Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Weakerthans in Kelowna

Ryan and I hit an excellent rock 'n roll show last night with a couple of great bands -- The Weakerthans and The Constantines played at a dingy all-ages club in Kelowna. Truth be told, hanging out with Ryan and drinking beer after the show was the highlight of the evening, but that's not to say that the music was substandard. This review from one of their Toronto shows reflects the vibe fairly well. The Weakerthans set seemed really short, but they rocked and the crowd was into it. I was impressed by The Constantines -- great singer and super-tight band.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Good to Great

I've been occasionally writing over at our Association of Citizens for Summerland site, and realized that this post was sort of outside of the scope of what the group is trying to I brought it over here. It won't likely be very interesting to non-Summerlanders, but I wanted to keep it. It seems a bit negative, but I don't think I'd even bother to try thinking of improvements if I didn't see fantastic potential.

I suspect that many of Summerland's citizens won't like my ideas any better than council's current agenda, because I actually think Summerland's population can and should grow, but not in the same way they do.

What could council (and the rest of us) do to build on what we've got and enhance this wonderful little community without selling the soul of the town? How might we provide actual affordable housing without having to service new subdivisions? What will help attract more tourists who respect the town and return year after year? A few suggestions, all designed to eliminate further sprawl and create a more vibrant, livable, sustainable town:
  • Require any new buildings or redevelopments in the downtown core to be built at least two stories high, with residential suites on upper levels that can be bought or rented -- that would be a fantastic source of more affordable housing.
  • Offer incentives and logistical help for existing commercial property owners to create second-story suites. The people moving into these residences will use half as much water and energy than their suburban counterparts, and they're more likely to support local businesses because they won't have to drive for everything. They might not even need cars at all (GASP!)...especially the seniors we keep hearing about from the pro-sprawl folks, many of whom don't mind the exercise provided by one flight of stairs. Compare the municipal costs for these (re)developments with providing new roads, water and sewer service to new suburbs.
  • Encourage property owners within a five-minute walk of downtown to increase population density. This basically means making it easy for them to build legal suites, carriage houses on large lots and additions that can be rented out (or even bought as strata/duplex) in ways that are more likely to be actually affordable for seniors and young families.
  • When a group of homeowners on an entire block near downtown decide that they want to increase density, offer them the vision, support, planning help and financial incentives to to so. Help them build high-quality, high-density housing that enhances neighbourhoods, especially within walking distance of shops and services.
  • Position Summerland as the leader in the application of Smart Growth and other sustainable principles rather than continuing to follow Westbank and Chilliwack down the road to fungus-like suburban sprawl. Use the assets and residential potential of downtown to attract new residents who are not looking to hide away in monster homes on clearcut hillsides and orchards. Imagine the quality of our downtown core if we attracted a few thousand smart, engaged citizens over the next couple of decades who want to walk to their grocery store, coffee shop, church, and library. What if they bring their small businesses and kids with them?
  • Never let a community-planning debacle like Shoppers Drug Mart ever happen again. That type of parking-lot development creates a huge gap in the spirit and essence of the town, better suited to some sprawling nowhere like Abbotsford. Put buildings next to wide sidewalks beside the street and if people must park, provide some space in the back. Even multinational corporations should have to stick to the rules that make communities work -- why not a half-dozen affordable housing units on the second floor above their faux-Tudor facade?
  • Don't bother refurbishing Memorial Park unless you're willing to address the real problems surrounding it. All of the commercial buildings on Wharton have their backs to the park, with an ugly hodgepodge of gravel lots, dumpsters and junk prominently displayed. It is an Alley Park, which is why it gets treated like an alleyway by bored kids with spraycans and joints. Find a way to get an ice-cream shop and lots of residents living around the edges of the park, with their windows facing the bandshell...and you'll see those problems dissolve. That's when Memorial Park can become the center of the community.
  • ...which brings up the redevelopment of Wharton Street, which should probably be discussed more actively and openly with citizens. We should demand high-density mixed-use development, with commercial and office space on lower levels and housing above for people of varying income levels and lifestyles. Resist the urge to make it seniors-only, and require the quality of building that lets kids make some noise without disturbing their elderly neighbours. Legislate a ratio of affordable units if you're serious about it. Don't put parking lots out front -- bring the buildings right up to the street like they are on Main. Make sure the sections facing the street have porches, patios, windows and obvious entrances. Help pedestrians feel welcome and require excellent walking access to the park and downtown. Maybe this is heresy, but also consider putting either the library or the museum somewhere else to create another anchor for more community development on the other side of downtown, and integrate commercial/residential mixes in both areas.
  • Don't obsess about the type of light posts and fancy benches in Lowertown -- if it's going to grow, just make sure we get enough residential density to support a really good year-round corner store. Maybe some day it could even support a decent coffee shop (a second location for the Beanery?), book store, art gallery, and another restaurant? Not just tourist-commercial or high-end residential -- at least aim for a mix. A beautiful walkway from the municipal campground to the resort would be outstanding.
  • While we're thinking down at lake level...let's really fix up Powell, Rotary and Peach Orchard beaches. They're neglected jewels with huge potential. The washrooms at all of them are dark and dirty (and obviously thirty years old), playground equipment is poorly designed and barely maintained, and the landscaping looks like an afterthought. Details matter. We're talking about the main regional access points to world-class waterfront, and they send the message to visitors (and residents) that we don't much care. I can't believe we're spending money on extra ball diamonds while neglecting our public waterfront.
  • If the college on Cartwright goes ahead, by all means atone for past stupidity and extend a sewer line up to Deer Ridge, but don't ever allow another subdivision away from existing services unless the developer pays for it (and all other associated costs like sidewalks and road upgrades. Actually, let's just not make that mistake again even if someone is dumb (and rich) enough to pay for it.
  • Protect our open spaces forever. Too utopian? I don't think so. Most progressive Summerlanders already recognize the long-term value of our agricultural land in protecting the local food supply, heritage and greenspace. Many of us are also recognizing the incredible natural assets surrounding the town. You can hike or bike from downtown Summerland to the top of any of the four big mountains (Giant's Head, Conkle, Cartwright and Rattlesnake) surrounding the town in a couple of hours, mostly on unknown trails and overgrown roads. If you hiked all in a weekend, you'd probably see deer, coyotes, mountain goats (near the top of Rattlesnake), cacti, wildflowers of every kind, old flumelines, backcountry lakes, and unbelievable views from rocky ridges overlooking our incredible valley. Since Conkle was included as parkland as part of our centennial and Giant's Head is already a park, we're halfway to creating a ring of world-class protected and recreational areas surrounding the town. Let's make sure our grandchildren and their children will be able to enjoy them as well.
I could keep going, but I'm already surprised you're still with me. Some of these suggestions are certainly complaints, but at the root of each is a kernel of great potential. What do you think of this vision?

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Merritt Mountain Biking

Angelo discovered the Merritt Mountain Biking Association last week. We've always kind of lamented that there wasn't any riding area halfway between the Okanagan and the Lower Mainland where we could meet for a ride and a few beers. Merritt just isn't the kind of place that makes you think of vacations and recreational pursuits. When David told me earlier this year that he was coming out from Scotland to do a workshop there, I told him that it had sort of a poor reputation as a mill town with no real assets.

Well, I was wrong. I can admit it. We decided to give it a shot, meeting at Mandolin's Cafe in Merritt to pick up a trail map and some calories yesterday morning. The town is way more interesting when you get off the highway and main drag, and it's less than two hours for both of us to drive there. We wondered why we hadn't done it sooner.

We took the excellent advice of MMBA president Darren Coates and rode a big loop in the Coutlee Plateau area. Tons of old-school cross-country trails with serpentine singeltrack through beautiful forest, up and down with some great technical sections! Ziggy is probably the most fun trail I've ever ridden -- a sort of natural half-pipe with berms and little jumps. Angelo broke in his sweet Santa Cruz Heckler and we whooped our way through section after section of well-built trails.

Some photos, including a couple of rare shots of me actually riding:

Slow Food Okanagan

Tannis and I enjoyed a unique event this afternoon, meeting some wonderful people and experiencing amazing flavours in the orchard of the Joie Gastronomic Guest House and Farm Cooking School in Naramata. Heidi helped set up Slow Food Vancouver before setting up their innovative business in the Okanagan, and this event was getting an Okanagan Chapter of Slow Food going in the region. The spread of local foods, wines and beer was something to behold, and the atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming.

Tannis's local-food-'n-beverage birthday party last year was the result of some of our thinking and curiosity about connecting local food producers with people who want to eat better food that hadn't been shipped thousands of kilometers. It was great to meet some of the people who are growing and creating incredible food here -- they were all so passionate about their work that it made me feel like a disconnected wage slave. Highlights were meeting excellent folks from Urban Harvest and Crannog Ales.

The Crannog people had three kinds of their tasty organic brews on tap for sampling. The Back Hand of God Stout was outstanding, and the other two were top-notch as well. We just need to find a place to buy the stuff around here. The Callebaut Chocolate Bread from Okanagan Grocery Artisan Breads was to die for...actually all of their breads were, but the chocolate one would blow your mind. Carmelis Goat Cheeses were great, too. Such an interesting variety of flavours, and ideas for eating better and smarter.

Update: Local celebrity (and writer about all things delicious) Heather also has a post about the event -- her Viva Epicurea blog makes me want to seek out every tasty restaurant and winery in the valley...oh wait, I already did want to do that.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Home from Nowhere

Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler rocked my world in the last two weeks. Read this article to get a sense of his vision for towns and cities that would work infinitely better than the suburban sprawl currently dominating the landscape. He's aligned with the New Urbanism movement, which is basically aiming to create beautiful urban places where people can live, shop and work without needing cars. I was introduced to some of these ideas by reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it just makes so much sense, both for quality of life and long-term sustainability.

Truth and Perception

I'm only about four years behind the times, so I finally saw A Beautiful Mind this week after having it recommended to me by most of my movie-loving friends. I was blown away. I think it sort of threw off my fragile mental equilibrium, because I started to imagine indications of a conspiracy to undermine our Summerland Citizens experiment. I also met one of our town's somewhat unbalanced folks who hangs out at the Beanery throwing out random bits of news and conspiracy theories about local parking meters, NHL owners, military initiatives and BC Ferries to kind people who mostly tolerate the intrusions.

Later, I met a wonderful, articulate senior on a walk who told me all kinds of interesting things about the history of the town. She was intelligent and sensitive, having grown up in the Okanagan in the '40s and travelling the world over the years. She also believed that U.S. military and secret service agents were trying to intimidate her, following her in jeeps, tapping her phones, breaking into her house and using chemicals to make her sick.

And all of these theories and suspicions may have a kernel of truth (or at least real perception), but taken together with the impact of the movie, I'm seeing how blurry these lines can be. I think it's time for me to start writing the Great Canadian Small-Town Novel.