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Burlington’s Path to Controlling Overdevelopment, Enshrining a Community Vision for Downtown & our City

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This week your city council took two giant steps forward in our goal to control overdevelopment pressures in our downtown and direct growth where it should be.

There is much work left to do, and more steps to come, but we are well on our way to regaining some measure of control over development and ensuring a community vision for our future.

There is no one measure that will get us there. Below I’ve outlined seven steps we need to take to ultimately regain control of community planning in our city, limit the pressures of overdevelopment and bring reasonable, measured growth to Burlington:

  1. Revise the 2018 Adopted Official Plan
  2. Introduce policies differentiating types of Major Transit Station Areas
  3. Review the suitability of the MTSA and UGC designations downtown
  4. Relaunch the Mobility Hub studies for the Burlington, Aldershot and Appleby GO stations
  5. Negotiate population and job allocation for Burlington, and MTSA/UGC boundaries through the Region’s review
  6. Advocate to eliminate the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal
  7. Negotiate a new deal with the province, giving cities control over Land Use Planning (and other matters)

Some steps can be achieved in the short term, by direct council action. Some will take much longer, and involve the cooperation of other levels of government.

All steps are important and build on each other. The short-term steps under direct council control give the community and council stronger ability to control overdevelopment while we turn our mind to the more long-term, difficult-to-achieve steps that involve other levels of government. Each step is important, regardless of whether or when the later ones might be achieved.

Burlington is, and has always been, open for business. Our goal is to ensure the right growth, in the right place, at the right amount.

Step One: Revise the 2018 Adopted Official Plan

Our first step was to revise the Adopted Official Plan approved in 2018 by the previous city council. That plan would have seen over 30 new high rise towers in the downtown area – including one in the middle of Village Square. The community soundly rejected that plan in the last municipal election, returning a new mayor and five new members of council to work on a more reasonable plan for downtown.

Your new council delivered. Council retained independent consultant, SGL Planning & Design Inc., to review the Adopted Official Plan for the downtown. After a year of review and consultation, and public input on two concepts for downtown, the consultant and staff recommended a preferred concept for the downtown.

Council debated the concept Jan. 16 and approved the new concept on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. City planning staff, working with SGL Planning and Design, will now begin developing detailed policies to implement the endorsed land use vision and built form concept for the downtown.

These will be presented to Council in April 2020. Members of the public can still provide comments that will inform the project. Comments must be submitted no later than Friday, Feb. 14, 2020:

  • By email to
  • By mail or in person to “Taking a Closer Look at the Downtown”, care of Thomas Douglas, Planner, Community Planning Department, 426 Brant St, L7R 3Z6.

Once adopted by council, the policies will go to Halton Region for review, modifications (if any) and approval, expected some time in the Spring.

The new concept significantly reduces overdevelopment in the Adopted Plan and even improves on the existing, in force, Official Plan. Among the changes:

  • Village Square, where the Adopted Official Plan called for a 17 storey tower, and the existing Official Plan provided for four to eight storeys, now has it’s own “precinct” limited to three storeys.
  • The foot of Burlington Avenue and Lakeshore Road, which was a highrise “apartment” district in the existing Official Plan, and up to six storeys in the Adopted Official Plan, is now three storeys, to better transition to the low density, historic St. Luke’s neighbourhood in behind.
  • Brant Street, which was up to 17 storeys in the Adopted Official Plan, and 4 to 8 storeys in the existing Official Plan, is now three storeys along Brant, to retain the small-town character at street level, rising to 11 storeys, 20 metres back from Brant.
  • Highrises are directed further North on Brant, to Brant and Ghent where there are existing 19 storey buildings. The current Official Plan calls for six here, and both the Adopted Official Plan and new concept upzones this area to 25 storeys, scaling down to existing low density neighbourhoods to the South and East.

There is one area where additional work is required, and that’s the Downtown East Side, roughly bounded by John St. East to Martha St., and Caroline St. South to James St. (Pink area on the map). In the new concept, this area calls for 17 storeys, same as the Adopted Official Plan. The current Official Plan provides for four to eight storeys.

I question the need to significantly upzone this area (more than double in height!). The consultant’s report says that mid-rise can work here, and deliver office development.

In addition, there is much to potentially lose with such a significant upzoning. This area contains heritage buildings that are not protected from demolition by being designated under the Ontario Heritage Act; a community park; and public service uses (two churches, Sea Cadet hall, Reach Out Centre for Kids) which may be lost or reduced if a highrise takes their place. In addition, there is a historic streetscape that is worth protecting.

Even much larger cities than Burlington recognize there are areas within their communities worth protecting and preserving with a small town feel. In Toronto, Liberty Village, the Distillery District, or Cabbagtown come to mind. Protected historic districts within growing urban centres are essential, and reflect good planning. Land use planning is all about what goes where, and how much of what goes where. And that’s the conversation we’re having about downtown.

That’s why it so important to direct new growth to the best places while also protecting areas of the city, like downtown, where we want to preserve history and small town character. The downtown is less than 1% of our land area. There are plenty of other places to accommodate population and job growth, particularly around our GO stations, that won’t destroy our heritage. Read more about these areas below.

So I’ve asked staff to further examine the Downtown East Side and consider ways to protect the park, heritage, streetscape and public service assets when they bring policies back in April. For more information, see my video here: Update on Official Plan

Page 24, Report PL-02- 20

Further, we don’t need to upzone areas to meet growth targets for the downtown, which is designated an Urban Growth Centre. Provincial policy requires a minimum of 200 people or jobs per hectare in the UGC by 2031. According to a Growth Analysis Study, the current, in force Official Plan will deliver 258 people or jobs per hectare, and according to a market assessment of what is likely to be built by 2031, we will achieve 213 people or jobs. We are at roughly 188 now.

There is no need to overdevelop downtown; with what is already approved and under construction, we will surpass the UGC target in provincial policy.

The UGC designation and density target, along with the Major Transit Station Area designation, have both been used to justify overdevelopment downtown. That’s why one of our steps is to review these designations.

Step Two: Introduce policies differentiating types of Major Transit Station Areas

The second major step forward this council took this week on Jan. 30 was approving new Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw policies for downtown and the Burlington GO station.

Both areas are designated as Major Transit Station Areas (MTSAs) in provincial and regional policy, subject to growth and density targets. The downtown is an MTSA because of the John Street bus terminal, and the GO station is an MTSA because of regional rail.

The downtown MTSA designation was used by the former Ontario Municipal Board to overrule council, planning staff and the community to permit a 26 storey building at Martha and Lakeshore, where the current Official Plan calls for four to eight storeys.

So a year ago, current city council implemented an Interim Control Bylaw to freeze development for one year downtown and at the Burlington GO station while we studied the appropriate land use in these two MTSAs. We retained an independent consultant, Dillon Consulting, to review the designations and make recommendations on appropriate land use.

Dillon’s study found that the downtown bus terminal does not function as an MTSA. That is unlikely to change, even with significant investments in transit – which we have made and will continue to make.

As a councillor, I brought a budget motion to save the downtown terminal from being demolished, when staff put it on the chopping block during budget deliberations. Myself along with the previous council also invested in upgrades to the terminal, the bus shelters, the Elgin promenade and the adjacent community square. The current council is very transit friendly and have added more buses, more drivers and transit incentives, including free transit for seniors, low income residents and students under 12. We’ve seen significant ridership increases as a result.

Staff have also implemented more of a grid system throughout the city to make routes faster and more efficient, and implemented 15 minute service on key routes. There is direct bus linkage between the GO station and downtown.

Even with all that investment, the downtown doesn’t function as an MTSA. Even with future improvements for downtown suggested in the Dillon report which council approved and will make, the downtown will not ever reach the passenger level of higher-order transit along a regional express rail at our GO stations. These facts must be considered in our land use planning decisions for these areas.

The Dillon report found gaps in provincial policy around MTSAs, which don’t differentiate between different levels of passengers at MTSAs. Our downtown terminal – essentially a ticket kiosk and a bus shelter  – has the same designation as Union Station and Pearson International Airport – with nowhere near the passenger volume, now or ever.

At the same time, there is opportunity for significant population and job growth around the three GO stations, where the province and the city are heavily investing in transit service, including 15 minute train service. Our busiest bus line is along Plains/Fairview connecting to GO stations.

So, in January council approved new policies in our Official Plan that differentiate between the MTSA downtown, and the MTSA at the GO stations.

We are on track to lift the Interim Control Bylaw development freeze by March 5, as promised. Development applications downtown and at the Burlington GO station will be reviewed in light of the new policies.

These new policies will help to protect our community from the downtown MTSA designation being used to justify overdevelopment, as it has been in the past when it was undefined, and undifferentiated from very different types of MTSAs.

The consultant also reiterated that the downtown MTSA is “not likely to contribute to significant growth” beyond the Urban Growth Centre targets. That’s because we’ve already met the MTSA density of 150 people or jobs per hectare (we’re at 188 now) and we are on track to surpass the UGC target by 2031.

We need the protection of these policies as long as the MTSA designation exists, and until such time as it can be reviewed – our next step (see below).

The two studies completed this past year – on the MTSAs and on the Adopted Official Plan for downtown – will position us well for our next step, which is to review the suitability of the Major Transit Station Area and Urban Growth Centre designations downtown, which have been used to justify overdevelopment.

Step Three: Review the suitability of the MTSA and UGC designations downtown

Council recognized from the beginning of our review of the downtown the need, and the desire in the community, to review the MTSA and UGC designations which have been used to justify overdevelopment. The question was when to initiate that review.

Our decision, and one I stand by, was to let evidence and independent study inform our discussions.

To let the community know our process, council passed a staff direction last May to review the appropriateness of downtown’s Major Transit Station Area and Urban Growth Centre designations at the end of the Interim Control Bylaw/Official Plan review studies. The OP review study will be complete after new policies are considered in April, and after that we will be in a position to initiate the review of the MTSA/UGC designations sometime this Spring.

Those designations are set by provincial and regional governments, and only those levels of government can make any changes. The two consultant reports position us with solid independent planning rationale for these conversations with Halton Region and the Province.

We have kept Halton Region planning staff and our local Member of Provincial Parliament Jane McKenna apprised of our studies, timelines and process and all have been involved in and supportive of our work.


Step Four: Relaunch the Mobility Hub studies for the Burlington, Aldershot and Appleby GO stations

The previous council initiated detailed studies of land use around the three GO stations. These were called Mobility Hub studies, after the term used in Metrolinx planning documents for lands around GO stations. The term used in provincial and regional policy for land around major transit, including regional rail like GO, is Major Transit Station Area (MTSA). The terms Mobility Hub/MTSA are often used interchangeably, though they have different meanings and weight in policy. To avoid confusion, I’ll use both whenever referring to the GO studies.

The former MTSA/Mobility Hub studies made recommendations on boundaries, height, density and “precincts,” or different areas within the MTSA/Hub with different development permissions. These studies were put on hold when the MTSA study and Adopted Official Plan review were commenced last year.

With the MTSA study complete, and the Adopted Official Plan review heading for completion this Spring, city planning staff intend to restart those studies. To see the previous draft work done on the MTSA/Hubs, visit: Mobility Hubs

These studies will help inform our input to the Region’s own review of its Official Plan, and allocation of new population and growth targets.

Step Five: Negotiate population and job allocation for Burlington, and MTSA/UGC boundaries through the Region’s review

Later this year, Halton Region will be embarking on a regularly scheduled review of its Official Plan. The process is called a Muncipal Comprehensive Review, or MCR. The MCR process is the avenue to review the MTSA and UGC boundaries, and population densities within the MTSA areas, including the three GO stations at Aldershot, Burlington and Appleby.

Through this process the Region will also be allocating population and job growth to 2041 to each of the four municipalities in Halton: Burlington, Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills. Burlington council will be weighing in on how much growth to take, but more importantly where we can accommodate the next significant wave of population and job growth.

Earlier this year, council received several reports and growth analysis regarding population and job forecasts for the city, and specific areas, including downtown. This was to provide local input into the Region of Halton’s Integrated Growth Management Strategy.

Based on the MTSA work already done, as well as provincial policy on transit oriented development around higher-order transit like GO stations, and investment in regional express rail, we know the bulk of new population and job growth in Burlington will be at our three GO stations. This will also assist in lifting the pressure for overdevelopment downtown, and allow downtown to evolve, grow and develop in a more reasonable, properly scaled way according to the new Official Plan concept, and findings of the MTSA study.

But we’re not done yet, until we gain complete control over land use planning decisions in Burlington.

Step Six: Advocate to eliminate the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal

The Local Planning Appeal Tribunal is a provincial body that has the authority to overrule council decisions on development and land use. Burlington has already seen the devastating effects of LPAT decisions, including the one that granted a 26 storey building where 4-8 storeys was permitted. This has become a precedent for new development applications at ever higher heights, including one right beside proposed at 29 storeys.

The steps we are taking will help us to withstand and win appeals of our decisions to the LPAT, including an updated Official Plan with stronger policies that better define the MTSA downtown, outline new precincts and development permissions downtown, direct significant new growth to the GO stations, and provide evidence that we do not need to overdevelop to meet growth targets.

However, as long as the LPAT exists, there is the opportunity for a single, unelected adjudicator to overrule the democratic decisions of an elected council.

LPAT is an undemocratic, costly process that adds millions of dollars in legal and consulting fees transferred to the cost of housing, and sometimes years in delays in building housing and jobs. Established over 100 years ago to assist the development of the country’s rail lines, its time and usefulness has long since passed.

That’s why we will continue to advocate for the LPAT to be eliminated.

I worked with fellow councillors and mayors my last term of council to advocate for restrictions on the powers of the LPAT (then called the Ontario Municipal Board). The previous provincial government introduced these changes, along with a new name. However, the current provincial government rolled back the changes, keeping only the new name.

Myself and fellow Halton Hills mayor Rick Bonnette brought a resolution to Halton Regional Council to ask the province to restore the revised rules of the LPAT, in the short term, and in the long term eliminate the LPAT entirely. It was unanimously approved by council.

That resolution has been forwarded to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, our local MPPs and the Premier. If no changes are made this term of provincial government, this will be a provincial election issue in 2022.

Eliminating the LPAT will give back to cities and their democratically elected councils authority in land use matters, but these changes, as we’ve seen, can be undone by a future provincial government. That’s why cities need a new deal with the province, enshrined in the federal charter.

Step Seven: Negotiate a new deal with the province, giving cities control over Land Use Planning (and other matters)

In Canada, municipal governments are creations of the province, and can be “uncreated.” We saw the risk to our cities when the province initiated – then abandoned – a Regional Government Review that (among other things) could have resulted in the amalgamation of the four Halton municipalities into a City of Halton.

This antiquated system allows the province to overrule local governments – the closest and most accountable level of government to the people.

Cities have only those powers the province gives us, which slows down decision-making at a time when cities need to be agile and respond quickly to new, rapidly changing and more complex issues.

As a result, the Charter City movement has begun, to advocate a new deal for cities with the province. In Ontario, that movement is being led by a group from Toronto.

In a nutshell, each city would independently negotiate a “charter” with the province spelling out areas of control the province would give the municipality. The City Charter would require a majority vote of council, and of the provincial legislature.

Several Canadian cities already have what are commonly referred to as City Charters, including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saint John and others. There is already a form of charter in place in Ontario, with the City of Toronto Act, which gives Toronto more powers than any other municipality in Ontario.

In each case, these Canadian “Charters” are provincial legislation, which can be unilaterally amended or revoked by the province. Thus, Charter City Toronto is proposing a constitutionally protected City Charter that can only be adopted or amended with the consent of the city.

That can be done by a “single province amendment” to the Canadian Charter, by simple majority vote in the House, so the entire Charter doesn’t need to be reopened.

There have been eight single-province amendments since the Constitution was repatriated in 1982. Under Section 43 of the Constitution, single-province amendments need only the approval of the provincial legislature and the federal parliament. This makes them easier to achieve than amendments covering the country as a whole, which require the consent of at least seven provinces that have 50 per cent of Canada’s population.

Requiring sign off from three levels of government protects the City Charter from unilateral changes made by a provincial government, while still providing a mechanism to make changes to a charter, provided they are negotiated by all three parties.

I recently met with representatives from Charter City Toronto to learn more and lend my support to advocate for this model for any city that wants its own Charter. Their research on how Charters work and some of the items that could be included is here:

For a range of reasons, including control over land use planning, Burlington needs our own City Charter. To that end, I’ll be working to enlist the support of council, our local members of federal and provincial parliament, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Each city would negotiate for itself the items in the City Charter, and those items could be changed over time, with agreement from the province and federal government. For Burlington, top of the list would be land use planning, and governance (for example, the power to set the time of elections, or rules on campaign finance including Third Party Advertisers, given the negative experience we had in the last municipal election).

Ultimately, this is where Canadian cities need to be: our own, independent level of government, directly accountable to our community for the decisions we make, with authority over local issues, while adhering to provincial and federal authority on provincial and federal matters.

This is clearly a long term goal for us, but an essential one. Until we achieve this step, we will face limits on being the masters of our own house on issues that matter most to our residents, including land use planning and development, and democracy.

— Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward


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2 thoughts on “Burlington’s Path to Controlling Overdevelopment, Enshrining a Community Vision for Downtown & our City”

  1. While the changes to the Official Plan are welcome, it’s ultimately very disappointing that new high-rise buildings (> six stories) will be and are being constructed, regardless of compromising setbacks, anywhere south of Blairholm Avenue. High-rises & skyscrapers should be built around the GO stations and it’s ridiculous that the downtown is designated as either a major growth centre or a transit hub. Look at all the beautiful, old cities of Europe. At the end of the day, it’s boggling why Burlington “must grow” exponential annually when Canada has had an unsustainable birth rate for nearly 50 years—honestly, does anyone truly have a grasp on “Sustainability”?

  2. One thing that needs to be addressed is proper bus stops when possible so that buses do not impede or stop traffic flow when picking up passengers. The bus system in Cancun Mexico — Traffic is never impeded.

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A Better Burlington began in 2006 after my neighbours said they felt left out of city decisions, learning about them only after they’d been made. As journalist for 22 years, I thought “I can do something about that” and a website and newsletter were born. They’ve taken various forms and names over the years, but the intent remains: To let you know what’s happening at City Hall before decisions are made, so you can influence outcomes for A Better Burlington. The best decisions are made when elected representatives tap the wisdom of our community members, and welcome many different perspectives.This site allows residents to comment and debate with each other; our Commenting Guidelines established in 2016 aim to keep debate respectful. Got an idea or comment you want to share privately? Please, get in touch:

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