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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Slicing and dicing

During the last municipal election, I was occasionally asked what I thought was the single most important issue confronting my ward and the city as a whole. I had one answer for both: the Southwest Area Plan.

Not very many constituents knew what that was about. The matter was not raised at any all-candidates’ meetings. The media was not particularly interested.

But at Tuesday night’s council meeting, the SWAP, as the Southwest Area Plan is known at city hall, was the subject of some heated exchanges reflecting opposing views of the planning process.
The area included in the SWAP is a 2700 hectare parcel of land from Southdale Road in the north to the 402 in the south, the village of Lambeth in the west and past Wellington Road in the east. The White Oaks area is not included in this designation. But it’s a lot of land, and only about half of it is already built out or has been designated for development. The remainder is Urban Reserve, undesignated and unzoned, and includes important natural heritage.

How you view this last large tract of land in the city depends on your relationship to it. If you own several parcels of land, you may wonder how much you can get for it. If you live in the village of Lambeth, you may wonder whether you will get access to transportation or how your kids will get to school safely. If you are a shopkeeper, you may be concerned about whether you will have more or fewer customer. If you live in Brockley, you may worry about the impact of surrounding industries on your enjoyment of your property. And many will wonder about the impact of development on woodlands and wetlands.

And, of course, any development is dependent on public works and infrastructure—roads, sewers, garbage collection—which is costly to build and maintain. So you need to develop gradually and smartly.

That takes planning, which is why cities have planning departments.

In London, we haven’t always planned well. Traditionally, we have let developers lead the way and the results haven’t been pretty. One has only to look at what has been happening at the Fanshawe and Hyde Park intersection, or the development at Southdale Road and Colonel Talbot Road, an area that was once touted as to be modeled on Wortley Village.

But this is the first city-led area plan. Some of us fought hard to get this during the last term of council, to have the city hire the consultants who would undertake the background studies, engage the public, identify the constraints and opportunities, and bring forward options for development that respects the community, the environment and the taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

The current process began in 2008. Since that time, there have been studies on natural heritage, cultural heritage, water and sanitary servicing and transportation. There have been meetings with staff, the general public and stakeholders. And, of course, with council.

Staff presented the draft report to Planning Committee in June of 2010 and the public comments thereon in September of that year.  Council referred the plan back to staff to address some outstanding concerns which focussed primarily on finding some additional servicing to speed up some development and to take into account a possible interchange at Wonderland and the 401. However, since the council was in election mode with the potential of much turnover, no decision could be taken which could have significant financial implications for the new council.

When it received the revised report in September 2011, and after hearing from interested landowners and developers, the new council wanted matters speeded up, find some additional servicing, change some of the land use mixes. Planning staff went back to talk to the stakeholders and their drawing boards. Then it gave its best professional recommendation to circulate to the public and stakeholders for feedback.

I wasn’t present at the Tuesday night meeting. I had come down with a cold and had decided that a shower from the public gallery wasn’t likely in the best interest of democracy. But who knows? It could have been a watershed moment for some councillors.

I did, however, manage to get the Rogers TV version of events. And I had been present at the December 12th meeting at which the newly-minted Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) had made its recommendation to council, so I wasn’t surprised by the controversy that the SWAP report created.

At that meeting it was clear that the mayor was not happy. His unhappiness focussed on one critical aspect of the plan, the triangle of land where Exeter Road, Wonderland Road and Wharncliffe Road meet.

That same triangle was the source of much controversy when I was on council as well. That was where SmartCentres wanted to locate a WalMart. The agents were at every meeting with the SWAP consultants and, I understand, in discussion with members of the local community association as well as members of council. Whenever the issue of limited servicing in that area was discussed, you could count on some councillors lobbying hard for commercial interests. One member of council had to declare a conflict of interest as he was a consultant for the proponent.

And why not? Why not just extend the line of big box stores all the way down Wonderland Road from Southdale to the 401?

It would look a lot like Wellington Road which one recent award-winning urban designer referred to as one of the ugliest city gateways he had ever seen.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Councillor Dale Henderson, who represents the ward within which this triangle lies, saw only the opportunity that commercial or industrial—he wasn’t always clear on which—could provide. It’s all about job creation. He knew four or five companies wanting to come to this area. “If it looks like Wellington Street, so what?”

Not living in London, he obviously has difficulty distinguishing between Wellington Road and Street, the latter of which is indeed quite attractive as it runs past City Hall and Victoria Park.

But he claimed to know what the residents of the ward want, although one of his constituents in the gallery alleged that a week before Henderson had said something totally at odds with what he was saying at the committee. And indeed, I had difficulty following just what he wanted in the plan and to whom he was listening. He didn’t want mixed land uses; “Go downtown for your mixed uses,” he suggested. And he certainly didn’t want any “$400,000 houses” in that area.

What he did want was jobs—commercial, industrial, whatever—and he wasn’t particularly concerned about the cost that might be incurred in servicing for those jobs.

Councillor Paul Hubert pointed out that the jobs were likely to fall short of the high end jobs that council has been touting. Does job creation always trump good planning, he wanted to know.

Councillor Steven Orser, on the other hand, was quite “swayed by Councillor Henderson’s concern for his area.” He knew people who would be glad to take $11 or $12 per hour jobs.

No one asked where those jobs would come from. But when the current Official Plan was being developed, we learned that we have an excess of commercial/retail development in the city. And much of the development at Wonderland and Southdale has simply re-located from elsewhere in the city, leaving their employees with transportation problems. More retail outlets may not mean more business or spending. But it may mean a few more independents go under, just as happened in Hyde Park.

Several members of council objected to interfering with the public process, urging instead that the staff report be received and circulated for public comment. Councillor Judy Bryant didn’t want to be “jumping the gun” and “slicing and dicing” before the public had even seen the recommended plan. She appealed to the Director of land use planning, John Fleming, for his opinion. While he did not see extending commercial as a positive thing, “We are in council’s hands,” he pointed out.

Councillor Joni Baechler was livid. For her, community planning involves a path, a process, with public consultation, not a “family and friends” process. This was just planning on the fly, listening to whoever bends your ear. The community association didn’t even know what was in the plan. The staff are professionals, they have to have a “planning rationale” for their recommendations. Council members aren’t planners and shouldn’t be meddling in the process. “If this goes to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) what will your planning rationale be?” she demanded. “Let staff do their job!”

Her sentiments were echoed Councillor Harold Usher. Much of the area under consideration is located in his ward too. He wanted his constituents to have the opportunity to respond to the staff report.

In the end, after much amending and revising, the original staff report was received unanimously, followed by a motion to present an additional option of expanded commercial along the Wonderland corridor for circulation to the public. That motion also passed, supported by all except Armstrong, Baechler, Branscombe, Matt Brown, Usher and Bryant.

The final report incorporating the public response will be brought to council in April.


Rockinon said...

Very good post.

I still have the full-page, London Free Press story telling us in glowing terms what to expect at Southdale and Col. Talbot. We would see London's first foray into New Urbanism --- Talbot Village. As you said in your post, something akin to Old South was being ballyhooed for this southwest parcel of open land.

Whether what is there today is good or bad isn't my point. It doesn't look at all like the art that accompanied The Free Press article. The new southwest neighbourhood is simply a still expanding suburban development, and on its perimeter a small, open, shopping mall with oodles of paved parking.

Anonymous said...

Didn't you feel the lightning bolt on election night Gina? The one that gives members of council all the knowledge all at once? The one that gives them the experience that professional staff can only dream of?

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I agree with you Gina. Developers through their proxy political supporters are in charge of the City's planning process.
But this can be turned into a positive. Since the recommendations from staff planning professionals are redundant to the "vision" of many council members and the mayor, council should simply sack them all!! This would let him tout he has achieved 0%. Hmm better not post this - they might think it is a great idea!!

Anonymous said...

The city will have a SWAP Open House in early February. If you want some advance notice about this and the public participation meeting that follows (sometime in April) call the planning department and ask them to put your email on the list.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't some of that land annexed along time ago, raising the taxes of home and landowners, with promises, promises, promises. I think a generation of children have been born and graduated highschool and still the City of London taxes the land as though it was a part of London, but nothing much else has changed, with the exception of a few pay-outs to consultants. That doesn't seem right to me. It doesn't seem fair. There should be a time limit on promises made during an annexation process. This could go on and on and on indefinately.