Say what you want about the oft-maligned millennials, but they may well be the generation that puts an end to NIMBYism for good.
The “not in my backyard” attitude that has historically hampered development in some of the city’s most desirable neighbourhoods doesn’t sit well with the younger set, according to EN Consulting Group managing partner Edward Nixon, who specializes in public outreach and engagement for a variety of clients including developers, not-for-profits and city agencies. Nixon, who calls himself a “recovering downtowner” who spent the last two decades in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, recently moved to Scarborough’s Birch Cliff area.
One of the trends he says he’s identified in his recent dealings with the under-30s is their acceptance of, even desire for, densification. At its root is the understanding that for a neighbourhood to offer desirable shops and services to its residents — especially the classic Main Street-style establishments we all claim to adore — residents must exist in sufficient numbers to support them.
“People still want to be able to walk to the store and buy milk, or bike there with their kids,” he says. “We don’t want to drive 5 km to get bread. Maybe I want a Starbucks or a cool independent coffee shop, but that’s not going to happen if there aren’t enough people to support it. If I don’t get some development on my street, even if I’m in an area that has ‘village’ shops, there will be three or four vacant.”
Although millennials in particular have embraced online shopping, they also like the convenience of local shops, and they also look to their neighbourhoods for fun and entertainment. “They want to go for a walk instead of driving way the heck out,” he says. “It’s, ‘Let’s stop at the pub.’ It’s about food and beverages, and then if it’s an area with enough traffic, maybe you get a few interesting boutiques. They’re after a lifestyle.”
While that lifestyle is easily enough found in city-centre areas of high density or tourist-friendly out-of-town spots like Port Perry, it’s harder to come by in the near-suburbs. “That doesn’t mean they want 50-storey towers, but it may mean five- or 12-storey condos that will give immediate local density. Millennials get that the retail landscape has changed.”
That’s in contrast to the NIMBYs who objected to, for example, the redevelopment of the Honest Ed’s area, which he says is still opposed by some Palmerston and Annex folk who liked the neighbourhood just the way it was. In the end, though, there was a “significant amount of support” for the Westbank development whose buildings ranges up to nearly 30 storeys.
Many of the historic shops on Markham Street are being restored and will be maintained. Much of the outcome can be attributed to the city’s organization of public meetings and the willingness of the developer to do a lot of outreach of their own, even before they made their application for the site.
Younger residents, Nixon says, are more willing to see beyond their own needs. “At one meeting, there was a serious fight because someone said that a third of the shops between Christie and Bathurst were empty, or close to empty, or not really perhaps what people want in a thriving neighbourhood. The problem is simply not enough residents. The good people of Seaton Village aren’t shopping there, are they? They’re sneaking out in their Beemers to Costco or ordering from Amazon.”
He says that, since not every resident is going to shop at every store, we need about 10 times as many people as we imagine we do to keep such neighbourhoods vibrant with thriving businesses.
“Even a fifth grader can see that if you have enough people, some will shop locally. For anyone who enjoys a traditional neighbourhood plaza or a small town-style Main Street strip, we need density, density, density in the immediate vicinity,” he says.
In increasingly urbanized neighbourhoods outside the city, like Mississauga’s Square One, he says residents are becoming more accepting of high-rises too. “There’s an emergence of under-35s, under-40s, who are saying, ‘We’re more concerned about a good school, a good daycare, a mix of towns and condos’.”
But, he says, it will never work as a 21st-century downtown until the acres of parking lot are gone, replaced by buildings and a whole lot of underground parking. “Grade-level parking may have its uses, but you can’t pull off urbanization unless you get rid of the parking lots. Land values are persuasive, though — developers are figuring it out.”
The acceptance of density is a realization he hopes to soon see spread further afield, he says, mentioning Whitby as an example. “The downtown is struggling. If you put 10 times more people there, it’s going to thrive,” he says. “It’s not going to compete with Ikea, but it could thrive with a BIA that markets it to potential businesses.”
To paraphrase the great line from Field of Dreams, if you come, they will build it.