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Cornell a failure?

waterloowarrior

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Has Cornell been a failure?

In Markham, the dream of an urban village that never was
Posted: March 13, 2009, 9:36 PM by Barry Hertz
Neighbourhoods, Urban Scrawl

By Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post

More than 10 years ago, a charismatic Cuban American architect embarked on a bold plan to transform a plot of Ontario farmland into a bustling urban utopia, a place where dwellers would swap cars for walking shoes and enjoy a sense of urbanity in what would have otherwise been just another suburb.
Or so that was Andres Duany’s plan.

Instead, cars today zip up and down the narrow avenues and not a pedestrian, charming coffee shop, nor restaurant is in sight. It is a Tuesday afternoon, and two beauty salons are inexplicably closed for the day, a real estate office is locked with snow piled high outside its door, not a single child is playing in Mews Park, and the convenience store sees only a trickling of residents. Here and there a York Regional Transit bus rolls along, but public transportation to, from and within Cornell is far from comprehensive.

“The mindset was that people wanted a village feel, but what emerged was a sort of pseudo-village,†said Michael Spaziani, a Toronto architect who a decade ago helped create Cornell’s open-space master plan, adding that Cornell is so far nothing more than a “cuter form of sprawl.â€

John Evans, a father of three who moved to the Markham community about 10 years ago, said he was lured here by the promise of an imaginative urban development, only to today find his expectations not entirely met.

“I was drawn here by the novelty of the idea. But the goal of a walkable community with shops and a retail centre has not been achieved. We have to drive everywhere,†Mr. Evans said, adding that none of his children walk to school.

Renee Torrington, former president of the Cornell Rate Payers Association who moved here in 1998, said she too was excited by the prospect of living in a walkable community, where the revving of engines would be the exception and not the daily norm. But Ms. Torrington buckles into her car nearly every day, whether it be to drive to work in Mississauga, haul groceries from Loblaws, catch a flick, or pick up a bag of dog food from the pet store.

“The concept is phenomenal,†Ms. Torrington said of Cornell, which is mostly arranged in rows of neatly stacked brick-faced townhouses and is located in northeast Markham, bounded by Ninth Line, the New Markham Bypass and Highway 407. “But as time went on, the town and developers have strayed from the original plan. The blueprint has changed, in some ways for the good, and in others for the worse.â€

The original plan to which Ms. Torrington is referring was penned in 1993 by Mr. Duany, who was Cornell’s original town planner and is known as a Miami-based world leader in New Urbanism — a development concept that gained momentum in the 1980s that seeks to rein-in suburban sprawl and recreate the pedestrian-friendly city centres that hearken back to the 19th and 20th centuries.

New Urbanists such as Mr. Duany opt for grid-like street patterns, back lanes with detached garages, comprehensive transportation systems and, importantly, a town centre within walking distance that has buildings with retail on the ground level and office or residential space on top.

Markham has a history of seeking this type of higher-density development that strives to overcome the economic and social problems associated with suburban sprawl.

It is currently moving forward with Remington Group’s Downtown Markham, which is anticipated to be North America’s largest mixed-use project spanning 10 million square feet.

It was with higher density in mind that the provincial government — which in the early ’90s owned the land — approached Mr. Duany and his firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, to develop Cornell on what was then greenfield.

Mr. Duany and his team got to work, preparing what he said was “one of the best models†he had created. But a change of provincial government and a hand-off to a private firm called Law Development Group meant a change of plans and, while the blueprint had been completed, it was just shy of being coded into law. That form-based code would have ensured that everything from the segregation of land use to architectural aesthetics to the gridding of the streets would be carried out as planned.

“The tragic historical circumstance of the development changing hands is what has led Cornell to become what it has,†Mr. Duany said, adding that he did not have access to Law Development and, since being in a sense nudged off the project, has not been back to Cornell in more than five years. “Most New Urbanism is done as a matter of law. In this instance, it’s been a matter of persuasion.â€

Mr. Duany said it is perhaps for this reason that while about 14,000 people now call Cornell home, retail has mostly suffered, with businesses and the town’s only stand-alone café having come and gone. Some retailers have not been able to keep regular hours, grocery stores with fresh produce never bothered to settle in, and some businesses that did take the risk of opening in Cornell complain about limited parking — a result of a pedestrian-centric New Urbanist plan coupled with the unexpectedly rampant reliance on cars, something Ward 5 Councilor John Webster deemed a “conundrum†in an online post to discussion board SayItCornell.com.

The Mews building, which was hoped to house a commercial centre with shops along the ground level and which Mr. Duany said was “built too fast and too large without any charm,†is now home to a strip of medical offices and is nearly retail-free. With a booming clientele who drive in from all over Markham and Scarborough, the medical offices are likely to stick.

This is no surprise to Mr. Spaziani, who said the resounding “failure of what has become just another suburban subdivision†is that steps were not taken to ensure that retail survived, quashing any hope of a town centre where residents gather socially or to run errands. “The dream of the village suffers from a lack of mixed-use and density,†Mr. Spaziani said.

That the “dream of the village†did not manifest in reality is perhaps because Mr. Duany’s vision for Cornell was not loyally followed, Mr. Spaziani said. Over the years, the land had been hot-potatoed between a smattering of developers, spreading the execution of the project into a number of hands with varying, and at times conflicting, interests.

“Cornell was sold again and again and again,†said Toronto architect George Dark, whose firm Urban Strategies worked with Mr. Spaziani in the initial stages of development. “Those developers went in a bunch of different directions, some of them in more conventional directions.â€

And while Mr. Spaziani said Cornell has failed in its attempt at creating a town centre and a walkable community, it seems to achieve one of the by-products of New Urbanism: the strong sense of community enjoyed by an organic urban neighbourhood.

“The majority of people who live in Cornell, love Cornell,†Ms. Torrington said. “People who live here came here for a reason, they’re very neighbourly.â€
Brian Bennet, owner of a massage and wellness centre on Bur Oak Avenue, one of the only somewhat successful retail areas in Cornell, said that while parking has been an issue and while nearby buildings have been plagued with high turnover, he is content with life in Cornell. “I love it here, even though it’s had some growing pains.â€

Those growing pains are typical of New Urbanism and often take a generation to overcome, Mr. Duany said, adding that in the case of Cornell, a town centre and better transit links are likely the keys to its success.

To reach the community from downtown Toronto during off-peak hours, a Cornell-bound traveller is saddled with the burden of a journey that includes a GO bus from Unionville station, a switch to a Viva Bus, and then a transfer to a York Regional Transit bus that heads down Bur Oak Avenue.

And while transit links normally pop up to accommodate a growing population, Mr. Duany said the reverse can also occur. “Transit does not always have to follow, it can lead,†he said. “It’s a matter of policy.â€

But John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based urban planning organization, said that while transit and a healthy commercial enclave are the lifeblood of a New Urban community, they are also among the most difficult aspects to achieve.

“It takes years for retail to take shape,†Mr. Norquist said, adding that other New Urban communities have opted to subsidize retail shops as a way to keep an otherwise dying town centre with high turnover on life support. “Achieving mixed-use — where there’s retail, office and residential spaces in close proximity — is hard in the beginning stages,†Mr. Norquist said.

In the meantime, Biju Karumanchery, a Town of Markham urban planning manager for the area that includes Cornell, said developers are working on smaller pockets of retail development within Cornell Village as well as a more extensive project in nearby Grand Cornell — an area a short drive south of Highway 7, which he said will hopefully someday serve as the commercial district for the rest of Cornell.

The next step is perhaps for the neighbourhood to “talk to itself†to determine what residents want out of Cornell — and maybe even to invite Mr. Duany back for consultation, Mr. Norquist said. That is an idea to which Mr. Duany said he is open-minded, adding he would never impose himself on the project but would turn if asked.

“The present is not a time to pass judgment on Cornell, it’s a matter of how it will end up,†Mr. Duany said. “The question is, does it have the potential to be a walkable community?â€
 
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waterloowarrior

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I`ve read a couple of writers who think that New Urbanism is basically just dressing up the suburbs with rear lanes, close setbacks, traditional architecture etc.. it doesn`t really address the transit-land use relationship well because these development are usually found at the outskirts of cities, surrounded by farmland, without good transit links etc. people still shop in big box stores, drive 50 KM to work, etc. It's interesting that the people in this article argue that the flaw is not with the concept but the implementation. Was the original Cornell plan that much different than what we see today?
 

MTown

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To answer the thread title: YES.

On my drives through there on the way to certain jobsites I've always wondered why it looked like just another subdivision. Sure, the laneways with detached garages were an interesting twist to the suburban wasteland but they seemed more out of place than belonging. At least they got a hospital.
 

canarob

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it doesn`t really address the transit-land use relationship well because these development are usually found at the outskirts of cities, surrounded by farmland, without good transit links etc. people still shop in big box stores, drive 50 KM to work, etc.
I've always thought that if the original portion of Cornell was built somewhere a little more central it would have been more successful. As you mention, the lack of transit is the real issue. YRT is currently (or will soon be starting?) construction on a transit terminal in Cornell, which should at least secure proper VIVA service (it was only recently extended to the hospital).

That being said, I find the article a bit unfair in that many of the more substantial elements of Cornell have yet to be built, like the above-mentioned transit terminal, the community centre/library, much of Cornell south of Highway 7, the mid-rise condos along Highway 7, etc. The town is now planning for a final population of 40,000. Details here: http://www.markham.ca/NR/rdonlyres/95EEA658-2E34-4750-BDA0-757F057DC40F/0/cornel_openhouse07.pdf

If Highway 7 in Cornell sees the arrival of a grocery store and some decent restaurants, things might become somewhat more urban, but people will still own cars. If nothing else, the area is far more dense than traditional suburbia. The lots are narrow and the percentage of towns and semis is very high.
 

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Cornell's only success might be that the average lot size is smaller than a typical suburb, and therefore the development consumed less farmland than had it been built to normal standards.

Having said that, you don't address sprawl problems from the outskirts inward, you address them from the inner city outwards. Markham is an established suburb, with much of it actually located fairly centrally, such as Yonge and Steeles. Transit and pedestrian friendly developments should first be built in places that have naturally reached that state of maturity, such as along Yonge and also on 7 in Beaver Creek. Forget Cornell, forget even Markham Centre. Start at areas that are likeliest to succeed, learn from what worked well, then slowly spread that growth to second tier sites. For god sake, don't expect that a greenfield development on the edge of the city is going to be anything but auto-centric.
 

afransen

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Cornell's only success might be that the average lot size is smaller than a typical suburb, and therefore the development consumed less farmland than had it been built to normal standards.

Having said that, you don't address sprawl problems from the outskirts inward, you address them from the inner city outwards. Markham is an established suburb, with much of it actually located fairly centrally, such as Yonge and Steeles. Transit and pedestrian friendly developments should first be built in places that have naturally reached that state of maturity, such as along Yonge and also on 7 in Beaver Creek. Forget Cornell, forget even Markham Centre. Start at areas that are likeliest to succeed, learn from what worked well, then slowly spread that growth to second tier sites. For god sake, don't expect that a greenfield development on the edge of the city is going to be anything but auto-centric.
And build your greenfields so they can organically densify. Cul-de-sac suburbs almost have to be razed before a more urban land-use can be established.
 

adma

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To answer the thread title: YES.

On my drives through there on the way to certain jobsites I've always wondered why it looked like just another subdivision. Sure, the laneways with detached garages were an interesting twist to the suburban wasteland but they seemed more out of place than belonging. At least they got a hospital.

Though it might be different if we saw Cornell through 1999 eyes rather than 2009 eyes--our POV today being affected by the Cornell formula repeated (usually in watered down fashion) ad nauseum throughout the newer burbs. Sort of like what happened to Don Mills half a century ago. (And especially when it comes to realms like UT, factor in a certain high-minded backlash to the self-consciously "retro" elements of New Urbanism, etc.)

Another interesting in-town filter through which to view Cornell's "failure" might be the redevelopment of the Greenwood lands down by the Beach--like Cornell, it might be terrific for the residents, but despite all efforts, it still feels disconcertingly like a Truman Show microclimate plopped in the middle of the big city. And even the "urbanizing" walkups and storefronts along Queen feel as terminally stillborn as Cornell's attempts at retail nodes have been, even if they were meant as a "logical" extension of the Beach retail strip. And perhaps most telling of all, this is the one local stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb node where NDPers consistently disconcertingly underperform and Tories consistently disconcertingly overperform in elections...
 

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I actually like that they put the garages and driveways at the back. It looks much better that way...

But I agree that the suburbs should be built in such a way that allows them to be easily redeveloped into something more urban in the future, after transit ridership has built up. The suburbs of the 50s and 60s were built like this, but from the 70s onwards, not so much...
 

adma

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But I agree that the suburbs should be built in such a way that allows them to be easily redeveloped into something more urban in the future, after transit ridership has built up. The suburbs of the 50s and 60s were built like this, but from the 70s onwards, not so much...
Well, it depends on what kind of "suburbs of the 50s and 60s" you're talking about--there's a world of difference between planned subdivisions of the Don Mills mode, and the unplanned gridiron ad hocness of how, say, Willowdale built up. (Which was really more of a debased leftover from pre-WWII spec street layouts, anyway.)
 

lead82

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Even if Cornell is a failure in terms of reducing car dependence (twas a pipe dream to begin with due to location of it), I deem is a success in terms of making the suburbs look esthetically better. I would prefer more Cornell suburbs than the typical kind that we have.

I think Markham Centre/Downtown Markham will be the same kind of failure. It's located in an area that while being service by two VIVA lines, will still have a heavy dependence on the automobile to get around. It is still an improvement over the regular type of construction, and certainly the density will be quite good for a suburb.

Again, esthetically it will be the hot spot and best part of Markham. A beautiful park at the centre of it and a piazza.

If only these things were built closer to the city. I think Toronto can use a Markham centre type development in some areas.
 

doady

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I don't think it is fair for Cornell to be considered a failure in terms of reducing car dependence. I think it take a long time to build a pedestrian-oriented or transit-oriented culture in the suburbs. It took a long time for the TTC develop the transit ridership it sees in the suburban parts of the city. Even today, you can corridors in Brampton and Mississauga which are seeing skyrocketing ridership, even though they are old, established corridors. For example, bus ridership along Steeles Avenue in Brampton increased by over 334% (!) between 2001 and 2006. Bus ridership along Dixie Rd in Mississauga has increased by 137% between 1996 and 2006. So I think we should be more patient with Cornell. I think Markham can only be better than Mississauga and Brampton.

One thing about Markham though, is that it is the only municipality in the GTA refuses funding from the higher levels of government for social housing. Which is strange considering that one of main tenets of new urbanism is affordable housing....

Well, it depends on what kind of "suburbs of the 50s and 60s" you're talking about--there's a world of difference between planned subdivisions of the Don Mills mode, and the unplanned gridiron ad hocness of how, say, Willowdale built up. (Which was really more of a debased leftover from pre-WWII spec street layouts, anyway.)
I was thinking more about particular corridors rather than whole neighbourhoods. I think the corridors developed in durign the 50s and 60s are much different than the ones being developed now.
 

AlvinofDiaspar

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I am not the slightest bit surprised that it turned out to be a failure - what surprised me is how long it took people to figure out it was. If you go beyond the aesthetics of Cornell, just what is so different about how individuals are living there (and in fact, their values) compared to just every other typical subdivision? I dare to venture to say very little - if they are truly interested in "urban" living, they won't be buying anything at the growth fringe. It sounds like people who want to have their cake and eat it too - but when it comes down to it, they will always pick Costco over mom-and-pop.

doady:

Actually "New Urbanism" as practiced is rather exclusionary; interesting you should mention Markham refusing to have any social housing as well - it's a point one should bring up anytime when the point of Markham being "fiscally responsible" is raised. Indeed they are - by exporting cost elsewhere.

AoD
 

MisterF

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I like Cornell's residential streets but where it seems to fail is how the mixed use/commercial areas are designed and how the neighbourhood integrates with arterial roads. IMO, the biggest failure of these communities is that they're usually centred in the middle of the concession blocks while trying to keep the arterials car-friendly. 16th Ave in particular is a missed opportunity - the north commercial area should have centred on it, with short blocks, mixed uses, etc. Instead they put it on Bur Oak, a collector street. Nobody who isn't going there anyway will ever knows it exists.

I'd be curious to see what you guys would have done differently.
 

adma

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Although Bur Oak as it now stands is so long and drawn-out a "collector street" that it ought to be a match for any arterial.

Or at least a new-age rendition of the Westway or Huntingwood. (Markham's planners might hope for Dundas or Weston Rd.)
 

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