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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Discount days at planning

Another development proposal which came before the Built and Natural Environment Committee (BNEC) last week was also familiar to me, although this was at the other end of the city. It was an application for 2118 Richmond Street at the northeast corner of Richmond Street and Sunningdale Road. Currently, a single family house, a garage and a shed are on the 7,025.8 square metre lot.

The parcel in question is zoned multi-family medium density residential which would allow for a maximum density of 75 units per hectare, or something on the order of townhouses. The applicant, Ali Soufan of York Developments, wanted to have that bumped up to 300 units per hectare. Think apartment towers or high-rise condos.

This was not the first time an application was made for this property. In early 2009, the applicant had wanted to have a commercial designation on the property in order to build a medical office complex and a drug store.

The property is part of the land acquisition resulting from the 1993 annexation. In order to ensure an orderly development of the land in the area, an extensive community planning exercise was undertaken. The final plan, which reflected the consensus of the community, was approved by council in 2003. It allowed for commercial development on the west side of Richmond, and residential on the east. To the south of Sunningdale on the east side would be single family residential, on the north medium density and then high density even further north once a new road to accommodate the traffic could be built. Sunningdale is already very busy for a two lane highway.

When the proposal for a medical centre and drugstore came before us in 2009, it created a heated discussion. After all, there were doctors involved and urban design guidelines; it sounded great. The community, however, was opposed. They had invested 10 years in finding a compromise that satisfied everyone. They weren’t prepared to undo that. In the end, the application was narrowly defeated. An appeal by the developer to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) resulted in the council’s refusal being upheld.

And now, here was the applicant back again with a new idea: a 15 storey apartment building with 260 units. Not exactly in keeping with the medium density zoning.

Although staff had been in favour of the medical and commercial development, the planning department was less enamoured of this application. The proposed density was 300 per hectare, double the maximum for high density! There was already a high density designation just next door on the property to the north. The lot was just too small for a development of that type, staff maintained. The Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Richmond Street/Sunningdale Road area was not completed. The whole project was premature. Major road improvements would need to be done before a project of that scale could be considered. Staff recommended refusal of the project.

Listening to staff’s recital of all the negative aspects of the proposal, the mayor quipped, “Tell us what you really think!”

The applicant had a surprise in store for the committee.

He had a new proposal, totally different. Some stacked townhouses and a high rise. Not quite so dense, but still higher than allowed for in the zoning, 136 rather than the 55 units allowed. No, the community hadn’t seen it yet. The developer would be getting together with the consultant for the EA the following week.

Councillor Joe Swan was incredulous. “Are you asking for a referral?” he wanted to know. “I spent most of my weekend reading 370 pages of this application!”

Councillor Denise Brown suggested that it be referred back to staff. A number of people in the gallery and on the floor of council chambers had waited a long time to give their response to the proposal which had been circulated to them but now appeared to be off the table. “We shouldn’t be wasting time with a public participation meeting if we have to go through it all again,” she argued.

A representative for the community wanted none of it. “Stick to the Sunningdale plan,” committee members were told. “This (the density) is still way over what it was supposed to be.”

As Baechler pointed out, with the sudden change in applications, the public was “in a quandary now about whether to speak or not.”

Councillor Sandy White thought the community was not asking for a lot, just dealing with traffic and sticking to the plan. Then she revealed that she had had a chat with the developer. “Soufan has some great ideas,” she enthused. She suggested that the matter should go back for the community and the developer to have a talk.

Swan felt that, despite this last minute entry, “We should hear from the public, let’s hear what they have to say about this application (the original one).”

Katherine Munn, representing the community was unequivocal. “Reject this application. If there is another application, let that be a separate application.” She noted that the developer had made an application in 2009; it was rejected, had gone to the OMB, and the developer lost.  The OMB report had stated that the community plan “was result of years of consultation, I am not prepared to undo that.”

Other residents were equally adamant. Chief among their concerns was the traffic on Sunningdale and the need for a four-lane highway to proceed. “Road widening will not occur for years and the applicant wants to proceed next year,“ it was pointed out. “A development of this type requires access from interior roads which are not ready to be constructed.”

To demonstrate the traffic problems, one resident showed a video that he had taken of his wife trying to back out of the driveway on to Sunningdale. It took a long time to find an opening in traffic and it wasn’t even rush hour!

But the main objection to the plan was its failure to respect 10 years of planning by the community. “Everybody bought into it,” said one resident. “It became the basis for purchasing a property in this area.”

The question was: How do we deal with this? The applicant had come forward at the zero hour with a totally new proposal. Staff had put a lot of time and effort in the original submission. Should it be treated as a new application, meaning that the application fees would be charged again? Or should it be regarded as a revision of the original application?

Director of Planning, John Fleming, pointed out that if no decision on the original application was made by council, the applicant could appeal it to the OMB, but he had been assured that the developer didn’t plan to do so. “We could have him consult with staff.  Or if we make a decision, he can make a new application. But that will involve costs.”

Swan wanted to know if the applicant could revise his application and re-circulate to the community. However, a referral was on the table. That took precedence. Swan preferred to refuse the original and let the applicant submit a new application with more fees.

Baechler referred to a letter from Drewlo who owns land just to the north. He was concerned that Soufan “will scoop the density” for the area.  Baechler had been on the area planning committee; they had allowed for density, she noted, and nobody appealed this to the OMB at the time.

Mayor Fontana reflected that he goes up and down Richmond Street each and every day and understands about the traffic situation there. “Where are we with the improvements to Sunningdale to facilitate development along Sunningdale?” he wanted to know.

The EA was expected to be wrapped up by fall, he was told, but the capital improvements have been postponed for years. The reason for this was not given but last fall council agreed to speed up payments to developers from the Urban Works reserve fund in return for them dropping a challenge to the development charges by-law. As a result, a number of scheduled road widenings and improvements had to be deferred.

White pointed out that Soufan was prepared to give the city the land for the road widening. However, that doesn’t address the costs of construction, which are considerable.

Eventually, it was determined to refer the application to staff to consult with the developer on a revised application, it being noted at the insistence of Baechler, that “the current application is not acceptable.”

But the question remains: Is it appropriate for the developer to get consideration for two applications for the price of one? Especially when neither proposal meets the requirements of the Area Plan. The application fees are based on the principle of cost recovery. When an entirely new plan is submitted, the staff workload is doubled. But they don’t get a raise and they can’t hire more staff within the existing budget.

So who pays for the additional work?


Anonymous said...

The applicant should have been thrown out of the meeting for wasting the time of staff and councillors. A fine would also be a good idea.

Let him apply again in, say, ten years.

Anon one

Anonymous said...

I agree...there has to be proper procedure and this developer seems to think they can work around proper procedure. Why do they believe they can do this? Who has given them this impression? City planning staff are the experts and should be listened to. I believe the developer should pay for the new proposal if they still wish to do so, after they are told to leave the meeting.

Anonymous said...

I am tired of the mayor's quips. He makes a mockery of the meetings.

The Cynic said...

The mayor is telling these developers and the staff that they should bend and / or break the rules to add to the assessment base. After all, he won't be around to clean up the problems and it will probably increase the property values of the property (or properties) he owns in London that he visits from his residence outside of the city.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comment this developer should have been told to leave the chamber. What he was proposing was not on his first plan and he should made to understand there's a right way and a wrong way to approach such issues-his is wrong.

Anonymous said...

This Developer should consider that all of his plans are not excepted
by the area residents and perhaps his he made a bad purchase
of land and that he will experience a loss on investment.
Too bad for him. Stop wasting city staff time and resources, and move on. this guy is abusing the system, it should stop.