Where we work vs. Where we live

There is a district in Chicago called Goose Island which in the late 19th century was nicknamed “Little Hell” because of the smoke produced by Peoples Gas, Light & Coke Co. It is now a heavy and light industrial mecca that houses everything from a fully functioning brewery to a digital manufacturing facility. Further north in Milwaukee, Wis., Menomonee Valley, first created in the late 1990s as a dedicated industrial land zone, has been so successful that plans are underway for an aggressive expansion of the entire area. In British Columbia, the District of Squamish now has in place an Employment Lands Strategy, which the municipality says will allow it to meet a range of potential future needs through 2031. As part of a study conducted in 2014 by Vancouver-based urban planning and design firm EcoPlan International Inc., baseline demand for employment lands was forecast using population and employment projections. All three are part of a minority among municipalities, for when it comes to the age-old debate of employment lands versus mixed use-development the latter, more often than not, wins out.

In a recent white paper on the topic, Andrew Spencer, who teaches urban planning and design at the University of Melbourne in Australia, wrote that “contemporary planning approaches — in contrast to the zoning practices of the mid-20th century — encourage the co-location of employment and housing in centres. Whilst these activities are compatible from an operational point of view, from an economic point of view, there are tensions. “In the current economic climate where demand for housing is high, residential development will generally outbid commercial development in locations where both land uses are permissible.”

John Ingram, principal and senior planner with EcoPlan, who was involved in the Squamish review process, is more than familiar with the dilemmas that can be created. “I work in the Gastown/Railtown area of Vancouver, which sits right next to the Port of Vancouver and was historically an industry and warehousing area,” he says. “Over the years, those businesses have been replaced in Gastown and are on the verge of disappearing in Railtown, where they have been supplanted by newer retail industrial operations like microbreweries, urban wineries, showrooms and offices.

“Residential buildings have replaced other manufacturing sites along Hastings Street, although in one case, they are going to carve out some workshop spaces on a below grade alley space, which is great, but doesn’t fully replace the more flexible and likely less expensive spaces that were lost.”

Dr. Christopher De Sousa, professor and director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University, focuses on brownfield redevelopment, urban environmental management, parks planning and sustainability reporting in Canada and the United States. Prior to joining Ryerson five years ago, he was the chair of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and as such is intimately familiar with both Goose Island and Menomonee Valley. Having taught in both countries, he points out there are distinct differences between the two nations when it comes to brownfield redevelopment. U.S. planning, says De Sousa, “has more of an economic development focus, while in Canada the focus is more on liveability and quality of place.

The District of Squamish developed an Employment Lands Strategy to help ensure that sufficient employment lands are available to meet a range of potential future needs through 2031. Image courtesy of: TKTKTK / Menomonee Valley / District of Squamish
The District of Squamish developed an Employment Lands Strategy to help ensure that sufficient employment lands are available to meet a range of potential future needs through 2031. Image courtesy of: TKTKTK / Menomonee Valley / District of Squamish

“Here we have more of a white collar mentality and we are less keen on celebrating the blue collar. Creating a community of blue collar work is not a bad thing. It provides a lot of living wage work for people who may not have the inclination or educational ability to work in an office all day.

The reality is that a lot of cities in the U.S. have been trying to deal with the issue of employment land for a long time. Chicago has dealt well with the preservation of employment lands,” he says. “The planned manufacturing district model really came about because of this incremental death by a thousand cuts pressure on employment lands, where they take a piece here, take a piece there and convert a warehouse to a loft here. What you had were lofts instead of places to work.

There was a study done by a YMCA group that was a tax financial comparison that showed from a tax perspective, [employment lands] provide employment, tax money and require fewer services. Schools, for example, are not necessary.”

As for Menomonee Valley, De Sousa says it works because there are and always have been strict employee density requirements: “You couldn’t just go there and have three workers in a big warehouse. They have created a community of work in a cleaner, newer and greener industrial campus.” Corey Zetts, executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners Inc., suggests that when it comes down to the preservation of employment lands, one of the key components is a strong public-private partnership: “You have everyone around the table – the public sector, private businesses, non-profit organizations and the community at large. The communication piece of that cannot be over emphasized. You have to be transparent about the goals and why those goals are set.

People, she says, need jobs and people in urban areas need jobs with “easy access points where you can come in and make a decent wage without having gone to college or having refined skills. People need to be able to support their families and manufacturing is one of the strongest ways to do that. You have much better job benefits, salary wise, at a manufacturing company than you would, for example, working at a retail outlet.”

(In)complete communities?
However, when discussing the tensions between employment lands and mixed use development, often an opposing perspective arises, and asks: is the protection of employment lands killing “complete communities” that integrate residential and commercial uses? “That’s interesting,” says Zetts. “If anything, it is the opposite. We are seeing how successful this is here. For a long time there was this mindset that everything is a dichotomy – either or – you have jobs or liveable places and never the two shall meet.”

While there is no residential in the Menomonee Valley, “within walking distance is some of the densest housing stock in the state of Wisconsin. People can get there and there are trails and a river and people use it for recreation,” says Zetts. “We have children doing outdoor science labs from neighbourhood elementary schools, 100 yards from where they are manufacturing 36-foot diameter metal gears.”

Menomonee Valley aside, Dr. Steven Webber, a land use policy planner and assistant professor at Ryerson University, who is currently researching the impacts of urban intensification on residential and employment land use change, says the situation is that residential has taken precedence over employment lands and there are a number of reasons for that. “There is an underlying assumption that manufacturing industrial uses are becoming increasingly antiquated and are not part of our new economy,” he says. “I have been doing research into how places such as Boston, Chicago and New York are dealing with the preservation of employment lands. They are also facing this dilemma over how best to integrate employment lands into this complete community concept.

Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley (pictured here) and Chicago’s Goose Island (below) share similar employment land preservation and expansion initiatives. Images courtesy of: TKTKTK / Menomonee Valley / District of Squamish
Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley (pictured here) and Chicago’s Goose Island (below) share similar employment land preservation and expansion initiatives. Images courtesy of: TKTKTK / Menomonee Valley / District of Squamish

Images courtesy of: TKTKTK / Menomonee Valley / District of Squamish

“It is creating a lot of problems because nobody has come up with a strategy that can balance the two. It is just very difficult to integrate manufacturing use regardless of how clean it might be or how unobtrusive it might be into a residential area … Once politicians and planners start hearing complaints from neighbours about noise, it becomes difficult to balance the two.

“In the old times, residential was located side-by-side manufacturing areas. From my research I am getting a better sense that back then, the people who lived near the facilities worked there [and] had a vested interest. Now, we have people moving into neighbourhoods who have no connection with the manufacturing. It is easier for them to complain.”

Municipalities, he says, are losing a great deal by diverting these lands to residential or mixed use: “To me, mixed use is just a euphemism for residential. The issue becomes, is there a willingness to protect these employment lands?”

De Sousa, who has heard conversations of mixing residential and industrial together, suggests that the reality is this: “If Mr. Christie’ s, which was not only providing employment in Toronto, but the lovely smell of cookies was killing the stink of the sewage treatment plant right next to it. If that could go away, then no one is safe.

“Office mixed with residential may work, but in warehousing and industrial, there is a lot of movement going on. It’ s hard to make noise and it’ s hard to have trucks go in and out when you are surrounded by housing. You can’ t have children riding bikes around. What Chicago has done well is they have the manufacturing area in a core space that is buffered by office and retail uses and then the residential.”

Finding a sweet spot
As for Squamish, B.C., planners and politicians there now have a sound working strategy in place. Sarah McJannet, a planner with the municipality, says that a key focus for employment lands is to make sure its jobs-to-housing-ratio makes sense. “Because we are a smaller community and well connected, there has been an ongoing discussion and dialogue with industry and through our community planning efforts the recognition that employment lands are vital.

“Being close to Vancouver, where they have lost a lot of industrial land through rezoning and the challenge of getting that back, propelled us to be more proactive and take stock of what we have. The other factor for Squamish that is less of an issue in some other communities, but universal in many areas of B.C., is that we have such a constrained land base here with hazards and sensitive habitat areas. Our inventory of employment lands means that we do not have the luxury of a lot of space. The land that we do have we need to be mindful and considerate of how to find that sweet spot.”

There was, she adds, a threefold objective from the Employment Lands Strategy: maintain and optimize existing employment lands inventory; expand that inventory; and improve land use management. “For Squamish, located between Vancouver and Whistler, there is a trend towards becoming a bedroom community. In comparison, we have been a more affordable option in terms of new business creation and housing. Given the market right now, the affordability crunch is upon us.”

Ingram, meanwhile, was asked what he learned from the Squamish review process. “We learned a couple of things, or rather, had some suspicions confirmed. First, the term ‘ industrial’ is a loaded term that requires definition and, for the purpose of zoning and community plans, a little more definition,” he said. “There’ s definitely the traditional, large-scale industrial uses that do best separated from other uses, but there are lower impact light industrial uses that could occur in or nearby mixed use areas more easily. Industrial uses are also changing with high-tech production processes making some production cleaner, quieter and more discrete.

“We also learned that there often tends to be a bias towards sexier land uses and occupations. While residents might be quick to embrace more ‘ innovative and green knowledge economy’ uses, industrial and light manufacturing uses can be tagged as old, noisy and polluting when they often are not. Many communities don’ t understand or under appreciate the value of more industrial sectors play in terms of employment, property taxes, and the like.”

Municipalities, says Ingram, should definitely understand the kind of capacity they have for different employment types, but it should be combined with, or backed up by, some kind of larger economic development strategy or policies, and an understanding of a community’ s existing employment occupations, land uses and trends. “It can be a particularly important pursuit for communities with limited land bases or who are facing residential and commercial pressure to convert and downzone existing industrial and manufacturing areas.”

De Sousa, meanwhile, says employment lands have to be planned properly in order to lure employers. “We do it very well for offices, but not when it comes to manufacturing hubs. It is not a political priority like it is in the U.S. You don’ t have the federal government pushing programs to maintain the strength and vibrancy of our manufacturing core. That is unfortunate because that can help. Only when it gets to a stress level like a Heinz factory closing or losing jobs at the Ford plant, do we seem to get the government’ s attention. The reality is that these are jobs.” And sometimes jobs aren’t the only positive: “Mr. Christie’s baking factory not only provided employment in Toronto, but the lovely smell of cookies was killing the stink of the sewage treatment plant right next to it. If that could go away, then no one is safe.”

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