Revitalization

Befuddled Brantford to Try Voodoo Urbanism

By Ben Bull
Published February 08, 2010

While Hamilton bemoans the buildings it has already lost, Brantford stands on the brink:

To those in favour of tearing them down, the 41 heritage buildings on Colborne St. in Brantford are decaying relics of the past.

To those who would save them, they represent the future.

But if Brantford council gets its way, the structures will be destroyed anyway, perhaps as soon as this week.

What is perhaps even more worrying is that the heritage demolition proponents do not have a plan as to what to do with the soon to be empty lots:

After 30 years of waiting ... a majority on council is anxious to continue down the trail of destruction begun decades ago. Not even the absence of a plan deters these would-be wreckers. They're not pursuing demolition to make way for something bigger and better, just to clear the site. Not only is this dumb, it's self-destructive.

When I was younger, if I don't know the root cause of a problem, I would re-frame it. Tired all day? Eat more fruit. Unhappy in life? Move house. In essence I would guess my way out of a predicament. Sometimes it worked, but more often than not it made things worse.

It seems to me that Brantford City Council are taking the same illogical approach.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 06:08:27

Ben, the way I see the Council's attitude is similar to yours: it's illogical, yes, but even more, it's behaviour typical of an adolescent. When one has a need to DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING!

You know, that wonderful psychological ploy wherein you convince yourself that you're working towards a goal simply by action alone...regardless of what the action is, or whether or not it makes any sense. Forget logic...JUST DO IT!

No matter how you cut it, this behaviour is easily labeled: 'Immature'.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 11:11:43

I know I am gonna stand alone here at RTH, but I think there is a case to be made for bulldozing a set of awful buildings.

Those buildings are not contributing to quality of life in that area. I used to live in that area of Brantford and there is very little architectural significance to those buildings; grass, a park, just about anything would be better than what is there now.

In Hamilton, we bulldozed the beautiful city hall and other many architecturally significant buildings but save the Lister Block (ugly, closed-faced and decrepit in my opinion. I likely stand alone on RTH).

There are buildings worth being saved, but I think at times there seems to be a gang mentality with these old buildings and it always seems to be one way or the other; not reasonably sorted out based on the evidence of necessity.

It is possible that these particular buildings are better off as grass.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 11:17:29

You know, that wonderful psychological ploy wherein you convince yourself that you're working towards a goal simply by action alone...regardless of what the action is, or whether or not it makes any sense. Forget logic...JUST DO IT!

Our current political values reward this type of behaviour. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard otherwise intelligent people say "I disagree with Politician X's policies, but I voted for him/her because s/he's a strong leader who will get things done!" Yeah. They'll get things done that you hate. WTF?

It's like we're frightened children looking for an authoritarian father figure. Or maybe we're just too lazy to read and understand policy. Certainly the media today are too lazy to read and understand policy, so they too take the easy way out and focus on personalities. When politics becomes a popularity contest, the 'strong' leader will always win.

Comment edited by highwater on 2010-02-09 10:23:18

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 11:47:26

there is very little architectural significance to those buildings

I'm not that familiar with Brantford, but from looking at Google Street View, this looks like a perfectly respectable and serviceable 19th century streetwall. Here's another view from a bit farther up the street.

This could be Locke Street South in Hamilton - or Queen West in Toronto. The buildings don't need to be architectural superstars (I'm of the opinion that rockstar architecture achieves its iconicity at the expense of human-scaled placemaking); they just need to be functional and urban in form and alignment. The buildings on Brantford's chopping block have this in spades.

Also, I couldn't help but notice that Colbourne Street is one-way. Like Hamilton's King Street through International Village, Brantford seems at some point to have spent money on bump-outs and so on to give the appearance of a more pedestrian-friendly environment while preserving two-lane, one-way traffic flows and 'free' or very cheap parking.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 13:47:11

I hear people comment on the 'old' City Hall in Hamilton...as someone pointed out to me, the 'third' of our City Halls...and I wonder if they have a grasp on the building. The shape it was in. (Hint: we may look back at it as a 'lost gem', but investigation suggests otherwise. Granted, everything is subjective, But still...)

I'm not opening the can of worms 'Let's talk about the original City Centre plans and how much heritage we lost when they bulldozed everything...' but I am curious about what people latch onto as a 'cause', especially one lost in the mists of time, without really understanding the context of the circumstances it disappeared in.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 14:00:11

The context seems to be:

  1. We didn't take care of the building.

  2. The building deteriorated.

  3. The building was demolished.

If only there was some kind of lesson in there for the buildings today that are currently at stage 1 or 2...

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-02-09 13:03:45

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 14:11:56

The 'Just Do Something' attitude came to mind when I was at a Tom Jackson fundraiser a few years back. Tom was talking about the stalled status of the Red Hill Valley Expressway and he remarked, 'let's just get the thing built'

As if not building it would have been seen as a failure or weakness.

'If we don't know what to do - just do something'. A mentality all politicians can live by :)

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 14:24:48

To Ryan: Right. Like marriages.

To highwater: I agree. And I believe there are some underlying reasons for this. One, people deep down inside want to be led. They love being led. Not entirely because they're sheeple or can't be bothered to think for themselves, but because it's part of the human condition to be inspired, to be taken to places that otherwise wouldn't be gotten to. (Yes, this can be a dangerous element of our psyches when it's perverted...and I'll end that thought right there and not list any examples.) But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, people are both apathetic and too damned busy to stay on top of things. That, and they've had their faith in 'the system', in just about any political system from town to county to provincial to national.

But this should come as no surprise; we're too all-of-these things to make marriages work, to make friendships work, to make families work. Why should trends regarding divorce rates, about non-nuclear families, about detachment from parents and grandparents not find their way to how we regard our politicians and our governments? (Or our old buildings?)

Editor Ryan may say that I'm seeing things too negatively, but at least I'm being honest about there being problems, problems that need to be addressed, beginning with the personal. (You can't address a problem until you've both acknowledged it and been honest in examining how it got to be that way in the first place. This isn't 'creative negativity', this is a practical part of creating a more livable world in which we all live.)

Part of my belief system is that ensuring we don't lose our past is to work on not only the practical (ensuring that by-laws are being enforced so that don't see 'demolition by neglect', etc) but also the not-so-practical: the mindset of the community, our collective value system.

The former requires bureaucrats. The latter? Inspirational leadership. (Oh, and actual involvement and engagement by the average citizen.)

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 14:29:33

rusty: I hear ya... But then Hamilton has a reputation of 'dithering'. Of having leadership that simply can't make decisions. I seem to remember this was touched on in 'Ten Tough Questions' with Herman Turkstra on The Hamiltonian. (Don't quote me.)

I'm certainly not saying 'Any decision is a good one!', but rather that...well, I'm reminded of the expression 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way.' Hamilton seems to have a legacy of 'none of the above'.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 14:42:08

I'm not that familiar with Brantford, but from looking at Google Street View, this looks like a perfectly respectable and serviceable 19th century streetwall. Here's another view from a bit farther up the street.

Granted. There are some decent buildings there. Not 100% are terrible looking. I think there is some well-versed tapestry to be had in some of these buildings. I don't know the specifics of it, but there is probably some cost associated with cherry picking the significant ones. Cost shouldn't always play a factor; I agree with that notion.

The issue with Brantford seems to be that there isn't enough growth to support these buildings. What if there is never enough growth to fill these voids in the foreseeable future? We keep them and maintain them until there is interest? Incentives? Where and how and more importantly, who?

Brantford loves sprawl. Someone is gonna point to sprawl as the cause, surely. But that isn't an answer, just the cause.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 15:04:56

Exactly. We can pin point a lot of the causes but sprawl is not going to be simply reversed (although it is expected to decline once it becomes too expensive to maintain).

The fundamental question I would have if I were a Brantfordian (?) would be: If we tear down this part of our heritage - what will our town become? The issue of identity is HUGE when it comes to building a successful town. No cooperative of any kind can succeed unless it is about something. If Brantford tears out it's heritage like this, then what will define it? The ghost of Wayne Gretzky?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 15:36:57

The issue with Brantford seems to be that there isn't enough growth to support these buildings.

If Brantford can't drive investment into a perfectly nice downtown streetwall next to the river, they're Doing It Wrong. Demolishing it to make room for a quasi-public, non-profit facility is Definitely Doing It Wrong.

Here are a few suggestions that don't involve demolition-as-public-strategy:

  • Paint a yellow line down the Colbourne Street median.
  • Make sure the zoning/parking regs support mixed adaptive reuse.
  • Establish a downtown reinvestment loan program as a catalyst to private investment.
  • Encourage artists to have a go at it. There have got to be some artists in Brantford.

Their demolition plan amounts to taking a functional, embodied built environment and transforming it into a greenfield to accommodate developers who can't or won't build on anything else. It says: We give up. We have no idea how to run a city.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 15:58:15

Demolishing it to make room for a quasi-public, non-profit facility is Definitely Doing It Wrong.

What they decide to do with the land after it has been bulldozed is definitely an important matter, but a matter on it's own.

In speaking on the current state of most of these buildings - they aren't in great condition. Is that because Brantford let them get that way? Certainly. Do we have a time machine to change that? No.

The current state of these buildings represent the hand of cards Brantford residents have to play. I am not convinced that most of these buildings could undergo a renovation that wouldn't essentially convert them to replicas.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 16:08:20

"Make sure the zoning/parking regs support mixed adaptive reuse. "

This the crux of what became the planning credo for the Annex neighbourhood in Toronto (the same neighbourhood that almost had the Spandina Expressway rammed through it). Today this neighbourhood thrives.

If you stroll around successful downtown neighbourhoods in Toronto you will see that they all comprise safe, two-way streets, and that they are all mixed use. Many building facades have been retained, with high rise offices and condos forming the actual structure. The streetwall is maintained, and effective mixed uses are achieved.

I think this form of urban planning - i.e. non-rigid, tackling many facets at once - goes beyond the understanding and abilities of many local councilors. Shame.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 16:08:35

Any building to come after demolition is pretty much guaranteed to be grossly inferior in construction materials, quality, design, architecture and longevity to the original.

Poor societies like the Brantford of 120 years ago just can't afford the luxury of throwaway architecture that our society can afford.

Those buildings are over a century old. They're survivors. They've survived decades of disrespect and neglect. Brantford is going to throw that away?

Maybe a few of the buildings are so far gone that they're better off demolished than rebuilt. That decision should come from individual property owners in the context of private reinvestment, not from the city in the form of a despairing fiat.

(Thanks to Adrian for the survivor analogy.)

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-02-10 17:36:09

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 16:29:26

I'll support the demolition if Brantford promises to take Jackson Square in return.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 16:32:11

I think that's pretty much what they're going to build after they knock em down. Live and don't learn!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 17:31:46

But this should come as no surprise; we're too all-of-these things to make marriages work, to make friendships work, to make families work. Why should trends regarding divorce rates, about non-nuclear families, about detachment from parents and grandparents not find their way to how we regard our politicians and our governments? (Or our old buildings?)

I'm too apathetic and too damned busy to look it up, but I'm pretty sure the divorce rate has been trending down in recent years.

Editor Ryan may say that I'm seeing things too negatively, but at least I'm being honest about there being problems, problems that need to be addressed, beginning with the personal...

Part of my belief system is that ensuring we don't lose our past is to work on not only the practical (ensuring that by-laws are being enforced so that don't see 'demolition by neglect', etc) but also the not-so-practical: the mindset of the community, our collective value system.

The former requires bureaucrats. The latter? Inspirational leadership. (Oh, and actual involvement and engagement by the average citizen.)

I don't think you're too negative, I just think you've got your order reversed. You don't begin with the personal, you start with the practical. You change individual mindsets through action and engagement , not the other way around.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted February 09, 2010 at 19:52:18

1) The average marriage seems to be lasting about seven years. People are putting off marriages. People are just living together...long-term...then spitting up. Bottom-line: people aren't taking basics such as relationships seriously. Besides, you seem to be missing the point: people don't generally CARE anymore. You might think with the amount of energies expressed here, on this blog, that they do. They don't. They're quick to GET ANGRY...but that's not action. You know, there's a writer's adage that goes something like this: 'A person's true character is revealed not in what they say...but in what they do.' The fact is that people have become far more insular, far more self-referential, far more 'Me, me, me!'...even as the tools to 'connect' with the rest of the world expand. I'm not dismissing or reducing even to the least degree those instances of when people reach out (such as with Haiti), but really; the belief in the notion that we have become a 'kindler and gentler world' makes me suspect that the person stating this lives in a bubble. And I don't want to believe that you or anyone else here does.

2) No, you don't mandate people into mindsets, you can't legislate morals, ethics or any of that. Seriously; if you actually believe that...then we really are diametrically opposed. I'm actually a little flabbergasted that you embrace the notion of 'the practical first. Unless... Unless we're talking semantical gymnastics here: 'engagement' having to do with how we raise children and how we interact within our communities, the general 'quality of Life' package that we effect in the way we move through the world.

(Here are some examples of 'mandating' that haven't or probably will never work, to varying degrees: littering, cell phone use, smoking, bad eating, bad 'activity-levels-pertaining-to-health-and-fitness' practices, sexual fidelity. Pass all the laws you want, but if it's not engrained, if people aren't inculcated with values, if they're not embraced out of choice...then they're in effect, practically worthless. Um... How many thousands of years have we had The Ten Commandmants...? Those people that 'do right', conduct themselves this way not because of any decree. At least not one from a government.

Comment edited by schmadrian on 2010-02-09 18:55:22

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2010 at 20:44:34

I'm generally not a big fan of mandating if it can be avoided; I prefer the use of incentives. All things being equal, if you make it cheaper and easier to do something, people will do more of it; and if you make it more expensive and harder to do something, people will do less of it.

I fully support the notion of subsidizing public goods - services that benefit society as a whole, not just the people who use them directly - but charging the full cost of private activities that cause harm to others (like, say, driving, with its myriad negative externalities).

Here's a funny statistic: smoking rates are higher in cities adjacent to Reserves. That's because some of the low-cost cigarettes sold in the reserve make it into the adjacent city, and the cheaper, more accessible cigarettes result in more people smoking.

People do respond to incentives. This idea that we're irrevocably handcuffed to our values is, IMHO, naive and fatalistic.

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By Smilley (anonymous) | Posted February 10, 2010 at 19:55:31

The person who wants to lose Jackson square needs to know that it is the single biggest taxpayer in downtown hamilton....like it or not, it pays the bills that keep some of the bums in the downtown core.

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By frowney (anonymous) | Posted February 11, 2010 at 20:25:48

Not only that, it keeps our bums nice and warm, and their scooters out of the weather.

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