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Market Squared: Sometimes, dense is better...

Another mid-rise development on Gordon came to city council last week. The official plan says we have to grow, residents say we've grown enough. Now what?
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Another planning meeting, another mid-rise proposal. Not to mention another neighbourhood group in a pretty angry mood about the prospect of living next to a five-to-six storey building. 

It’s understandable why people in the area of south Gordon Street might be feeling the creeping shadow of mid-rise buildings. Outside of downtown, they’re seeing more of this type of development than another part of town. Students, people that want quick/direct access to the 401, it’s an appealing place to be.  

But how much longer will there be room to move on Gordon Street? That’s one of many questions about development that came up Monday at city council. A very animated delegate named Les Schmidt said he’s seen the ever growing congestion on Gordon Street, and it only gets worse from here. 

“Although the proposed number of units will not impact traffic and congestion on Gordon Street significantly, it is the broader context that needs to be considered,” said a letter given to council, of which Schmidt was co-signer. 

“This development is but one which will be built on or to adjacent Gordon Street, between Arkell Road and Edinburgh Road in the next ten years, bringing gridlock to Gordon Street, increased noise and air pollution not to mention increased demands for off-site parking and the resultant littering which are already issues on neighbouring residential streets,” the letter added.

Aside from traffic and parking, the concerned residents, including the Salvation Army citadel, are also worried about drainage, and a loss of natural heritage. Primarily, the concern is the wildlife corridor that the Salvation Army was made to preserve when the proposal for their citadel came before council. But now, according to them, it seems like an after thought in the proposal for the building moving next door. 

I love animals too, but I find this conundrum fascinating. 

Places to Grow has demand that Guelph absorb tens of thousands of more people, and to do it within set boundaries. Guelph is also a city confounded by a housing shortage, one of the things driving prices up here is the lack of stock, particularly in regards to single-bedroom rentals, not that the development application at 1300 Gordon addressed that, but I digress. 

Meanwhile, people in this area have a legitimate beef that goes beyond simple NIMBYism. In fact, the Salvation Army letter to council notes that, “we wish to acknowledge that we fully expected substantial development in the south end of Guelph, including along Gordon Street.” In other words, in the efforts to grow, are we not noticing that we’re tearing our shirt, Incredible Hulk-style. 

As these, and presumably other neighbours, are concerned about the proliferation of not just mid-rise, but townhouse developments too, City of Guelph staff are working on guidelines and build-form standards for these constructs. Better late than never, as they say. 

What’s interesting is that according to some people in the know, mid-rise construction is a tough sell. According to an article I found written by Toronto real estate developer Brendon Donnelly, mid-rise isn’t the most appealing type of development in that city because their too small for downtown, and too big for the suburbs. 

More practically, Donnelly noted, is that for mid-rise developments the construction of underground parking is a loss leader. Since the purchasers of units in mid-rise developments tend to be “end-users,” meaning people that are going to settle there and not going to turn around and rent it to others, it means they’re more likely to use their parking space then let it sit empty. 

Donnelly noted that the appeal of mid-rise in Europe is more obvious because car ownership tends not to be as prevalent. In other words, we’re trying to cram simple European living into the North American lifestyle, and, in this instance, they fundamentally don’t fit together. 

That brings us back to the people concerned about these developments, and while I hesitate to use the word “NIMBY”, people are entitled to their legitimate concerns after all, it does leave this city, or any city in Ontario, with a conundrum. 

“This last point can be quite frustrating for urban leaders and policymakers because growth has to happen somewhere,” wrote Donnelly. “So while it may seem like a win for some to stop even the most modest of developments, all it means is that that growth will be displaced to some other part of the city.”

This is key because, as stated above, Guelph’s borders are set, and it cannot bloat over like the titular gelatinous mass in The Blob. Still, I think the point is that Gordon may be reaching a point of maximum development, at least that’s how the neighbourhood feels. 

Still, unless you’re going to tell people moving here that they’re more then welcome, but their cars can’t come with them, we’re going to have a problem. Access is what Gordon Street offers, a straight shot to the 401 and on to Toronto, Hamilton, and Kitchener, or wherever they’re going in the morning. 

As they say in the real estate business, “Location, location, location.” Sadly, for people in this part of town, they’re living on some highly desirable real estate. 

Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan, who I consider a kind of role model in the discussion and analysis of civic affairs, dealt with the push-pull of mid-rise development recently in the context of a proposed eight-storey building in the ritzy Annex neighbourhood of his city. The problem, Kennan observed was the difference between plan-making cities, and deal-making cities. 

Toronto is a deal-making city. 

What does that mean? Like Guelph, Toronto has guidelines to govern its growth, an official plan, and like Guelph, the bylaws don’t necessarily reflect the plan, like in the Annex, which bars construction greater than two storeys. The plan calls for more density overall, but that has to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis because of the area bylaws. Hence the deal-making. 

At almost every planning meeting this year, there’s been a proposed mid-rise or townhouse development, and almost every time, there’s been a neighbourhood group that knows that they don’t like it. Again their reasons may be legitimate, but there’s a real sense that when it comes to growth and development in Guelph that none of us are on the same page. 

So Guelph is a deal-making city too, and we need to ask if that’s any better than sticking to the plan.