Developer wants reduction of community benefits; staff propose approval

To Development & Infrastructure Committee, Mon. Sept. 9, 1pm

Carriage Gate Medica One medical condominium parking complex on Burlington's Caroline and John Street

Artist’s rendering of the Carriage Gate medical/ parking/ condo complex on Caroline and John

Carriage Gate Group Inc. wants a reduction in the agreed-upon community benefits negotiated in exchange for extra height on the medical/parking/condo complex at Caroline, John, Elizabeth and Maria Streets, approved in 2010. Specifically, the request is to change the amount of affordable housing from 73% of the highrise condo to 27%.

Planning staff are recommending that council accept the change. In a letter to planning staff, Nick Carnicelli of Carriage Gate Group Inc. has said the changes are needed because of changing economic and market realities, and a planned increase in unit size, and decrease in unit count.

The original zoning on the site was four storeys, with an option to go to eight storeys with provision of community benefits under Section 37 of the Planning Act. Council approved more than double that – a 17-storey highrise facing Maria Street, plus an eight-storey medical office facing Caroline; and an eight-storey above ground parking structure, with three storeys of underground parking structure for a total of 522 commercial/residential spaces.

Sixty of these spaces will be set aside for general public use, to replace the exiting municipal parking lot on the site. This is a net gain of 23 public parking spaces.

Community benefits were negotiated in return for granting extra height, including that 73% of the units be affordable according to Halton Region’s definition of affordability. The current affordability threshhold for “small households” is $255,400. (See the 2011 State of Housing Report, p. 4

The deadline for signing the community benefits and development agreements on the project lapsed last year, and was extended in September 2012 for 18 months.

Developer also seeking changes to hydro agreement

In addition to reducing the agreed commitment on affordable housing, Carriage Gate is seeking changes to conditions in the development agreement that require upgrading the hydro service in the area, and burying the hydro wires from John to Pine Streets. A holding zone has been placed on the development until this issue is resolved.

The city is reviewing the cost sharing of hydro burial generally in the downtown, currently borne 100% by developers with a suggested three-way share by the city, hydro and the developer. However, any changes would not be grandfathered back to previously approved projects. A report on downtown hydro burial is expected later this year.

Meantime, the site is being cleared for construction. The condo is currently being marketed as The Berkeley

My Take: If council agrees to reduce the community benefits, we are not acting in the best interests of our residents and we are setting a dangerous precedent that makes a mockery of our own policies.

City Hall and council cannot continue to bend to every request from a developer citing economic difficulties. Our role is to seek what’s best for the community, which means upholding our policies on behalf of residents.

The changes being requested are not minor – they are significant.

Minor modifications are one thing; significant departure from agreed commitments is unacceptable. That is policy making on the fly, driven largely by the developer’s financial interests, not planning considerations or what’s best for the community.

Acting in the resident’s best interests

What the community needs are affordable units, now more than ever. We want to attract young professionals to live downtown; that’s becoming harder as prices rise, a concern voiced repeatedly during the work of the Downtown Task Group. Reducing the affordability to one-third of the original commitment is a major change.

Developer got economic value

The community benefits were negotiated as a complete package in exchange for considerable economic benefits to the developer.

Carriage Gate was granted an extra four stories on the medical centre and parking garage, and an extra 13 storeys on the condo, in exchange for providing community benefits. When this project was approved, over the objection of the neighbours, we were told to accept it because we were getting community benefits in return.

Now the community is asked to accept less benefit, without any change in the height on the project.

I’ve spoken with Mr. Carnecelli of Carriage Gate, who says he voiced his objections about the conditions at the time the plan was approved. This is a serious matter. The entire proposal should never come to council if there was any doubt about everyone’s commitment to the agreed upon terms.

Dangerous precedent

Any future negotiated community benefits won’t be worth the paper they are written on.

The message to future developers will simply be: just wait us out. Come back in a few years and renegotiate the benefits.

I’ve voiced my objection to the use of Section 37 in granting extra height in the past. Though attractive on paper – negotiating “extras” from a development – there truly is no “free lunch.” The community “pays” for these benefits one way or the other. In this case, the community is not getting what we were promised.

This is yet another reason why we should not be using it, but rather should stick to our own Official Plan and Zoning. I recently wrote about the need to uphold our OP/Zoning. When we don’t, we undermine confidence in the plan, make policy on a case-by-case basis rather than comprehensively, drive up land values making development that conforms to our plans almost impossible, and undermine our own ability to defend our plan at the Ontario Municipal Board.

A deal is a deal. The city honoured its commitment to change the zoning, granting considerable economic benefit to the developer. For the sake of the community, council needs make the developer honour their commitments to the community.

Your take: Should council agree to the change put forward by the Planning staff or uphold the original agreement for the community benefits? Please email me at [email protected] or comment below.

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