Counteracting the dispersion of activities

The future success of UGCs depends on the multi-functionality of their core areas. If appropriately designed, these cores will promote public transit use and walking, and provide an activity-rich, stimulating environment, conducive to nearby high-density residential development. Nodes have been largely successful in attracting office space, civic functions, retailing, and housing. The three suburban nodes investigated in this report contain important concentrations of activities belonging to these four categories. However, high-rise condominium development has driven most of their recent growth. There has been virtually no increase in retail space and in two nodes (Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre), office growth has been stalled for 15 years.

Increasingly, attempts at concentrating retailing and office space within nodes run counter to metropolitan-wide location trends. Rather than clustering in large regional malls, such as those that constitute the nuclei of Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre, retailing now favours big-box configurations. Whereas malls assemble a large array of stores and services within a pedestrian environment, and can favour connections with other types of nearby activities (although this has only been partly achieved in suburban nodes), big-box stores are self-contained and discourage pedestrian-based interaction with other stores or categories of activities. The problem facing planned UGCs is that the form of retailing that has become most popular is unsuited, at least in its present automobile-oriented design, to a nodal location, and thus to the mixed-use cores of UGCs. Although there is always the option of concentrating on goods and services that are not offered in big-box stores, such a strategy increasingly entails relinquishing mass market retailing.

Office location trends are perhaps even more unfavourable to nodal development. Two tendencies account for the difficulties nodes face in their attempts to lure office space. The first is a notable deceleration since 1990 in the rate of office development in the Greater Toronto Area. The second is the predilection of office developers and tenants for dispersed suburban locales, especially business parks, which offer easy access to expressways and abundant surface parking. Interest in dispersed suburban locations is also a function of the price of suburban land compared to that in downtown Toronto and mature nodes, as well as higher property and business taxes in the City of Toronto than in surrounding suburbs. Other factors include proximity to the outer suburban labour force and the availability of land for future expansion.

These trends threaten existing and future nodes. If the presence in Scarborough Town Centre and Mississauga City Centre of large regional malls softens the impact of the shift towards big-box store development, limited office development within these nodes challenges their status as major destinations. The lack of new office space also has an adverse effect on other functions by reducing the number of office workers who might patronize local retail and service establishments, and reducing possibilities for residents living in a node to walk to nearby employment.

As harmful as these trends are to existing nodes, their impact will be felt far more by projected UGCs. Unlike mature nodes, which have inherited an office employment base from an earlier stage of development, new UGCs will need to create clusters of office jobs from scratch in a climate that is unfavourable to concentrations of such employment. Furthermore, current retail and office development patterns run counter to the objectives of UGCs at the heart of the Places to Grow strategy: that is, to encourage public transit use and thereby reduce dependence on the automobile, and to limit the amount of land consumed by urban development. We are in the presence of a yawning gap between the prevailing retail and office location reality and planning goals.

Until now, efforts to attain metropolitan-scale planning objectives relied largely on incentives. Nodal development, itself a key instrument of metropolitan planning strategies, rested on an array of inducements. Nodes were provided with exceptional public transit (at least relative to that in the surrounding municipality in the case of Mississauga City Centre) and access to expressways, accommodating zoning regulations, and elaborately designed public spaces. These features were expected to attract the different land uses needed to create multi-use nodes, and in the early years, they succeeded. They continue to have a positive effect on high-rise condominium development.

To reverse the tendency towards office dispersion, however, it may be necessary to rely on more coercive measures, since the current incentives are clearly unable to bridge the gap between planning objectives and prevailing development patterns. One such measure could take the form of strict zoning regulations that compel office buildings to locate in places well served by transit, including nodes and corridors. Offices, which can be built at different levels of density, are well suited to these types of locations. The Places to Grow plan contains a policy whereby: "Major offices and appropriate major institutional development should be located in urban growth centres, major transit station areas, or areas with existing frequent transit service, or existing or planned higher order transit service" (Ontario, 2006a: 18). It is important to recognize the difficulties inherent in the application of such regulations. The preference of firms for suburban business parks is a function of lower taxes (an incentive that can be corrected) and of lower development costs, but also of a yearning for security-intensive environments in order to limit access and safeguard trade secrets.

The situation regarding big-box stores is more problematic, because they present less locational flexibility due to their high consumption of land. Their large surfaces and extensive parking lots appear to confine them to suburban locales. But some versions of such retailing formulas are adapted to more dense urban environments, with multi-storey structures and underground parking. Thus configured, big-box stores could be inserted in public transit and density corridors as well as in the cores of UGCs.