Councillors, what kind of city builder do you want to be?

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." 
~ Edward Abbey

 

Dear Mayor Bigger and the Council of the City of Greater Sudbury:

I am writing to express my unequivocal support for a new Event Centre / Arena in Downtown Sudbury. I hope that my arguments will play some role in this once-in-a-lifetime decision that you face and I implore you to keep the heart and soul of our community where it belongs.

By this time, we have heard countless arguments from citizens, planners, community leaders and consultants which back up my view, so I will not to repeat those positions. Rather, my approach, in this regard, is to address you as elected individuals on our council. I want to engage you, on a gut level, in an effort to question your own principles in how you make decisions and what, if any external forces influence your choices that may go against your heart. 

City building is an ancient, profound act of faith in civic culture and a bold endorsement of the permanence and stability we need to thrive as citizens. I am afraid we are losing these core values in many of our elected leaders but I will give you the benefit of the doubt for now. We have put our faith in you to carry this torch and it is my hope that you can think deeply about what you truly stand for.

You were elected to represent the current views -good or bad- of citizens who voted for you and we all understand how this can create a predicament for you, because despite your own personal views on this matter, your constituents determine future elections. You have also been lobbied and sweet-talked by developers and stakeholders with trade offs or deals for your respective wards and have been tempted with dreams of economic growth and tax revenues.

To complicate matters, you were also elected for a much greater democratic cause and that is to consider the legacy of our urban structure for future generations. This calls into question the principles on which you make big decisions, like this one, which is a remarkable opportunity for our civic renaissance. This is milestone vote to test your integrity and responsibility as civic leaders. Do you want to be remembered as the council that killed downtown in exchange for an arena and motocross site next to a dump? I hope not.

This dichotomy in your personal motivation as elected officials places the quality of future urban life against the reactionary desires of today’s voters, all framed by the questionable seduction of an ill-conceived, grandiose development. Unless you have information that the public has not been made aware of, it is quite clear that the Kingsway scheme is driven purely by the needs of the development consortium and not by any consideration for a greater civic vision or urban plan.

Of course, the Kingsway vision makes perfect sense for ambitious developers who have been unsuccessful in attempts to develop their lands by the dump for many years. Who wouldn’t see this as another opportunity to try there? Who wouldn’t want to profit from the perfect storm of a fragile downtown, a crumbling old arena, a new hockey team owner, and a vast swath of empty land on the side of a highway? If I were an investor, I would certainly push for this as a brilliant money-making venture with a thirty year lifespan backed by taxpayers. I’d be crazy not to. We know that this is the driving thinking behind many urban sprawl developments, and this is why it needs to be carefully scrutinized from a civic perspective, beyond the pitching, enticing imagery and revenue it promises to generate. I beg you to consider what deeply held principles you personally hold regarding your city that will inform your vote on this.

The most glaring dilemma with the Kingsway site is that it’s in complete opposition to our master plan, to all advanced planning principles, to global trends in urban economics, but most of all, to the institutions and culture of civic responsibility that we have elected you to nurture and sustain. If you ignore these factors now with this development, why should we take you seriously when you attempt to use those very factors to prevent any other forms of development in the city? Do you even need a master plan? Do you even need research, data, expert opinions or precedents to inform your decisions in future? If you support the Kingsway site, this is the message you are sending out.

Again, I ask, what principles are guiding you as an elected official? Are you sprinting or running a marathon? Do you care about lifetime value and legacy, or is short-term gain and optics the driving force at council? This is beyond budgets and tax revenues. This is about healing a wounded centre and taking leadership to that end. 

The only logical, financial reason I can see for developing the Kingsway site is because the developers already own it. It is most certainly not central to the city, as they argue. For what it’s worth, the intersection of Frood and Lasalle is actually our most centrally accessible site for Greater Sudbury. Any reasonable person with critical thinking abilities can see that this is a classic case of post-rationalization. It is so blatantly transparent, it’s painful.

The Kingsway sprawl scheme, with its arena, casino, fancy hotels, motocross track and related events is most certainly is an exciting one, and if it were so economically viable, some private developer would already have built on it without any gain from taxpayers, as any free enterprise capitalist should. 

There’s always a catch to these mega-projects so let’s not kid ourselves; thirty years from now, when the urban world is a radically different place, when all that infrastructure starts to fail and needs repair, and all that sexy technology is long obsolete, and urban transportation systems have inevitably contracted with our shrinking population, the True North colossus will be handed off to the taxpayers to take over and we will go through this very discussion again. 

At that point, will the next generation of taxpayers spend millions to repair and renovate, if attendance is low, when entertainment spaces have shifted radically, or do we move it somewhere else, to be closer to the next phase of urban sprawl development? By then downtown will be a vast swath of parking lots dotted with a few government buildings, seniors apartments and rehab clinics and not much else. In planning jargon, they call this a donut city - all suburb and a dead, empty heart. Look to any American rustbelt towns if you need precedents for this form of bad 70’s planning. Or perhaps, Kanata’s Canadian Tire Centre, a monolith sitting in empty parking lots 90% of its life. Look to other small cities like London, Ontario if you want to see a thriving revived downtown based around a large arena-event centre. Show us what your principles are and base your vote on critical thought.

Do we do accept this for short term gain, with more unwieldy, inevitably ugly, short-term development of big boxes and hotel surrounded by parking lots, with the promise of a few chain restaurants and low-paying service jobs? Do we accept that the cultural heart of our beloved city should be sideswiped by one consortium’s singular vision? This is where we are heading if you vote for the Kingsway site.

There are countless precedents for failing, visionary sprawl developments and to proceed this way today, knowing what we know in 2017, would be a monumental, shameful mistake on your part. Do you want to be remembered as the council that killed our struggling downtown?

You have all, no doubt, received significant input from the citizens who elected you, and from my anecdotal research, there are two key points they make to support the Kingsway site over the downtown site:

1 - There is not enough parking downtown, and
2 - The Kingsway site is close to Costco.

Close to Costco? Enough said.

If these two points are the guiding principles for your civic vision, I have to say that your thinking is sadly stunted and horribly misguided. If anything, you should be questioning the entire lack of urban design at that Costco site, among others, which is a dystopian wasteland of cars and wind. It’s depressing and inhumane and the antithesis of a civilized public space. If this is your model for the future, Why not just continue this path to destroying what remains of our downtown so we have no streets left to stroll down for a beer after a concert. Sitting on a patio on a hot summer day next to the dump surely trumps the bustling urban experience we seek when we travel to cities around the world.

The issues we face downtown are exactly what council should be ameliorating with projects like an event centre and yet, you are being asked to turn your back on the heart of our city once again. It’s been a slow death by a thousand cuts for too long and this last wound will be hard to heal. As a trained architect who studied urban planning, and who has lived, worked and designed developments in many cities around the globe, I can attest that a strong, active downtown with a well-conceived set of interrelated institutions and commerce is critical to attract investment, young skilled workers and even tourists.

Expanding the Costco sprawl model endlessly, as this will inevitably lead to, will create a brutal dead zone downtown and eventually, a city with no identity whatsoever. Hardly a selling point for future generations. Again, I ask, what are your core principles for city building? Longterm quality of life and investment, or short term gains, turning lanes and parking lots?

Downtown Sudbury needs you to be bold - now more than ever. Downtown developers and small-scale entrepreneurs are waiting for your next move to plant the roots for this shot in the arm and they will follow suit, if you do the right thing. Previous councils naively ignored this principle for too long, and now is your chance to fix that, to respect and see the potential in that history and infrastructure. Now is your chance to take the lead, to instil new life, new energy and investment into the heart of our city. If you do this, small businesses will thrive. More young people and older folks will move there. Tourists will come.

As the great thinker and inventor Buckminster Fuller once said, “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.” To see potential in this way is a valued attribute that I would hope you strive for. To see what our downtown can become at this juncture is, in my view, one of your greatest responsibilities as leaders. To see the same potential in a site that would tear the heart out of our city would be truly unforgivable. The Kingsway site could still be developed, on its own, for motocross tourism and hotels. Nobody is stopping that and nobody wants them to fail. But their success should not be at our expense.

Despite my personal views on the economic and cultural significance of historic downtowns, I cannot deny that the Kingsway sprawl development is seductive in its ambition, but the bluster used to present it deliberately distracts from its role in the slow destruction of our civic life which is rooted in downtown institutions. 

What principles will you draw from to make your decision based on this truth? To help you answer this question, I leave you with some wisdom from one of the most respected urbanists of our time, the late Jane Jacobs, from her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effect of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building.” 

What kind of city builder do you want to be?

This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for you to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Keep it downtown and feel justified that your legacy will be the renaissance of the heart of our city so We all Win.

Best regards,
Pierre Bonhomme