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A city beyond sprawl: Oakville applies new urbanism to old heritage

Like an eerie forecast of modern woes, it was traffic that spurred the rise and fall of Palermo Village. But after a long decline that's seen heritage eroded and land left idle, the area is slated for redevelopment, as council and planning staff apply the principles of new urbanism to Oakville's oldest township.

"It's very unique," says Ita Waghray, the project's lead planner. "I can't think of any other place to compare to in terms of what we're trying to do. We'd like to regenerate it mindful of the heritage background, and we have some growth targets to meet. We want to see compact urban growth there and we have some big challenges."

Palermo's history dates back 200 years, two decades before the ports of Oakville and Bronte were in operation. The village was clustered around Dundas Street West and Bronte Road, an arterial intersection for east-west traffic travelling between Toronto and western Ontario, as well as north-south traffic moving between Bronte to Milton. Come the 1870s, it was a charcoal supply link for factories in Hamilton. By 1920, the village boasted 30 houses, a community hall, school, foundry, sawmill, church, cemetery, and two corner stores. Wolves, bears, and deer roamed the surrounding wilderness.

But, in one of history's ironic twists, Palermo was besieged by its own advantages, and it began to crumble in the 40s. The Province wanted to speed up Bronte and Dundas, and construction consumed stores and homes were relocated. Meanwhile, fire destroyed the foundry. The Bronte Bypass was built to make traffic even more efficient, and the trend continued right into the new millennium, with a recent realignment of Dundas Street West causing further disturbance. The current population is about 100 people, and much of the land is bare and unused, with the village's name visible only on a church and above the entrance of a pub.

"It has a lot of history," Waghray says.

Its future is an articulation of Ontario's 2005 Places to Grow initiative. That plan calls on municipalities to develop high density urban growth centres, and Oakville responded by drafting new planning documents. Liveable Oakville will shape -- and reshape -- lands south of Dundas, while North Oakville deals with lands north of Dundas. Developers have appealed aspects of both plans, so they're not yet in official use, but Waghray notes the town's legal team has settled amicably on many fronts and expects to continue in that vein. 

Palermo Village straddles both zones. The documents call for mixed use buildings with commercial at grade and office, institutional, or residential above. Street corner buildings can rise to 10 storeys, while others hit a ceiling of eight. The plan is to have 700 to 1,000 people in the northern part of the village, with an additional 5,200 in the south. Employment opportunities are gauged at over 3,000 jobs.

"Mixed use is the real push here," Waghray says. "I think the greatest resistance will be to no drive-thrus, very limited car-related uses, no gas stations, no auto-body shops. We limit surface parking, and surface parking is relatively cheap compared to structure or underground parking. But we do allow greater heights, and that's where the economics might work out."

It's a big change, not only for an area that was once defined by traffic, but also for a town in which the car is king. Residents have already told staff that they want to reclaim Dundas with a crosswalk. In addition to its live, work, and play parameters, Palermo is also imagined as a transit hub, a strategy that clicks into North Oakville's transit plan (PDF). There are a lot of ideas put forward in those pages, including building capacity ahead of ridership, requiring developers to fill the gaps between projected and actual revenues, and bunching transit passes with home ownership.

"We heard from the community what their priorities were," Waghray adds, "from transit, to having jobs locally available, to having a natural environment that was acceptable to them."

Meanwhile, the high-density, pro-pedestrian values of new urbanism have to take root without damaging the area's remaining heritage. There are three properties designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, five listed in the town's registry, and seven that have yet to be listed, and that's just around the core.

"You have remnants of a historical community, and some of it has been lost," Waghray says. "We can try to apply all the theories we see elsewhere, but really this is a very unique case."

Waghray, who has been a planner for five years, two of which she spent researching at the Canadian Urban Institute, credits the province for driving developments like Palermo Village.

"I think because of the provincial growth plan, all the municipalities have had a deadline to meet and have had goals to reach based on Places to Grow," she says. "Before, they were just ideas. But this plan really pushed everyone forward."

Paul Carlucci is a freelance writer working in the GTA.

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