You can’t always get what you want …

… but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.

THE CITY OF ORILLIA has finally recognized the need for an updated official plan in order to manage the city’s future growth.  The process hasn’t been without its problems — an early draft incorrectly included half a city park in the area slated for development — but it represents a huge step forward from the random scratchings that have directed development in recent years.  This being Orillia, however, the complaining has already begun.

In today’s Packet & Times, staff writer Colin McKim laid into the new plan.  Unfortunately, he’s got it all wrong.  Some of his complaints?

If approved, there could easily be a palisade of eight to 12-storey buildings along a 10-block sweep of the waterfront from Tecumseth Street to Cedar Island.

Except where there couldn’t be, like in the park, or at the marina.  Even then, height isn’t the problem.  Everyone loves to complain about the condos on Cedar Island Road because of the way the building blocks the view of the lake, but that has nothing to do with its height and everything to do with its mass.  The building is only four stories high, but it forms a wall along the shoreline.  If it had been eight stories high with a footprint half as large (or, better yet, a pair of towers each with a footprint one-quarter that of what was built) both the view of the lake and access to it would have been preserved in a way that was not possible with the height limits in place at the time.

Orillia as we know it will be transfigured.

Orillia needs to be transfigured.  It can’t survive as a city of retirees hoping to attract periodic tourists.

This is a gold mine for developers, cashing in by providing exclusive waterfront views for the well-heeled and obstruction, shadows and the loss of a delicate balance for the rest of us.

This isn’t an argument; it’s us-versus-“them” fear-mongering.  Realistically, development along the waterfront would obstruct the views only from downtown, and virtually nobody actually lives there.  Even then, the main view — the one down Mississaga Street — would be largely preserved as the street forms a corridor to the lake (much like the view corridors maintained throughout downtown Vancouver, despite a development density an order of magnitude higher than anything proposed for Orillia).  And there’s no reason to think that shadows would somehow loom over the city; that defies simple geometry.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to this:

Done properly, downtown Orillia’s historical, early 19th-century character will be tightly locked into a few narrow blocks, while the rest of the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods become the soulless, random, discordant mishmash of development that Barrie has perfected.

First off, McKim clearly hasn’t looked closely at the city in several years.  Orillia’s “historical, early 19th-century character” is already tightly locked into a few narrow blocks.  The only part of Orillia that even fits that description is the historic downtown strip along Mississaga Street from Andrew to Front.  Colborne Street, one block south, is mostly strip malls and back entrances.  Coldwater Road, one block north, is not much better.  The historic downtown is a little island surrounded by parking lots and (inexplicably) multi-lane roads, and there is no “rest of the downtown” to talk about.

Secondly, he doesn’t seem to have a clue about what’s made Barrie the way it is.  For about four decades, that city completed ignored its downtown.  If anything, it actively opposed any efforts to increase the density within the city, instead letting growth take place at the margins.  In my lifetime, virtually all of Barrie’s development has been on the other side of Highway 11, cut off from the original city entirely.  It’s only in the last decade or so that there’s been significant investment within the downtown core, and only within the last couple of years that Barrie council has come up with a comprehensive plan for redevelopment.  Meanwhile, Orillia has pursued growth in exactly the same manner as Barrie.  Downtown Orillia has been allowed to suffer while development has been pushed to the outskirts, first at Rynard Estates, and more recently on the other side of Highway 11 (sound familiar?).  The result has been exactly the “soulless, random, discordant mishmash of development” that McKim warns about, and wrongly attributes to increased density and improved planning.  Getting the reasons wrong is bad enough, but pretending that Orillia’s somehow done a better job over the years than Barrie has is utterly foolish.  Orillia’s simply gotten away with making the same mistakes because people don’t want to drive the extra 25 minutes to and from their jobs in Toronto.

A lot of people in Orillia will read McKim’s column and get their backs up about increased density, or the “shrinking” of the downtown core, or somehow convince themselves that, yes, density has been the cause of Barrie’s problems.  They shouldn’t.  A new official plan may not be what people think they want, but if done properly (and by people who actually understand how cities work) it would be exactly what Orillia needs.

Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: