For the public, there will be no more meetings on the Southwest Area Plan (SWAP) until October. It’s a welcome break.
As I have stated in Slicing and dicing and SWAP: Planning or politics and other previous blogs, I consider this issue to be a really critical one for the city, economically, environmentally, socially and aesthetically, but the direction of the current council seems to be 180 degrees from exercising responsibility in these areas. Rather than heeding the recommendations of the planners and consultants to whom they have paid good money for their expertise, they prefer to listen to the landowners and developers who contributed to their campaigns to give them guidance.
This was abundantly clear at the Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) last month when, having put fantasy before fact with respect to city growth prospects, committee members turned their attention to the SWAP report, the last one before going back out into the community for comment and then to a public participation meeting before PEC in October.
You may recall that the last time council considered this matter it had demanded more commercial along the Wonderland Road South corridor, and staff had complied. Despite the consultant’s report that suggested that something just under 1 million square feet of commercial would serve this area for the foreseeable future, staff had extended the commercial designation along that corridor so that now 3.2 million square feet would be available!
Still, it wasn’t enough for the committee.
Henderson spoke first. He considers this to be his territory, the Lambeth area, although he lives far west of the city.
He didn’t think there should be any residential designation along there; nobody would want to live along a busy road. This is near Hully Gully, one of his corporate donors.
The mayor agreed. He was more interested in the Exeter-Wonderland-Wharncliffe triangle where SmartCentres wants to locate. That should surely be commercial, he believed.
For its part, SmartCentres seems to believe it’s a done deal. Its website proclaims that it has the following location:
SmartCentres London Southwest is a 620,000 square foot centre located at Exeter Road and Wonderland Road, in the Southwest quadrant of London. A large department store will anchor this centre with the first phase scheduled for Summer 2009, with mid-box, in line and pad opportunities available. http://www.smartcentres.com/site_summary/loadflash.html
Fontana was also interested in knowing about what was happening with the industrial land around the 401/402 interchanges that would be materializing with the largesse of the provincial government.
The report on the industrial lands would be forthcoming in August, planning director John Fleming reminded him. And that land is outside the urban growth boundary, not really a part of the SWAP. He pointed out that a lot of commercial designations had been added to the proposal, but it was not enough for Fontana. He wanted more.
So did Harold Usher. A few days before the meeting, someone from the community, “not even a developer,” he claimed defensively, had taken him for a ride around there. It was no place for residential, across the street from Hully Gully and the London Transit Commission, especially when York Developments, one of his donors, had a shovel-ready project in the form of a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse for that location on the west side of Wonderland.
Only Judy Bryant had reservations. Going from 995,000 square feet to over 3 million sounded like a pretty big jump to her. What would be the impact on other areas of the city?
But Henderson disagreed. Developers were telling him that we needed more commercial and industrial lands to create jobs.
Joe Swan came to the rescue. He had given this a lot of thought. Rather than assigning land uses to various areas, why not let the market decide? It could be a trade-off for better design. Let the developer come up with what he want to build, but hold him to a high standard of design. It could be an “enterprise zone”. “Be creative,” he urged. The plan before him felt like it was based on 1980’s principles.
It was a direct insult to Fleming who defended the plan. They were doing things differently; this was very progressive planning with an emphasis on allowing for pedestrians. It included many innovative approaches.
He hadn’t intended to insult the planning department, Swan said, without apology or retraction.
Fontana was becoming impatient. He wanted to get on with it. And he wanted everything along the corridor commercial, right to the 401. But an enterprise zone where anything goes—commercial, industrial, institutional, residential— might do.
Before this could be voted on, committee chair Bud Polhill wanted to ensure that concerns of his backer, Shmuel Farhi, were also represented.
“Farhi is disappointed,” he said. “Do we have plans to do the Bradley extension sooner?”
At whose cost? And for whose benefit? That’s what London residents would like to know.
The outcome was never in doubt. Only Judy Bryant opposed the motion.
So that was what came before the council a couple of weeks later. There, the arguments were the same, except that a few more voices got into the mix. It helped that Ali Soufan of York Developments had sent along a last minute letter for the edification of council and to provide talking point and speaking notes on his behalf.
Chief among them was Paul VanMeerbergen. He liked the recommendation but wanted a change in the definition of the enterprise designation. He thought residential and institutional uses should be taken out of the mix entirely. He moved an amendment to this effect.
It was what Soufan wanted to ensure preference would be given to his proposal and somebody with a residential plan didn’t beat him to the punch.
VanMeerbergen read from Soufan’s letter: development charges bringing in $9M, building permit fees for $461,000, property taxes of $3M per year, 1,277 jobs, annual income of $28M per year circulating in the local economy. “These are real numbers!” he gushed. He wasn’t talking about a grandiose government-sponsored, taxpayer-financed plan here; it was WIN, WIN, WIN all the way!
Why would anyone want to look a gift horse in the mouth?
However, despite support from the mayor, Henderson, Denise Brown and Usher, the amendment ultimately lost.
Still, not everyone was thrilled with the notion of an enterprise designation, even if it allowed for the inclusion of institutional and residential development.
In her years of sitting on planning, even chairing it, she had never heard of an enterprise zone, Nancy Branscombe noted. She couldn’t find it in the Planning Act. Did they have any idea of what the implications might be?
Fleming pointed out that it had not been staff’s recommendation; the idea had come from the PEC. He didn’t know what its uses might be. A patchwork form of development could sterilize the development of adjacent uses and not having any order, was unlikely to lead to a positive outcome. Any use on any scale, he didn’t think this was right. It would certainly impact downtown.
Branscombe thought it was ridiculous. Putting what you want wherever you want wasn’t planning. They were getting into a minefield; it would blow up in their faces.
“I can’t believe a planning committee would support a ‘no holds barred’ plan,” Branscombe despaired. She wondered why so much work and money had gone into preparing the SWAP, only to be ignored by the committee.
Swan rose to defend his proposal. The enterprise designation had been his idea, he acknowledged. It came out of feedback from the business community.
And then, he had been at ReThink London, the public engagement initiative led by the planning department to get the community’s input into the review of the city’s official plan. Swan had talked to a lot of people at ReThink London and they were really concerned about how we do business in London. We have to rethink that. We have to be more enterprising, the old way was way too prescriptive.
“Not all developer wear black hats,” he concluded.
I was surprised by his rendition of ReThink London. I had been there too, only a few days earlier, at various round tables hearing people discuss their hopes and dreams for London. They had talked about neighbourhoods, about walkability and connectivity, about a city where no one would be homeless, about a place where small business could thrive and residents would have easy access to local food. I heard no desire for enterprise zones to hold more big box stores. Could we have been at completely different meetings?