Members of the community who had come to have a look at the revised Southwest Area Plan (SWAP) got a big box full of surprises.
Five White Oaks Malls? Four Hyde Parks? Four Exeter and Wellington Roads?
That’s what it would take to fill up the commercial land along Wonderland Road south of Southdale Road if the alternate proposal for developing the southwest area of London demanded by the new Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) is adopted.
In December, staff had brought forward its vision based on the recommendations of the consulting firm the city had contracted for its first ever city-led area plan. The consultants had numerous meetings with the community and its stakeholders and devised a series of options based on those consultations and the legal, financial and environmental constraints. Those options were presented to the community for further consultation. Then, after a bit of tweaking, a preferred alternative was presented to PEC prior to being sent out to the community for comment. The committee’s response, together with the debate and vote at council in January was dealt with in Slicing and dicing.
Suffice it to say, the new committee took issue with the plan. The PEC is composed of Chair Bud Polhill, Vice-chair Sandy White, Joe Swan, Judy Bryant and Dale Henderson and always, of course the mayor, ex officio, meaning that he is automatically a member of any standing committee going. The first four are veterans, both of council and some form of planning committee; Henderson is a rookie.
The mayor in particular was not pleased with what came forward. He wanted more commercial along the Wonderland corridor.
The proposal from the planning department was to have a corridor composed of mixed usages: some of the New Format Commercial (read big box), some auto commercial, some office and some multi-family residential, both high and medium density. That would allow for a walkable, transit friendly strip heading into Lambeth.
The mayor wanted big box. With the support of all but Judy Bryant, he managed to direct staff to provide an alternate proposal with more commercial. A number of landowners and developers and their agents kept a close eye on the committee proceedings from the public gallery.
After considerable wrangling at council, a modified resolution to provide two alternative concepts, the original as well as a commercial one, was adopted.
On Tuesday, staff met with stakeholders in the Lambeth Community Centre to present the additional option. Nothing but big box all along Wonderland from Southdale Road to Longwoods Road south of Lambeth.
Planner Heather McNeely presented the two concepts for the southwest area. The only difference between the two plans, she pointed out, was the designation for the Wonderland corridor. She had all the numbers—how many square meters of commercial at 30% coverage—but the comparisons to existing commercial development hit home with the public. Even some of the developers were taken aback. What would you do with five White Oaks? Or four Hyde Parks? Even Walmart, with its planned three-quarters of a billion dollar investment in 73 locations in Canada over the next year, would have difficulty seeing the value in that, although its interest in the land at Exeter and Wonderland is probably one of the driving forces with council.
The rookie on PEC, in whose ward 9 this meeting was being held, was in attendance, as was Ward 12 councillor Harold Usher. No sign of Sandy White, whose ward 14 is also affected by the proposal.
The rookie wanted to say a few words.
“This is a very important meeting,” he announced, and proceeded to explain how he saw it. It would be a big growth area over the next three years.
This was a bit of a surprise. The plan was for the next twenty to fifty years. Not much would be happening in the next three years as a result of this plan. After all, the servicing costs for this area are in the $500-600M range. That means that it will have to be phased in and all that is contemplated for now is development in currently approved areas that can be handled by existing sanitary servicing. That alone will cost about $85M.
Already this council is looking at deferring life cycle maintenance in order to take a bite out of the tax increase. So where would they get the additional money to undertake the works? At 3.7% population increase over the past five years, the most recent growth statistics for London are certainly not encouraging.
But these are not concerns that give Henderson pause. He was excited about what he saw coming over the horizon. There were improvements in sewer engineering, lots of big box was coming and we don’t have much land, he claimed. The whole impetus for this was jobs. More jobs would keep down taxes.
He encouraged people not to simply settle for what was in the proposal. They could come to him, he was on the planning committee and it would only take four votes to push things through, eight if you wanted something approved by the whole council. They could make things happen.
Ultimately, he declared, the market would rule the roost; but people might have an idea or get a feeling to do something differently. Maybe they could put in their own sewers and not count on development charges, do it on their own coin. They should get together in their own groups and associations and put forward their proposals. They should know that they were being well served by what was happening.
“Let’s do this thing!” he exulted.
His remarks were met with silence. It seemed no one knew quite what to make of them.
It’s unusual for an elected member to speak at such a meeting. It is staff’s meeting with the stakeholders. It’s supposed to be a planning exercise.
But suddenly, it had turned into a political event where developers and landowners were being encouraged to circumvent the process.
Following this exhortation, the nearly 200 members of the public who were in attendance were encouraged to get together and respond to certain aspects of the proposal. The participants at Table 2 were to deal with the issue of the Wonderland corridor.
Their comments,written on large sheets of paper on a flip chart, were consistent. In the second concept, the “commercial is HUGE”, they wrote. There were concerns about the walkability. And what would be the impact of all this big box stuff on other commercial areas? They didn’t want more retail, especially not big box American retail. Where would they find the people to shop at these places? Already, there were empty malls and stores around the city. “We need a balance”, they wrote.
The most recent analysis of commercial space in London supports their concerns. The report indicates that there was an excess of commercial /retail space and that in 2008 there was
“an adequate supply of vacant commercial land to accommodate forecasted commercial growth over the next twenty years and that there is sufficient land in both the north and south ends of the city, through a combination of new development and redevelopment of existing centres to accommodate demand for larger, regionally scaled commercial centres when necessary”.
“Given the relative oversupply of underutilized lands already designated in the Official Plan for commercial uses, prematurely designating more Urban Reserve land for commercial uses would not represent good planning, especially where any such lands lie outside of the current built boundary and would require a ‘leapfrogging’ of development of vacant and agricultural farmlands.”
But I doubt that most of the members of the PEC have read the staff report let alone the background studies that inform the Southwest Area Plan that was originally put forward, the result of many hours of study, investigation, and consultation.
For them, it’s a matter of politics, not planning.