Ali Soufan had scarcely time to do a high five on the Sunningdale and Richmond deal, getting an Official Plan amendment and a lucrative zoning change for a property designated medium density and suddenly getting high density without having to lift a finger—the planning committee did all the work for him—when he was before that committee again, asking for what he really likes, drive throughs on small parcels of land at busy intersections.
The intersection in question was the Huron Street and Adelaide one. It’s a busy intersection, lots of traffic, both automobile and pedestrian. Adelaide runs north and south; at least 55,000 automobiles cross over Huron Street daily. Huron Street also is busy. It brings traffic from the east of the city to King’s College and the main campus of Western University (which I think of as my alma mater, UWO, but that’s another story entirely) west of Richmond Street.
Huron Street is especially interesting since, although it looks like an arterial road as you are travelling east from Highbury Avenue, once you get past the lights at Adelaide, it becomes a residential street. Within a block or two, it takes a 90 degree turn to the south onto William Street and the heart of Old North. Large lots, big brick houses set well back from the shady streets, not many sidewalks. Huron Street sees lots of bicycle traffic too since, if instead of going south, you go due west, you find yourself on a lovely paved bicycle path that takes you along the river and ultimately to Richmond Street and the University.
The intersection itself is a mixture of land uses. Along Adelaide Street, on the east side, there is a lot of commercial property: a grocery store, a bank, a gas station, a drug mart, some fast food restaurants, a dental office and my favourite, Merla Mae’s, a popular ice cream place in the summer. Some businesses have left the plaza at the southeast corner, so there could be opportunities for an entrepreneur with a good plan. Across the street on the west side it’s mostly residential and office going south from Huron Street, but north of Huron there is a former lube shop, with a Hebrew day school, a nursery school, and a Jewish community centre serving a lot of seniors right beside it along Huron Street. Further north along Adelaide, there are more single family dwellings and small offices.
So it’s a very diverse corner. Drivers heading east along Huron find themselves funneled into in a residential neighbourhood. The community there has lots of traffic problems from vehicles using streets as a cut through, endangering their children, seniors, and pets. They like living there, many have done so for several decades. It’s close to recreational areas, the University and Fanshawe College, and you can get almost anything you need by walking, if you just watch out for cars. A lot of traffic calming measures are in place.
All this is, of course, meaningless if you just continue to divert more traffic away from the major artery, Adelaide Street, onto Huron Street. Such was the proposal from Ali Soufan. He wanted to develop the property on the northwest corner, the lube shop. Although it is a small property, he wanted to nearly double the building footprint to create a retail space including a drive-through restaurant. To do this, he needed an official plan amendment, a re-zoning, lots of leeway regarding setbacks, and the use of city property reserved for potential road widening so that his customers can use the city’s boulevards for parking.In all he had three, maybe four possible configurations for accomplishing this. None of them left him with enough parking without using the city’s space. Because it’s right at a busy intersection, the proposal was to enter at Adelaide when travelling south, and exit onto Huron heading west. Access from north bound traffic would be prohibited by a new traffic island.
The Official Plan designates the property as high density residential. He was requesting that it be re-designated as a neighbourhood commercial node.
According to the official plan, “Neighbourhood Commercial Nodes are intended to provide for the daily or weekly convenience shopping and service needs of nearby residents and, to a lesser extent, passing motorists. They should contain uses that are convenience-oriented and unlikely to draw customers from beyond the local area.”
The community was outraged and let the Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) know it. Their daily and weekly shopping needs were being met quite nicely, thank you very much. In fact, several retailers had shut down due to lack of business. And certainly, they had lots of fast food and drive throughs. Their big problem was not lack of drive throughs, it was too much cut through traffic. The new development would bring more noise from outdoor speakers, more cars turning in their driveways or doing U-turns trying to get back onto Adelaide, failing which, they would simply cut through the residential neighbourhoods. There would be no more enjoyment of a quiet summer evening outdoors; instead it would be noise from the restaurant and car lights shining in their windows at night.
Speaker after speaker from the community decried the proposal. Indeed, I was surprised that staff had endorsed although it seemed to me that the planners present appeared to be embarrassed by their acquiescence to the proposal.
Even the report was unusual. Despite staff’s belief that the applicationl met the conditions for the commercial node designation, the report stated that “Staff are of the belief that, due to parking requirements, none of the proposed conceptual site plans can be achieved.”
How then was the plan to be implemented? Again, according to the report, “staff equally believe this can be addressed through the site plan review stage where the allowable floor space will be dictated by the determination of parking available on site.” In short, they proposed a series of holding provisions until these issues were addressed.
Nancy Branscombe is the councillor for the area. She professed herself to be completely puzzled. There were a lot of problems at that corner already with nearly twice the average rate of accidents. This would only intensify them. At the very least, the traffic studies should be done before any decision should be made. “It would be foolhardy to proceed tonight,” she insisted.
The proponent didn’t really think there was any need for studies for parking or traffic. He also had a noise consultant; if that became a problem, he could look into doing something about it. As for the lights, he had checked the pitch of the road: the lights would be pointing downward as the cars rolled across Huron Street, so problem solved.
The concerns about the safety of the school children and seniors were dismissed as were the fears of the Jewish community that the overflow parking would end up in the parking lot of the community centre which was already pressed for space.
Dale Henderson found it an interesting dilemma but he had a solution: widen Adelaide. The cut through from Huron Street he acknowledged were “a big bugaboo”. Maybe the restaurant should be a sit down restaurant. And they could turn Huron into a cul-de-sac. People were beginning to wonder what he was talking about and when he suggested changing the zoning to allow for a liquor store, some burst out laughing. But their laughter turned to cheers when he stated unequivocally that all the entrances and exits should come off Adelaide.
Mayor Fontana concurred; it didn’t matter what the use of the property was, the problem was the traffic from the east (“They’re nice people, too,” he conceded) heading to King’s University College and beyond. They would just have to force people from the drive through back onto Adelaide Street. He just wanted to know what needed to be done to make that intersection safe.
It would be difficult, staff told him. Adelaide northbound was almost at capacity. They’d have to do a traffic study.
But Fontana was determined to go ahead. They could just put on a bunch of holding provisions for site plan relating to noise, traffic, and urban design.
Judy Bryant was horrified. She couldn’t support what was happening and moved a referral. They were just “doing stuff on the fly,” she complained. They needed to get one possibility rather than three or four with all of these issues addressed.
“People have been killed here,” she pointed out. “I’m really puzzled with this recommendation from planning,” referring to the noise of speakers. And the headlights would be ghastly.
“We’re not the planners,” she continued. “We need a plan that’s complete. We don’t have a complete application here.” No one would second her motion to refer this back to staff.
Although he’s not on the committee, Steve Orser wanted to know why they shouldn’t just dead-end Huron Street. Wouldn’t that solve the traffic problems? The constituents in the gallery were shaking their heads in disbelief.
That would just divert 7,400 cars to Regent Street, staff pointed out. “If you close it, traffic will have to go somewhere.”
Still, Orser was not to be deterred. He asked Soufan how many jobs his development would create.
Soufan didn’t know. He wasn’t sure what would go in there. He didn’t have a tenant yet.
Joe Swan had been very quiet. Now he was ready to wrap it up. He supported the motion, to let the developer go ahead, give him the Official Plan amendment and the zoning change.
He was confident that, with the holding provisions and the confines of the space, “the controls are embedded.”
The community had had lots of opportunity to speak and they did but, apart from Judy Bryant, it wasn’t heard nor listened to.
Only the developer emerged a winner.
And why didn’t staff object?
It’s hard to say. But a year or so ago they were faced with a similar application from the same developer: a couple of drive throughs on a small lot at a busy intersection. At that time, staff had objected but the committee chose to not heed the warning. It’s not easy having your best professional advice ignored.
Even for staff, politics is the art of the possible.