauded city planning staff for bending over backwards to consult with the public in 55 community meetings held over the course of the past year. Objectors called the consultation process a farce and claimed the final recommendation was predetermined.
When supporters maintained that the streetcar right-of-way would result in more dependable - if not faster - transit service along St. Clair, opponents argued it wouldn't make any difference. Let someone on the pro side suggest that the redesign would make the streets safer and one of the cons would offer the changes as a potential deathtrap. The community will be enhanced by the plan, an ally would state. St. Clair will be destroyed when area merchants go out of business because their customers won't be able to find parking, an enemy would respond.
Never mind the city's assurances that more than 90 per cent of existing on-street parking will be preserved and new lots will be built nearby.
And so it went almost non-stop from 9 in the morning until 12:40 the next day - until a weary group of councillors made the only decision they could reasonably make in recommending the streetcar right-of-way.
Olivia Chow wasn't among the politicians who voted this week, but she'll be supporting the St. Clair plan when it comes before council during the week of September 27. The councillor for Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) has some experience with dedicated streetcar lanes dating to their equally contentious introduction on Spadina a few years back.
Chow said that, as the area councillor, she had her own reservations about the Spadina right-of-way when it was first presented to council. Her concerns were similar to those raised by the St. Clair crowd, but they turned out to be unfounded.
"At the end of the day, it all worked out," she said. "Businesses did fine on Spadina. In fact, property values went up substantially" and many Spadina merchants are now doing better than their counterparts on Dundas.
Furthermore, the councillor added, "the parking problems that were predicted never materialized, and traffic is a lot more orderly now. The TTC has more riders, and streetcar service on Spadina is much more dependable. People are happy."
Chow offered some advice to residents who've been fighting changes on St. Clair. "Fear not and relax," she said. "Look at past history."