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Residents prevail on proposed two-tower overdevelopment in Alton – for now.

Alton traffic during morning rush. Submitted by Sapna Mistry.

Update to story below:

 

Residents prevailed on council to vote down a proposed redevelopment at 4853 Thomas Alton Boulevard, featuring two 19 storey towers as well as traditional and stacked townhouses, comprising 612 total units. Council voted 6-1 to refuse the application, with the Ward 1 councillor voting in support.

If approved the development would worsen already frustrating congestion in locals schools, parks and streets, residents said.  Something of a smaller scale with fewer units would be more in keeping with the area, they told council.

Delegate Jennifer Walker, representing the Residents of Alton Village, spoke of chronic overcrowding at local schools with nine elementary portables, and the existing “nightmare” traffic, describing one incident of a young girl hit by a car while riding her bike, witnessed by her husband and children.

“In your Grow Bold, build smart campaign you talk about ‘targeting growth to the right areas of the city.’ How is Alton, which is already a traffic, walking, schooling and parking nightmare the right choice for hyper intensification?” she said.

Beata Sikorski, also speaking for the Residents of Alton Village, said residents chose Alton Village and Burlington as their home “to escape from the congestion, urban sprawl and high-rise buildings that dominate the Mississauga and GTA landscapes.” Echoing concerns raised by Walker, Sikorski noted the development “will place an increased burden on infrastructure, schools and water acquifers.” The proposal, she said, is “completely out of scope with the current and future vision for the area and appears to sacrifice the common good of the community in favour of maximizing profit” for the developer.

Primary intensification areas are noted in orange, secondary in yellow. The proposed Alton development is in a yellow area, in the top right of the map.

Resident Ken White noted that the area is outside the primary intensification areas where the city aims to direct the bulk of new growth. It is in a secondary intensification area intended to “accommodate limited, site specific intensification.” Proposed developments in secondary intensification areas will be evaluated “to ensure that the proposal will not result in significant unplanned population growth beyond that currently permitted under a site’s existing Official Plan permissions.”

Kathleen White noted the proposal, if approved, “sets a precedent for any future development proposal in any intensification neighbourhoods that may be untenable for the greater Burlington community.”

The city’s citizen Sustainable Development Committee also rejected the project calling it “overdevelopment in comparison to a responsible development, and may overwhelm the area,” though the committee did praise several aspects including expanded greenspace, underground parking, bicycle storage, and potential bike/car share programs.

City staff had recommended support for the application, after they negotiated several changes to the original proposal based in part on Tall Building Guidelines recently endorsed by council. Council voted 5-2 July 18 (myself and the mayor did not support) to direct staff to bring back an Official Plan/Zoning amendment to a future meeting in accordance with several changes to the proposal, which included modifications in the tower design, layout, and greenspace, but not a reduction in height. Subsequently, staff did negotiate several changes to the proposal including increased amenity space, decreased tower width and floor plate (but no height reduction), increased distance between the two towers, removal of 12 back-to-back townhouses, and an overall reduction of 79 units.

The overall density is 305 units per hectare  (zoned for 110 per hectare, with a maximum height of 10 storeys). For comparison, downtown Burlington, a designated Urban Growth Centre, has a density target of 200 people or jobs per hectare.

It is widely expected the developer will appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board.

More information can be found on the city’s website dedicated to this project here: 4853 Thomas Alton Blvd.

Read more about the city’s Intensification Framework and mapping here: Intensification Framework

My Take:

I voted to refuse this application both times it came to council. The proposal represents overdevelopment and overintensification. It’s also outside the city’s primary intensification corridor. It is in a secondary intensification area which aims to avoid “significant unplanned population growth beyond that currently permitted under a site’s existing Official Plan permissions.” This proposal would double allowed height and almost triple existing density permissions – very significant changes. We want to put intensification where it can be accommodated without negative impact on residents or costly infrastructure improvements. Residents made their case about the negative impacts this project would bring to an area whose roads, parks, schools and streets are already suffering congestion.

This proposal also reinforces my concerns with the rushed “endorsement” of Tall Building Guidelines by council Oct. 3, in a 6-1 vote (I did not support). When I wrote about the guidelines I outlined the risk, especially to the Thomas Alton project:

“The risk: we’ll get development applications that conform to the guidelines on setbacks or podiums, but are in places we don’t envision tall buildings. It will be very difficult to hold our ground and direct height to where we want it if the building meets our design guidelines, especially with the ever present threat of an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (something no other province faces; reform can’t come soon enough!)….

“The city is sending the message that it’s open for developments beyond the Official Plan/Zoning, so long as they conform to the tall building guidelines. Consider the Thomas Alton Boulevard application for two 19-storey towers, along with towns, on land zoned for 10 storeys. Staff recommended (and council approved; I did not support) that staff  prepare an Official Plan/Zoning amendment to allow the development subject to certain conditions, including design changes that align with the tall building guidelines. Staff wasn’t proposing a reduction in height.”

Read the full article here: Tall building guidelines: Is Burlington headed for Vancouver without mountains?

Two final thoughts on this project. First, it underscores the need for residents to come together and voice their opinions about a project in person as well as online. It makes a difference when dozens attend the public meetings and appear at the council meeting itself to speak up, either as individuals or representing a broader group of residents. Council chambers was packed the night of this vote.

Second, there is a need for residents across the city to speak up about development in other areas, not simply their own. As one of the delegates said, each project has the potential to set a new precedent for other areas. If overdevelopment is allowed in someone else’s neighbourhood, what will protect yours? So get involved. There are a number of residents groups that are springing up. It would be great to see an umbrella citizen’s movement that brings these groups together on shared issues.

Your Take: What are your thoughts about this development, council’s two (different) votes on it, and residents coming together to advocate for better development in their neighbourhoods? Leave a comment below.

I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.

15 Comments

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  1. The development woes heaped upon the Alton Community and Martha St are the child of the provinces intensification mandate, basically a Hydra, when one of the Hydra’s heads is cut off, two more oversized developments grow in its place. Where is Hercules when you need him?

  2. This was a tough call, but I think ultimately was the wrong one.

    Ultimately, the way the area has developed to date is not conducive to higher density. The allowed as of right 10 stories will result in just as bad an outcome for the neighbourhood, and possibly a worse outcome in the longer term, than a taller building would.

    The problem is the surrounding development that this and previous Councils have allowed. The area is big-box auto-oriented single story, single use retail. There’s no walkability whatsoever. Just crossing the street is such a feat of daring that it’s little wonder few attempt it. Everything in the vicinity is meant to be driven to or driven through. Note that it’s not that friendly for drivers either – it can take 10 minutes to get from the Toys R Us to the Fortino’s across the street by car.

    While all the ‘boxes’ are checked, and virtually every service one needs is available within walking distance, both Dundas and Appleby Lines are built to facilitate fast automobile transportation, with a design speed of 90 kilometres per hour. The cues to an approaching motorist scream “Speed up, you’re on the freeway”. The local businesses have built themselves moats of stormwater runoff ditches and drive-through queuing areas to protect themselves from pedestrians who might dare to walk to them. For all the talk about making cycling and walking delightful, the actual conditions for walking or cycling in this area are abysmal.

    15 years from now, those buildings (dubbed “Smart” centres” but as far as their contribution to civic life goes are anything but “smart”) are all going to require refurbishing, just like the Millcroft plaza a kilometre to the south is in dire need of now. It is imperative that we get in front of that now and start planning for the eventual mixed use built form this area is going to require if we are to realize the benefits of becoming an urban centre. I see none of that conversation happening. We’re still wedded to the idea that developers can come here, slap up a single story garden shed surrounded by asphalt, and offer them to whatever chain store wants to sign a short term lease for 2 years, then leave for newer or cheaper digs. With the overabundance of chain retailers we already had in place, nobody’s making any money but the landowner, and our city is far poorer from having to manage the traffic, the runoff and the negative impacts to nearby properties. We should not be allowing any more single-story single-use retail developments surrounded by parking anywhere in the City. The costs they impose on our tax base are just too great, and we can do far better with the limited amount of land left to be developed. Including these commercial centres as secondary intensification areas is a good first step, but we need to do a lot more than designation to resolve the problems they present.

    At present no redevelopment is in the cards. They’re building more phases of the same single-use low density retail as we speak, inviting even more poaching of the existing retailers in the area. It will take at least 15 years before any other use for this land is considered. Therefore the proposed development on Thomas Alton is essentially an island. The benefits of density cannot be realized until that redevelopment of the single use retail areas surrounding it is completed. This development on its own won’t be enough to facilitate better transit for residents, or enable a more walkable neighbourhood. We probably need 10-15 such buildings in this corridor to make the kind of urban place the city’s planning staff is aspiring to build. But at least starting with one sets a precedent for that eventual urbanization.

    When people talk about urbanization or intensification, they usually talk about it in the negative. But we must understand just what it is about intensification makes it bad? More people means more services nearby and more ability to spread out the costs of expensive things like roads, sewers and transit systems. It also means more business and economic opportunity. More people coming together and generating ideas is what builds wealth. But in totally suburban environments like those in place today, it primarily means more people sitting in their cars by themselves, which means more traffic, more congestion and more frustration. That, I think is what is at the crux of our opposition to intensification. It’s not the added population that makes our lives worse. It’s the added cars. Only if people can choose alternatives to car travel that are safe, comfortable and convenient, will living in a denser city be palatable to most of us.

    Still, in opposing this development, the City is placed in the unenviable position of having to oppose its own planning staff before the OMB. What it says is that there is little desire from Council to actually follow through on the less than 1 year old Strategic Plan they approved, and we’re going to put electoral politics over doing what needs to be done in the long run. Ultimately that’s what’s going to undermine many of the good things this council have accomplished.

    • Great comment Chris. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem isn’t this one development on its own, it’s the overall built form of that entire area.

      At next week’s planning and development meeting, committee will be considering a draft plan of subdivision for 1200 King Road, just East of Aldershot GO. We appear poised to make many of the same mistakes here: excessively large lots (likely to support massive parking lots), a single through road that will serve a continuous flow of high speed traffic, and sidewalks possibly only on one side of the street. The area to be developed is roughly the same size as the Brant Street corridor from Lakeshore to Baldwin — plenty of room to built a very walkable, pedestrian-oriented street grid with a variety of sizes of lots. But we seem intent on allowing yet another greenfield automobile-oriented development designed to quickly funnel cars on and off the 403. Never mind that the Aldershot GO / mobility hub is right next door. Enough is enough.

    • I absolutely agree with your assessment on the shortcomings of Appleby Line’s “big-box auto-oriented single story, single use retail”, surrounded by acres of parking. I detest the area and avoid it as much as possible.

      However, it does not follow that Adi’s intensification proposal is part of the solution to correct past planning mistakes – quite the opposite actually. Why are 19 storeys better than 10 storeys? How does a townhome complex that includes back-to-back homes surrounded by asphalt produce appropriate family homes?

      Alton got short-changed – with monotonously long streets, with limited green space necessitating a massive and unattractive retention pond, right beside busy Dundas Street. The amount of public amenity space is too small for the number of people who live there – unlike the older neighbourhoods in other parts of Burlington. Jamming more people like Adi proposes, with no meaningful expansion of public space, does not improve Alton.

      It’s wishful thinking to believe the in vogue intensification model leads to true multi-use walkable communities with more services (beyond the drycleaner and dental services), improved transit and economic development. Without real reform of retail planning, a true commitment to multi-use (which will not happen as long as the BEDC promotes its prosperity corridor), more employers willing to locate here and council willing to increase transit funding – your dreams will remain nothing more than dreams. “If you build it, they will come” is pure fantasy.

      • Steve – re: why is 19 stories better than 10? Simple economics.

        Building higher provides the flexibility to use some of the space for amenities instead of housing as the planning department negotiated on this site. It means that the density needed to support the city actually investing in transit will come around sooner. It means that the parking requirements that are mandated by our zoning rules can be met in a way that doesn’t push the whole development beyond the affordable price point for families starting out. It changes the calculations of the people who own the nearby retail areas, so they have incentive to deliver the mixed use we want.

        As for determining what are “appropriate family homes”, families come in many shapes, sizes and preferences. The traditional single family detached home that is the staple in most older neighbourhoods is well beyond the reach of most families even with two working parents. Restricting housing to only that form likely means that Burlington becomes a community only available to move-up buyers and retirees, making the challenge of bringing businesses here who need access to the large talent pool of younger workers in the GTHA that much more difficult. Mid / highrise & town living can also work for families, provided we plan for the sizing, the schools, the amenities and services they need in the planning stages. Brent Toderian’s experience in making downtown Vancouver a family-oriented urban place is an excellent example to learn from.

        I agree that we need to reform the retail planning and development segment and ditch the dated idea that businesses will flock to “prosperity corridors” simply because they are adjacent to a congested highway. In my mind this is the biggest issue facing us as we struggle with intensification. It takes a long time and means we have to make tough choices about the kinds of commercial developments we will accept. We need local retail business to be successful, and to do so, that local business has to be able to compete with the national and foreign owned chains which have been given distinct advantages by the way we have designed our city.

        • Why not then 60 storeys? Simple economics.

          Changing building height well beyond the official plan feeds land speculation, driving up their costs. This effectively drives up the price of homes beyond what families can afford and forcing them to take up unsustainable debt. Doubling or quadrupling height impoverishes the homebuyer, while enriching the developer.

          But let’s go beyond ‘simple economics’. This development does nothing to enhance Alton, touted years back as a smart growth community, but in reality a planning disaster. Despite the rhetoric, Alton is not mixed use, has inadequate public amenities, and is an environmental nightmare – with too little trees and too much impervious surface area that requires a massive retention pond.

          Alton already has public transit and nearby retail. This proposal will not add more of either. And the piddling public amenity space is grossly inadequate for the 612 households (more than 1,200 people). It might make you feel better if it was approved, but it only distracts from the real reforms required.

          Toderian and his acolytes promote an impoverished vision that produces joyless communities. Planners are attracted to Vancouverism like a shiny new toy. But there is a reason Vancouver is Canada’s unhappiest city (http://www.vancitybuzz.com/2015/04/vancouver-unhappiest-city-canada-life-satisfaction-survey) Its built form template surely leads to social isolation and weak neighbourhood connections.

          No need to settle for isolating high rises when better and true mixed use communities are what we should aspire to.

          • While we shouldn’t blindly follow everything Brent Toderian says, the blanket criticism of all ideas that come out of Vancouver is unjustified. There is a lot more to Vancouver and to Brent’s message than high-rises. For example, Brent has been particularly vocal in Vancouver in advocating for small scale laneway housing to add gentle density to established residential areas — an idea that might be worth considering in some parts of Burlington.

            I do agree that the speculation caused by pushing the envelope on height is problematic. That’s a strong argument for holding the line at 10 stories. However, this only works if the zoning by law is realistic to start with. The situation downtown where we have an 8 storey limit adjacent to existing buildings twice that height is somewhat absurd.

            That said, it is refreshing to see this discussion move beyond one dimensional arguments purely based on height and onto broader issues of built form. We’ll only get higher quality outcomes if we as a community demand it.

          • Increasing height creates limits to economics of scale…the need for more elevators, plumbing, reinforcement and more facilities makes very tall buildings much less efficient. Vertical sprawl can certainly be as negative as horizontal sprawl. Still, some amenity space in the development is better than the none that residents may get based on the allowable zoning.

            Totally agree on the mistakes made in building Alton. They put more houses in closer proximity on smaller lots and that’s about it. It’s still completely suburban single-use in its design. Long looping streets and the sheer size of the neighbourhood mean that residents have to do most of their activities in the car. The retention pond’s location was a massive misuse of valuable land near the Dundas Street corridor. The transit service in Alton is hardly useful to residents and we’ve already covered the issues with the retail node being actively hostile to the walkability it was supposed to foster.

            I don’t attribute the survey results to flaws in the urbanist model…Saugenay is reportedly the happiest CMA in the nation. It’s also one of the highest unemployment regions in Canada. Also, ‘Vancouver’ in this context means the Vancouver CMA, which includes Richmond, Surrey, Port Coquitlam and other suburban cities. I was referring to more recent efforts that city has made in bringing families into the downtown core – which runs counter to the conventional wisdom that urbanism is for young singles and seniors, and is not family friendly. For example, they are running out of spaces in schools downtown, whereas we are having the opposite problem.

            It’s the built form where people go from their house to the car, and back to their house, without seeing a soul that breeds weak connections. It’s a societal belief reinforced by constant marketing that we all need to be self-sufficient and not share resources with our neighbours that creates social isolation. Those problems aren’t unique to taller buildings – they are very prevalent in Burlington as well.

            Still as I said this is a tough call. It’s going to be a bad outcome for some time regardless of what gets built here – a 10 story building, a 19 story building or anything in between. Many people who move to this building are going to have a tough go of it. But I don’t believe that approving a development here would distract from the reforms needed. It would act as a catalyst for them – especially given the concessions negotiated in this case that would reduce the impact on the community, and the additional residents will help Burlington taxpayers in funding the transit and other services that are needed.

  3. Council has made a very strong case for retaining the OMB to resolve development disputes.

    Two projects in 2016,both requiring OP and zoning amendments to allow for additional density, highlight the need for last resort dispute resolution.

    Staff negotiated and recommended both developments, one on Prospect St. for 6 times the existing density and this project for about 3 times what the existing zoning allows.
    The vote on the Prospect project was unanimous in favour and 6 to 1 against for this project.

    I am not suggesting staff or council were wrong in their recommendation’s or final votes, only that using the argument developers should stick to the OP is mute. As these examples show flexibility is required, suggesting otherwise is simply tunnel vision.

    Resident’s had the opportunity to dispute council’s decision on Prospect and the developer has their options for this project, that’s democracy and that’s the way it should be.

  4. let them build more along Condo Row otherwise known as Plains road west. I wonder why ward 1 councillor voted against this application

  5. Janine, unfortunately it doesn’t matter how high the buildings are, it’s going to be expensive and most likely unaffordable. Until the Ontario government and cities start taxing overseas investors for buying multiple properties as investment tools then this is the way it’s going to be. Also, who wants to live in a small apartment with no privacy and being sued because someone has issues with noise.?

What's your take?