Monday, 12 December 2011

Doughnut-Hole Planning and Tax Revolts; or, If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Peterborough has been a model of regular, sustainable growth ever since its incorporation as a city in 1905, just two years before the cornerstone of the current PCVS building was laid. At that time, the former village of Ashburham, known as “East City,” became part of Peterborough, and the system of five wards, representing the north, south, east, west and central areas of the city, was established. Today these are known as Northcrest, Otonabee, Ashburnham, Monaghan and Town wards.

Back then, PCVS was the only secondary school in the city. In 1952, Kenner CVI was built to serve the expanding south end, named after PCVS graduate Hugh Kenner, who had become a notable English professor in the U.S. In 1960, Adam Scott was built in the north end, and as the baby boom children began reaching their teenage years, Crestwood and TASSS were added to the fleet in 1963 and 1967 to serve not only the city’s west and east ends, but also the outlying rural areas and smaller towns.

When the Peterborough city and county school boards merged in 1969, all five high schools were in place and the population of the city was about 50,000 – about 10,000 in each ward.

Forty-two years later, the city’s population is about 75,000 – an average of about 15,000 in each ward. This growth rate is equal to about 1% per year - an eminently manageable rate if there ever was one. The pattern of population growth has been reasonably uniform across the five wards, with Monaghan Ward, now home to over 17,000 citizens, the area which has experienced the most growth. You’d be hard-pressed to find another city in Ontario which has shown a more predictable, steady, and evenly-distributed pattern of growth.

Prior to the 2010 Municipal Election, the City of Peterborough undertook a study to determine whether any changes were needed to the ward boundaries. After studying ten different options, including proposals to reduce the number of wards from five to four, City Clerk Nancy Wright-Laking concluded that the best system was the one already in place. You can read her report here. Wright-Laking wrote that, in addition to the aim of keeping ward populations relatively equal at least ten years into the future, her review team took into account the natural boundaries of the Otonabee River and major thoroughfares (such as Parkhill, Lansdowne, and Monaghan Road) and the distinct characters of the city’s neighbourhoods. No matter how they tried shuffling the boundaries, none of the possible configurations did any better job than the one we’ve been using. If it ain’t broke, the clerk and city council sensibly concluded, don’t fix it.

While the City of Peterborough was reaching this conclusion, the brilliant minds at KPR were thinking otherwise. Having decided to invest huge sums of public money into technology, board managers needed to find ways to economize. The first idea they ran with was the Accommodation Review designed to force one of the city’s five secondary schools to shut down on the premise that fewer schools with more students each would be able to offer more course options.

The ARC, as documented in detail in a series of posts on this blog in November, didn’t have much of an opportunity to look at any aspect of Peterborough’s secondary school network. They weren’t instructed to examine Peterborough’s neighbourhoods, history, or natural boundaries. They weren’t given the City Clerk’s report on ward boundaries as a reference. They weren’t given population projections ten years into the future. They weren’t given any of the tools needed to do the job, in fact, and the sense that the committee members collectively had that something wasn’t right was reflected in their recommendation that a school be closed only as a last resort. Rusty Hick, however, whose personal and professional history is not in Peterborough but in York Region, ignored the group’s sole substantial recommendation, and attempted to charge ahead with a plan to close the last remaining school in Town Ward.

KPR’s complete and utter disregard of the urban geography of Peterborough is most clearly evident from this simple map, showing the empty space at the city's center where PCVS should be.

According to Canada Post letter-carrier maps, fully one-half of Peterborough residences fall within easy walking distance of PCVS, roughly represented by the elliptical area in the center. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the city has in fact grown up around the civic center of which PCVS is a part. In contrast, TASSS and Crestwood were intentionally built on the city’s fringes to accommodate buses bringing students from outside town, and even Adam Scott and Kenner are located closer to the city’s edges than to its core. Note also that TASSS is located less than 1 km from Adam Scott.

The kind of “doughnut-hole” approach to planning in which KPR is indulging is exactly what progressive urban designers and conscientious city staff across North America have been trying to avoid in the past twenty years, learning from the negative examples of decaying industrial towns in southern Ontario and the American midwest.

The Province of Ontario’s policy on development has emphasized the need to limit urban sprawl and increase population density in existing built-up areas. Peterborough’s city planners and councillors have made a concerted effort to encourage re-development of properties in the city’s core - including the former King Edward and Central elementary schools and former school board offices (the latter two facilities now residential apartments, with the old King Eddie site now home to the new YMCA). The express aim of the province and the city is to increase the population density of Peterborough’s downtown area by 50% over the next twenty years.

If KPR isn’t going to provide any full-service schools to Town Ward, why should Town Ward property owners share any of their tax dollars with KPR? What’s to stop Town Ward property owners from simply checking off a different box on their property tax form?

Answer: nothing.

How would the all-knowing KPR number-crunchers feel if Town Ward property-owners suddenly felt like directing their millions of tax dollars to the French Public school system instead of KPR, or the Catholic board, or even the French Catholic board?

Maybe then they’d see the effect of their doughnut-hole planning as they bite into their budgets to find an empty space where the money should be.

Not all new development will be confied to the city’s core, however, as some degree of suburban expansion is inevitable. The area most likely to be next to be built up is the city’s northwest. New subdivisions are already in progress just north of Highland Heights Public School and in the Ravenswood area off Parkhill West. The city has designated the areas around Jackson Creek, much of which is currently outside existing city limits, for development. West of Fairbairn is the Lily Lake Planning Area, while west of Ravenwood is the Jackson Planning Area. On November 7, just five weeks after KPR Trustees voted to shut down PCVS, Peterborough City councillors authorized a $3.5 million upgrade to the pumping station at 1100 Parkhill Road west in anticipation of future residential development in these areas. You can read the utility services report here.

It's obvious that KPR strategists have “no clue” as to the urban evolution of Peterborough, past or future. Instead of acting as if the City of Peterborough exists only to collect property-tax revenues to feed KPR’s budget, the suits at Fisher Drive might consider dropping by City Hall one day, picking up a wall-map, and having a chat with some city planners, or even the Mayor.

Such a visit might even afford them a chance to say hello to PCVS, the "Mother Tree" of Peterborough’s healthy secondary school orchard, to which they are so anxious to put their axes.


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