In all the ten plus years of debate on the development proposed for Reservoir Hill, at least one prediction came true this week.
At the council meeting of September 19, 2011 Judy Bryant predicted, “We are in for a shock.” She was referring to the reaction of Londoners when they realized the magnitude of the structure that the current council seems prepared to allow to be built there.
When an artist’s rendering was presented at the public site plan meeting on Tuesday evening, reports on Twitter have it that the audience “gasped”.
This was curious, since the public gallery holds 90 people. I had hoped that there would be a good turnout, but well over 100? And only two neighbouring homes would be directly impacted.
We soon learned the reason why. Although this meeting had been scheduled for more than a month, for some reason the council chambers had to undergo construction earlier in the day and was not available. The public which had been specifically to attend this meeting, the last which would afford them an opportunity to have input, would have to make do with a smaller venue, one that was limited in size and sight lines for the public.
Additionally, there appeared to be problems with the microphones which made it difficult for those in attendance to understand how their representatives at the committee were responding to the difficulty. Advised by the city solicitor that postponing to a time when the public could be better accommodated would be in order, and in response to a motion by Councillor Bryant to do so, the remainder of the committee—Councillors Polhill (chair), Swan, White, Henderson and Orser (acting mayor)—remained silent. Without a seconder the motion died.
The public was not happy. They wanted everyone to be included. “Postpone! Postpone” they chanted, but the chair chose to continue.
Councillor Paul Hubert was also there. He had previously represented that area but, not being a member of the committee, could do some scouting. He quickly found that there was no construction going on, just some new monitors had been installed. There weren’t any microphones available, but a member of the custodial staff quickly retrieved those. A recess was called and everyone scuttled off down the hall to the council chambers where they were joined by those of us who had been waiting. By now it was nearly 8 o’clock although the meeting was to have commenced at 7 p.m.
Landscape Planner Linda McDougall made a brief presentation of the staff report which indicated that all outstanding matters were now resolved and, at council’s direction, the owner, Tony Graat of Ayreswood, could go ahead and erect a 12 storey, 165 unit building, 27 by 97 meters in a woodlot halfway up Reservoir Hill overlooking Springbank Park.
Alan Patton, agent for the developer, took his turn. In his 30 years of practice, he had never seen as much public consultation on a development as on this one, he claimed. Whether or not the public had actually been heard or its concerns taken into account, he didn’t say. But he was not happy with an online petition he had come across which made it clear that some wanted to undermine the developer’s ability to make some money on this development.
Councillor Joe Swan suggested the perhaps the public should be allowed to speak for itself.
Bud Polhill, as chair of the committee, wanted to start at the left side of the gallery and do the rounds from there; say your piece now, he advised them, because he didn’t want to have to go back to that side later.
“Why not?” people wanted to know. They had already discussed the order of speakers among themselves. “We can just go to the mike.” That seemed to be a novel approach to Polhill; he was used to directing speaker traffic, but eventually he gave up trying to herd them and let them pick their own speaking times.
This application has been doing the rounds for more than 10 years. It has been back and forth to the Ontario Municipal Board and the courts for interpretation. Although members of the community had fought to stop any development, most had realized that that was not an option.
But neither had the developer been given carte blanche. The original proposal had to be scaled down from two towers to one. Both staff and council had been firm on that, and they had been supported in subsequent OMB rulings. Instead, the proponent put forward a building that was 57% larger than one of the original buildings and kept coming back with the same proposal. It still had not effectively changed.
This is what galled the public. They had played by the rules and, as the first speaker, Paul Wilton of Byron, put it, “Those with wealth and connections should play by the same rules as the rest of us.” They didn’t, however. They just kept coming back with the same unacceptable plan saying “Supersize me.”
Others followed: the neighbours on either side, whose lifestyles and properties were being eroded; the historians who wanted to preserve the site of the 1812 Battle on Reservoir Hill; the environmentalists who were concerned about the red salamander; the nature lovers who enjoy walks in the woods; the residents who just didn’t want to see a jewel in London’s crown destroyed.
They were disappointed in their council and their councillors who had failed to protect them. On the committee, only Bryant had supported them. Their own councillor in ward 10, Paul VanMeerbergen, had done nothing for them.
“You are supposed to represent the constituents, not an individual developer,” one of the neighbours told him. They had collected over 600 signatures; there was strong consensus. If the councillor didn’t listen, they had no further recourse. Unlike the developer, they couldn't go back to the OMB.
One of the presenters had asked if any thought had been given to a land swap; he was told no.
But in the discussion that followed, Councillor Dale Henderson suggested that a land swap might be a good idea to keep everybody happy. He had originally supported the development, not appreciating that there might be public opposition. He doesn’t like getting negative emails and phone calls as his about-face on the affordable housing reserve fund indicates. And a lot of the people in the gallery were from his Byron ward. He may not live in the ward, or indeed, even in London, but he recognizes which ward his votes come from.
His suggestion, while far-fetched, drew a round of applause. It sounded like a ray of hope. Judy Bryant, having failed to get a seconder for a referral back to staff to investigate some additional issues, jumped on it. She seconded Henderson’s motion for a delay while this was checked out.
Swan urged caution, however. It takes two to do a land deal and the proponent hadn’t even been approached on a possible swap. They had an application in front of them and, from his reading of it, there was no way to stop it. Staff had recommended it, after all.
At this, Councillor Joni Baechler, who has consistently worked with the community and fought this application, reminded him of a little history. Although she was careful not to name him specifically, she pointed out that previous councils had been unanimous in opposing this development in any of its iterations. That included Swan, Orser, VanMeerbergen, Polhill and White even though now they supported it. Furthermore, staff had consistently opposed the development in its present form. That is why Swan had led the pack last fall to take the approval authority away from staff and hand it over to council. Until then, council had only been in a position to make comments for staff’s consideration. Now, in order to please and appease the developer and his agent, they had given the power unto themselves and directed staff to fall into line. They had bullied the staff in no fewer than five previous meetings. And here they were again.
Those who had supported that motion at council were none other than: Fontana, Polhill, Swan, Orser, Matt Brown, Dale Henderson, Paul VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White. Six of them were present at this meeting.
But here was Swan, trying to blame staff for its compliance with the will of council. It was a nice little piece of back-stabbing.
Most of the public didn’t get it, and he counted on that. When Henderson’s motion failed, as it was bound to, Swan quickly put forward a motion to support the staff “recommendation”; they could always add the possibility of a land swap as a second part.
Baechler pointed out that there would not be much incentive for the land owner to do a land swap and develop elsewhere if he was already approved for this development. Polhill responded that they could check with him and hold a special meeting before the council meeting to be held in a week.
It was a smokescreen, of course, to make the public think something was being done for them. But the vote was pushed forward and received support from all but Bryant. Even Henderson agreed, although I doubt that he was clear on what had happened.
Certainly, those in the public gallery weren’t. When, at the urging of Paul Hubert, they were informed that the committee had just approved the site plan, they were stunned.
It was the second shock of the evening.
Thanks to Chip Martin and others for posting information on Twitter.