Welcome to London Civic Watch

"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."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A condo on stilts?

One would have thought that the Planning and Environment Committee had turned over a new leaf. The meeting started on time with all but Joe Swan in attendance, and the first five items passed with one unanimous vote without comment. Done. In one minute.

This despite the fact that the first of those items was a comprehensive staff report on the various twists and turns to date of the $300M project contemplated for SoHo and the hurdles yet to come. Since the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee had been so anxious to expedite the proposal and both Planning and Environment Committee chair Bud Polhill and Mayor Fontana had been most enthusiastic about pushing it along, you would have thought that they, at least, would have had a few questions about the processes and procedures described in the report that they had requested.

But no. No one had anything to say.

Great, I thought. Only seven items remaining. We'll be out of here in no time.

But the public gallery was full of spectators. Clearly there was something of interest coming forward.

And so it did. For the next 90 minutes we heard the public and committee members express their concerns about a proposed development for Blackfriars Street.

Blackfriars Street runs east off Wharncliffe Rd. and south of Oxford St. You probably have driven over the heritage Blackfriars Bridge on your way to downtown. It's a charming neighbourhood with  homes in assorted sizes and shapes and an excellent restaurant housed in what was once an unassuming laundromat.

Just after you enter Blackfriars St. From Wharncliffe Rd North, you will notice a large parking lot and a church on your left, taking up nearly half the area of the block. This is the building in which Vito Frija of Southside Construction wants to put a gymnasium for the London Lightning basketball team, and provide some office space, including medical and dental clinics. As well, he wanted to keep the current residential designation that applies to the rest of the area.

There were a couple of problems with his request. He had to scale back his plans for the office portion because there just wasn't enough parking available on the site. And he couldn't keep the residential designation; only schools and churches are permitted to be built on property with a residential designation. And besides, since there was no house on the property now, any residential construction would be new, and that's a no-no in the floodplain.

The staff objections had been made clear to the proponent and he was prepared to live with the recommendation for the gym, the scaled back office and medical and dental clinic.

But to the community, the words “medical clinic” was a red flag; what they heard was “methadone clinic”. Despite all the effort staff and council had undertaken to clearly distinguish between medical clinic and methadone in its recent policy on the issue, the members of the community had little faith in the distinction. And they were upset enough to show up in significant numbers.

To its credit, staff was aware that this confusion had been created, and did its best to clarify the situation in its presentation. “This is not about a methadone clinic, said planner Mike Tomasincic.

“Well, that answers that,” said the woman sitting next to me to her companion. But not all were reassured.

Donald Cornell has lived next door to this site for 20 years. He had received a legal opinion from a lawyer teaching at Western University, that if the zoning change were granted for a medical clinic it would be possible that human rights could overturn the by-law pertaining to methadone clinics. It had happened in Vancouver. If this went through, he was prepared to take it to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board). Why, the church was only worth $120,000 but sold for $180,000. The city should have bought it for green space, he thought. A clinic would generate a lot of traffic and endanger the safety of the children in the area. The church had been a great neighbour; the only traffic was on Sunday mornings and sometime people didn't even bother to come. But a clinic! That would be seven days a week, all day.

Others agreed. It was a nice tranquil neighbourhood; everybody knows everyone. It had a long history dating back to the 1880's. It had had enough problems; it didn't need this. Besides, there was lots of space for medical and dental clinics on Wharncliffe and Oxford. They shouldn't be in residential neighbourhoods. It just created a lot of traffic running through a neighbourhood. People were already using Blackfriars for a short cut to the downtown. It was a residential neighbourhood; why not add some residential?

Frija's agent pointed out that Blackfriars is a secondary street designed for through traffic. Besides, the additional traffic would be curtailed by the limits on parking. Furthermore, they couldn't put residential in; only non-residential was allowed.

That caught the mayor's attention. Why couldn't they put in residential?

Because it is on the floodplain, came the answer. The city doesn't have control over that. That's the responsibility of the Upper Thames Conservation Authorities and the Provincial Government.

Fontana was not impressed. He wanted to see more flexibility on the floodplain; the rules were entirely too rigid. Staff should go to the Upper Thames, maybe even to the province, to get them to bend the rules and allow for some residential development.

Judy Bryant interjected. She appreciated the fact that there wouldn't be a methadone clinic on that site; it was far too close to a school. And you couldn't manipulate the Upper Thames about floodplains; the rules were way too firm. But she agreed that traffic was a problem, particularly as there were no boulevards in the area, so she opposed the medical/dental part of the application and wanted another traffic study done. There really should be a stop sign at the intersection before the bridge, she felt.

Dale Henderson was prepared to support her motion to drop the medical/dental clinic. It took some time for him to make his point, but eventually it was determined that he wanted to know what effect this would have on the overall proposal. Did one part depend on the other?

Apparently not. The proponent also wanted some flexibility it seems, to make his space more marketable. He didn't actually have a tenant in tow. Maybe the members of the basketball team might want a therapeutic massage. That would be covered by a medical/dental designation.

The mayor was not about to be deterred from his primary concern, that council should be able to allow more houses to be built in the floodplain. He wanted a case to be made to the Upper Thames.

Planning director John Fleming tried to dissuade him. That stuff was governed by provincial policies and regulations and they would get anywhere. More residential would be an absolute no.

No is not Fontana's favourite word. This was a unique situation and a unique application, he believed. He wanted the Upper Thames to be approached before the council meeting. Yes, there had been a flood in 1937, but look at all the houses there already. If they were allowed to stay, why not build a few more? The Upper Thames and the province didn't take into account all the infrastructure that had been put into place since the flood of 1937.

By now there was significant confusion about what motion, if any, was on the floor and everyone jumped in, including Don Cornell, who wanted to say a few more words from the gallery although the public portion of the meeting had long since closed. Polhill gave him leeway.

Cornell was pleased with the intelligence of the council; they clearly understood the issues, especially the mayor. “Take it to the Upper Thames,” he urged. “Take it to the province.” He would prefer a nice condo development, on stilts, if need be. It would be expensive and that would ensure good people.

But his big concern was still the methadone clinic. He was convinced that one would appear, if not now, in the future. His concern was based on a Supreme Court decision which could overturn council's decisions, he claimed.

By then more than an hour had passed and Joe Swan had joined the debate. He suggested simply eliminating the medical/dental from the recommendation and asking staff to do a policy review on development in the floodplain.

Judy Bryant wanted to be sure that the two issues were kept distinct and separate. She had no time for messing around with floodplain development. It was not just the flood of 1937, but a lot of smaller floods before and since then. And the information council was getting from the climate change local modelling research suggested that sudden intense storms and summer flash flooding were becoming more severe and more frequent. You can't take those kinds of risks with lives and livelihoods. “I'm not an engineer,” she acknowledged, but she wanted to hear from engineering staff before council continued to go around in circles.

City engineer John Braam explained that according to the regulations, no new residential could be built in the floodplain although existing dwellings could be replaced. And there could be no intensification through duplexing, although other uses, such as commercial, were encouraged.

The engineer's opinion carried little weight with the committee. Swan and Fontana both opined that more residential would meet the city's policies on intensification and affordable housing. And so, against the recommendation of staff and the proponent, who had been through this before, the committee voted to approve the application without the medical/dental component and to review the policies regarding development in the floodplain. Judy Bryant was the only holdout on the latter direction to staff.

It's hard to take seriously the threat of flooding when the river is so low and no sign of rain in sight. But surely the extremes that we have seen in weather over the last few years should make us a little cautious.

Fortunately, for the time being the residents of London have some protection from the elements beyond that which is provided by our current Planning and Environment Committee.


History buff said...

Good picture of the flood, Gina.

I'd be in favour of condos on stilts if they lured the mayor and Ward 9 Councillor into a London residence.

The mayor's determination to take on the Upper Thames' rules on the floodplain remind me of King Canute who sought to stave off an invasion of England by ordering the waves to stop coming into the shore.

Note to mayor: that aquatic tactic failed.

Rockinon said...

At one point in the long distant past the city considered buying all the homes in Petersville, the former name for the Blackfriars area, and demolishing them. At the time it was said that this would be a cheaper solution to the flood plain problem than building an adequate number of flood control dams on the Thames. Remember, Fanshawe dam does not offer complete protection from a flood. The last big threat to the area was in the spring of '77 and a flood was prevented by the clear thinking of a fellow from the UTRCA acting on his own in opposition to provincial orders. His actions saved London from a repeat of the flood of '37.

Shiller said...

There is absolutely no element of planning, order or proper civic development that this Mayor and some others on council are prepared to respect.

It has become a sick joke to discuss zoning, city plans and, now, apparently, common sense flood plain management in London. None apply.

The good news is that we could perhaps get to zero % tax increases by getting rid of City staff who deal in these matters!

Anonymous said...

Ah, the Mayor, never met a developer (or a rule) he didn't like, especially one with a basketball team (that won't last 5 years so he needs to do something else with the site over time). Don't forget you and I (except for the Mayor and Henderson who don't live in the city) for the bb floor in the Bud Gardens for the bb team to play on. (The developer has enough money for the team, but not for the floor, go figure). I guess the Mayor should buy some land next to the Red River or the Mississippi where there are no rules on building in a floodplain. I guess when you are tight with Provincial ministers, you can get whatever hair brained scheme you want. We are fooked

Anonymous said...

The problem with building residential dwellings on floodplain is a matter of septic sewer overflow...so make it an expensive condo and rich (good) people will move in who have sewer backup insurance on their home owners policies...as for clinics... well, where does the stuff go when the dentist says spit? You just can't avoid drainage problems when building on flood plain...well, maybe in Holland.
It was designated as a two-lane street back in the horse and buggy days when it was customary to yield to the right when crossing the bridge, so, even though the horsepower is now under the hood of a car, the same rules apply. There's no need for a stop sign, unless you want to position a traffic officer to issue tickets. That would be like striking gold.

Anonymous said...

Why would we intensify the street - don't we want to protect the bridge? More traffic will just have more calls for replacing it and that would be an absolute shame (let alone a big cost)!

condo philippines said...

Hope to see some photos of this condo on stilts. Thanks for the great read. :)

Arrielle P