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Big Questions left unanswered as Metrolinx consultation on future of Newmarket GO Rail Station wraps up

Back Story: The Provincial Government's Regional Express Rail (RER) program will more than double the number of train passengers on the network over the next 13 years. Ridership is forecast to rise from an average of close to 100,000 in 2016 to 225,000-250,000 in 2031. For this to happen, the railway infrastructure - the tracks, the trains and the stations - has to be modernised. It is a huge undertaking with lots of moving parts. 

Newmarket is to get a completely new GO Rail Station at Mulock Drive and the existing one at the Tannery will get a makeover. The track north from Toronto to Aurora will be twinned, allowing an all-day 15 minute service in both directions.

We in Newmarket are stuck with a single track and although there will be service improvements they will not begin to match Aurora's. We are promised a 30 minute service during peak periods and an hourly service off peak during the day and evenings and at weekends.

The Town's steady-as-she-goes Mayor, Tony Van Trappist, is by temperament a gradualist. He is content to let things take their course. He told the Council on 9 November 2015:

"In my own mind the difference between a 15 minute and 30 minute service doesn't change the world although I think eventually we'll need to get there. But I'd rather see us easing in to that, responding to the demand as we go forward."

Last December, Metrolinx published its GO Rail Station Access Plan which showed current station usage with the 2031 forecast. The Newmarket station is forecast to have "very low" usage rising from 575 per day (in 2016) to 1,000 or less in 2031.

Aurora, by contrast, will go from 2,250 now to a "very high" 8,001 or more in 2031.

The Mobility Hub Station Area Plan

Last night (28 September 2017) Metrolinx (or, rather, its consultants) wrapped up the public consultation on the future of the GO Rail Station at the Tannery on Davis Drive. We are told a "draft summary" now goes to councillors at the Committee of the Whole on 16 October 2017.

I learn the plan for the GO Rail Station must be "achievable" without being told how this would be measured. Are we talking about technical feasibility or financial constraints or what?

We are told there is to be (a) no grade separation in the near term but there would be a "reinvestigation" of this in 2031 and (b) the Tannery site cannot accommodate a bus loop and buses will instead pull into special bays on Davis Drive to drop off and pick up passengers.

Grade Separation

A 15 minute service to Newmarket without grade separation at Davis Drive is, of course, theoretically possible after twin tracking but, in practice, it is impossible. The barriers on the level crossing would be going up and down like a yo-yo all day long, causing huge traffic line-ups and  making a mockery of the word "Rapidway"

I learn the rail tracks can't be put in a tunnel under Davis Drive because of the soil conditions. The GO Rail station sits in the middle of a flood plain. The alternative is to put the road over the railway but this would mean a new elevated Davis Drive from Main Street to Lundy's Lane. The Province has already spent a small fortune on the Bridge at the Tannery so this idea is unlikely to be well received. I suspect Van Trappist, recently photographed standing next to the bridge wearing his proprietorial grin, would be mortified. 

So the question is this - can Newmarket have an all-day two-way 15 minute service without grade separation at Davis Drive?

Newmarket's Secondary Plan says the Mobility Hub Station Area Plan should address as a minimum the potential for grade separation of the rail line at Davis Drive. At the very least, it should explore the issue and consider the likely constraints now and in the future. If not now, then when?

I suspect we shall be told to let the future take care of itself.

Co-locating bus and train

Getting people to use public transit is a tough call but it can be done. The service has got to be fast, convenient, reliable and good value. Over the coming decade, as the roads silt up and traffic slows down, people will be forced to look beyond the private automobile for other options. Co-locating bus and train stations is a big part of the answer.

At the Tannery we are told a bus loop would not make operational sense and that the site is too constrained. However, a great deal of land shown on the map (above) is coloured peach and is identified for future TOD (Transit Oriented Development). Are we being told there is no possibility of squeezing in a bus loop anywhere on the site?

East Gwillimbury, admittedly on a bigger site,  has a 10 bay bus loop. Aurora has a four bay bus loop with plans to expand.

Getting to the Station

What happens when the intensification of Davis Drive really takes off?  The Town's Secondary Plan predicts 33,000 people will be living in the Davis Drive/Yonge Street corridors at build out. Many will be working in Town but what about the others? How are they going to get to the GO Rail Station?

In the absence of a 15 minute service in Newmarket - and only where it makes sense to them - people will drive to Aurora to pick up the train there. Indeed, the Metrolinx Station Access Plan at page 140 shows an explosion in numbers using Aurora where they will be adding 1,750 spaces "via alternative parking solutions"  to make a total of 3,220 spaces.

(East Gwillimbury has 646 parking spaces going up to 1,636 in 2031.)

There will be no additional parking at the Tannery where there are currently 269 parking spaces. We are told that by 2031 the number of those driving and parking at Newmarket GO Rail station is expected to fall from the current 49% to 40-42%. And at the same time those arriving by bus will go up from 9% to 16-18%.

If Metrolinx can make those kinds of forecasts for 2031 with such precision perhaps it can let us into the big secret.

When can Newmarket expect a 15 minute all-day, two-way GO Rail service?

Or, as Tony Van Trappist would say, when will we ease into it?

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The Future of the Newmarket GO Rail Station at the Tannery on Davis Drive

Metrolinx and the Town are teaming up to run an Open House tomorrow (Thursday 28 September 2017) on the future of the GO Rail Station at the Tannery.

The meeting will be held at the Seniors' Centre at 474 Davies Drive from 6.30pm - 8.30pm with the presentation starting at 7pm. 

Material from the earlier Open House meeting is available here.

And from the so-called Visioning Session here.

It seems to me this is a great opportunity to find out more about some of the big issues facing Davis Drive such as grade separation and integration with bus services and how these are going to be addressed.

A report is scheduled to go before the Town's Committee of the Whole later this year.

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The Town's Secondary Plan which regulates development in the Yonge/Davis corridors says this:

9.3.3 Newmarket GO Rail Mobility Hub Station Area

i. The Newmarket GO Rail Station will be planned as an urban station that is primarily accessed by pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders, with limited park-and-ride capacity. Park-and-ride service should be focused at the East Gwillimbury GO Rail station and the future Mulock Drive GO Rail station.

ii.The Town of Newmarket will encourage Metrolinx to partner with the Town, the Region and other relevant partners to prepare a Mobility Hub Station Area Plan for the area around the Newmarket GO Rail Station, as conceptually illustrated in Schedule 5. The Mobility Hub Station Area Plan should address as a minimum, the following:

a) the long-term role and function of the Newmarket GO Rail Station within the broader GO Rail network, taking into account Policy 9.3.3 (i);

b) potential for grade separation of the rail line at Davis Drive;

c) potential re-location of the Newmarket GO Rail Station access to Main Street to improve access and reduce traffic impacts on Davis Drive;

d) integration between the GO Rail Station, the Rapidway, the future GO bus services and the GO bus terminal;

e) pedestrian connections between the Rapidway Station at Davis Drive and Main Street and the GO Rail platform;

f) pedestrian connections between the active transportation network and  the GO Rail platform;

g) opportunities and constraints to development in the vicinity of the station, including floodplain restrictions; and

h) accessibility and bicycle parking considerations.

iii. An amendment to this Plan may be necessary in order to incorporate relevant findings or directions from the Mobility Hub Station Area Plan


 

Now we know: Slessor Square was impossible to build

Over four years ago, Newmarket councillors gave approval in principle to the ambitious Slessor Square project which, it turns out, was not possible to build.

But first some background.  

Tomorrow, Monday (25 September 2017) the Committee of the Whole will be asked to take a view on what should happen to the barren 4.6 acres of land at 17645 Yonge Street, once home to Slessor Motors. (The new proposed development, right)

The Slessor brothers made their millions from a car dealership business set up in 1961 which grew from strength to strength on land previously home to a pig farm.

The value of the land lay in its prime location in the Town's urban centre, earmarked by the Province for intensification.

Their proposed "adult living" community, Slessor Square, with its twin residential towers and retirement residence was designed to sit on a huge, cavernous four level deep underground parking garage.  

Put on hold

The development, of course, never got off the ground. Indeed, the project was put on an indefinite hold on 27 April 2014 and the site was sold on with the Slessor brothers pocketing millions. The new owners say parking will be on a podium above ground.

The new owners say geotechnical investigations showed:

"The site has a very high water table and that the de-watering of the site both during construction and ongoing to accommodate the proposed garage could be problematic. In addition, the bearing capacity of the soil is such that reinforcement of base soils is recommended to enable the development. Both of these constraints lead to a design conclusion that the preferable way to build the project, with minimal intervention into the water table, is to build the parking above grade."

The site was also contaminated and is close to a wellhead supplying Newmarket with fresh water from the aquifer below. (You can read the developer's file of documents here.)

Where were the whistleblowers?

The Town's Official Plan makes it clear:

"Parking areas should be located underground wherever possible in the Urban Centres."

and the Secondary Plan says at 7.3.12 vii:

"All development proposing underground parking structures will be required to demonstrate through geotechnical and dewatering studies that the site is suitable and that there will be no interference with municipal wells, both during and after construction."

Why on earth did no one blow the whistle early on to say the site was unsuitable for underground parking? It was an issue on the planners' radar for years.

By early 2013, councillors were in a mad stampede to give the Slessors permission for their huge development, terrified by the prospect of contesting the planning application at the OMB, even though many aspects had not been properly explored or analysed.

When the Slessors threatened to go to the OMB, councillors capitulated. The Town's "minutes of settlement" with the developer formed the basis of the OMB decision in April 2013. The agreement had "holds" throughout - indicating that the project couldn't be signed off by the municipality unless certain specified conditions were met. They never were.

When the OMB subsequently asked the developer for updates on how the project was proceeding, the Slessors' lawyer, Ira Kagan, admitted it was going nowhere.

How high is too high?

The new developer, Redwood Properties, is proposing three towers at 21, 19 and 17 storeys, built in stages. 

When the Town's Secondary Plan was being put together there was much talk about having some kind of height cap. But it all petered out as the planners and city builders suggested it was airy fairy nonsense. As a result, Newmarket can now look forward to a future studded with high rise towers indistinguishable from others that dot the landscape in places like Markham and Vaughan.

Regional Councillor John Taylor was an early enthusiast for a height cap. Five years ago, as the work on the Secondary Plan cranked up, Taylor declared:

"Our Official Plan states that a developer can build up to 8 storeys and may exceed that limit if they provide the proper planning and justification reports. What our Official Plan does not provide is a limit or a "hard cap" on height. This of course is a major concern to many residents of this Town. I am proposing a height restriction in the Town of Newmarket of approximately 15 storeys."

He cited places such as Halifax and Saskatoon, Paris and Washington as having height limits. I too was keen to see a height cap and was supportive.

In the event, Taylor was torpedoed by Tony Van Trappist who declared:

"I do not believe it is appropriate to pass a resolution that sets notional height restrictions for buildings without due process."

The old banker told Taylor:

"To pass a resolution at this time, as has been proposed, may well put our municipality in front of the OMB. The consequences of an OMB Hearing would mean a cost to our municipality of upwards of a $100,000 in legal fees."

The Planning establishment was also active at regional and local level, seeing their role as "city building".

Newmarket will not now be the mid-rise town so many of us wanted.

The train has left the station on that one.  

Affordable Housing

The developer's Planning Justification Report says the proposed development will be entirely rental in tenure apart from the commercial/retail space which will be leased. The developer proposes 27% one bedroom units; 46% two bedroom and 24% three bedroom in a total of 530 units.

"Rents for these units have not yet been established and will be determined through a marketing program closer to project completion. Rents will be determined by a number of factors, namely market conditions at that time, size of unit, length of tenancy, etc."

Importantly, it goes on:

"The development is not anticipated to be marketed as affordable, under the metrics of the Region of York's annually published benchmark prices. Rather, this development is intended to provide a quality rental alternative to home ownership in a prime location in the Town of Newmarket, wherein the barrier for entry (i.e. a substantial down payment) is completely out of reach."

The Town's Secondary Plan stipulates an affordable housing target of 35% of new housing within the Regional Centres.  

The current affordable rental threshold (2016) in York Region is $1,496. The Region says that average rents for one and two bedroom condominiums exceed the affordable threshold. Clearly, if there are no "affordable" rents at Redwood on Yonge, later developments along the Yonge/Davis corridors will have to accommodate a greater percentage of affordable units to hit the Regional target of 35% overall.

Why no minimum? If councillors are serious about affordable housing they should specify a minimum for each development.

Traffic and Transportation

The Planning Justification Report tells us:

"The Region of York is preparing to widen and reconstruct Yonge Street between Davis Drive and Green Lane by 2020."

In fact, the work to widen Yonge from four lanes to six starts in 2020. Oops!

We are told the development will proceed in three phases starting in 2021 and ending in 2027 and that, as part of the Yonge Street reconstruction, the Region will be relocating the existing signalised intersection access opposite Upper Canada Mall approximately 75 metres to the south. What impact, if any, will the Region's construction schedule have on the development?

In the original Slessor Square development there was a huge amount of concern about traffic volumes in and out of the site. The 1,100+ underground parking has, of course, gone but we still have 856 (or is it 866) vehicles parked on site above ground in a dedicated structure. (Both figures are cited in different places in the same document.) We will be told later how the traffic movements are expected to work, especially at peak periods.

The Planning Justification Report is peppered with minor factual errors which, I suppose, shouldn't surprise me. The urban planners, Groundswell, are everywhere, representing every second developer in Town. How they keep all those plates spinning in the air at the same time beats me.

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Former Newmarket Councillor, Maddie Di Muccio, loses defamation action against Regional Councillor John Taylor

Maddie Di Muccio's defamation action against John Taylor has been dismissed by the Small Claims Court in Newmarket. Di Muccio had also claimed $5,000 for damage to her reputation.

The Judge, Paul Kupferstein, gives reasons for his judgment here. (Open and scroll to bottom of page).

In his concluding remarks the Judge observes:

"The Plaintiff (Maddie Di Muccio) was, at the relevant time, a public official and ought to have expected full and robust debate of her conduct while in office. The comments and ensuing discussions involved her public persona and public conduct. The Defendant (John Taylor) did not overstep in making the statements he did."

"The Plaintiff's action is dismissed."

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