Sustainability vs. Consumerism

CHARLOTTETOWN – I had a nasty case of déjà vu last week when the City of Charlottetown announced that another Big Box development was coming to town.  PlazaCorp is already responsible for 300,000 square feet of strip malls in Charlottetown, complete with their upfront parking lagoons, but this new development ratchets the insult and degradation of Charlottetown to a completely new level.

The threatened site, which can be seen embedded in this Guardian article, sits just north of the Charlottetown Mall, south of the Arterial Road, west of University and east of Mount Edward Road.  A review of the map provided by the Guardian shows heavily sloped land and a watershed on this property which, from an environmental perspective, set off alarm bells in my head.  Currently being used as farmland, PlazaCorp is proposing turning a juxtaposed agrarian landscape into yet another cookie-cutter Big Box asphalt lagoon.

Perhaps those alarm bells are why council has decided to refer the issue to public consultation, a process that is likely to divide the city into the “we want more shopping” and “local is better” camps so typical of this age of transformation.  Ironically, this battle is patterned after a debate that is still taking place in my hometown of Windsor, Ontario.  In spite of starting the discussion more than two years ago when Jenny Coco, fittingly a local paving company magnate, wanted to build a development next to federally protected prairies, the development on the border of Windsor and Lasalle has not broken ground.  Back then I was writing for a local blog and advocacy group, Scaledown.ca, where our thoughts, failures, and rants are still lurking online.  Even the Ontario Municipal Board, the final authority on all things development in Ontario, has pushed back on the CocoBox complex (as we so lovingly dubbed it) in recent weeks.

But what if this new Charlottetown development was built to LEED Platinum standards, complete with 100% renewable energy, free recharging stations for electric cars, and a green roof growing produce for the local soup kitchen, would there still be opposition?

That is a tough question, as raising the bar on building standards, a trend started by the Jean Canfield Building amoung others, would be very tempting, however this is not just an environmental debate.  The reality is that big box retailers, the current Island offerings included, are damaging more than just our physical environment, they are degrading our economic and social environment as well.  When I made a presentation to Windsor’s City Council two years ago against the CocoBox proposal, the facts and figures fell on deaf ears, well before the global economic crises destroyed our fragile fiscal stability (see the full PowerPoint presentation via Google Docs).

The fact is Charlottetown can’t afford another big box development.  Oh sure, there will be a short-term upswing in building activity and jobs as a result, but history (and history in a far more prosperous economic era I might add) has shown that these effects are short lived and often disguise the net negative effects on a community.  Countless cities before us have tried to build big and failed, having gutted their local business community, and associated tax base, in the process.

All of these objections could be considered the same old song and dance from “an opponent to development”, as some have incorrectly labeled me in the past, if it weren’t for the city’s recent investment in an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan.  My question to city council is how, in light of all the recommendations, commitments, and pledges made in the draft ICSP, did the city decide that another big box development would allow us “to strategically align ourselves to develop a more sustainable, healthy future”?  My bet is that council didn’t decide, but instead is letting the public decide whether or not this development, after being help up to ICSP scrutiny, ever sees the light of day.

I expect that a review of the cold hard facts about big box development, and its impact on the social, environmental, economic and cultural sustainability (all pillars of the ICSP) will allow reason to prevail and council to ultimately reject this new blight on our landscape.

photo by Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association

5 comments

  1. It was my Katimavik stint in Summerside that first turned me towards urban planning, as I watched the downtown die with the new big box stores built just outside town destroying it. It is sad to see that PEI hasn’t changed in the six years since I was there.

  2. Corey, I wouldn’t say that nothing has changed. In the past 6 years there has been a steady influx of people ‘from away’ who have come to PEI expecting both a prosperous lifestyle (that is, jobs and opportunities) as well as a environment that is at least somewhat reminiscent of the travel brochures. That immigration has been, at least in my observation, white collar professionals who, while they may occasionally pine for the consumer options of a larger city, recognize the importance of a local, sustainable city in the overall ambiance of the Charlottetown cityscape.

    I believe that there are enough dissidents, if you want to call us that, who oppose the blind creation of more shopping plazas and big box developments that, at the very least, council will get an earful when it comes time to try and approve something like this. The opposition is not just a bunch of long-haired hippy people either, but eloquent, articulate and concise professionals that are able to address the idea in an intelligent and civilized manner.

    Yes, PEI has changed, but just not in the ways that most people expected that it would.

  3. I guess I should clarify that long-haired hippy people can also be eloquent, articulate and concise before I get jumped on. (Some may even suggest that they have been the more eloquent, articulate and concise, and for longer, but were dismissed due to some misdirected prejudice against long-haired environmentalists!) The opposition to mindless change is now becoming a united front from former opponents, or at least divergent social circles. Sustainability is something that everyone understands, regardless of their social leanings.

  4. Glad to see the fire is still in your belly, Josh. Yeah – we could still use you and your power-point-prowess back home in Ontario.

    We’re fighting the developers in our Official Plan Review as well as with a newly drafted development charges by-law which will give a break for infill and brownfield development at the expense of greenfield development. We’re getting a ton of resistance on this one, so the issue is far from dead. Fight the good fight for the folks in PEI!

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