Dreaming Big in Downtown Sydney

I do not own a car, so I have a rather cavalier attitude toward downtown Sydney parking — I’m that person, striding purposefully toward my destination, chuckling at you as you circle the block, looking for a place to park (unless, of course, it’s raining, in which case there will be markedly less chuckling).

Charlotte Street,Sydney NS

Charlotte Street, Sydney NS, 29 March 2017. Let’s call this the “Before” picture.

I am also hopeful that millennials will be less dependent on cars and more amenable to public and “active” transit than we are.

But I understand that parking, in the here and now, is key to a successful downtown and so I was very interested in what Roger Boychuk, director of engineering at Ekistics Plan+Design, had to say about it as it relates to Sydney. Also, I like listening to people who know their stuff, and Boychuk knows traffic.

Boychuk was in town last night along with Rob LeBlanc, the president of Ekistics, to present their “Urban Core Plan” for Sydney.  The firm was awarded a $90,000 contract for the study in October 2016. As CBRM senior planner Rick McCready explained, the impetus for the revitalization discussion (other than the obviously hangdog state of Charlotte Street) was that the street itself is due for repairs, and planners figured that if it was going to be torn up anyway, the municipality might think about making improvements beyond new asphalt.

I attended the second of two presentations on Tuesday night and would estimate there were about 25 people in the room (I’m a notoriously bad estimator, though. The Cape Breton Post says there were about 80 people at the first session.)

I was skeptical going into last night’s presentation because I’d been underwhelmed by the company’s “vision” for the Sydney waterfront, presented in 2014, but the suggestions they made for Charlotte Street (and even a few for George Street) made so much sense and the total price tag — $7.5 million — seemed so reasonable compared to, say, $20 million for a second berth, that I left feeling informed and — I’ll admit it — a bit excited about the possibilities.



What really struck me were the things that could be done, right now, with the resources we have, to improve the downtown.

Take parking.

According to Boychuk, there are (potentially) 3,700 parking spaces in our downtown (the area bounded by the Esplanade and George Street from Townsend to Dorchester) and 4,500 vehicles in the downtown at peak hours, the majority of which are looking for a place to park.

Some of those spaces are on private property, so not actually available as parking, but they are spaces, and they’re in our downtown. In fact, they make up 30% of our downtown, a figure Boychuk says is 5-10% higher than most cities.

Selection of signs from the “no parking” lots behind the Capri Club, off Charlotte Street in Sydney.

A good number of those spaces are behind the Capri Club in that collection of mini-lots, cross-hatched by chain link fences, owned by multiple landlords and, according to Boychuk, only 60-80% utilized. (For the record, while taking pictures of the “No Parking” signs in those mini-lots, I ran into a gentleman who had worked in the area for 24 years and told me utilization was “much higher” than 60%, and that much of it was by people who had no business parking there. Let’s call that “duly noted.”)

Boychuk said 60% of the people they surveyed about parking in downtown Sydney said they spend more than five minutes searching for a space. Searching for a space means driving around, burning fuel, adding to total emissions — by Boychuk’s calculations (based on the work of traffic and parking experts like Donald Shoup who I just found out about and who writes really interesting things on the subject), one parking spot, turning over 10 times a day, generates 20 km of travel.

In Ekistics version of Charlotte Street, the parking lots behind the Capri Club are consolidated into one big lot (with a bit of greenery thrown in), clearly marked by a “Parking” sign across the Charlotte Street entrance. The next step, said Boychuk, would be signs elsewhere in the city, telling people entering the downtown where the parking lot is.

(What their version doesn’t include, at least at this point, is a parkade. Boychuk said current demand would never justify the cost — between $8.5 and $9.5 million. Instead, he advised setting the land for a parkade aside, then monitoring what happens in the downtown.)

All I could think, looking at the computer-generated rendering of the “Parking” sign, was that it made complete sense and was entirely within the realm of the possible.

The second downtown improvement that could be undertaken immediately was provided by a member of the audience, who didn’t require any computer-generated graphics to make his point: a good way to revitalize the downtown, he suggested, would be to clear the snow off the sidewalks.

He pointed out that if you pull up in the handicapped spot in front of the Post Office on Charlotte Street right now, you’re next to a snow bank.

Again, I thought, that makes complete sense — and it’s entirely within the realm of the possible.


Pedestrian friendly

By Baureferat der Landeshauptstadt München (Own work scan) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

City of Munich, parking card (Photo by Baureferat der Landeshauptstadt München, own work scan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

But what about the fun stuff? The transformative stuff? The stuff that will take money and planning and money?

Well, on the parking front, it means replacing old parking meters with new technology — smart meters that allow drivers to use their phones or chip cards to pay and that give the city options other than the traditional 2 or 5-hour parking periods. Boychuk cited Shoup, whose golden rules of parking include appropriate pricing (the higher the demand, the higher the price) and re-investment of all monies collected into the downtown.

But at heart, what the “Master Plan” for the downtown sets out to do is respond to what Boychuk called the overwhelming message received from people they spoke with and the 750 who responded to an online survey: make Charlotte Street more pedestrian friendly.

LeBlanc said they considered different options, but to both improve the experience of pedestrians and preserve downtown parking, the best bet seemed to be to narrow Charlotte Street to one lane (with dedicated left-turning lanes at intersections) and widen the sidewalks. The plan also incorporates “bump-outs” or curb extensions at intersections to narrow the distance pedestrians must cross and turns most of the east-west streets (Falmouth, Wentworth) into two-ways.

Power lines are buried (the cost would be $700,000) and replaced by trees. A bike lane, incorporated more into the sidewalk than the street, runs along the western side of Charlotte Street.

Our main street’s gap-toothed smile will be improved with “infill” — buildings constructed in the spaces between existing buildings. (An example is the space between the old Crowell’s building and Spinner’s which, in Ekistics version, becomes a 12-unit residential building.)

There’s a connector from Charlotte Street to the Highland Arts Theatre on Bentinck Street that features both green space and retail space and a 14-car parking lot next to Connor’s Office Supplies is transformed into a south-facing, city plaza, where Ekistics envisions movies being projected onto the side of the Connor’s building and skate boarders doing their thing.

(At which point an actual skate boarder in the audience pointed out that what the skater in the artist’s rendition was doing would be “essentially illegal” in the CBRM, that the municipality has not developed a skate park in a decade and that he, personally, would love to see the law changed and the space created. At which point everyone in the audience thought “THERE’S A YOUNG PERSON HERE!”)

The planners even tackled George and Wentworth, where apparently most of the city’s pedestrian-cyclist collisions occur. George Street, said Boychuk, is 22 meters wide, so one possibility is bump-outs to trim 10 meters off the crossing distance for pedestrians. (An audience member also recommended putting the flashing amber crosswalk lights — currently high above the street — at eye-level on the supporting poles. McCready said it was a solution they’d tried with success elsewhere in the CBRM.)

The bump-outs then become “linear urban parks,” with trees and benches. And, again, safer cycling lanes — incorporated more into the sidewalk than the street — could also help.


Audience participation

People in attendance had a lot to say, once the presentation ended.

The first concern raised had to do with delivery trucks on a one-lane Charlotte Street and the chaos that must ensue. Boychuk acknowledged there would be issues, but said it’s the price you pay to make the street more pedestrian friendly. He also suggested there were work-arounds — side-street deliveries, designated delivery hours, back-door deliveries. Personally, I’d say that, as with almost every aspect of the revitalization plan, we’re not re-inventing the wheel; there are other cities in this world that have solved (or at least mitigated) the problem of delivery trucks on one-way streets, we could ask them how they did it.

Future infill site? Charlotte Street, Sydney NS, 29 March 2017.

Future infill site? Charlotte Street, Sydney NS, 29 March 2017.

One woman wondered about the possibility of closing at least part of Charlotte Street to traffic during peak tourist season, saying it’s a model that has worked well for Victoria Row in Charlottetown

She also suggested that Charlotte Street’s large, empty retail buildings be divided into long, narrow spaces to be used by restaurants (she cited North Sydney’s Black Spoon as an example of a successful business in a smallish space).

District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, who is overseeing the downtown development project, said we shouldn’t rule out anything, including the possibility of making Charlotte Street a pedestrian zone during tourist season. The plan is a draft, he stressed, and input, like that received from the audience, could influence the final version.

Another man wondered why businesses like Atomic Records & Collectibles and Breton Brewing and Starbucks, which he considered naturals for the downtown core, were located so far outside it. The answer seems to be, in part, taxes (they were higher in downtown Sydney, although McCready says that’s changed) and in part that the buildings available on Charlotte Street are so big, they’re daunting to a startup business.

Another audience member worried that the type of “infill” residential units Ekistics advocates are too “high-end” for many Cape Bretoners, whose equity is largely in their homes and who can’t necessarily expect to earn enough money selling them to buy (or rent) an expensive downtown apartment. Expensive housing could also drive young families elsewhere.

Councilor MacDonald said that while some downtown housing — like developer Marty Chernin’s apparently soon-to-be-built building on the waterfront — will be high end, he’s been in talks with a developer who’s looking to turn the old Cape Breton Post building on Dorchester Street into 23 units of “affordable housing.”

MacDonald said what he’s discovered in his discussions with people is that planning separately for seniors and young people is wrongheaded, “Seniors want to be where the youth are,” he said. Moreover, the downtown he envisions will be neither high-end nor low-end but a mix of both (Jane Jacobs would be so proud!).

MacDonald also said that in his view, revitalizing downtown Sydney was just a first step, whatever they learn in the process can then be applied to the municipality’s other downtowns. (He might want to talk to Business Cape Breton about that, they’re apparently tackling Glace Bay’s downtown all on their lonesome.)

What struck me most about last night’s presentation was how knowledgeable the people involved are and how much is happening behind the scenes in terms of downtown development. I feel like a curtain was pulled back and what I saw was really fascinating (MacDonald mentioned, in passing, a presentation they’d had about a system to heat the downtown sidewalks!) — it made me want to know more.

NOTE: This story has been updated to include a reference to the CBRM’s plans to repair Charlotte Street, which senior planner Rick McCready said was the impetus for the revitalization discussion.

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