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"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."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Anything goes

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?

Joni Baechler had attended the earlier committee meeting but, not being a member, she had not voted on the issue, nor had she spoken. She had two issues of concern.

First was the way in which the recommendation was framed. She want to ensure that the “enterprise designation” was not a separate matter, that it would be something to be considered along with the SWAP proposal as it went forward to the stakeholders a few days hence and the public participation meeting in the fall. Seeing the possibility of an ally, Swan was only too happy to agree.

Secondly, she wanted it known that planning director John Fleming is one of the most well-respected planners in the province and the country; for cutting edge planning, “We have the guy,” she averred.

With that, and a long-winded defense of the York Development proposal from Harold Usher, the matter was put to a vote and was supported 14-1, with Judy Bryant as the only holdout. It seems that the sceptics were kept in line by the reassurance that this was only a designation “to be considered” as part of what was to go forward to the stakeholders meeting the following day.

I went to that meeting too, at the Lambeth Community Centre. It was well-attended by developers and community members alike. Unfortunately, most of the time was spent on presenting the parts of the plan that were not in contention. The “enterprise designation” was left to the end, almost 9 o’clock, after many of the members of the community had departed to collect their children and put them to bed.

They may be in for a rude surprise when the matter goes back to PEC for the public participation meeting in October.

They may be faced with an enterprise zone, all along Wonderland Road South from the proposed Bradley Avenue extension to Exeter Road where anything goes. It is bound to have significant impact on downtown revitalization and independent businesses in Lambeth. It will lead to more store closings and deserted malls.

ReThink London it is not. It is simply more of the same “in the [big] box” thinking that informed Hyde Park and other development areas.

I haven’t given up on ReThink London; it’s the only option for citizen's to have some input into the future of their city. 

But in the words of Paul Hubert, we have great plans but crappy implementation.

Let’s hope SWAP is not one of them.


Despairing Londoner said...

This is not a pretty picture you paint, Gina. Not only the implementation, but the outlook as well, is crappy.

What can be done to slow down the mayor's gang and their development mania?

Despairing, Too! said...

It is really striking that Council is not really involved in a debate about development, because the development debate is really about whose pacts with developers and land owners will be honored. So this isn't a debate about 'laissez faire' vs 'rational' development, but 'corrupted' vs 'uncorruptable'. It is so disturbing that some members of City Council don't recognize how sleazy all of this looks, and don't take seriously the message it sends to the citizens of London. It's shameful, really.

Anonymous said...

Everyone involved in this SWAP and other planning of developments that entail rezoning have forgotten about what this whole wide world went to war for twice...individual residential property rights...how dare anyone of you or them take a residential address off the map and rezone it as commercial or industrial or anything other then a residential address. Workers need a place to live, either within walking distance or with reliable public transit.

Anonymous said...

In the beginning of the zoning process this land was designating as family farmland. It started out with 100 acre plots, and the number of residents permitted to live on the plot and use the address as their personal residence was systematically reduced as the plots were separated, and ultimately annexed. This isn't crown land that's never been inhabited before. You planners are essentially taking away the residential birthright of our founding families and the employment that supported rural farm life. To give the new generation jobs that aren't accessible without reliable transportation is putting them in danger IMO. How exactly do any of you expect the employees of this proposed industrial/commercial hub to get to work and back home again when there's no reasonably affordable residential dwelling spaces or public transit nearby?

Rockinon said...

I've come across the term enterprise zone before, so I searched the Net for definition: a designated zone in a depressed area, esp an inner urban area, where firms are given tax concessions and various planning restrictions are lifted, in order to attract new industry and business to the area: first introduced in Britain in 1981. Hmmm. Is this really what is being discussed? This is not what I heard being promoted by those in attendance at ReThink London.

Anonymous said...

Rockinon, according to Councillor Swan, enterprise zone is what people at ReThink London told him. The question is, has he been at any of the events to talk to people? I haven't seen him, have you?

Anonymous said...

further too the previous (older)blog where enterprise zones were mentioned...it seems to me back at the turn of the millennium the province regulated enterprising entrepreneurs because the province was heading toward economic depression.
Entrepreneurs are income earners who work from home and don't require a business license or certification. It's what used to be known as "the cottage industry".

During the many years that I was searching for home to call my own in this city I came across several places where there was a condition that the residence only be used for a principal residence, no home based business allowed, you needed to prove you had a legitimate source of income from an outside source in order to qualify for the right to dwell in the living space. Some subdivisions, condominium complexes and gated communities are zoned that way.

Anonymous said...

The whole situation is deplorable. I'm pretty sure that none of the Councillors are educated in urban planning, yet they continue to change recommendations made by qualified staff. This "enterprise zone" should be renamed for what it really is -- an "FFA" or "Free For All" zone.

Let's hope for all of our sakes that the trend of indecisiveness for Council continues so that nothing harmful will happen in the southwest area (or the City for that matter) until a new gang is welcomed to the table.

Sandy Levin said...

What was misleading about both the developer and the councillor in coming up with development charge figures is that the # will vary with the form of development. Is $9 M good? Hard to tell without a comparison to another form of development. And another form of development requires different infrastructure which could change the cost of the infrastructure. The Councillor may also still not understand that development charges are not revenue to help pay for the operating costs of the city but rather money that offsets the growth related costs of new infrastructure in the capital budget. And it is a number many of the development industry want to push off growth and on to the tax base.