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Two Visions for Waterloo Region

Usually when politicians talk about vision, their words are meaningless, vague statements intended to make us feel good. Their "vision statements" are designed to appeal to the broadest possible electorate, and rarely discuss the tradeoffs required to achieve these visions. Most of the time, these people refuse to acknowledge that there are tradeoffs at all. Sometimes these vision statements are codewords designed to appeal to more specific demographics without alarming other potential voters.

As a non-representative sample, here are a few vision statements from candidates running in the current municipal election:

Most of these slogans are vapid because no reasonable candidate will campaign for the opposite visions. Who is going to campaign on "Fiscal Irresponsibility" or "Social Schadenfreude"?

There are exceptions. Mike Harris made clear promises for the Common Sense Revolution, and he followed through. I believe that people (specifically "taxpayers") noticed and appreciated this: here was a politician who kept his promises. I believe this is the exception that proves the rule: people are so used to being lied to with vague, feel-good vision statments that they are gobsmacked when somebody follows through.

It occurs to me that the regional races of the Waterloo Region elections -- namely Regional Chair, Regional Council, and the mayoral races in Waterloo and maybe Cambridge -- are battlegrounds over vision. The incumbents in these positions have a clear vision for how they want Waterloo Region to grow and develop -- one they have been developing for at least a decade, and probably longer. Some of their opponents dislike that vision, and envision a different future for the region.

Let's call these competing visions the "Portland" and "Mississauga" visions. I will try to characterize them relatively fairly below, but keep in mind that I am pretty partisan in this debate, so you should not trust anything I write.

Destination: Portland

The "Portland" I refer to here is Portland, Oregon, I believe is one of the primary templates Region of Waterloo planners have been using in planning the future of our region. From what I can tell, this vision is defined by the following ideas:

The LRT is the most prominent battleground over this vision, and politician positions on whether they support or oppose the LRT is a fairly good indicator of whether they support the Portland vision for the region. However, the LRT is not the most critical components of this vision's success. The most critical component is the countryside line. That line is under threat, because a bunch of land speculators and developers took the Region to the Ontario Municipal Board over its land budget, and they won big: the OMB awarded them 1053 hectares of greenfield land instead of the 85 the Region wanted to offer . The Region is appealing this decision, and they may get the land budget requirements reduced, but I doubt they will win outright, and this means the countryside line is under dire threat.

Here's why the countryside line is important: farming does not make economic sense when land values are high. There is a natural inclination for farmers (many of whom are poor) to get out of the farming business (which is difficult and unrewarding) and sell that land to developers or speculators, who will reap profits by building single-family dwellings in quaintly-named "communities". In addition, farmers do not like urbanites much, and the especially dislike urbanite (or should I say suburbanite?) neighbours who ride noisy dirtbikes on their properties and tear up the crops. So properties near city borders tend to sell for high prices, which leads to sprawl, sprawl, sprawl.

The Region of Waterloo addressed this problem head-on. Councillors wanted to keep our farmland as farmland, so they drew countryside lines around the townships and cities in the region, and promised that development would never be permitted beyond those lines. This helped keep speculation down and land prices lower, because even if farmers sold their land to developers, the developers would presumably never be able to build on it.

Now comes the Ontario Municipal Board decision, and suddenly land that is near the countryside line might be available for development, because the Region will be forced (!) to allocate more land than it wanted for quaintly-named suburbs. This is a disaster for the Portland vision. It means that every time developers want to sprawl out more and develop more greenfield areas, they just have to take the Region to the Ontario Municipal Board again, which means that speculators can make a killing buying up farmland, which means we lose our farmland in the region.

It is worth spending a few words discussing the bullet point about seniors and housing, which seems out of place amongst the other rosy promises of this vision. The Ontario Municipal Board ruling revealed that getting seniors out of their homes is a fundamental consideration of the Region's land budget. The Region believed that seniors would somehow give up their homes and move into higher-density housing as they aged. This does not mean that region planners rub their hands and cackle every time a senior has to sell his or her house because of high property tax, but it does mean that any attempts the Region undertakes to keep seniors in their homes undermines their proposed land budget, and makes it more likely that they will lose their Ontario Municipal Board appeal (and therefore have to allocate more greenfield development, and therefore risk the countryside line).

Nobody is talking about this issue. Everybody who is fighting over the Portland vision of our community talks about property taxes and the LRT. The LRT is two degrees removed from the real issue. In order for the LRT to work you need centralized corridors that people will use to get around town, which is why the Region is promoting the "nodes and corridors" model of development. But infill development is expensive, and developers much prefer greenfield development. Without the countryside line, there is a good chance that developers will not bother going through the hassle of building the high-density condos and apartment buildings that the Region desperately wants. Fortunately, in Kitchener and Waterloo infill development is already on its way; Cambridge is a different story, and a troubling one.

There are aspects of the Portland vision that I like, and aspects that I dislike. I think that the countryside line is a good idea. In a world of climate change, I think that having food sources nearby is a wise choice for resiliency. It hurts my soul to see prime farmland (some of the best farmland IN THE WORLD) being paved over to build quaintly-named suburbs. Last week I was cycling in Uptown Waterloo and I saw a Mennonite with a horse and buggy travelling up Regina Street. Old Order Mennonites make for good postcard fodder in the region, but I value their presence for other reasons. Mennonite values (Old Order and otherwise) permeate this region, and have helped shape its identity in terms of social justice, local institutions, and community involvement. I do not want us to lose Mennonite influence in our region, and I want Mennonites (and other farmers) to continue feeling welcome in our area. On an aesthetic level, I love the fact that I can cycle for half an hour and be in the countryside. The countryside is no utopia, but having countryside nearby (and accesssible!) is a huge asset of this region, and I feel it is worth preserving.

I am able to get by in this region without owning a car. Until my knees give out, I will be able to get around using my feet and my bicycle, and I feel safe doing so. I don't even need to rely on public transit. This is a big win, because it means my monthly living expenses stay low.

On the other hand, the cost of living is rising in this area. Rents have gone up dramatically, and while I can afford my current room it is clear that I will be priced out of the area sooner or later. Then what will I do? High property taxes (and service fees such as wastewater fees) contribute to raising the cost of living here. I am not thrilled about that.

There are other things I dislike about the Portland vision for the Region, but why don't we examine the alternative first?

Destination: Mississauga

The competing alternative to the Portland vision for the region is one I call the "Mississauga" vision, because I am a jerk. This vision for the region is defined by (some) of the following ideas:

The important thing to remember about the Mississauga vision is that it is a completely legitimate vision, and that it has lots of support (particularly in Cambridge, but also among a vocal subset in Waterloo).

I attended the Waterloo Mayor debate held by the Chamber of Commerce, and mayoral candidate Dave MacDonald brought up the LRT a lot. He called this election a "referendum" on the LRT. He got a lot of flack for using the LRT as a talking point in his campaigning, but he is not completely out to lunch. Even he admits that the LRT is being built and the train has left the station (so to speak). His point is that if voters reject the LRT by voting in certain candidates, then the newly formed Regional Council could stop this project. I do not think he is out to lunch here. There are lots of candidates running on the Mississauga vision for the region, and several of them have fairly good chances of winning seats:

If this slate of candidates was to win, then the Portland vision is probably dead. The countryside line could die a quick and unnoticed death (for example, Council could just drop its Ontario Municipal Board appeal and give the developers their 1053 hectares of land), and then the Portland vision is over.

Killing the LRT is a different story. That train really has left the station, and it will be very expensive to kill it at this point. The federal and provincial governments would pull their funding. The partners the Region has already signed contracts with (Bombardier for the trains, Grand Linq for the management) will sue the Region and likely win, which will cost a lot of money. It is probably the case that we can spend a lot of money and have an LRT system, or spend a lot of money and not have one. It is not clear to me that one is more cost effective than the other -- but the strong anti-LRT candidates might try when they are elected.

I know I have been beating on Mississauga for so long that nothing is left but a pile of sun-bleached horse bones, and that I am still whipping those bones thinking that they will move. And maybe they are moving: Mississauga is trying to become more like Waterloo Region even as candidates in Waterloo Region want the Region to become more like Mississauga. Mississauga is trying to deal with its sprawl with 50 story highrises. It is trying to build community through Bollywood movies shown at "Celebration Square". It is trying to build LRT systems and better transit. Maybe it is working. I have not been there for a couple of years, so I wouldn't know. What I do know is that for years and years (decades, maybe) Mississauga kept its property taxes frozen, and financed itself by using up all of its greenfield space for new developments: awful suburbs and box stores and parking lots upon parking lots. The city became a sprawling mess. Getting by without a car was very difficult, and owning a car was not much better, because traffic was always crowded and drivers were always aggressive.

Here's a little story: in 2006 I attended the funeral of a high school friend (we miss you, Desmond) who died in a traffic accident. The funeral was held in the middle of the afternoon -- well before rush hour, as I recall -- and traffic from the funeral home to the burial site took something like an hour. A similar trip in Waterloo Region would likely take ten minutes. What boggled my mind was that none of the other carmates seemed to think this endless traffic jam was anything out of the ordinary. Any time I am in the city I see busy traffic on the main roads (which are the only roads you can use to get anywhere, because Mississauga does not believe in smaller roads being used as thoroughfares) and I shake my head in disbelief. Sure: Mississauga enjoyed growth and low taxes for years. Now the bill has come due, and the city is scrambling to keep up with its horrendous infrastructure deficits. What happens when all of the sewer infrastructure in those cul-de-sacs need to be replaced?

Could we face such a nightmare in Waterloo Region? Maybe. The Conestoga Parkway helps a lot, so maybe we do not have to worry about the kind of traffic within Waterloo Region that we do in Mississauga. But I have been noticing that certain streets (such as Lancaster) get uncomfortably busy during rush hours. It is not a good sign.

I am really concerned about the countryside line. Waterloo Region already has its suburban problems: go to Erbsville road and you will see lots of cars and not much community. This problem will just get worse as we sprawl further and further outward, which means that families in those areas will depend upon their cars, which will put further pressure on road systems within the region. When the countryside line goes and we see open season for developers, our opportunities to keep the region pedestrian friendly could dissipate.

Or maybe not. Maybe if we continue current intensification we will be okay. I have my doubts, however.

I am not sure that the LRT is necessary for us to keep the region sustainable. I think that the LRT is both a red herring and a white elephant. It is an expensive status symbol that we may not be able to afford. The route is wrong is a number of places -- veering off on Courtland makes little sense. The Cambridge routing is a mess and it is not at all clear that the aBRT is helping intensify development along the Hespeler Street corridor. It was clear from the beginning that the LRT was primarily a planning tool, not a transportation tool. Trains are a status symbol -- an expensive status symbol. We are gambling that this big investment will pay off with more intensification and reduced pressure on our road system. It is completely legitimate to question this gamble.

It is clear that debt is an increasing problem in the Region. Ken Seiling downplays this issue by pointing at our good credit rating, and arguing that this is the time to invest in infrastructure, and that by going into debt we are simply charging future generations for the benefits they will be accruing once this infrastructure is in place. I am not sure I buy that argument. Interest rates are low now. They will not remain low forever. We are still a relatively prosperous region, RIM notwithstanding. It is not clear that we will remain prosperous forever, or even for the medium term.

Here is one example of how we could lose prosperity: we are shooting ourselves in the foot by not integrating students into the broader Waterloo Region community. I am confident that some students now commute back and forth to the GTA daily from UW and WLU. I am certain that ghettoizing students in the giant tenement buildings that are popping up along University Avenue and Columbia Streets is a mistake. When students spend their entire university careers in their campus bubbles, what incentives do they have to call Waterloo Region home after they graduate? And if they do not call this region home, then we will lose a huge source of talent that we have depended upon to build our prosperity for years and years. Neither the Portland nor the Mississauga camps are serious about including students in their visions; they see students as unlimited sources of money who should attend universities, stay in their ghettos, and otherwise not get involved with the affairs of "real" residents.

Wither Cambridge?

Cambridge is always the neglected child in discussions of Waterloo Region, and this is coming back to bite us. Cambridge is the city that should never have been; amalgamating Hespeler, Galt and Preston was a mistake, and the Region of Waterloo has done little to knit the townships into a coherent city. As a result, Cambridge appears to be three small towns barely connected through suburban sprawl. They are already living the Mississauga vision: transit is bad, residents are car-dependent, and I suspect they do not see how they will get enough attention paid to their city to change any of this.

This is bad news, and if the Portland vision for the Region of Waterloo has a chance of succeeding, then we need to start paying a lot of attention to Cambridge. In particular, we need to incorporate it into the region. People in Kitchener-Waterloo don't care much whether they are in Kitchener or Waterloo; some of the bylaws are different, but for the most part the two cities are a coherent whole. Cambridge feels very different; thanks to the Grand River it is hard to get to, and connection links between the cities is not good. Cambridge feels left out of the high-tech revolution that Kitchener and Waterloo both enjoy.

There is something to reiterate about the LRT here: ending the train line at Fairview Mall instead of extending it into Cambridge was a big mistake. Having a reliable, fast link from the universities in Waterloo to Cambridge would have gone a long way towards integrating the region and making some cheap office space available to high-tech startups. Instead, people in Cambridge are bitter, and I do not blame them one bit.

Furthermore, people in Cambridge are also voters, and they could easily shift this election. They could help get Jay Aissa elected, which throws a big monkeywrench into the Portland vision. Of note is that Cambridge is trying out electronic and phone voting for this election; if this is the magic bullet solution to voter turnout that advocates keep trumpeting, then the number of Cambridge voters in this municipal election could conceivably overwhelm voters from the other two municipalities. Consider that only 98579 votes were cast for Regional Chair in the 2010 election, and 28.65% of them were for Robert Milligan. My guess is that a lot of those people were voting against Ken Seiling more than they were voting for Robert Milligan.

So what can be done to help Cambridge? I think we start by taking the intensification strategies that have been used in Kitchener and Waterloo and apply them to Cambridge, doing what we can to increase development in the three town cores and on the main roadways connecting those cores (which may be the reason the LRT people are putting aBRT along Hespeler Road). I think we allow Cambridge to receive more than its fair share of resources for a while, even if it means depriving Kitchener and Waterloo of resources. I think it means making lots of cheap office space available in Cambridge, and marketing that office space to Waterloo startups in the same way as Kitchener marketed its downtown. It may mean encouraging Communitech to put an incubator hub in Cambridge.

None of these strategies make much sense from the Mississauga perspective. They make a lot of sense from the Portland one, because the Portland vision depends upon us thinking of Waterloo Region as an integrated whole, and because Cambridge has a resource that the other municipalities lack -- namely, greenfield land for development that lies within the countryside line. Building up an urban culture in Cambridge is a necessary step in achieving the Portland vision, unless Cambridge was to leave the Region of Waterloo entirely (which would itself be a disaster, in my opinion).

I will say this one last time: we have a tendency to ignore Cambridge when we think about Waterloo Region, and we do so at our peril.