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Changes needed to Burlington downtown plan for reasonable growth, not overdevelopment

To Planning & Development Committee Jan. 23, 1 & 6:30

Analysis & Opinion – When the proposed downtown development policies in the new Official Plan come back to the Planning & Development Committee Jan. 23, I will be bringing several motions for changes to ensure balanced development, rather than the overintensification I see in the current proposals.

Though we have gotten a little bit more time for input and discussion on the downtown policies and the entire Official Plan – the original timeline for approval was Jan. 16 – staff have said they will only make changes to the plan by way of motions from council.

I remain convinced that most Burlingtonians are unaware of what changes are coming to their neighbourhoods, downtown and across the city. There is no tool where residents can key in an address and see what’s changing; the maps showing new heights, especially for the downtown, are very difficult to find (embedded in a September “workbook” and not updated with the revisions made to the November maps).

Burlington is Canada’s best mid-sized city; that’s about to change if the new Official Plan is adopted without significant changes.

That’s where you come in.

What can you do? Learn more, speak out and join with others.

Learn: This video “City Hall Plan radically changes Canada’s Best mid-sized city” provides a snapshot of some of the changes coming downtown. It’s been viewed by over 18,000 people already. Check it out, and share with others.

Scroll down to the end of this article to read a detailed summary of the proposed motions, what they change, and why they’re necessary.

Speak out: Email all members of city council your thoughts about the proposed Official Plan. A list of contacts and wards is here: City Council

Attend the committee meeting Jan. 23 to speak in support of the motions. You must Register as a Delegation in advance.The meeting is Tues. Jan. 23, at 1 and 6:30 pm.

Join with others: Residents are stronger when they work together across ward boundaries, to bring a city-wide citizens voice to issues in our city. A new citizens group has just formed to be such a voice: Engaged Citizens of Burlington. They are currently researching and providing citizen input into the Official Plan. Learn more in the article below and here: Citizens form group to advocate on development, promote a better Burlington

Summary of motions:

I will be bringing nine proposed motions to the Jan. 23 meeting, including reducing height in the Downtown Core Precinct from 17 storeys to the existing 4-8; reducing height on Brant from Blairholm to Ghent from 25 storeys to the existing 6; limiting height at Burlington/Lakeshore to 3 storeys, deferring approval of the Official Plan till June when area specific plans are available (or alternatively, after the election as some residents have suggested), and changing the boundaries of the Urban Growth Centre (or alternatively, working with the province and region to remove the Urban Growth Centre and Mobility Hub designation from the downtown, as some residents have suggested, and transferring the Urban Growth Centre to the Burlington GO station, already a mobility hub). Scroll down for a detailed description.

Click here for a link to a video outlining the changes to the Urban Growth Centre boundaries.

There are additional changes to other aspects of the Official Plan around economic development, mobility hubs and other matters that I will outline in the next newsletter.

Without significant changes, I will not support the proposed New Official Plan.

Background:

The downtown is both a “Mobility Hub” (because of the bus station) and an “Urban Growth Centre” in the city’s existing Official Plan, Regional Official Plan and Provincial documents, with a growth target of 200 people or jobs per hectare.

Our new strategic plan recognizes the existing status of the downtown as a place for growth and intensification that is higher than other areas of the city (200 people or jobs per hectare versus roughly 25 for stable neighbourhoods). The strategic plan calls for “balanced” growth and intensification (pg 4, A City That Grows). The proposals here are not “balanced” but represent unneccessary overintensification with no clear rationale for going to excessive heights.

There is no need to give away more height downtown as we can meet (or exceed) our existing growth and intensification targets for the downtown as both a Mobility Hub and Urban Growth Centre under existing planning permissions. This has been confirmed by multiple, detailed analysis by staff, outlined in more detail below.

Bottom Line: We don’t need overintensification to satisfy growth and intensification targets or the goals of our own strategic plan. We can achieve appropriate balanced growth, as called for in our strategic plan, and in the city, region and provincial plans, under existing planning permissions.

Summary of Motions

MOTION 1: DOWNTOWN CORE PRECINCT

Retain the current height restriction of 4 storeys (with permission to go to 8 storeys with community benefits) for the Downtown Core Precinct

The proposed Downtown Core Precinct would allow 17 storeys as of right in this area  (i.e. no need to provide community benefits), noted in light blue on the map (circled areas). This precinct includes the East side of John St, from Maria to Lakeshore (including Lion’s Club Park); the No Frills Plaza, and the bottom of Locust & Brant.

The proposed plan gives away height without anything in return by way of community benefits, guaranteed affordable housing, additional parking, job attraction and commercial development, protection of heritage assets or other benefits.

There are 93 properties in the downtown Mobility Hub Study area of heritage significance (on the municipal heritage register or formally designated heritage). Of these, only 26 are designated, which provides protection from demolition. None of the heritage assets in the downtown core precinct are designated.

Proposed heights of 17 storeys would have the effect of making the land and “air rights” worth more than the heritage buildings themselves (most of them currently at 2-3 storeys). When I raised this with staff, the response was that heritage preservation could be achieved during redevelopment – possibly incorporated into a new build, for example as done with 2085 Pine St. But my question is: with what lever? The Pine St development required a Zoning amendment, which gave us ability to negotiate heritage preservation.

If the “as of right” permission is simply jumped up to 17 storeys, there is no meaningful way for the city to compel heritage preservation unless it’s written into the precinct plan, which it currently is not.

Our new strategic plan recognizes the existing status of the downtown as a place for growth and intensification that is higher than other areas of the city (200 people or jobs per hectare versus roughly 25 for stable neighbourhoods). The strategic plan calls for “balanced” growth and intensification (pg 4, A City That Grows). The proposals here are not “balanced” but represent unneccesary overintensification with no clear rationale for going to excessive heights.

There is no need to give away more height downtown as we can meet (or exceed) our existing growth and intensification targets for the downtown as both a Mobility Hub and Urban Growth Centre under existing planning permissions. This has been confirmed by multiple, detailed analysis by staff, most recently conducted for the 23-storey building at Brant/James (approved 5-2), see Urban Growth Centre Targets p23, and earlier for the ADI development at Martha/Lakeshore (decision pending from the Ontario Municipal Board), see Section 7: Urban Growth Targets. We are currently at 174 people or jobs per hectare and current development activity will see us surpass 200 within 5-8 years, well ahead of the targetted deadline in provincial legislation of 2031.

There are at least 23 sites in the downtown area where redevelopment is expected in the short and mid-term. See the attached map, first presented at the Destination Downtown series of workshops, prepared with the assistance of planning staff and the development community of development applications, approvals, builds, land assembly and pre-consultation activity.

Bottom line: we don’t need overintensification to satisfy growth and intensification targets or the goals of our own strategic plan. We can achieve appropriate balanced growth, as called for in our strategic plan, under existing planning permissions.

MOTION 2: BRANT MAIN STREET PRECINCT

Restrict height to 3 storeys along Brant Street with permission to go to 8 storeys along John Street frontage only, and only with the provision of community benefits.

Currently Brant St allows four storeys, and up to 8 storeys with provision of community benefits. The proposed new Brant Main Street Precinct would allow 3 storeys along Brant, with terracing back at a 45 degree angle to 11 storeys facing John St., as of right (i.e. no need to provide community benefits for the extra height). The precinct runs from Pine to the No Frills plaza, and includes the city parking lot on the North East side of Caroline & John, and the retail plaza at the North East corner of Brant and Caroline (which includes Joe Dog’s, the bank and the automotive shop among others). See attached map: the orange is the Brant Main St Precinct.

There is a proposed “Special Planning Area” at the North and South East corners of Brant and James across from City Hall which would allow 17 storeys. This is discussed below.

MOTION 3: SPECIAL PLANNING AREA, BRANT MAIN STREET PRECINCT

Restrict the height of the special planning area on the south side of James Street at Brant Street to 3 storeys.

There is a proposed “Special Planning Area” at the North and South East corners of Brant and James across from City Hall which would allow 17 storeys (thatched orange on the map). The current zoning on this property is 4 to 8 storeys, same as the rest of Brant.

A 23-storey building was recently approved 5-2 at the North East corner. Myself and the mayor did not support; the mayor supported 17 storeys. I supported retaining the existing permission of 12 storeys, half of what was approved. The 12 storeys only applies to the land at the corner, and was the result of an earlier Ontario Municipal Board decision. The balance of the assembled properties had a 4 to 8 storey permission.

With the approval of the 23 storey building on the opposite corner there will be pressure for this block to be similar – creating two potential towers facing City Hall and displacing the existing businesses and historic building where Kelly’s Bake Shoppe currently operates. Instead, the zoning in this section should match the balance of the Brant Main Street precinct of 3 storeys, and up to 11 (modified to 8) facing John St.

MOTION 4: Add the North West corner of Burlington Avenue and Lakeshore Road to the Special Planning Area, and limit this area on both sides to 3 storeys

The bottom of Burlington Avenue and Lakeshore is in the Downtown Mid-Rise Residential Precinct (pink area on the attached map). There are townhouses on the West side and single family homes on the East side (some divided into multi-dwelling units). The  current zoning is 11 storeys. The proposed zoning would retain 11 storeys, with a Special Planning Area on the East side reduced to six storeys (thatched pink on the map with the arrow denotes Special Planning Area).

Both sides of this intersection should be treated the same, and with reduced height. Burlington and Lakeshore is a gateway to the St. Luke’s Precinct of predominantly single family homes where we don’t want intensification. Allowing 11 storeys on one side of the street, and six on the other, would create pressure to extend growth up the street. Reducing development to three storeys on both sides would better complement and transition to the St. Luke’s Precinct, and is similar to the transition from Brant St to St. Luke’s where the height is 3 storeys along Locust (new Bates Precinct).

MOTION 5: Reduce the cannery district at the north east corner of Lakeshore Road and Brant Street to 15 storeys.

This area (salmon on the attached map) is part of the new Cannery Precinct, with allowances to go to 22 storeys. The existing zoning Wellington Square Mixed Use Precinct, which allows height of 8-14 storeys. The Bridgewater is currently under construction on the South East side of Elizabeth & Lakeshore (circle on the right), with three buildings of 22, 8, and 7 storeys. There is an existing 15 storey and 13 storey building at the North West corner of Brant/Lakeshore. Limiting height to 15 storeys would reflect roughly what is in the immediate vicinity of this parcel, and existing allowances.

MOTIONS 6 & 7: UPPER BRANT PRECINCT

  • Remove East side of Brant from Blairholm to Prospect and retain existing permissions

  • Remove West side of Brant from Blairholm to Olga and retain existing permissions

The proposed Upper Brant Precinct from Blairholm to Prospect (royal blue on the map) would allow heights of 25 storeys. Currently this area allows mixed use buildings of 6 storeys, although there are taller buildings on the West side of Brant and Ghent (up to 18 storeys). On the east side of Brant there are low rises (4-6 storeys) and the area transitions to single family neighbourhoods. Though staff have proposed some restrictions to height in this area, based on lot depth, the east side of Brant should be eliminated entirely from this precinct.

Brant St north of Prospect is part of the Burlington GO mobility hub planning study, which will be discussed at a future committee meeting. Read more about planning for all the GO station Mobility Hubs see my earlier article: Highrises planned for GO station mobility hubs

MOTION 8: Defer approval of Official Plan till June 2018

It has  become clear to me since the approval of the 23-storey building across from City Hall that the public does not want more tall buildings downtown. It’s also become clear that a number of people were not aware of the proposed changes coming to their neighbourhoods. One woman told me she didn’t attend the workshop on the downtown as it was dubbed a meeting about the “Mobility Hub.” She thought it related to transit only.

In addition, the maps with the new heights and precincts were not easy to find on the city’s webpage for the downtown mobility hub; maps were included as part of a workbook, and did not include the updated November maps; those were in the Appendices to the Nov. 30 committee agenda, accessible through the city of Burlington Calendar (if you knew where to look).

The public, and council members, had little time to find information let alone to digest the changes to the New Official Plan, and the downtown policies, which were released Nov. 9 for discussion Nov. 30 and early December. There were over 2000 pages of reading – on top of normal council business. It was clear to me that council and the public wanted more time to review all these materials, and thankfully the approval deadlines have been somewhat extended. Read more here: Revised timeline for OP discussion

In addition, some of the detailed policies around items like securing affordable housing, family friendly housing, job attraction and heritage protection, won’t be available till Area Specific Plans come back in June 2018. We should be approving the plans together, not piecemeal.

Some new information has also recently come to light, including changes to the boundaries for the Urban Growth Centre downtown – another reason not to rush OP approval. That is discussed in more detail below.

Some residents have suggested deferring approval of the Official Plan till after the October municipal election, and putting the proposed plan to the test of the electorate. I am also open to that suggestion.

MOTION 9: Direct staff to work with the Region of Halton to restore original Downtown Urban Growth Centre Boundaries as follows:

Eliminate:

  • Ontario North/East of the hydro corridor
  • West side of Locust and parcel fronting Hurd
  • West side of Martha to James, including Lion’s Club Park

Add:

  • Ghent West to Hager
  • Lakeshore South of Torrance
  • South East parcels of James/Martha

The attached map shows the areas where the Urban Growth Centre boundaries were changed; the black dotted line is the previous boundary; the red dotted line is the new boundary. The change is reflected in Regional Official Plan Amendment #38 in 2009, and now include portions of stable neighbourhoods, while excluding higher density areas of townhouses and high rises.

We have always been told these plans couldn’t change, and no one has knowledge of how or why it happened. The changes have only recently come to light.

The silver lining is that if they have changed once, we can change them again, and will have an opportunity to do so both in our current Official Plan, and in the Region’s Official Plan, when the Region does a review in 2019. The Region approves the city’s plans, and we have to conform to Regional policy, so the boundary will have to change in both documents. The city Official Plan will be approved first, which is a little awkward but in my conversations with regional planning staff I have been told the Region will consider the city’s wishes when revising the Regional plan. We can signal our intentions during current OP discussions, and work with the Region to make changes later during the Regional Official Plan review.

An alternative motion would be to work with the Region and the Province to remove the downtown as an Urban Growth Centre and Mobility Hub, as some residents have suggested. The approach would be to designate the proposed Burlington GO Mobility Hub as the city’s Urban Growth Centre (this is how the CIty of Oakville handled their Urban Growth Centre, protecting their downtown from overintensification). I am looking into the feasibility of this approach.

Questions or comments? Let me know what you think about the plan, the proposed motions, and the way forward.

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

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.

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  1. I have a question: what is so special about “the cannery precinct”, corner of Brant/Lakeshore?? One side of the property really exists as part of the main street of the downtown core, and rates for higher density than the rest of Brant Street?? My vision of towering, with “two like-size buldings” (one existing), directly across from each other on the most important corner of the downtown shows me that the City needs to have a “designers choice planner” for that “eye to the lake” appearance. Called a “WOW”! We don’t need two 14-15 storey “gate posts” opening our downtown to the lake entrance! The most important landscape/skyscape entrance, views, beauty, etc. to the openness of the lake will be “walled” and pillared with another 14 storey directly across Brant Street. Please think seriously on this before the Jan. 23rd motions are tabled. The mindset seems to be accommodating heights that presently exist in the area, rather than “the look of”, and what really is best for that one and only specific unique location. Thank you Marianne.

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