A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[URBAN NOTE] “Redevelopment of Honest Ed’s in Toronto holds several surprises”

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The Globe and Mail‘s Alex Bozikovic describes how the plans for redeveloping Honest Ed’s actually seem quite forward-thinking, even exciting in their ambition.

“There’s no place like this place… anyplace.” That’s one of the many slogans hand-painted on the facades of Honest Ed’s; and the plans to redevelop the discount store, and the adjacent group of buildings called Mirvish Village, will live up to that slogan in ways Ed Mirvish wouldn’t have expected.

On Tuesday night, the developer that owns the 1.8-hectare downtown Toronto site, Westbank, and its architect, Vancouver’s Gregory Henriquez, presented their plans at a public open house. While the project’s design is in flux, the plans include several surprises: 1,000 rental apartments, many of them family-sized, and no condominiums for sale; a permanent public market; and retail space largely divided into small units that mimic the scale of existing storefronts on Bloor Street.

[. . .]

The project, which has not yet been submitted to the city for approval, would raze Honest Ed’s. Mr. Henriquez’s office has designed new buildings that form solid street walls along Bloor and Bathurst and along Lennox Street to the south. They would incorporate three towers of 29, 22 and 21 storeys. Behind them would be a low, glass-roofed Mirvish Village Market (selling food and crafts). To the south, two pedestrian-only laneways would cut the block, lined with small retail and live-work spaces filled with the help of the Centre for Social Innovation.

The promise of about 1,000 rental apartments is dramatic news. Developers have recently begun building rentals in Toronto again. According to a report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp, about 1,100 were built in the region from 2013 to 2014. This would add 1,000 in one place – and Westbank promises half will be two-, three- or four-bedroom units.

The plan would leave intact most of the houses and small commercial buildings on Markham Street. These would become destination restaurants, expanded discreetly and served by a bike valet service that connects to an underground bicycle shop and service area. Ms. Rosenberg imagines Markham Street with one consistent swath of paving, integrating the road and sidewalk and with an 11-metre space for patios. (Her firm has three ideas for what it would look like, including one inspired by the crooked floors of Honest Ed’s and the colour-field painting David Mirvish showed at his gallery on Markham Street in the 1970s.)

Written by Randy McDonald

March 4, 2015 at 4:59 am

[DM] “On the potential demise of the quinquennial census of Australia”

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At Demography Matters I link to The Guardian‘s Oliver Milman reported last month that the Australian Bureau of Statistics might reduce the frequency of national census-taking. At present, an Australian census is held every five years, the most recent being in 2011. The plan to shift to a ten-year census cycle, with frequent surveys in between censuses to maintain data, is apparently quite controversial, for the same sort of reasons that I recognize in Canada in the debate over the long-form census. I do admit to wondering if a five-year census is practical, but I also admit to envying Australia its thorough data-collection processes.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 4, 2015 at 3:56 am

[URBAN NOTE] “The rise and fall of the Kingston Road motel strip”

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Alex Butt and Vincent Panepinto had an informative and photograph-heavy essay in NOW Toronto describing the decline of the motel strip along east-end Scarborough’s Kingston Road. Apparently these motels have shifted away from hosting travellers and are now housing Toronto’s homeless.

Kingston Road, also known as Highway 2, has been integral to the Scarborough area since it was established in 1817, its name signalling that it was the sole route connecting Toronto and Kingston. What was then a post road for mail coaches turned into a bustling thoroughfare for automobiles moving between Toronto and eastern Canada.

Like Route 66 in the U.S., Kingston Road was marked by the 50s and 60s heyday of motor hotels. Cars were relatively inexpensive, easier to drive and safer than ever before. The newly introduced options of air conditioning and power steering made the prospect of a road trip more appealing for young couples and families looking for a little adventure. You could cruise through Pickering and have a refreshing cocktail in the grassy courtyard of the Lido Motel, enjoy the soda fountain and in-room television at the Avon, grab a medium-rare hamburger in the spacious dining room of Andrew’s Motel or take a dip in the outdoor pool at the Roycroft.

The Paragon Motel boasted 42 fully modern units, a convention hall, restaurant and children’s playground. Built in 1949, it became the Wellington Motel in 1973 and the East Side Motel in 1987. The east half of the property is now the Comfort Inn.

But completion of Highway 401 changed the way Canadians travelled by car. And while Kingston Road still stretches to Pickering, the motels that lined the street became more redundant with each passing decade as chain hotels and service stations popped up along the former superhighway. The amorality of development means that the prosperity of one area may force another to flounder, and by the 80s the Kingston strip had noticeably decayed.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 3, 2015 at 11:33 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “BIKE THINK TANK: Ridership numbers continue to grow”

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Spacing shares a report arguing that biking is really taking off in Toronto, especially in some downtown neighbourhoods. (Some are close to mine, even.)

Although we don’t know exactly who has started to bike in the last few years, we do know just how much things have changed. And they have changed a great deal: Our first hint came when the Toronto Cycling survey released in 2011 by the city’s Transportation Department showed that 29 percent of Torontonians were utilitarian cyclists. Next, Toronto Centre for Active Transportation and Share the Road released their 2013 survey results, showing that 5.7 percent of Torontonians cycle regularly. Most recently, in September of 2013, Cycle Toronto, working with the Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank, measured the number of cars and cyclists using College St. at Spadina during afternoon rush hour. What we found was extraordinary: approximately equal numbers of cars and bikes used College at this time on the two study days – though the bikes used only a fraction of the road space, of course. That’s a 74 percent cycling increase on this street in just three years.

Finally, an analysis of the National Household Survey data from 2011 shows astonishing figures for cycling mode share in some census tracts – nearly 20 percent in Seaton Village near Christie Pits and in Dufferin Grove, with other areas of the west end following closely. These figures are for work and school trips only, so the total share of cycling trips might be even higher.

So now we know for certain – Torontonians are getting on their bikes in unprecedented numbers. These increases seem even more significant considering the poor curbside conditions, general lack of separated lanes, meager painted bike routes, and shortage of bike parking, especially back in 2011 and 2012 when most of these data were collected. Way to go, Torontonians – we know that the more of us who cycle, the safer it gets, and so we expect collision rates to be declining and emissions and commercial vacancies to be going down, while fitness, disposable income and business revenues increase.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 3, 2015 at 11:27 pm

[ISL] ‘Ada Kaleh, an Ottoman Atlantis on the Danube”

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Strange Maps’ Frank Jacobs describes the strange Ottoman pseudo-enclave of Ada Kaleh, a Turkish-populated island on the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria that remained autonomous and linked to Turkey for almost a half-century after the Ottoman Empire’s withdrawal from the region.

[Y]ou’ll find yourself in the Iron Gates, a stretch of the river winding its way through a spectacular set of gorges, about 40 straight miles north of the point where Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria meet. Set in the middle of Europe’s mightiest river and surrounded by these spectacular outcrops of rock, Ada Kaleh’s location was as exotic as it was strategic.

One mile long and a quarter mile wide, the island was a spit of sand and gravel thrown up by the Danube’s meandering flow. Some claim that the island was known to the ancients as Cyraunis, an island mentioned in the Histories (5th c. BC) as “covered in olive trees.” Although blessed with a Mediterranean microclimate — figs and almonds thrived on the island, but so did vipers and scorpions — it is more likely Herodotus was referring to the Kerkennah archipelago off the Tunisian coast.

[. . .]

Because of its location, the island became strategically significant during the struggle between the Austrian and Ottoman empires for dominance on the Balkan Peninsula. In 1689, Austrian troops built a pentagonal fortress on the island, which they called Neu-Orschowa. The fortress was destroyed by the Ottomans two years later (with a little help from their Hungarian vassals). Undeterred, the Austrians built another fortress after they regained the island in 1692. Perhaps they shouldn’t have: in 1699, the Ottomans took over the island for most of the next two centuries.

The Austrians did make two comebacks. In 1716, during the Second Austro-Turkish War, they took over again and, as if they couldn’t help themselves, again started reinforcing the fortress. It didn’t do them much good: after a four-month siege in 1738, during the Third Austro-Turkish War, they were kicked out again. The Austrians came back again briefly in 1789, during the Fourth Austro-Turkish War, but returned the island in the Treaty of Sistova (1791).

That treaty concluded the long series of Austro-Turkish conflicts that had started in 1526 with the Battle of Mohacs. In the 19th century, Ada Kaleh would gradually lose its strategic importance, even as Ottoman power in the Balkans waned. But the island remained a magnet for history-book events. In 1804, Serbian rebels led by Milenko Stojković caught and executed the Janissary junta who had fled Belgrade and taken refuge on the island. It was plundered by the Russian army during the Turkish-Russian war of 1806-1812. Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, found refuge on the island after its collapse.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 3, 2015 at 11:24 pm

[LINK] “The Ecology of What We Write”

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Savage Minds features Anand Pandian’s essay arguing that writing is necessarily embedded in the dynamic environment of the writer.

One day last summer, a caterpillar dropped from the rim of my desktop monitor. A peculiar little creature—no more than an inch long, clothed in a jacket of wispy white, a jaunty pair of lashes suspended well behind a tiny black head.

The visitation was unexpected. It’s not as though I work in a natural wonderland. The walls of this office are made of painted cinderblock. The window is fixed firmly in place, completely sealed from the outside. Peculiar odors sometimes drift from the vent above my desk, possibly from the labs upstairs.

The caterpillar seemed unhappy with the windowsill, where I placed it for a closer look. So I scooped up the errant traveler and stepped outside the building, wondering, for a moment, whether there was anything more palatable in the turfgrass. Then I went back to writing, back to whatever I could forage for my monitor that day.

We tend to think of writing as a lonely task. “The life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation,” Annie Dillard writes. “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.”

There is, no doubt, a limpid truth to so much of her prose. But this, though, how could it be? Whether Dillard’s Venetian blinds slatted against the vista of a graveled rooftop, or some other more porous and inviting space, writing always happens in a sensible world of sounds and textures, an atmosphere of tangible things and diaphanous beings.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 3, 2015 at 11:21 pm

[LINK] “The Putin Effect on Post-Soviet Economies”

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Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky observes that the collapse of multiple currencies in the former Soviet Union can be traced substantially to instability from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and from Russia’s conflicts more broadly. The costs of integration seem high.

The Moldovan leu lost more against the U.S. dollar last week than in all of 2014. The tiny nation, squeezed between Ukraine and Romania, could no longer handle a deep structural imbalance in its economy. It buys about 70 percent of all its consumer goods from abroad, so its imports are about twice as high as its exports. The shortfall was partly covered by remittances from migrant workers, which reached $1.61 billion last year. In the fourth quarter, however, the remittances fell by 20 percent, because many of the Moldovan migrants work in Russia, and as the ruble lost value, they weren’t able to send as many dollars and euros home. Moldova’s exports to Russia almost halved last year, both because of the latter’s economic problems and because Moscow was trying to pressure Moldova to stay within its economic orbit rather than integrate with the European Union.

Adding to these problems, the previous Moldovan government spent part of its meager foreign reserves to bail out three large banks, a move the country’s leftist parliamentary opposition described as a money-laundering scam. Moldova’s international reserves now stand at less than $2 billion, their lowest level since 2011. The leu devaluation is likely to continue because there’s no plausible way to stop it.

The core of Azerbaijan’s problem is that it’s an oil exporter. Since 2011, it had pegged its currency, the manat, to the U.S. dollar, but as the oil price fell, the peg became expensive to maintain. On Jan. 31, the country’s foreign reserves stood 11 percent lower than a year before. The devaluation would not have needed to be as sharp as it was, however, if Russia hadn’t been the country’s biggest export market. Those exports fell sharply last year — by 30 percent in the third quarter, the last one for which data are available.

As for Georgia, its exports to Russia actually increased last year, at least in the period for which the IMF has data. Yet exports to Ukraine, which had become a major trading partner when Georgia’s relations with Russia were particularly strained last decade, have fallen by about half over the past year. In total, Georgia’s exports in January were 20 percent lower than the year before. For this tiny economy with less than $2.5 billion in foreign reserves, that drop made devaluation inevitable.

Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, is completely dependent on Moscow for extra-cheap energy imports. So it predictably suffered more than others — except Ukraine — when Russia effectively started a price war with its neighbors by devaluing its currency.blockquote>

Written by Randy McDonald

March 3, 2015 at 11:17 pm


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