April 10, 2013

Alternate designs pitched for Solmar development

As published in The Erin Advocate

A group of planning students has delivered a batch of fresh ideas to Erin's discussion of the subdivision proposed by Solmar Development Corp.

In December, the Sustainable Development Working Group of Transition Erin approached Cecelia Paine, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph, to explore the idea of having planning students evaluate the Solmar proposal.

A group of second-year Masters students took up the challenge as part of their Community Design course.  Last week, with an audience of about 50 Erin residents, they presented a series of six alternative concepts for the layout of houses, seniors apartments, parks, industrial buildings and shopping areas on the site, located between Dundas Street and Wellington Road 124, at the north end of Erin village.

Student Liz Nowatschin
Their assignment was to fit 1,240 housing units onto the land (as Solmar hopes to do) along with enough business development to create 1.3 jobs per home, keeping in mind the environmental principles championed by Transition Erin.

"We wanted to stretch our imaginations," said Jay Mowat of Transition Erin. He said the designs "are very professional and some are quite radical."

Paine said this was a unique opportunity to be integrated into a planning process.

"This is about the students understanding what it takes to make a community and how physical design can influence how a community actually works, and whether it works," she said.

"I was truly impressed with the students and the detail of the concept plans," said Maurizio Rogato, Director and Planning at Solmar. "There were also some really innovative open space treatments. Clearly, open space is a significant component of the Solmar plan and getting the treatments right is key."

Students Ben Vander Veen and Liz Nowatschin presented a concept with housing facades, porches and window styles that match those found in the existing village. Entrance to garages would be through back lanes.

"When you're driving down the street, you're not seeing a lot of driveways and cars," said Vander Veen. Existing hedgerows that now divide the land are maintained, there is a buffer zone between the residential and industrial areas.

There are boulevards, swales (shallow depressions in the land) and rain gardens with native plants that tolerate both wet and dry conditions. These are featured in most plans as an attractive way to help the storm ponds intercept runoff before it enters the river.

Christine Fraser, Alex Forbes and Andrew Briggs presented a circular central park, with a large roundabout road (similar to that in Goderich, Ontario), and five side streets radiating out through concentric circular roads.

"We wanted to make cohesive and integrated green space throughout the whole site," said Fraser. The roundabout has stores and other businesses at street level, with two stories of apartments above.

Kelly Hodder said she wanted to "create a community that fits within the existing town, both physically and socially, by using similar features and patterns, to plan for a variety of housing types and lot sizes to fit the needs of young families, seniors and everyone in between."

Her plan has lots of pedestrian walkways and trails, and allows almost every home a direct view of a natural corridor, 10-25 metres wide. She has only 1,068 housing units, instead of the standard 1,240.

"I feel like doubling the population of the town is going to be unsustainable – it's just too much," she said.

A street layout aligned north-south to take advantage of passive solar energy was presented by Kent Semeniuk and Stephanie Shantz. It's a self-sufficient energy design employing solar panels and geothermal heating.

Instead of facing regular streets, most homes face towards a strip of shared parkland that includes a one-way vehicle lane. Garage access is from an additional back lane. There is a long central park with a one-way street on each side.

Zenan Zhang and Mark Affum presented a design that includes three semi-circular parks, the largest one called the "Town Green". The commercial area near County Road 124 has a unique outdoor pedestrian mall with shops on both sides.

"You have a really vibrant downtown core in terms of your historic architecture, so we wanted to bring a little bit of that into our concept, but at the same time we wanted to link it to green spaces, so we want to connect the best of both worlds," said Affum.

An "equestrian greenway" is a prominent feature of the concept presented by Kathleen Corey and Sarah Taslimi. It also has 3 metre wide sidewalks plus 2.5 metre cycle tracks along the two major roads. In addition to seniors housing, it also has two apartment buildings and a commercial block, each of which surrounds a green courtyard.

Rogato said he will review the students' design ideas with his study team.

"With regards to the use of back lanes, green space connections and live-work building designs; Solmar has not reached that level of detail quite yet," he said, noting that these options are well known to developers. Back lanes and live-work units were popular in some urban designs in the early 1900s, but are less common now.

"I do see some neighbourhood commercial being accommodated, at the ground level, surrounding our proposed central square," he said.

Here is a group photo and a sampling of some of the images from the student plans:
Landscape Architecture Professor Cecelia Paine of the University
of Guelph (front left) is joined by members of Transition Erin and the
teams of students who worked on alternative designs for the
proposed Solmar development in Erin.

A circular park at the centre of the development showing
live-work units (businesses on the first floor, apartments above),
by Christine Fraser, Alex Forbes and Andrew Briggs.

A street layout with a strip of green space
behind most homes, by Kelly Hodder.

A bird's eye view of the subdivision from the west,
with industrial units in the foreground,
by Zenan Zhang and Mark Affum.

A street layout angled to take advantage of passive solar energy,
by Kent Semeniuk and Stephanie Shantz. Most homes face towards a
green strip of park that includes a one-way vehicle lane,
with additional garage access from a back lane.