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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

If at first you don't succeed

To understand what happened at the Planning and Environment Committee on Monday, a meeting that lasted from 4 p.m. to past 1 a.m. with only two 15 minutes breaks, it would be helpful to read Discount days at planning. In fact, I could just simply re-post that entry with only a change of dates. It was déjà vu all over again. The only difference was that Dale Henderson and Judy Bryant had replaced Denise Brown and Joni Baechler.

The meeting started with a complaint from Mayor Joe Fontana about why there was a public participation meeting to deal with a site plan review of two properties on which single family residences had been replaced with duplexes catering to a student population. “This should be a slam dunk,” he argued. “Why are we doing this?”

"It’s a requirement of the Official Plan," he was told. 

In fact, it was only a few weeks ago when the policy about how to deal with redevelopment and intensification in an existing neighbourhood, was being reviewed. The public participation meeting allows the community to understand what is happening in their neighbourhood and to voice any concerns. The development industry was unhappy about the requirement, and so was Fontana. They figured that if the developer has the zoning, just go ahead and build whatever is allowed. Why consult the neighbours? They’ll just cause problems.

And that pretty much set the tone for the evening with the concerns of residents from various and sundry neighbourhoods being ignored while the requests of  the proponents were being accommodated regardless of official plans and zoning restrictions.

It’s not as if the community had stayed home; the public gallery was filled until well after 11 p.m. with residents waiting four or five hours to have an opportunity to speak.

There were two applications that were the focus of much concern from the neighbourhood, both from  proponent Ali Soufan of York Developments.

Soufan usually does well at planning committee. He’s a generous donor to political campaigns; he and his various businesses and family members had donated generously to the campaigns of a number of members of council including the Mayor, committee chair Bud Polhill, and committee member Sandy White. Those donations may not be the deciding factor in approving an application, but they do tend to help you get a warm reception.  He certainly received one on Monday night.

This was his third attempt at getting his way with respect to an application on a small piece of land at the northeast corner of Sunningdale and Richmond Street. A few years ago, he wanted to put a commercial development there, an application that was narrowly defeated by council as it flew in the face of the community plan that had been carefully nurtured to completion over the course of three years of community consultation and cooperation. The residents directly to the south had wanted single family residences across the street but finally had agreed upon medium density housing in deference to the broader public interest. Not everyone can live in or next door to single family homes. So the community was prepared to accept some townhouses, perhaps even a low rise apartment building. But not commercial. Or, for that matter, highrises.  That was reserved for further north.

Soufan was not deterred by the narrow defeat; he challenged council’s decision at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The Board upheld council’ s decision, citing the many years of consultation that had gone into the community plan. He had not been prepared to undo that.

So last summer, Soufan was back. It was a new council which, early on, had already been kind to him, giving him a commercial development with a couple of drive thrus on a small lot at a very busy intersection over the objections of staff. He was optimistic.

Unfortunately for him, his second attempt also ran into difficulty. The application was for a 15 storey highrise building, with a density about four times that allowed by the designation. It was a long application, too: 370 pages. Those members of the committee who had read it were not thrilled when they found they had done so for nothing. The applicant, recognizing that the community was no more enthralled with this proposal than the previous one, had come in with a new proposal at the last minute.

That was not a good move. The community had their say anyway since they had been notified of their opportunity to weigh in. They were not happy and they let the committee know it. By rights, Soufan should have filed another application and paid the additional fees. After all, he was taking up staff and elected officials’ time as well as the public’s. But a sympathetic committee, Joe Swan and Joni Baechler excepted, voted to let him work with staff on the new application and save his money.

Now he was back with another iteration. Maybe some townhouses in front and a highrise—say 10 to 12 storeys—at the back. Luxury condos, not rental. In all, maybe 130 some odd units, more than twice what is allowed by the zoning. In short, high density. Staff recommended a refusal.

So did the neighbours. The gallery was again full, the  presenters  and presentations familiar: the state of the Sunningdale Road, the traffic volume, the work that had gone into pulling together a community plan.

There was also opposition from Drewlo Holdings. It has dibs on the property directly to the north which has been designated for high density in the community plan. It wouldn’t be fair to let Soufan scoop up the density, leaving Drewlo with less.

And then there was Joni Baechler. Although no longer on the planning committee, she represents that neighbourhood and she was fierce in her defense of it.

The community association has spent three years on the  process.  They had met with landowners and developers and finally achieved a meeting of the minds. Staff had made a recommendation and other developers were in support. Integrity in the process is critical, she concluded.

It was a valiant effort, but the debate that followed showed little of that integrity.

Fontana kicked it off. He determined that the whole problem was not the density or the community plan but the traffic on Sunningdale.  When would the road be widened?

Not for a while, he was told. It was to have been in a few years but there wasn’t any money; it had been pushed further out on the list of works in capital plan. Fontana thought it might be time to re-think that. Maybe do it instead of Hyde Park.

It was clear where he was going. He wanted to support the applicant, never mind the dozens of residents who had spoke out against it.

Judy Bryant hasn’t been on the committee for a while but she understands the planning process. 

“We’re not planners,” she pointed out. “The community plan is carefully thought out. If you live on the south (side of Sunningdale) what would you want on the north?” She didn’t want to start messing with the plan.  She wanted to respect the many, many months of planning that had been involved. To accede to the proposal would be a “huge move against the community plan.” She proposed accepting the staff recommendation to refuse the application.

Then Dale Henderson added a twist. Would it be zoned for affordable housing, he wondered. I thought he was suggesting density bonusing for affordability, an incentive or reward to developers for providing something that the city needs or desires. For example, sometimes a development will be allowed to put in a few extra units for going over and above basic design requirements.

I was surprised; he hasn’t been on the committee very long. I didn’t think he knew that much about planning and bonusing.

In fact, he didn’t. His interest wasn’t in finding ways to get affordable housing; he wanted to scare the community into embracing Soufan’s application.

He began to raise the spectre of three-storey walk-ups all along the north side of Sunningdale. “Wow! Wouldn’t that be different!” he exclaimed. “Here we’ve got an applicant with something very upscale. Beautiful looking thing. Now, what do we want?” For good measure, he tossed in the observation that there wouldn’t be a traffic problem if there were a ring road, but it was a little late for that.

In the gallery, people were beginning to exchange glances. Several were shocked; others began to giggle. Sandy White chided them. “The ring road is not a joke,” she said, and then she wondered, ‘Has there ever been a neighbourhood plan that’s been changed?”

Well of course. But should it be done over the objections of the neighbours, the professional planning staff, and the OMB? When there is no compelling reason other than the developer wants it?

White also wondered if staff had really tried to work with Mr. Soufan, had he been consulted about the possibility of a compromise?

“We’ve had many conversations with Mr. Soufan,” planning director John Fleming told her. He didn’t add that they had bent over backwards for him, but I’m sure they did.

“What I’m hearing,” White continued, “is that either way, this is going to the OMB.”

Joe Swan had been silent to this point, but now he came out in favour of the staff recommendation. He hadn’t heard any compelling reason to change his position on the application. He supported Bryant’s motion. It promptly failed, 2 to 4.

Fontana immediately moved to support the application “notwithstanding the staff recommendation”. He liked what Henderson had to say. The self-professed champion of affordable housing, the former minister of housing, the man who only a few days earlier at budget deliberations had suggested that developers should be required to put in some units of affordable housing as a condition of development approvals, said “I’d rather have high end stuff rather than 5 storey rental that caters to a different clientele.”

Baechler objected; in case Dale didn’t know, she explained, You can’t zone for income or socioeconomic status or the user, whether something is owned or rented. You can only zone for the uses.

Henderson denied that was what he meant, but that was surely what he intended. And so did Fontana, and he should certainly have known better.

But things had deteriorated to a pathetic state. The committee was doing the work of the applicant, adding conditions, lowering the building by a few floors, ordering the widening of Sunningdale Road, and throwing in a few studies. By the time they were finished,  most no longer knew what they were voting on. 

The people in the gallery were horrified. They couldn’t believe what they were witnessing. Among them was a group of Urban Design students, there to learn about the planning process.

Also there on the council floor was Nancy Branscombe , waiting to represent her community with respect to another application by Soufan. She was appalled.

“Why do we have statutory meetings if we're not going to listen to the public anyway?” she asked.

Her question remained unanswered. The newly crafted application was approved 4-2.


Take away the vote from non citizens said...

It's just great that two out of towners, Joe Fontana and Dale Henderson, who have no stake in the city, get to cast the deciding votes in London neighbourhood planning.

Dan the Developper said...

Yes it's a dandy deal for Joe and Dale. They can drop into London to do their developper friends (and financial supporters) a big favour at the expense of London taxpayers, then they go back to their lower-taxed mansions in Arva and Timbucktu (or wherever).

This is what makes London the city of opportunity!

Aye, Aye Sir said...

Let's not forget Mumbles and Fumbles, Bud and Sandy. Such loyal soldiers, why they'll go right along with whatever "Mr. Mayor" says, whether they understand it or not.

Anonymous said...

How is it that Henderson is even allowed to stay on council?

Barry Wells said...

The oily Old Boys' Land Development Club is officially back @ London city hall.

Anonymous said...

Let us look at the members of council. We can make judgements about people based on many different criteria
As a society we don’t know what criteria should be used to measure a man (or a woman).
Let us consider intelligence. Is a man’s intelligence measured by how much he has read? Would it be important to know what he has read? After all most of them admit they only look at the pictures. Is intelligence solely based on being well read or can it also be relative to acting with prudence and common sense?
What about integrity. If someone will always follow the others to obtain a payback whether that is monetary or a favour or just the act of feeling accepted by your peers that is far from doing the right thing.
Now lets us look at our members of council physically. Notwithstanding some may think someone is unattractive that is not the point of this exercise. Let us consider their appearance as it relates to health. Who appears mentally and physically fit? Some of these people speak as though they shouldn’t work in mental health they need care themselves. Some of them definitely need a gym membership and perhaps give up smoking and drinking.
I heard it said that we are all dying and when your number comes up it’s your time, but by the looks of Council those sayings ring more true.

Anonymous said...

This is a misleading salespitch..."Luxury condos, not rental."
There's no law that prohibites an owner from renting luxurious accomodations or requiring the owner to live in the residence they own.

Andrew Castaneda said...

As an urban development student at UWO, I'm left scratching my head at the frequency with which this city does the exact opposite of proper development/planning methods. This is a city without any meaningful identity: With 60,000 renters,London has the most renters (and rental units) of any city in the region, yet there is no protection from the city for renters. Seems to me that if someone were ever to engage this massive population segment (instead of homeowners alone), that this city might have a fighting chance at prosperity and a real community by means of better representation than Fontana and his sprawl-loving ilk. Someone needs to remind them that you build a community by engaging people, not by building buildings.