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Tall building guidelines: Is Burlington headed for Vancouver without mountains?

vancouver burlingtonAnalysis & Opinion

On Oct. 3, city council is poised to endorse “interim” tall building guidelines and send them out for public consultation. You need to make your voice heard, because Burlington’s future will be shaped by these guidelines. I didn’t endorse the guidelines at committee and won’t at council.

The guidelines are more than an endorsement of good design. They’re an endorsement of tall buildings. They could lead to approvals for tall buildings on lots not intended for them, so long as they conform to the guidelines.

Do we want a future which protects the livability, diversity and small town feel of our city, or something akin to Vancouver without the mountains?

How did we get here?

The guidelines were developed by outside consultants (BrookMcIlroy) at the request of city staff to deal with tall building applications already coming in.

They draw heavily on a style of planning called “Vancouverism” – narrow towers on podiums, setbacks to allow public activity on the street. Vancouver’s former city planner, Brent Toderian, is advising the city on planning, transportation and transit. He’s got some helpful insights, but they aren’t all applicable to Burlington.

Tower guidelines make design suggestions to create visual interest
Tower guidelines make design suggestions to create visual interest, and keep a distance between towers to preserve views.

Lack of public input

This article from Urban Land provides a sympathetic primer on Vancouverism, but also warns against simply adopting the model:

 “But while planners and developers elsewhere seek to copy the salient features of what has come to be known as “Vancouverism,” those involved in the shaping of modern Vancouver caution that there is more to it than just view corridors, slim towers juxtaposed with mid-rise development and bike paths, or the breathtaking natural environment

Instead, they say, the real secret of Vancouver’s success has been its deliberative, values-driven evolutionary process, in which local government planners, developers, and the citizenry have labored over the past few decades to form a consensus vision of what their city should be like—and then come up with creative solutions for achieving it.”

Our guidelines have missed that last part – a values-driven process that brings the community together to form a consensus on what we’re trying to achieve, and find solutions.

Council had one week to review the guidelines. There was no prior public consultation. The development community was consulted before the report was prepared. Members of the city’s Housing & Development Liaison Committee received an electronic copy, with an invitation for tall building developers to attend one-on-one meetings with staff. But even developers said there wasn’t enough public consultation.

Given the lack of public input, I had proposed the guidelines be considered “draft,” then sent out for community input. We need a “Made in Burlington” solution, not a model designed for a different city.

However, the rest of council voted at committee to endorse the document, considering it “interim,” with public consultation to come. Council will vote on that recommendation Oct. 3. The planning department committed to following up with the development community to hear their concerns.

Save Our Waterfront secured public input on waterfront.
Save Our Waterfront secured public input on waterfront, and better community engagement overall.

The process has echos of the Old Lakeshore Road changes in 2008-2009 that gave height along the waterfront without meaningful city-wide public input. That process created the Save Our Waterfront movement where 2,000 residents across the city sought better public consultation on changes like this, and eventually led to the creation of Burlington’s Community Engagement Charter. We’re heading back to that era at council, where public input is bypassed, minimal or after the fact.


Highlights of the guidelines

Tall building guidelines propose narrow towers on podiums
Tall building guidelines propose narrow towers on podiums

The guidelines for tall buildings (over 11 storeys) focus on building style and relationship to the street: the bottom, or podium, at street level, the middle tower rising above the podium, and the top of the tower.

Generally, the podium is wider; the number of storeys varies to a maximum of 20m (about 6-7 storeys). The tower narrows to a maximum of 750sqm as it rises up from the podium. For multiple towers on a block, the guidelines propose a minimum 25m distance between towers. (In Vancouver, this was to preserve mountain views.)

The setback from the street is 6m, to provide for benches, trees public art and other street amenities.

Publicly-accessible private open space (courtyards/parkettes) is “encouraged” but not mandatory. Public space would be achieved through Section 37 negotiations, which allow extra height/density in exchange for a community benefit. It’s worth noting the city can already compel a percentage of land be donated for public space, under parkland provisions that apply to each new unit built above existing units. The city usually takes cash-in-lieu instead of parkland, which goes into a parks reserve fund.

ADI revised
Proposed 26-storey building at Martha/Lakeshore. Developers pointed to the 22-storey Bridgewater across the street.

My Take:

While I applaud the move toward better design of buildings, these guidelines will create a momentum toward more applications for tall buildings, including on lots not intended for them. Endorsing the guidelines now before we have finished our Official Plan & Zoning reviews may end up superceding our planning vision.

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!).

Tall buildings lead to more tall buildings. These guidelines help pave the way, and pretty soon we will have lost meaningful control over planning and implementing a community vision for our city.

View of Bridgewater from the lake.
Bridgewater is – so far – the tallest approved building downtown at 22 storeys.

I’m also concerned about the lack of public input, and focus on “educating the public” rather than listening to and working with you.

So I wonder where we’re headed, as city hall fosters a momentum toward intensification coupled now with a focus on tall buildings.

Momentum toward intensification (without specifying limits)

There is an active push at the city toward intensification, without defining limits (intensification doesn’t mean anything goes). So I’m concerned about where this momentum is leading, especially as we head into Official Plan discussions.

At a recent Chamber of Commerce panel on intensification (where there was representation from the development industry and planning, but no resident voice) a question came from the floor: when is intensification overintensification?

The response, from our city planner: Burlington is at risk of underintensification, not overintensification. Our planner has brought some positive changes to the city; we will disagree on this point.

The dialogue on intensification has been largely one-way, designed to “educate the public.” Consider the mayor’s series on intensification, with Vancouver’s Toderian, designed to educate you on its benefits, without a balanced discussion of the  drawbacks of intensification and potential solutions.

grow-bold-2-847x254Consider the Grow Bold branding for the Official Plan review.

It isn’t bold to approve tall buildings; it’s what developers want to build to maximize their investment. We will need to be bold to limit intensification to avoid the negative impacts. The risk is that by following the easy path, we will lose our community character.

What’s at stake:

alton-petitionThe 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.

This creates uncertainly in our community about what our neighbourhoods will look like.

The downside of intensification:

Missing from the discussion of tall buildings and intensification is the downside. We stand to lose important community features like green space and community character. Once it’s gone, it’s hard to recover.

Here’s a summary of the arguments used to justify overintensification, along with an alternative perspective:

  • “We need “intensification” to conform to provincial legislation.” A recent council workshop on intensification provided population projections and showed we can meet and exceed our growth requirements within existing Official Plan and Zoning provisions. The same is true downtown, an urban growth centre, with a requirement to provide a minimum 200 people or jobs per hectare. We are just over half way there, and can meet the balance of  growth requirements under the existing Official Plan & Zoning provisions, according to the staff report on the Martha St. proposal (pg 32).
  • “We need intensification to support transit and other amenities.” Transit works best with a minimum of 50 people per hectare, according to the Ministry of Transportation’s publication Transit Supportive Guidelines (pg. 21). We’re at double that density downtown. Our downtown business community also includes 430 retail offerings. More growth, in keeping with our existing planning/zoning is welcome, but we don’t need overintensification to support transit or other amenities.
  • “We need intensification to give us affordable housing.” Generally, highrise units are cheaper than single family homes, but that’s not the case with newer developments in the downtown. Most of our existing downtown highrises attract downsizing empty nesters who can afford the prices. A recent development approved for Caroline/ John/ Maria/ Elizabeth streets was supposed to provide affordability as a community benefit, but that was renegotiated from about 73% of units to roughly 27%. Council approved this 6-1 – I didn’t support the change. Further, tall buildings cause land prices to escalate, such that building a diversity of housing – mid-rise, towns, semis or singles – are harder to build because land is now more expensive. Our single family homes will escalate out of reach for many families (already happening), potentially driving families out of the core. Overall diversity and affordability in housing – something we are trying to achieve in our Official Plan – is eroded with each new tall building. We could lose our “small-town” unique feel in our downtown.

A better approach:

Where do we go from here? The interim tall building guidelines will go out for public consultation, if approved at council Oct. 3. It won’t be enough to tinker with the setbacks (6m or 7m?), podium design, size of floor plate or distance between towers (do we even want several towers on a parcel or block?).

Here are three suggestions for a better way to proceed with our discussions of intensification and tall buildings:

  1. Shift the focus from intensification to a higher community aspiration. Intensification is not an end, tall buildings are not an end; they are a means to an end. We  haven’t done the work yet to determine the outcome we are trying to achieve with tall buildings. Our guidelines didn’t start with a higher aspiration, as Vancouver’s did – preserving mountain views through narrow “point” towers on wider podiums. Let’s adopt a made in Burlington solution, not simply cut and paste a model designed for a different city. Let’s complete our community building vision for the future, through our Official Plan and Zoning reviews, then determine how tall buildings might fit to help us achieve our goals.
  2. Let’s take our time and get it right. Other cities, notably Toronto and Hamilton, have spent several years in extensive public consultation developing tall building guidelines. The public had a week. Let’s take the time to get a made in Burlington solution. 
  3. Acknowledge intensification has limits – so should tall buildings – both in number and size. A singular commitment to intensification can create negative consequences for the community, not least of which is lack of affordable choice in housing, congestion, loss of greenspace and demolition of low-rise historical buildings, reducing community character. Downtown and across the city we can meet our growth targets within existing Official Plan and Zoning provisions. Overintensification creates negative impacts for the community.

Throughout this process I will advocate for meaningful consultation with the public to learn from and work with you, not a “check off the box” exercise to educate the public.

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

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.


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  1. I just read the tall building guidelines again, closely. There are interesting guidelines in the document, that everyone should read. It’s an easy read. Go to the Sept. 13 D&I meeting package for the report, which I never knew was in the Council mill.

    The problems remaining, as I see them, are several.

    1. The guidelines send the message that “tall buildings” are in the cards, no matter what citizens think about it, and what they have said about the matter. To me, as I said earlier, I see this as a way to end run the many year OP review process, and provide cover for a some on Council desire to support tall buildings, which then supports developer demands and applications. As noted, we don’t need anything more than the existing OP and zoning to meet the intensification targets. So we don’t need this, and it’s only a maybe if we might want some of it.

    2. This is being increasingly expressed in Ward 1, at least, despite, to repeat, planning staff assurances that we can meet the “intensification” targets under the current OP and Zoning. There is lots of speculation, and efforts to bust the existing OP and zoning going on in Ward 1 with building heights higher than the zoning allows. All in the name of intensification. We don’t need it in Ward 1 either.

    3. These guidelines are now implemented by the Oct. 3 Council vote, so how will that play out bears scrutiny, as they will be part of the new OP and Zoning. Since these are guidelines, and appear to be discretionary, and depending on my points below, I’m concerned where this will lead.

    4. As always, how the guidelines are interpreted, and implemented by the city, is the key. There is lots in here to be argued about, and lots of room for more “planning opinions”.

    5. If enforced, the set-backs, and other quantitative spacing guidelines are very important. In my opinion, the ADI Martha application does not have a chance – they are right up against the property line of the building to the west, where the guidelines say 11 meters between buildings, or 5.5 meters to the property line with no adjacent buildings. Generally as I recall they want zero setbacks among other metrics in the guidelines, so buildings to the north might also enter this issue.

    6. Following on all this, since they are just more guidelines, and part of the city planning policy framework, what difference will any of it mean or make at the OMB?

    Watch out for how the city deals with this in the upcoming contest with ADI.

  2. I favour any green land or park dedication relating to new construction to be in situ, not a monetary contribution to some fund. That way the need for surrounding green spaces for new construction are actually in place where the building takes place.
    One tall building begets another tall building so be careful in creating a precedent. You can be sure some subsequent builder will take advantage of it.
    This Adi plan is clearly over intensification!

  3. Councilor Meed Ward does a great job of covering the issues and implications, but it appears that she is the only one at city hall who sees and talks the unvarnished truth. She speaks the will of the people, expressed by so many citizens repeatedly.

    I try to be respectful to our Council, but I view this insertion of tall buildings into the pot, before we have even completed the OP review, as political treachery. At Burlington city hall, it seems like honesty and integrity are largely counter-cultural.

    The OP review has been going on for years, with public input, but there has not been any real mention or public input, on tall buildings. Why was there no mention of this during the years of the OP review?

    Why is such an important and central planning matter left to now? It should have been an integral part of public information and consultation at the very beginning.

    The message sent now, approving interim guidelines, overrides any public views on how this fits what they were led to believe during the OP review, or what they really want for their city.

    This to me, as I said, is pure treachery. Like so many citizen commenters have said, what’s the point of commenting, or engaging, when the agenda is already set and we hapless citizens will just have “to be educated.”

    This only benefits landowners, developers, speculators, and self-serving politicians, which is what I have seen in process for many years. These interim guidelines will just kick that process into high gear, giving more leverage to break the back of what the citizens want.

    It does not benefit the residents! Just read what most of them think.

    Except for Meed Ward, Council seems to forget that they are elected by the present residents, the only ones that vote, not some fictional paper future that doesn’t exist and obviously cannot vote.

    I would like to know when they are all going to live up to the public trust and start to represent the present, the voters who put them in office, and expect to treated with honesty and respect. They don’t want to just be “educated’.

    Oh, I forgot. With all due respect, these days, honesty and integrity, taken seriously, are counter-cultural.


  4. Agree with James here…this document does not address the “where” or “if” components of intensification. They do not in any way shape or form lead to an outcome of “Vancouver without the mountains.”

    The place to determine where and if tall buildings will be developed is our Official Plan.

    These guidelines provide us with a definition of what a “quality” building looks like and how it should interact with the city. They are an important tool in protecting our city from having developers just slap together any old low-quality development that detracts from the public realm. In my view this is a more important aspect of whether or not a development is acceptable than the number of stories or metres of height. I would support these guidelines.

    • Chris, It looks like you didn’t read the article. Staff recommendations and approval of the Thomas Alton boulevard buildings was guided by the design guidelines, not the official plan which was speedily altered from 10 to 19 storeys in this area. This sets the tone for how planning will operate going forward.

      “Quality” is very subjective. These design guidelines put lipstick on the tall building pig. The absence of public input on these guidelines reveals that planning and its consultants believe they are the arbiter of what quality is. Given the failure of suburban planning over the last 60 years, why do we leave this in their hands?

  5. Marianne, we’re going to continue to receive development applications for tall buildings (taller than we want) whether these guidelines are in place or not. If they’re going to be built — whether because decide we want them or whether through a big fight at the OMB — I would rather see them built to high-quality standards like these. Our downtown would have been much better off if the existing tall buildings had been built to these standards.

    We need to get the Official Plan right and set appropriate limits on intensification. However, I don’t see that as a reason not to have strong standards in place as the development applications continue to pour in.

    • James, you accurately reflect the fatalistic zeitgeist that’s taken hold in urban communities across Ontario. Who says that we have to accept tall buildings as the answer to intensification? Why do we accept that design is limited to podiums and cladding and setbacks, while ignoring height, massing and community character? And who says that only planning department and consultant experts should be the authority on what constitutes great design? Decades ago Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses because she could see how his planning expertise led to the death of American cities’ vitality. Once again we’re too deferential to the experts.

  6. The real tragedy of downtown development is the City’s willingness to allow high rise development on the South side of Lakeshore Road and to allow almost 100% privatisation of our waterfront.

  7. I agree with your views on this subject, Marianne. I find it very discouraging that developers and the OMB can override the vision/wants/needs of the average Burlington citizen. These needlessly tall buildings are not beautiful community assets; they are merely monuments to greed. The sooner the ‘unelected’ OMB is disbanded, the better for all Ontario communities.

  8. This is a case of developers being ahead of the city.
    Staff needs some parameters when discussing proposed tall buildings, that’s why they asked for the report and need councils approval to use the recommendations.
    This interim or temporary provision is important, it allows staff to have meaningful discussions until council completes the new OP and public input has been considered.
    The sooner that work is done the sooner we will get permanent guidelines , until then we can’t just ignore proposals.
    If we want the decisions to be made in Burlington, we need to empower staff with the tools to implement those decisions.

  9. I am totally against these extra high buildings. If I wanted to live in a concrete jungle I would have moved to Toronto or Vancouver. I moved to Burlington because it WAS a nice quaint tree lined friendly community.

  10. I agree with your comments, Marianne. I have lived in Burlington almost fifty years and would hate to see it turn into another boring urban centre choked with high rises whose residents are cut off from the natural environment, living their lives between elevators and parking garages, struggling to get around on roads clogged with cars. Already, owning a home of one’s own is beginning to be an impossible dream for today’s young people. Surely there must be something better than the only other option of taking up residence in a small box inside a larger box. For developers, high rises are attractive as more lucrative but a city of high rises is a place without character or appeal. I hope for a bolder, more creative and imaginative vision from our city planners.

  11. Duplicate my comments on Martha and Lakeshore. If the O.M.B. can ,and will, override councils Official Plan then you are again blowing in the wind.
    Cy Mills

  12. I am afraid this Alton development is going to lead to a push for over-intensification and over-densification in north urban Burlington just as it has in south downtown lakeside Burlington. Will it be the first nail driven in the construction of high rises all along the 407 corridor? I hope not, but the recommendation by the Planning Department to go straight from 10 storeys allowed to 19 storeys supported is worrisome to say the least.

  13. I agree with your views on this subject Marianne. I understand that we need to protect our natural lands around the city but we need to have as much care with the planning of spaces within the city. This is not an either/or situation. We have a jewel in our city and waterfront and we need to make changes mindfully so that future generations have the benefits of a liveable community.
    Greed and short term thinking have to be avoided in the planning process.

  14. I fully support your stance, Marianne. Once a structure is built, it is permanent for generations to come and the local Burlington residents will just have to live with it. Please take the time and make the effort to get it right in the first place. My question is why wouldn’t the rest of City Council have this perspective, or at least bow to the opinion of the Councillor for Ward 2 (where most of the tall buildings will end up)? Humm, I wonder.

  15. Any solution from anywhere will need to think on the “grow up or grow out’ dilemma, if the population keeps growing. There is no sign of that slowing down, as yet.

    Tall buildings are a solution to sprawl there’s no doubt. Where do we put them? Why do they have to be located all together by the lake? Why can’t we spread them out and put some close to the major highways. I think we should put at least some over by the Q.E.W. and the 407. Put them all downtown and many people who wanted views will eventually have a great view of someone else’s balcony.

    I have more or less resigned myself to the fact that developers will get what they want, with the blessing of the Province.

    • There is benefit in clustering intensification in hubs. It improves the ability for public transit to operate, it makes the buildings not stick out in the landscape. It also improves the community viability of the area. This separation of tall buildings is why we have many of the problems that Burlington has. Anyone who has taken an introductory urban planning course understands the basics of city planning and what I have said above. Luckily, it seems most of our council is progressive and able to understand that oldschool 80s ideas behind city building are outdated and hurt cities, their economy, their community, and their congestion.

      Tall towers are not a bad thing! Especially clustered in an area like downtown. It can add more people, more walkable downtown, and more services and local stores and restaurants. We just need to be smart about how we build them. I think these guidelines are a great start, and with a council that is largely consisting of people with great heads on their shoulders, they should be able to use geographic, economic, and policy principles to guide the process better.

      With tall building guidelines, the city, and council will no longer be playing catch-up to million dollar developments. We will have a head start! Embrace the future of Burlington. Calm suburban streets, with the culture, vibrancy and fun of bigger cities, all in your back yard, with a lovely waterfront park, big enough for Canada’s largest ribfest, and a massive free music festival!

      • I’m not sure where this gentleman is coming from, but I sense that he is pretending that skimmed milk can really be seen as cream.

        The world is filled with false prophets and gurus, that tell you that they have all the answers that will lead our city to heaven. But their thoughts are shallow, and do not consider the reality of Burlington as it is, and the problem of the time it takes to make big changes, and how that changes how change itself happens, in turn.

        The city cannot become what they say in an overnight re-materialization, from where we are to the imagined assertion. The people today will never see what is suggested, and the politicians so highly praised can never make the whole of what is stated happen.

        I suggest that we be vigilant and beware of letting such assertions manipulate and entice us. We have our own inner wisdom, and we know that we have heard all this before, and we don’t believe it or want it. That much is true and obvious from what we ourselves say almost unanimously.

        And as I said, even if we wanted it, it is not physically, economically, or socially possible to get there from here in any time horizon, and with honest outcome, that is at all meaningful to present residents.

  16. I see no mention of the impact on infrastructure such as watemains,,sewers,, hydro,sewage treatment plants,parking,trafic,.Tall buildings bring with them tall problems! For example, the now under construction high rise on the lake where the old motels were, is the start of the Toronto look alike at the bottom of young and bay streets The lakefront is our most valuable asset to allow it to be consumed by a few money hungry developers is a disservice to all Burlington residence

  17. Allow highrises only if you ban the residents from having cars. I know that won’t happen but no one apparently is talking about Lakeshore Road, Brant Street, New Street etc. congestion that make the whole of downtown unpleasant for cars, bicycles, pedestrians, buses ….

  18. I object to these tall buildings, block out views of the lake,block out the sun. Do not fit in with our
    downtown look, the core should be protected.

  19. I believe that the push for tall buildings in Burlington is too rushed and that other options should be more fully explored.

  20. Is there not a made in Ontario solution? Why does this city continually bring in consultants from Vancouver, or Portland, etc. to tell us how our city should look. They mayor is constantly citing Portland when it comes to bicycle lanes and now a consultant from Vancouver is going to tell Burlington what our city needs in the way of tall buildings. Presently the mayor is in Denmark to look into green initiatives and alternate transportation ( bicycles etc.) Neither of these mimic Burlington in both age demographics and weather.
    People have asked why I have stopped sending in comments to” letters to the editor” and my answer is I finally realized that it is a waste of time. I feel the same way about public engagement. Smoke and mirrors, I have yet to see any real change by the city when residents bring forward their concerns.
    Ask the residents who travel on the new “road diet” how they feel. Another foolish solution that was endorsed by council to pander to the cyclist lobby in the city.
    Effective public transit that perhaps could make for a “greener” city – ignored.

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