Saturday, November 29, 2008

Budget time at City Hall

It's that time of year again, when our fair City looks at its financial position for the following year, sees a mess, then proposes to cut vital community services to make up the difference.

As part of the requisite song-and-dance, town hall meetings are held for each ward for the public to come out and ask questions. Five central-area wards (Somerset, Capital, Kitchissippi, Alta Vista, and Rideau-Vanier) combined their meetings to this past Monday, November 24, from 7-9pm at the Assembly Hall at Lansdowne Park (which, by the way, is located in the Civic Centre, by going to the rear of the building and going down the stairs next to the upramp. Pity that the Lansdowne Park website and on-site directional signage doesn't tell you this.)

The meeting was fairly well attended, though there were plenty of spare seats.

They had a good system for speakers: instead of having everybody line up and wait, they gave out numbers early in the meeting so that people could remain seated. In all, 37 people were scheduled to speak, though some people left before their turn came up.

By luck, I was in the right place at the right time and got a low number.

I pointed out that all of the attention in communities and the media and by the many individuals and groups who came out to meetings such as this one was centred around a mere $10M in social spending, and that this was a red herring compared to the tens of millions of dollars of road-building projects in the budget, each of which add annual operating costs in future budgets. Later in the night, Old Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA) President Mike Jenkins echoed this when he lamented that one of the wealthiest cities in the country is talking about cutting daycare, volunteer-run rinks, and community centres.

Ted Horton of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa asked for support for the U-Pass pilot project, which would see $125 added to each U of O student's tuition fees in return for a transit pass. There is a real possibility that this pilot will finally come to fruition after years of hard work and negotiations by University groups and Councillors alike.

I happened to step out of the room again and caught the CTV cameras interviewing Ted before leaving at 8:30 to file their report:

Delegation #10 made a splash. I didn't catch the name of their garderie, but they did say that they were the only francophone daycare, I believe in all of Ottawa. A dozen or so of them on both sides of the aisle stood up, all wearing little blue scarves to represent the childcare services slated to be cut:

She then presented each of the Councillors at the table, plus City Treasurer Marian Similuk, with a scarf. Similuk, Holmes, and Doucet all donned their scarves.

Other interesting points that I caught included:
  • Christina Tessier, Director of the Bytown Museum, described the perennial stress that community service groups like hers face: Every year, the draft budget threatens to cut funding to programs like the Bytown Museum. While there is a decent chance Council will reinstate the funding, staff still must face the possibility that their job will not be there January 1st. Ms. Tessier said that after many years of this, she has made the difficult decision to leave her position for a more stable job in the private sector. I encountered this problem with my staff each year while on the board of a community group which used to run City programs.

  • Someone from the McNabb Skatepark, which the budget threatens to cut entirely, pointed out that a skatepark caters to all income levels, that it promotes health and wellbeing through physical activity, and that kids will skateboard anyway, so we'd be better to provide a positive alternative to, say, the human rights memorial!

  • City Hall denizen Catherine Gardner, of Bells Corners, pointed out that the rinks in Bells Corners are proposed to close yet kids won't be able to get to rinks in other parts of the city because of transit cuts!

  • As the official meeting closing time passed, Helen from People for a Better Ottawa compared the Consumer Price Index, which has an inflation this year of 2%, with the informal "Municipal Price Index", which is going up by 4.1%. This is because municipalities don't buy much bread or milk--things in the CPI--but lots of asphalt, concrete, and other materials whose prices are inflating quickly. Councillor Holmes said that Statistics Canada had been working on a MPI, but they took the person off of that project. Councillor Doucet pointed out that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is developing a MPI, on his recommendation.

  • Loretto Beninger, who is the vice-chair of the City's volunteer Arts, Heritage and Culture Advisory Committee, described the philosophy of the City's budget process, which dates back to the 1950's "grooved thinking" or "male breadwinner" model. In this outdated model, everything that was important to men (such as roads for a man to get to work, sports recreation for him when he gets home, plus sewers and garbage collection) was deemed "core" services, and womanly activities (such as arts and culture) were deemed "special interests". Despite the tremendous leverage in terms of return on investment that cultural spending brings to Ottawa (e.g. in tourism dollars), this model based on gender relationships continues to this day.

  • For the first time in 8 years, average tax assessments in Capital Ward are roughly at the municipal average. This is not the case in Somerset Ward, particularly in Dalhousie, where assessments are skyrocketing. This will magnify the effects of the inevitable tax increase.
The delegations finished at 10:30pm--an hour and a half past the scheduled closing time. By this point, two councillors had left, as had much of the audience who had already spoken.

Next week, Council will be hearing delegations from the public from Monday, December 1 until however long the delegations go. Originally, they were planning to have delegations on Monday and Tuesday, with Council to debate and decide on Wednesday to Friday, but last I heard, they were booking delegations into Thursday afternoon! It's going to be one hell of a week (or two) at City Circus!

People for a Better Ottawa are holding a rally at City Hall on Monday, December 1. At 10am residents are called upon to fill Council chambers to the rafters, then at noon there will be a rally at the newly-named Marion Dewar Plaza (formerly Festival Plaza--it's the Laurier entrance of City Hall), to "ask City Council if people matter as much as sewers and roads".

May we live in interesting times...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Light Rail Now @ the Gladstone

This morning, Councillors Clive Doucet and Christine Leadman held a press conference at the Gladstone Theatre on their proposal called Light Rail Now: Our Path Forward / Vision for Ottawa's Transportation Master Plan.

I went there to not only take in the subject matter (discussed below), but also to get an opportunity to photograph the inside of the redeveloped theatre, as a follow-up to my previous post on the reconstruction of the facade.

The inside foyer is simple in format and elegant in decoration, with two chandeliers, tile floors, a nice bar and coat-check.

Red carpets on either side take you in to the main theater, which for this press conference was crowded with people. (Pardon the blurry photo)

The main thrust of this plan is to build Electric Light Rail with eight stations along Carling instead of the Ottawa River Parkway, and to do it in the next five years. Both Councillors Doucet and Leadman presented their take, followed by transportation expert Morrison Renfrew, who reviewed the technical details and how they got to the estimates.

Councillor Doucet started off introducing the reasoning behind this proposal, including the increasing the usual (though still valid) arguments about how peak oil will cause operating costs of urban transportation systems to skyrocket. His presentation was punctuated with bouts of applause from the audience.

Councillor Clive Doucet presenting his vision for transit.Doucet pointed out that their system will build everything inside the greenbelt in five years, and everything outside the greenbelt in ten years. By comparison, in 2018, City Staff's plan will have built only the downtown tunnel, with spur lines to Tunney's Pasture and Blair. He also added that most Councillors will be dead by the time the "full" system, which still doesn't send rail to the suburbs, will be built. (To which City Transpotation Committee Chair Alex Cullen, who was in the back of the audience, drew a raucus laugh from the audience by asking if that was a death threat!) In addition to Cullen, Councillors Diane Deans and Diane Holmes were also in the audience.

Councillor Leadman followed, discussing the price tag and where the money for this will come from. Because their plan makes earlier and more extensive investments in rail transit, there is no need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on buses and busways, and the operating cost of the system is also lower (namely because a bus costs $80/hour to operate and can hold 100 passengers, requiring another bus and driver when ridership increases; whereas a double-articulated train can carry 250 passengers at a cost of $125/hr, and is a smoother ride whether you're sitting or standing). They specifically designed their system to fit within the budget envelope of the current plan, in order to show that you can get much more for the same price.

Following the presentations by the two Councillors, transportation expert Morrison Renfrew outlined the project.

He started by referring to Jane Jacobs' mantra that transit drives development, and illustrated it with the following two photos of Toronto's Yonge Street in 1950 and 1985. 30 years after the construction of the subway line, the street had plenty of development.

This is a key aspect to the Carling Avenue corridor: not only is there plenty of activity already there throughout the day (driven by the many hospitals, clinics, hotels, etc. along this corridor), but there is plenty of room for new develompents to be built. This will bring in funds to the City in terms of Development Charges, which are a considerable source of revenue for the City, and which will help pay for the rail. Compare this with the Ottawa River Parkway, which is in effect a protected space that will never see any development: it will be a "drive-thru" transit corridor, completely useless to the people who travel through it.

He also went through a section-by-section review of where the train would go and how it would be built. For example, in this photo below, he explained that you could cross the Queensway (Hwy 417) by merely tunneling through it. You'd need only to make some adjustments to the Westbound onramp.

As shown in the map below (as always, click to enlarge), the train would go between Lincoln Fields and the O-Train, and would go up the O-Train line to Bayview (which would be converted to Electric Light Rail for that section) and continue through downtown. The O-Train would remain in service and would be extended North to central Hull, removing the need for many buses to cross the Ottawa river carrying Gatineau-bound Ottawans. Mr. Renfrew said there are a dozen or so different ways to accommodate both the O-Train and ELRT on the same stretch.

The trains would be kept at the Bowesville rail yard site, which has already been approved, but would get there via the Southeast Transitway, saving the cost of converting the O-Train. Keeping the O-Train as it is (though extending it) and having the rail from the south come in along the Southeast Transitway (which was designed to be converted to rail) and into downtown from the East will help provide alternatives to people who want to travel between the East and South ends without necessarily going downtown, and will balance the passenger load coming into downtown from the East and West.

It will also provide rail sevice to the developing South-end communities, which is something demanded by the area's residents and Councillors alike.

It is refreshing to hear Councillors think for themselves and not be spoon-fed by Staff. This is the type of plan that Ottawa needs. There are a few details that need refinement, but it has a much more aggressive (and beneficial) timetable than the bus plan proposed by City Staff. I hope that Council will take this and run with it.

Councillors Leadman and Doucet will be presenting this plan as part of the Transportation Master Plan discussion at this Wednesday's Joint Transporatation & Transit Commitee meeting on Wednesday morning at City Hall. They'll want your support there!

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Multi-unit Newspaper Box on Bank

On Friday, I got a tip about a new arrival on Bank Street.

After four or five years of negotiations, a multi-unit newspaper box was recently installed on Bank Street near Albert. Naturally, I spent some time on Saturday taking photos of it.

You'll note that there are two units, carrying a total of ten newspapers. They're also lifted off the ground, partly for easier access, but also to keep the ground clean near newspaper stands. If the BIA, the newspaper companies, and the City agree, this type of unit can replace the hodgepodge of miscellaneous newspaper boxes that clutter downtown streets, such as this collection at Bank and Cooper:

This unit has three vacant spaces for free newspapers. The Citizen and the Post are in there as paid newspapers, and some free magazines, including Auto Mart.

Auto Mart is one of a collection of magazines that we frequently find in the tall box called the "Big Yellow Box", whose headquarters are (or at least, used to be) on Gladstone just West of the tracks.

Aside from the fact that Auto Mart is distributed mainly in transit- and pedestrian-oriented areas (thus encouraging people to move from those modes to driving), the "Big Yellow Box" identifies a problem that these multiplex boxes pose: while the BIA likes how the new boxes reduce clutter, newspapers rely on their coloured boxes to identify them and promote their brand. Each of the thousands of boxes a newspaper has out on the streets is a promotion of the newspaper--heck, they probably lose money on the darn things. That might be why the Sun isn't in this multi-box.

Perhaps in the next version of this multi-box, each paper will get a coloured panel instead of the plain black. There's also room on the back side of the unit:

For those worried about such a large thing cluttering up the sidewalk, it doesn't really stand out from the other street furniture on Bank Street, as seen in this shot from up the sidewalk:

Or this one from down the street on the other side:

There are actually a large number of unresolved problems, though. For example, the City can't ban standard newspaper boxes from area where this type of box is installed (although I understand that there is agreement by the newspaper companies not to put any standalone boxes on the same block as this multi-unit, at least for the one-year trial).

Similarly, it would take lots of effort for the City to be in charge of these boxes, at a time when the City is trying to reduce its workload. So the boxes will either be owned and/or operated by the BIA, or it will fall under the Mayor's "street furniture" plan, and will be outsourced with benches, garbage bins and bike racks to ClearChannel, Pattison, or some other gigantic media company.

If they are thusly outsourced, then what are the implications to the right of freedom of speech? Will the company be able to deny access to papers it doesn't like? Will new papers (including community papers) have access to the boxes?

There are definitely many factors at play here, but at the moment I'm going to enjoy that they tidy up the place the bit.

I'll leave you with a gratuitous shot of Bank Street between Albert and Laurier, with the Mondrian under construction in the background:

Monday, November 3, 2008

ESV Grand Re-Opening Today

Cutting through Jack Purcell Park on Friday afternoon, I saw this great news:

It appears the Elgin Street Video Station will be returning to life as Elgin Video.

ESV closed suddenly in late September after the passing of the store's owner. There was little indication of any activity, other than month-old signs indicating the date of the funeral service. Rumours had been abuzz about attempts by the employees to buy the operation.

All I know is what the sign says:

Back with a vengeance
Same Great Movies, Sort of the Same People
258 elgin st.

I'll be honest, I don't go there (I live closer to Phoenix Video on Gladstone), but for most of the Golden Triangle it will be a relief to have a small-business alternative to the giant Blockbuster and Rogers stores on Bank Street to rent current films.

For those with more eclectic taste, The Hidden Cinema on Lisgar is of course a great resource, and there are plenty of other places that rent videos in niche categories, such as the Comic Book Shoppe's collection of video rentals, and I'm sure many more.

And of course, in the summer, there's Centretown Movies, the outdoor film festival in Dundonald Park!