Monday, March 23, 2009

Home Farming In Guelph... and Washington!

A couple of friends of mine went to an open house over the weekend for an organization called Backyard Bounty, a group which turns people's backyards into 'micro-farms'.

The deal is this: you give their crew access to your backyard, front yard, side yard, wherever. They dig it up, they plant the vegetables, they do all the weeding, watering, etc. You sit back and watch it grow, and as the vegetables become ready for harvest, you get free food. But since you can only eat so much, the remainder is sold to local restaurants and markets.

Unfortunately they only operate in Guelph for now, but if the program becomes more popular, who knows?

And in a curious case of serendipity, I found this item in The Star this weekend:

Garden scores green thumbs up
Grow-your-own-food movement hopes patch of vegetables, herbs at White House to inspire others

WASHINGTON – Twenty-six elementary schoolchildren wielded shovels, rakes, pitchforks and wheelbarrows to help first lady Michelle Obama break ground on the first day of spring for a produce and herb garden on the White House grounds.

Crops to be planted in the coming weeks on the 102-square-metre, L-shaped patch near the fountain on the South Lawn include spinach, broccoli, various lettuces, kale and collard greens, and assorted herbs and berries. There will also be a beehive.

"We're going to try to make our own honey here as well," Obama told the Grade 5 students from Bancroft Elementary School yesterday. The youngsters will be return to the White House next month to help with the planting, and in late April to help harvest and cook some of the produce in the mansion's kitchen.

Obama said her family has talked about planting such a garden since they moved to the White House in January.

My only quibble: Obama's outfit wasn't exactly appropriate to the task at hand. Maybe I'll send her a Lee Valley Tools catalogue so she can get a sweatshirt, hat, knee pads, and a pair of decent gloves.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Breaking News: Sobey's Warehouse Shutting Down

I'm still waiting for verification and more details, but word from my source is that Sobey's warehouse in Milton is transferring all of its operations to the company's new distribution centre in Vaughan, putting its 300 or so remaining Milton employees out of work.

This comes less than a week after two of our manufacturing plants closed their doors, and brings the butcher's bill up to 700. Next up: Magna?

UPDATE: It looks like this one might just be a rumour. According to one person, it's still business as usual at Sobey's warehouse - although everyone there is understandably worried.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Another One Bites the Dust

Bad, bad news for Milton this week. Two of the town's major employers have announced that they are shutting down - first SKD, and now Meritor, both of which supply parts for the auto industry. Between the two they employed fewer than 400 people in town, but the implications are far more dire.

About 35 per cent of the private sector jobs in Milton are in the auto sector, with up to a fifth of residents working in the industry. Five of the town’s 10 largest employers are auto parts manufacturing plants, including SKD and two facilities owned by Magna.

Those two Magna plants alone employ 1,700 people - and Magna's been having a rough few months.

All of this inspired the increasingly impressive Tim Foran to write an op-ed that was... could it be?... maybe just a little.... critical of Our Lord Mayor Gord.

I know. I was shocked too.

Through his 43 years on council, 28 as reigning Mayor of Milton, Gord Krantz has picked up pithy phrases for virtually any situation.

Asked about averages, he’ll warn, “If your head’s in the freezer and your feet are in the oven, then the middle of your body — the average — is warm.”

Asked about capital projects, he’ll tell you one has to decide if it’s a want, a need, or a nice-to-have.

It’s a communication method the conservative politician uses to stress an attitude of cautious consideration, and it’s certainly calming. It’s especially salient when compared to uber-councillor Colin Best, he of the constant presence around town, who has not yet learned to translate his work ethic and diligent examination of political affairs into an ability to communicate a message clearly.

Since the global recession began, the Mayor’s message has been consistent with the middle path he generally takes: Milton is not immune to the gathering storm but the Town will do well weathering it.

Under the circumstances, it seems like the most politically astute position. Panic and you sound like Chicken Little; ignore it and you look like Nero fiddling while the Town burns.

“This is what happens when you’ve been around a day or two as I have. You’ve been through those peaks and valleys,” Krantz recently said at a Milton Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

But now, the cyclical trough Krantz speaks of has become a widening chasm in Ontario, with manufacturing jobs being lost by the thousands.

Already this winter season, three of Milton’s largest employers have received protection from creditors, and it appears one of them, the local plant of the auto manufacturing company SKD Automotive, is on the verge of shutting down — resulting in hundreds of lost Milton jobs.

The Mayor had previously predicted the local auto industry would be affected, “but not greatly”, with some layoffs, “but not major.”

His optimism though seems based on his tried-and- true method of staying on message rather than recognition of current realities.

Trust me - for the Champion, that's positively damning.

I sure hope Tim still has a job next week.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Leslieville Wins OMB Ruling vs. Wal-Mart. Why Not Here?

OMB rejects big-box plans in Leslieville

Plans for a $220 million retail "power centre'' south of Eastern Ave. in Leslieville have been turned down by the Ontario Municipal Board, a decision that has city officials celebrating.

"This is a total victory for the city of Toronto," city lawyer Brendan O'Callaghan said yesterday.

"It's not every day that we're that happy with an OMB decision," exulted Paula Fletcher, the councillor for the area.

No kidding.

The property in question, in the heart of burgeoning Toronto' film district on what used to be the site of Toronto Film Studios, has been the subject of furious debate ever since Smart!Centres bought it and proposed a Big Box retail development. Local residents howled, local councillors took up the cause, and the OMB actually listened. Because any idiot could see that it was a bad idea.

In a 55-page ruling, OMB vice-chair James McKenzie sided with the city's experts, who in effect said the SmartCentres/Toronto Film Studio application didn't constitute good land use planning and would probably "destabilize" the designated employment district south of Eastern Ave.

Professional planning consultants and real estate advisers the city hired as experts had warned the OMB hearing that the application risked causing "retail contagion" in the area. Allowing the large centre would make it easier for subsequent retail applicants to get a foothold, argued real estate expert Jeffery Climans.

This would rapidly bid up the market value of the industrial and commercial properties in the district, leading to lease terminations and limiting the ability of existing businesses to renew their leases, Climans said. That would result in a general disruption of the area's business fabric.

Sound familiar? Contrast that with the attitude of Our Lord Mayor in this 2007 Toronto Star article on the demise of Milton's downtown core:

Mayor Gordon Krantz, a former small business owner, sees the downtown decline as a simple by-product of capitalism.

"Businesses locating on the outskirts could locate right downtown if they wanted – but they don't," he said. "That's called free enterprise.

"So businesses have to adapt. You have to continuously reinvent yourself. You can't survive on sentiment and emotions, that's for sure. It might sound hard-hearted, but that's the hard reality of it."

I will never, ever understand the affection people in this town seem to have for Gordon Krantz. I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, and maybe he did good things for Milton in years past. But whether it's greed, hubris or encroaching senility, his words and actions over the past ten years have been short-sighted, ill-informed, and ultimately destructive to this town and our way of life.

Time to retire, Gord.

My Two Cents on the Boyne Survey: Part 1

After explaining why I never go to those public consultation meetings in my last post, I decided to go to one of those public consultation meetings tonight. Just to check it out.

The project in question was the Boyne Survey / Education Village development, which is to extend across the south of town from James Snow Parkway to the far side of Tremaine, and all the way down to Brittania Road. The area involved is larger than the entire town of Milton was when I first moved here fifteen years ago.

This was the second public consultation meeting, so we are well enough along in the process that the issues discussed were more a matter of how rather than whether the subdivision was to be built. Still, it was an interesting exercise, and the folks running the show did indeed seem interested in what we had to say.

Before going to the meeting, I took a drive around some of the new developments to check out the good, the bad and the ugly. In this way, I had a better idea of what some of the features being discussed actually looked like in a new development setting.

This is what they call 'Mixed Use Retail'. These are made to be similar to traditional storefronts with apartments above and parking in the back, and are a welcome change from the now ubiquitous 'big box' retail development. The problem with this particular one on Holly Ave. is that it's only on one side of the street. Maybe they just haven't gotten to the other side.

This is a bad retail / residential design. This retail complex includes the only grocery store in the area, and yet it's about as unwelcoming to the surrounding houses as it can get because all the stores have their backs to the street. You could walk into the complex between the buildings, but it really doesn't look like they want you to. They want you to drive in off of Thompson like a good little commuter.

This is what they call a 'community park'. It's a nice idea - a central gathering place with a roundabout and houses facing onto it. I went to a Christmas tree lighting there once. Only two problems: it's huge (almost as big as the Milton Fairgrounds), and there's pretty much nothing in it but grass, saplings, and a couple of wooden structures at either end for the mayor to stand on and flip a switch.

This is one of the two buildings that comprise New Life Church. They sit on a huge lot which is, as you can see in the background, completely cut off from the surrounding houses by a fence.

This is an interesting and different approach to townhouse design, again emulating older urban plans with garages in the back facing onto an alley. But the scale is wrong. It doesn't look like an alley - it looks like a street.

The issue of scale is something that came up more than once in our discussions, and I think it may hold the key to the fundamental difference between new developments and older ones. Driving through Hawthorne Village and (worse) the Sherwood Survey, I noticed that almost everything is bigger than where I live. The houses are bigger, of course. The streets are wider. The parks are bigger. The stores and parking lots are bigger. About the only things that are smaller are the house lots and the trees.

The result is a certain... wrongness... that is difficult to quantify or even really complain about. After all, if a park is good, a really really big park is better, right? Except that it'll take you ten shadeless, featureless minutes to get from one side to the other, so screw it - let's drive.

I'll tell you more about what we talked about at the meeting tomorrow.

Monday, March 2, 2009

John Ralston Saul on the OMB and Municipal Impotence

I've been reading 'A Fair Country' by John Ralston Saul, an extraordinary book that is starting to produce a seismic shift in my perceptions on a whole range of issues. I plan to write a great deal about this book and its implications on my various blogs in the coming weeks, but this one passage caught my eye as being particularly relevant to the denizens of Sprawlville.

... the core of the problem has been the willingness of political parties and property developers to combine their interests, as if the cities were not real places. Toronto has suffered most. In urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume's words, it is "a city of vast private wealth, and civic impoverishment." While London is announcing a new $33-billion rail link across the city and Madrid is building "tens of kilometres of subway", Toronto is cobbling together a few bus lines and can't even build a rail link to the biggest airport in Canada.

If you were to look for an example of the heart of the Toronto problem, I would point to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a body of developer-friendly provincial appointees. Their power to overrule the city's planners has made it impossible to develop any physical strategy for the city. Instead, the largest metropolis in Canada is held hostage by the unpleasant relationship between developer influence and provincial political parties. The city's official plan may set building heights at fifteen stories on a street. The developer simply comes in and says he wants sixty. The city knows the OMB will back him. So after an expensive fight, they settle for fifty-five and even then the OMB may insist on sixty. And, if the complainant is a citizen body of volunteers, the OMB may insist that they pay the costs, just to teach them a lesson for trying to interfere.

Now, take that situation and magnify it tenfold and you have some idea of the situation in Canada's fastest growing municipality. A few examples:

- Town Council approves a condo development, not because they support it, but because they know the OMB will make it happen regardless.

- The appeals court upholds an OMB ruling against the Ministry of Natural Resources and Halton Region's efforts to prevent a Campbellville quarry from potentially contaminating Escarpment groundwater with imported fill. The MNR and the Region also have to foot the bill.
The issue was briefly discussed at the Region's planning and public works committee meeting Wednesday by Halton Hills Mayor Rick Bonnette.

He said he's glad the Region is pursuing an appeal of the premium fee and went on to express his displeasure with the OMB's decisions.

"We're trying to protect our well water and not only do we get criticized by the board, we get slapped with a $60,000 premium in costs," he said. "That really ticks me off."

- A citizen's objections to new developments at the foot of the Escarpment are dismissed by town councillors on the basis of how much it would cost the town to fight them at the OMB.

The list goes on and on.

In that last article, one councillor asks the citizen why he didn't voice his objections when the Town was first holding public consultations on the proposed development. One wonders what the point of that would be, given that between the OMB and the province's 'Places to Grow' plan, the Town of Milton claims to have no control whatsoever over the size, the placement, or the design of housing developments in this town.

I don't show up at those meetings either because I know they will say exactly what they have always said: "We appreciate your input, but it's out of our hands. What can we do?"

In the words of J.R. Saul:
The argument of a colonial elite is always about control and domination. It always insists that choices are limited, that the pie is of a fixed size. Less is power. More is anarchy.

The result is a local council that views itself as impotent, and therefore is. So why would anyone want to talk to them?