Greater Napanee Council hears the potential of ‘walkability’

Napanee has a beautiful and vibrant downtown. Aaron Fenney argues more of the town could be like this with some pedestrian-oriented development. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Imagine if everything you needed was just down the street and you didn’t have a vehicle demanding maintenance, payments, or insurance. What would a future without such automotive dependence look like?

This is what a delegation to Napanee Council posed for councillors and the community to consider.

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2023, at the regular meeting of the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee, Aaron Fenney, a member of Napanee’s Active Transportation Allies (NATA), made a presentation about the positives of pedestrian-oriented development. Fenney suggested this would be a good step toward alleviating the housing crisis, improving community safety, and developing the town’s economy.

Fenney’s presentation came at a good time, considering the Town is in the middle of developing a new Strategic Plan, Mayor Terry Richardson pointed out.

According to Fenney, throughout human history, towns and cities developed incrementally: “Individual property owners would develop their plot as they found the money to do so… Public investment was preceded by private, with infrastructure and services expanding… Cheap land on the edge of town was developed into simple structures, while real estate closer to the centre would develop upwards.”

However, things changed with the invention of the automobile, especially since the Second World War.

“The prevailing social science of the time believed that efficiency would be gained by carefully segregating things from one another. Land use, social class, and ethnicities were all to be laid out with minimal overlap… [with] tidy lines and separations,” Fenney explained.

“Thus, 70 years on, this pattern of development has shown itself to have many drawbacks. Large segments of the community are underserved or actively debilitated by our infrastructure. Many people are unable to drive, and this puts them at a significant disadvantage in society, robbing them of their agency and independence.”

Fenney pointed out that large distances between locations, while traversed easily by car, are difficult to cross otherwise, and are often made dangerous by a lack of sidewalks or protection from high-speed car traffic.

In discussion following Fenney’s presentation, Councillor Angela Hicks offered a good example of this: it used to be easy for citizens to get to the Town Hall by foot, but the Town needed to put staff all under one roof at its new offices at 99 Advance Avenue — and there are no sidewalks leading to that location.

Fenney also drew attention to a significant contradiction: children need to learn to become independent and resourceful, but the car-centred environment makes it dangerous for children to go places on their own. This results in parents having to drive them everywhere.

Fenney said that car-centric towns create less opportunity for independence for those who can’t drive. Slide from presentation by A Fenney.

Further, Fenney observed, when people age out of driving safely, they often lose their independence, or they keep driving even though it might no longer be safe to do so.

“Car-centric planning is also bad for the Town’s bottom line,” noted Fenney. “By sprawling outward, each business and residence requires more and more infrastructure to support it,” Fenney explained, noting that automobile travel causes long-term road maintenance obligations — effectively a “money pit for the municipality” — while other modes of travel such as walking and bicycling create far less wear and tear.

“At common Canadian property tax rates, single-family detached homes fail to [generate] enough in taxes to cover their neighbourhood’s long-term maintenance obligations,” he noted.

“Historically, this was less of a problem, but today, real estate is built to a near-finished state. You might be able to finish the basement or add a deck, but intensification of activity is generally not allowed.”

This, he said, “creates a speculative investment environment where people buy houses hoping the market will do the appreciation,” in contrast to a productive investment which increases in value because of enhanced capacity.

This “predicament,” he said, “creates several questions which planners have to ask themselves: how do we ensure that what we build is sustainable over the long term, grows without subjecting neighbourhoods to radical change, and… empowers and enriches our community?” 

Empowering people to build homes and businesses that make sense should be a priority in town planning, Fenney said, explaining that “[when] a wide swath of property owners incrementally build up the intensity of their own investment… changes to neighbourhoods are small and dispersed rather than disruptive, [and] individual creativity and character play a much more significant role” in development.

Further, this “empowers local people to build the wealth of the town rather than relying on large corporate developers who extract a large portion of the wealth from the community. Productive incremental investments include things like basement suites, garden houses, home businesses, and corner cafes,” said Fenney, noting that modest developments pop up where needed, and failed projects do not create a large scar on the landscape.

Small-time developers are also more likely to use local contractors for construction and hire from the neighbourhood to run their business, he said: “A swarm of small developers working incrementally will fill unproductive spaces over time, neighbourhoods will have their own identity and character, filling in with unique and eclectic homes and small businesses. Walkability is encouraged by putting more people within easy walking distance of their amenities.“

“Most of all,” Fenney said, “taxable value per acre will rise as productivity does. More than levying higher taxes on homeowners who occupy the same space, the productive capacity of a property will rise and so its contribution to the municipal purse will rise, as well. The extra tax collected is offset for the owner by the rent or commercial income produced by the development on the property.”

Fenney described the positive impact that businesses run out of homes can have on a neighbourhood. Slide from presentation by A Fenney.

“All of this might sound wonderful but one question remains, How do we realize it?” Fenney posed, before suggesting a few ways the town might begin to look to the future. 

First, he suggested the Town undertake a walking audit, in which councillors and residents take a walk around the neighbourhood and take notes about how easy is it to get around and what obstacles exist. He emphasized that those who cannot drive for various reasons must be part of the audit, such as individuals with mobility difficulties, vision problems, and those of all ages: “Walking must be considered at least equivalently important to the Town as driving, and should be provided with the same level of care, consideration, and investment… [to] ensure that it is safe, convenient, and comfortable.”

Second, he suggested that current Town parking mandates force developers to build parking lots that might not be necessary, thereby ensuring that “a significant portion of our landscape is unproductive.” Developers should be allowed to choose for themselves how much parking they need, said Fenney: “Some quantity of parking is necessary to maintain most but not all businesses… That quantity will vary depending on the location, the nature of the project, and the opportunity…. By abolishing minimum parking mandates, the Town would free property owners to capitalize on their real estate without needing to pave potentially productive space.”

Parking lots that are nearly empty more often than not blot out land that might be put to better use, according to Fenney. An example of this is how the Strathcona Paper Center Arena is bustling on weekends and big game nights, but during weekdays it stands almost entirely empty. The same principle can be applied to many large businesses that lie on the outskirts of Town, whose parking lots only fill on big shopping days. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

A third consideration, Fenney suggested to the Town, is to enable property owners to construct additional living spaces, such as an in-law suite or guest home, on their properties, oft called “accessory dwelling units (ADU).”

He pointed out that, in 2021, the Ford administration passed the More Homes Built Faster Act, which enabled any single-family home in the province to add up to two ADUs, regardless of zoning.

“What stands in its way are regulations like the parking mandates… setback requirements and so on. We should capitalize on this opportunity and encourage additional dwelling units across town,” said Fenney. 

“On top of relaxing regulation, the Town should publish and distribute a ‘how-to guide’ for property owners, which includes instructions on how to go about getting planning permission, and provide a directory of local contracting firms ready to get to work,” he said.

His last recommendation was that the Town consider permitting pedestrian-oriented commerce: “Commercial and residential zones are currently strictly separated in that there are a small number of businesses one can run out of their home, but they prefer office work rather than face-to-face commerce. This should be expanded, allowing people to run a small business out of their garage or set up corner coffee bars in the neighbourhood.”

Fenny said that impact on neighbours should be the determining factor for allowing a business to set up, rather than land use, saying, “There’s a considerable difference between a breakfast and lunch cafe and a nightclub… [but] opening up residential zones to low-impact commerce would encourage walkability.”

“Beyond the strictly financial, local neighbourhood businesses create a sense of identity and character in the neighbourhood. What planners call a ‘third place’ — the first two being your home and your workplace — is a place where people gather to socialize and relax somewhere that ties the community together. Think about neighbourhood pubs in the UK.”

Following his presentation, Hicks praised Fenney.

“Great presentation. I read the package twice. I agree 100 per cent, and this is coming from someone who needs a car to get here,” she said, offering to help with a walking audit, as well as suggesting the involvement of Seniors Outreach Services.

Fenney offered to organize the audit with help from other members of NATA.

Some councillors struggled with the concept of changing parking restrictions; however, Fenney countered by saying younger generations are moving away from using and being dependent on personal automobiles for many reasons.

“There is definitely a movement within my generation seeking more walkable communities and a less car-dependent lifestyle,” he told Council.

As always, the full agenda for the meeting of Napanee Town Council can be viewed on the Town’s CivicWeb platform, and the full meeting can be viewed on the Town of Greater Napanee YouTube channel.

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