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Burlington’s Red Tape Red Carpet Task Force: Development and Real Estate Industry Focus Group Highlights

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Another focus group has taken place, and yesterday’s (May 1) session was a full-house of over 40 leaders from the development and real estate industry.

As everyone is well aware, development in the City of Burlington is a very hot issue, and was one of the most commonly discussed during last fall’s election campaign.

My goal is to find a way to help our city grow in the right way and in the right places, and to partner with my colleagues at City Hall, with residents, and with our development community to make that happen.

With that said, the Red Tape Red Carpet Task Force initiative is not just about development. It’s about helping all of Burlington’s businesses thrive. Developers and real estate professionals are just two industries of many in our city, but they overlap with those of businesses that are growing, relocating, or starting out here. Their struggles become the struggles of other businesses too.

At the same time, developers are a business like any other, and while they face challenges around permits and approvals, they also have to deal with access to talent, adequate transit, employee parking, and beyond.

Yesterday’s focus group was an important step in better understanding the top issues facing this group, and I appreciated how many leaders from these industries showed up to participate in this journey.

While the City of Burlington’s current Interim Control Bylaw was top of mind for many in the room, we know that geographically that only applies to 1% of our land in Burlington. Furthermore, we know things weren’t perfect before that was put in place, so we focused on the challenges that already existed and have long-term impact.

What we heard from this audience was the following challenges – again, many of which were commonly heard at other groups we’ve met with over the past 2 months (common themes from yesterday’s session are highlighted in bold):

  • The Permit process – flaws and delays
  • Ability to attain SPAs in a reasonable time
  • Dealing with the MTO – lack of accountability to timelines, lots of delays
  • Delays with Halton Conservation
  • Conflict between the different levels of government
  • Business mindset is lacking
  • Lack of accountability with the City
  • Too many agencies involved
  • Staff act like they’re afraid of losing their jobs
  • No incentives to reduce operational friction
  • Hydro
  • Inconsistent bylaw/zoning interpretation/zoning uncertainty
  • Lack of vision
  • Lack of control over other agencies / influence
  • Affordability of projects becoming unrealistic: land, construction, time all push up costs
  • No “leader” to manage applications
  • Lack of KPIs for city staff (perceived or otherwise)
  • Provincial policies are shifting / rethinking
  • Lack of staff knowledge in understanding market forces
  • Lack of respect for landowner rights
  • Too in the weeds – focus on important issues
  • Lack of common sense being applied
  • Opinions can depend on mood of person who is assessing the application
  • Building envelopes
  • No severance / Niagara Escarpment Commission
  • Environmentals on particular corridors
  • All the time delays cost money
  • Political agendas – development applications treated politically instead of on their own merit
  • Time associated with the severance process (took 2 years)
  • Zoning inflexibility (ex: Seniors Long Term Care facility)
  • Timing associated with obtaining a zoning verification letter – used to be 10 days now over 5 weeks
  • City staff raising issues that do not apply to the application in question
  • Limited incentives available for developers to build sustainably, and integrate sustainable design features
  • Public transparency re: cost recovery/recovery funding
  • Compare to Brampton, where 100 units got approval in less than a year – fast process, open to discussions, and Mayor/Council wanted things to happen
  • Perception that plants and animals have more rights than people
  • Hard to get calls returned from City Hall (all departments)
  • Outdated city standards (ex: Parks)
  • Lack of downtown parking for offices, bars, restaurants and retail
  • Transit dead spots

While it took a few minutes to switch gears and focus on the positives, there are certainly reasons everyone in the room is still doing business in Burlington and we wanted to ensure we clearly understood what those are:

  • BEDC as a facilitator, expeditor and supporter
  • Great fast-track process for building permits
  • Experienced city staff are good to deal with
  • Online process that shows if a building permit is closed
  • Mayor seems very on board
  • Facilitation at this event was great – Interim City Manager was great facilitator at the table
  • Professional people to deal with
  • Sustainable design guidelines
  • Ability to start work early to help shorten delivery sometimes
  • “None”
  • Burlington building process is good
  • Councillor was helpful overriding bad staff decisions
  • Building department closing out an old permit +
  • We win most if not all appeals to OMB/LPAT
  • Development application website is good
  • Community safety – businesses with shifts / evening hours are less worried for their staff getting to/from work
  • Burlington’s culture, family-orientedness & energy draws people here to live and work
  • Access to talent, amenities and housing (high tech talent is easier than other segments though because of housing costs)

Again, we finished the day by leveraging the knowledge and experience in the room to come up with solutions, ideas and changes that the City can spearhead to make things better:

  • Support a culture of service and efficiency by ensuring staff have clear KPIs and they are part of their performance reviews
  • Incentives for hitting KPIs and going above and beyond
  • Business/file liaison to track, communicate, and shepherd a file to completion in a reasonable time
  • Leadership needs to stand behind file planner
  • Encourage staff to learn more as things change to drive subject matter expertise (regulations, etc.)
  • Leverage better technology to streamline and automate / CRM system / Self-Serve
  • Customer service training / commitment to customer service
  • Hire more people if short-staffing is impacting speed of turnaround
  • Cut the timelines to match the Municipal Act
  • Apply a stronger sustainability lens and offer incentives
  • Allow multiple levels of approval to run concurrently
  • Seniors housing/land zoning strategy
  • Business advisory board
  • BEDC needs more influence
  • More advocacy/upward pressures necessary to other levels of government
  • Stand firm on the position of what is good for Burlington – don’t sit on hands with other agencies
  • Be collaborative vs combative
  • Site visits at properties to understand context and better apply common sense
  • Create more “fast track” and “premium” services – willing to pay for speed
  • Do more to educate the public about the benefits of growth to help those inherently resistant to change to see the positives
  • Make it a priority or essential that new hires in these departments have spent at least some time in the private sector on the other side of the table to provide better perspective and understanding
  • Next round of comments shouldn’t go back to bottom of the pile
  • Be ok with weighting the value of certain projects in their worth to the community (jobs for example) and be willing to prioritize those in terms of speed and attention – not every project is equal
  • Apply Artificial Intelligence / automated processes to remove personal opinion from the process
  • Shorten timeframes for turnarounds of minor revisions
  • Fees should be payable on approval not all up front (or reimbursed when deadlines are missed)
  • Empower staff with more decision-making power to apply common sense
  • Remove height restrictions
  • Educate the public on good planning practices
  • Be more consistent – don’t change policies when councillors change
  • Leverage tech being used in other municipalities (ex: Mississauga)
  • Focus group with staff: what are THEIR challenges to moving quickly & how can we help
  • Provide more info on the steps that happen in the process & why it takes so long. What is happening each day over the course of all those months (and sometimes years)?
  • Quick morning meeting/daily scrum (15 min) each day by team leaders to set goals with staff: what will you get off your desk today and move forward? Then hold people accountable and recognize good performance. Ask the question “What will it take to get this approved today?”
  • More of a culture of recognition for making things happen. Celebrate those staff.

Our next focus group will include several contributors to our rural business ecosystem who sit on the newly formed Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee with the City of Burlington and will then take learnings and information back to the Committee at their next meeting later this month. We’ll be meeting at a local farm to hear their thoughts, ideas and insights ahead of the first meeting of our Task Force later that same day.

We look forward to keeping you updated as we continue on this journey together. Sign up for the RTRC Task Force email newsletter version by clicking the link.

ADDITIONAL RELATED POSTS:

1 thought on “Burlington’s Red Tape Red Carpet Task Force: Development and Real Estate Industry Focus Group Highlights”

  1. Russ Campbell

    Here’s a quote: “Do more to educate the public about the benefits of growth to help those inherently resistant to change to see the positives.” Would rather this be: Do more to educate the public about the true/real pros and cons of growth. Many of us chose to live in a small city/large town. Not a wannabe metropolis. City’s duty is to citizens who live here now with far less emphasis on growth which benefits mainly the business community, especially real estate/developer organizations..

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