With developments planned on the very last piece of untouched land available in Mississauga, the city’s decades-long era of sprawl is definitively over.
The city was once a bedroom community of Toronto so synonymous with suburbia that its long-time mayor was known as the Queen of Sprawl. That mayor, the since-retired Hazel McCallion, eventually recognized her city couldn’t expand forever and started a push for intensification.
However, even as Mississauga started building up, it continued to build out. Sprawl is also being embraced enthusiastically still by city leaders across Southern Ontario. And as provincial politicians at Queen’s Park push for the expansion of many municipal boundaries, in the name of helping home affordability, observers warn that Mississauga’s experience should be a red flag.
Even political leaders and top staff in Mississauga, while careful to note that their predecessors made decisions in a different and more car-oriented era, talk about the need to fix the expensive mistakes of the past.
“Growth should pay for growth, but ultimately, growth doesn’t pay for growth,” said Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who took office in 2014. “That’s why you see the mayors today looking for new forms of federalism and more long-term sustainable funding and more control over our revenue sources.”
The city has also been trying to change gears by building up its downtown and adding clusters of major development elsewhere. Lot sizes for houses have shrunk in recent decades, making them cheaper to service than the older homes, and the number of apartments has crept up to about one-quarter of the city’s total dwelling units.
But none of this erases the financial hangover from decades of gung-ho suburban expansion.
“There is a cautionary tale [here], that you’ve got to be very careful that you don’t create an inefficient urban form and simply defer the responsibilities or the day of reckoning to your children,” said Tom Urbaniak, a Cape Breton University professor of political science and author of Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of Mississauga.
“The infrastructure [in newly developed areas] that was put in place in a pretty compressed timeframe is coming due for repair and renewal in a pretty compressed time frame, without the waterfall of development charges accompanying it.”
With diminishing prospects for more sprawl – and the associated fees it generated – Mississauga in 2012 instituted a special levy to try to pay down the snowballing bill for infrastructure repairs. Property taxes also started to rise dramatically in the same decade.
Mississauga chief financial officer Shari Lichterman noted that the city remains in sound financial shape, with a triple-A credit rating. She also pointed out that some of the current fiscal pressures are owing to other levels of government shifting responsibilities onto cities, and increased municipal costs such as arbitration, not simply the development decisions of the sprawl era.
“I don’t want to speak too much for the folks that were making decisions back then,” she said. “You know, we weren’t the only city that didn’t quite put enough money away for the future during that time period.”
The basic approach to building out Mississauga was to generate development fees by opening up farmland. This had the twin political benefits of putting growth in places where it didn’t offend existing homeowners, while raising money that could be spread across the city.
But the math never really added up, in part because it costs more to provide many municipal services in less dense areas. Also, once the new infrastructure was built, it became the city’s responsibility to maintain and repair. So new developments were approved, raising more money.
That approach is known in planning circles as “the sprawl Ponzi scheme,” said Ray Tomalty, founder and principal of the consultancy Smart Cities Research Services.
“You need your development in order to pay for the bad decisions that you made previously to allow the city to keep sprawling out and incurring commitments to more and more extensive infrastructure to support that sprawl. … And when the party, you know, when the music stopped and everybody had to grab a chair, there weren’t enough to go around.”
The dying notes of Mississauga’s party can be heard faintly along a stretch of 9th Line, on the city’s western side. This is effectively its final frontier.
If ancient cities accreted vertically, piling layer upon layer for future archeologists to uncover, modern sprawl cities display their strata at the edge. Go north of Eglinton Avenue on 9th Line in Mississauga and one side of the road is cheek-by-jowl subdivisions with names such as Bridlegate and Avonlea on the Pond. The other side is dominated by patches of scraggly forest, scattered older homes and a slew of development notices.
“Imagine living right here,” reads one sign, surrounded by heavy equipment and expanses of mud, the drone of Highway 407 audible in the distance.
Although these sites are not obviously attractive now, they will soon undergo the metamorphosis that gobbled up thousands of greenfield acres in Mississauga. They will be the last to do so.
From now on, all development must be either intensification – increasing the number of residences on any given site – or converting former industrial lands for housing. And even on 9th Line, the development will be more dense than some of Mississauga’s earlier neighbourhoods, with plans for townhomes and some modest apartment buildings.
That nod towards density is a trend that has been super-charged in other parts of the city. The area around Square One, the downtown mall, is a thickening forest of tall towers, with dozens more planned.
Thousands of people now live in close proximity, although what is missing are obvious signs of a community. Other than the mall, there are few amenities. Fast-flowing traffic on wide and long blocks suggests pedestrian needs have been overlooked. Park space is modest.
More recent development plans are trying to avoid these mistakes.
If the spot along 9th Line is the last gasp of Mississauga’s past, developers of a site on the lake are trying to turn a different historic chapter into something modern.
On the site of the former Lakeview generating station, where four enormous smokestacks were razed in 2006, developers are trying to build a mixed-use neighbourhood that could one day be home to about 8,000 residents and 9,000 jobs.
“We’ve got to create a real place here,” said Brian Sutherland, Argo Development Corp. vice-president and development lead for the project.
On a windswept December day, he painted a picture of a vibrant community rising from the mud. The plan calls for walking routes, shops, waterfront amenities, and decent transit access. Even a town square.
It’s the antithesis of suburban sprawl.
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