THE CAR DOWNTOWN

Planners have stopped trying to abolish cars. Instead, they’re building Superblocks—indoor villages designed for cars and people

NICHOLAS STEED September 1 1967

THE CAR DOWNTOWN

Planners have stopped trying to abolish cars. Instead, they’re building Superblocks—indoor villages designed for cars and people

NICHOLAS STEED September 1 1967

THE CAR DOWNTOWN

Planners have stopped trying to abolish cars. Instead, they’re building Superblocks—indoor villages designed for cars and people

NICHOLAS STEED

FOR YEARS THE “experts” have been telling us we're crazy to drive our cars downtown. The story is pretty familiar by now: how we'd all be better off if everyone used public transit, how there'd be an end to costly superhighways, traffic jams, fumes and frayed nerves. Well, if you’re like Michael Recknell, a 32-year-old marketing representative who drives 13 miles daily into Vancouver from suburban Horseshoe Bay, you're in for some refreshing news. It’s this: the planners have realized at last that most of us who drive downtown are going to continue stubbornly doing it whether we have to or not. The planners have finally accepted the central fact that we've got to learn to live with the car in the city’s downtown core, and they’re coming up with some exciting new ways to do it. Says Michael Recknell, “All this talk about using public transit never did make sense to me. The bus takes me over an hour — and anyway, I need my car for my job.” For thousands who find their predicament similar to Recknell's, what's happening today adds up to the motorists’ best break since superhighways.

Architect Gerald Robinson, left, with model of Peterborough’s Superblock and, in the background, the downtown site as it is today. Old Market Hall, to the left of the super-elliptical parking garage, will be kept in the new plan. Superblock’s object: to enable people to drive with ease to the downtown area — and to enjoy walking around once there.

Cutaway view of Montreal’s new Place Bonaventure-Canada Trade Centre shows how Superblock makes room for both cars and people — on separate levels. Within its 17 stories are a hotel, offices, shops, exhibition space, parking for 1,500 cars. In basement: truck and train terminals. Planners say it’s best way of coping with cars downtown.

Toronto has been a good example of this old anti-car mentality. It was the first Canadian city to get a subway. The anti-car people worked themselves up into an almost hysterical lather over motorists who persisted in driving. The city planning board fumed against further highways in a 1960 report: “Toronto may become another megalopolitan chaos, an asphalt jungle.” The Toronto Star hammered away with such headlines as: “STREETS ARE FOR PEOPLE, NOT JUST CARS.” And a budding young politician named Philip Givens, later to become mayor, demanded that downtown Bay Street be turned into a pedestrian mall. “Let’s get the traffic off the streets,” said Givens, “and give the pedestrians a chance.” He didn't say where he’d put the traffic; like everyone else, he was expecting that the new subway would take care of everybody.

It’s now clear that he was wrong: subways and buses cannot carry even the majority of people into downtown areas. Metro Toronto Traffic Commissioner Sam Cass says, “Everything’s been tried to get the motorist out of his

car. New York’s had parking tickets up to $35; London. England, has simply banned parking over a large area of the city. Nothing works— the motorists come anyway.”

One reason they do, says Cass, is because they have to. There simply isn’t any suitable public transit from where most of them are living. Statistics prove it. Toronto's population has doubled since 1946. but the number of people entering the downtown area has remained the same — about 650.000 a day. Yet the percentage of those entering the city's core by public transit has steadily declined: in 1946. 74 percent entered by transit; today it's only about 50 percent.

The reason is that Toronto, like every other major Canadian city, is becoming more and more decentralized. More people live in the suburbs. Yet it would be astronomically expensive to provide efficient, low-cost transit service to the metropolis’s outer corners. What’s more, surveys in both Canada and the U. S. have shown that not more than 10 percent of motorists driving downtown would give up driving even if transit were free. The reason: there simply isn't any transit where they live.

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The first large-scale result of the planners' belated recognition that motorists have to drive downtown is something called the Superblock.

Superblock will offer a vast, new-style city within a city

Because of Superblock, tomorrow’s downtown — in some places it's already today's — will be warm, human places. 1 he grey, gloomy canyons and slowly decaying commercial areas of our old downtowns will slowly come alive: the soul-searing sterility of nine-to-five city cores will give way to 24-hour-a-day use and life. In many cases, the Superblock is geared directly to the automobile. Cars and trucks will be able to drive right up to it—or even right through it. Ample parking will be featured. Transit facilities will exist, too, but not to the exclusion of those of us who have to drive.

The concept is simple. You take a multi-block downtown area and build a giant, integrated structure containing a variety of services and facilities.

Roads and public transit — surface or underground—are built into it. Often, it’ll be a whole city within a city. Highways will flash through it: parking space, apartments, offices, shops and boutiques — everything necessary for life will be built into the one structure. 1 he very fact of its massive existence provides a dramatic focus for outward-spreading downtown rejuvenation. Some type of Superblock already is, or soon will be, at the heart of every one of the massive downtown redevelopments that are reshaping our cities.

A striking example is Montreal’s Place Bonaventure - Canada Trade Centre Building. The equivalent of 17 stories, it covers six acres of downtown Montreal. At the top there’s a 401-room luxury hotel amid a threeacre roof garden. Beneath an expansive international trade centre are two stories of office space, then a millionsquare-foot merchandise mart. At the bottom is a retail shopping promenade with more than 100 stores, a 620-seat cinema and parking for 1,500 cars. Underground there’s a full-size railroad station, complete with facilities for loading and unloading trucks. The building typifies Superblock in that it's a complete range of facilities and transport terminals all within a single structure.

In Toronto there's the giant downtown Toronto-Dominion Centre. Although not a true Superblock in the sense of Place Bonaventure, it has some of Superblock's characteristics: it covers a large central-core area, much of it to be decorativcly landscaped, and will offer a variety of services including shops and restaurants.

In Winnipeg, plans are now far advanced for a $3()-million, 30-story downtown centre, featuring a hotel, office complex, theatre and shopping mall. Studies are underway to find out if it's possible to construct a related, massive underground concourse at Portage and Main. Says Bernie Wolfe, vice-chairman of Metro Winnipeg's transit committee, “We'll make the whole place full of excitement, music and lights.”

And Superblock isn't going to be found only in Canada’s largest cities. Peterborough, Ont., a city of scarcely 55,000, is building one of the most exciting developments in North America. Featuring a super-ellipse, a precise mathematical compromise between a circle and a square, Peterborough's eight-million-dollar Market Square project will likely be a model for smaller cities across Canada.

Architect Gerald Robinson, who. with Victor Heinrichs, designed it. says, "If a small conservative city such as Peterborough can do it, everyone can.”

The Peterborough project nicely illustrates how a Superblock can halt the decay of an old downtown area — and at the same time speed up traffic and transit. Vehicles will Give straight through the building; b'J.yes will have a special lane for stops ins it. The super-ellipse is, in fact, a 6J0car parking garage; underneath it will be pedestrian walkways and a shopping concourse. The old Market Hal1 dating from 1889, is retained in Superblock. “It introduces a bit of old Peterborough into the new concept," says Robinson. “It shows that it's possible for the new to merge with the old.'1

Robinson sees strings of regional Superblocks dotting the countryside as focal points in the small cities surrounding the sprawling super-cities of tomorrow. “Many small communities.” he says, "have a potential for growth, and often it's just something physical, such as a deteriorating downtown, that's standing in the way. This sort of development can bring new' life into a community. Its sheer physical volume makes you think emotionally of downtown.”

Donovan Pinker, an urban planner who worked with Robinson on the project, sees the dowmtowm Superblock as a commercial response to the development of giant suburban shopping centres. "But the tide s turning now,” he says. "Some plazas are now so big you have to walk a quarter ot a mile to get from the parking lot. Downtown businessmen are lighting back — you can sell them on anything once they see the potential of it."

Planners in large cities see the Superblock as the logical result of the belated realization of the transit devotees that cars are here to stay. Sam Cass, Metro Toronto’s traffic commissioner, says, "It was perfectly logical to take an anti-car position when all commerce was centralized in one downtown area. It would be a waste of precious downtown space to provide sufficient parking. But the fact today is that all major cities are becoming decentralized. The real growth is in the suburbs.”

This means, says Cass, that we've got to have good inter-connecting highways systems — rapid transit to the outer suburbs just isn't economic.

This doesn't mean that public transit is doomed. “There's an important role for it wdthin the central-city area,” says Cass. "But what w'e've got to get away from is the idea that it's the solution to the whole urban-transport problem.”

Although this “balanced” concept of urban transportation—rapid transit in the city centre plus highways and

provision for cars downtown — is obviously the ideal solution, many authorities still persist in believing some cure-all for mass transit can be found. Senator Abraham Ribicoff, a U.S. transportation critic, told an urban-transportation conference in Pittsburgh recently that funds must be made available for research into mass transit. He said motorists cling to their cars as a pathetic, last-ditch attempt to hold onto a little individuality in the computer age. But he said new

ways must be found to get people out of their cars and into subways and new forms of high-speed mass transit: commuter trains, monorails or improved types of buses.

It's all familiar stuff. But the fact is that there are 7.035.850 cars and trucks in Canada today (and Toronto's motor-vehicle population of 675,000 alone is expected to almost double by 1980). Transit or no transit, the cars are going to be there and thev'il be driven.

"It's an old story," says urban planner Donovan Pinker. "It goes all the way back to Julius Caesar, who banned chariots from certain areas of central Rome. Even Caesar found that didn't work for long. We're just beginning to realize the same thing. We’ve got to live with cars, and we might as well try and adapt things as well as possible to this fact. 1 hat's what we're trying to do at last with developments such as the Peterborough Superblock.” ★