Priorities for 2013 include the downtown, waterfront, economic development, fiscal prudence, community engagement
The start of 2013 marks not only the beginning of a New Year but the halfway mark of this term of council. It is an honour to serve you, and work together to make our community better. And work together we do.
Residents of Ward 2 are very involved in civic life. I get upwards of 100 emails per day – more when there’s an issue of particular interest or concern. I’ve heard your passion for the city and your suggestions to make it better. We live in a fantastic community – your love of the community comes through when you share your ideas or concerns. We recognize we are blessed to live here – and that there are challenges to the things we cherish, but also much that can be done to make our city even better.
I’ve heard (and share!) your frustrations about the slow pace of government – I sometimes compare government years to “dog years” – 7 to 1! I appreciate your patience; it carries me through when progress is slow, and energy and time must be diverted to steering the city away from decisions that will negatively impact residents.
There are steps we can take, both large and small, short term and long term, that will preserve what we love about the community, and make changes that will make our city even better. Here are some of the issues you and I will be working on this year:
Downtown vibrancy and intensification.
Burlington’s downtown is unique in the GTA, our jewel on the lake. When residents across the city were asked about their top cultural destinations, the downtown and waterfront came out on top. At the same time, we are at risk of losing the heritage and unique character of the downtown with intensification. We are an urban growth centre, required to meet targets of 200 people or jobs per hectare. Residents don’t want a sea of generic glass highrises. We can meet the growth targets through mid-rise office development – a necessity to bring feet on the street year round downtown.
I sit on the Downtown Task Group which is in the final stages of recommendations to council to address these and other concerns. Separately, the independent consultants working on parking strategies for downtown will release their findings early this year. The downtown is also a focus area for the Official Plan Review taking place this year, which is exploring how land use, height, density and zoning policies can deliver a downtown we want – one that is scaled appropriately, and protects our heritage resources.
The future of Village Square is up in the air with a new owner; and many of you have said that if redevelopment occurs it should be limited and aim to preserve the unique character and feel of the area. Three of the buildings have some heritage value, and a consultant has been hired to review and report back to Heritage Burlington and council early in the New Year.
Meanwhile, I will continue to work with landowners and developers to seek your input prior to bringing applications to City Hall, as we have done successfully this past year. That allows your feedback to help shape appropriate development in our neighbourhood.
Over half of our residents commute to work outside Burlington, and many of you have shared your dream of being able to work in the city where you live. Increasing the number of residents who both live and work in Burlington is a priority outlined in our city’s strategic plan. It is also a necessity for our long-term financial health. Unless we increase the number of industrial/commercial/institutional taxpayers, residential tax rates will continue to increase. As I wrote about last month (here), the Burlington Economic Development Corporation has set some aggressive corporate attraction targets; we need to properly fund the organization so they don’t need to spend resources on fundraising and networking luncheons (these can easily be provided by other organizations in the city, like the Burlington Chamber of Commerce) but are able to devote their time and efforts on business attraction.
Significant changes are about to occur on our waterfront, with decisions to be made on the future of the Beachway Park Master Plan, the future of the residential community there (which I support), and a potential commercial operator for the historic pump house. The Master Plan for Burloak Park is being reviewed this year, looking at park amenities and pathway design. The city is reviewing our “windows to the lake” – these are public lands at the bottom of street ends, but in many cases have been blocked or encroached by abutting residents, or are overgrown. This is an opportunity to gain more waterfront access for residents, and was one of the many issues identified by the former Waterfront Access & Protection Citizens Advisory Committee. This committee was established by the previous council at the request of the Save Our Waterfront, a community group I founded as a citizen because residents wanted a voice on waterfront issues, and were particularly concerned about the future of Old Lakeshore Road in the downtown.
This council sunset the committee at the end of 2012, but the volunteer citizen members recognized the importance of continued resident input into waterfront issues. They have committed their time to continue the work of the committee, with support from my office, under a new name: the Burlington Waterfront Committee. Areas of focus this year include participation in the Beach Master Plan Review, Burloak Park Master Plan Review, Official Plan review of Old Lakeshore Road and the waterfront in general, revitalizing windows to the lake at road ends throughout the city, and more. The committee will provide input to council on decision-making, and also to engage residents in the conversation.
You are invited to attend our meetings, which are open to the public, and new members are being sought from Wards 1, 3, 4, and 5.
The pier is on target for completion in 2013, but at a budget almost three times the original forecast in 2006 of $6 million. And there are outstanding legal issues with the original contractor, engineering firm, bonding company and others, which will be a focus of decision-making for council this year.
Before we can put this chapter behind us as a community, we must learn from it. That requires transparency with residents, including disclosure of the legal bill, the design changes, and the options and costs that were considered to complete the project, up to and including the decision to retender. The full story has yet to be told. Given the magnitude of cost-overruns and delays on the project, we have a responsibility to you, the public, to be transparent and accountable for our decisions.
Council is taking time this year to discuss how we function as a governance team, and review our corporate policies, including the existing Council Code of Conduct, and others. The situation with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford provides an incentive to review our own policies around fundraising by members of council using city resources – the issue that became his undoing. Several of you have also recently raised questions about city council members serving on boards (we all do), and the potential for conflict of interest. The governance review provides an appropriate forum to discuss these important issues.
Many of you have shared your desire for modest and predictable tax rates, and a focus of spending on need- to-haves over nice-to-haves. I will continue to champion that fiscal focus during budget discussions and throughout the year. That will mean some choices – funding infrastructure needs over subsidizing private entertainment, for example, and investing in job attraction, transit, libraries and other resident services.
Collaborative leadership and community engagement.
The city is in the final stages of approving a community engagement charter to foster collaboration with you, the residents we serve, in decision-making. There is still room for improvement. I outlined some of those opportunities in a video entitled Valuing Public Input early this term (available here), and much of it is still relevant now. We need to move beyond the notion of one-way education (that the public needs to be educated) to the notion that we all have something to learn from each other; we need to move beyond labelling and dismissing those we disagree with as NIMBYs or “special interest groups” but instead listen for the value in what they have to say; we need to move beyond simply collecting feedback, to allowing it to inform decision-making – and getting back to you about how your views shaped the final outcome.
We sometimes hear the word “leadership” used to justify those times when council ignores what the majority of residents are telling us. True collaborative leadership – of the type envisioned by residents and captured in the engagement charter – requires us to incorporate feedback into our decisions.