I’m frequently asked by residents: how can city staff and other councillors support projects that are clearly out of line with the Official Plan, and aren’t supported by residents?
Below are several of the arguments I’ve heard – and why I don’t think they hold water.
We’re told: We have no choice. The province made us do it.
The conventional wisdom is that we must accept intensification which is wildly out of line with our Official Plan because the province has designated the downtown as a growth centre, so we must achieve 200 people or jobs per hectare by 2031.
Reality check: Our planning documents incorporated growth targets.
Our current Official Plan was in progress when the provincial growth legislation was passed, so our Plan was set to accommodate these growth targets. There’s no reason to set aside the plan. I’ve asked staff to where we’ll be on our growth targets if properties are developed at their current Official Plan and zoning limits. I’ll pass that information along.
We’re told: Granting extra height & density is the only way to reach our growth targets.
Reality check: A seven storey building is “intensification.”
On the Molinaro property on Brock/Elgin, the Official Plan allows a seven storey building. There are currently six single detached homes on the assembled properties. Going from six units to a seven storey building represents significant intensification. Elsewhere, on Glenwood School Drive, three detached homes will make way for a 58-unit development. Residents asked for 48 units – in keeping with the Official Plan, and allowing significant, but reasonable, intensification. Council (myself excluded) voted for the larger unit count.
We’re told: The Official Plan is more like guidelines
Reality check: The plan accommodates variations – with caution.
The Committee of Adjustment provides a process for granting minor variations to zoning. There’s also a process outlined for modifying the Official Plan and zoning (going from seven to eight storeys, for example). But these changes should be the exception rather than the rule – and should be modest. The Official Plan sets the community’s vision for the downtown, and is developed with extensive public participation. When our planners and council repeatedly set the plan aside, the community-developed vision is set aside and we’re left with no vision. That’s a dangerous place to be. Major changes to the plan should be made during Official Plan reviews which occur every five years – not on an ad hoc basis by a handful of city officials because a developer requests changes.
We’re told: We get community benefits for allowing extra height & density
Reality check: the benefits are suspect, and the community has no input
The community benefits negotiated for extra height and density beyond what is allowed in the Official Plan are agreed to behind closed doors in negotiations between city staff and the developer. Neither local residents nor the ward councillor are invited to attend – and the benefits are worth far less than the extra height/density given away.
We’re told: Residential development will revitalize the downtown
Reality check: We need office development to truly revitalize the downtown.
Downtown businesses have discovered that more condos don’t necessarily translate into more shoppers. Businesses haven’t realized the expected surge in business from the recent condo developments – partly because many of these residents travel or live outside the country for months at a time. Shops are still closing and the vitality of the downtown is precarious. What’s needed is a mix of development, particularly more office development which would bring jobs and day-time, year round foot traffic to downtown. Plus, 200 jobs per hectare can fit in a much smaller building than 200 units of housing. We can achieve our growth targets with jobs or housing, but so far, the focus has been on housing, because it’s the easiest for a developer to build and sell. We need a greater emphasis on jobs.
We’re told: Professional staff and planning experts support proposed intensification.
Reality check: Resident input is also important.
One of the key roles elected officials play is to represent the needs and view of their constituents. If the only thing that mattered in decision-making was staff input and expert opinion, we could leave decision-making entirely to them, send elected representatives back to our day jobs, and save you $1 million in costs. But that’s not democracy, and it’s not how we set up our municipal decision-making. So let’s ensure that decisions give equal regard to public input as staff and expert opinion.
We’re told: We must build in our urban areas to protect rural greenspace.
Reality check: Greenspace is equally important in urban areas.
All residents need walking access to greenspace – urban dwellers no less than rural residents. We can protect our urban boundary, and not allow major developments in the rural areas, while preserving urban greenspace with balanced, reasonable development.
We’re told: The public does not understand, and if they were more informed, they’d accept proposed developments.
Reality check: Residents understand we must meet growth targets and that we can do so without overintensification. Residents understand that our targets can be met with jobs or housing, and are asking for a greater focus on meeting our targets through jobs. Residents understand that its important to protect rural greenspace, but that it’s equally important to protect our urban greenspace. Residents understand that the Official Plan allows for changes, and expect these changes to be modest and well-justified and that major changes will occur through the Official Plan review.