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The 'do we look stupid' challenge at planning meetings

This week's Market Squared will consider the games we all play in this dangerous new era of planning.
Fusion Homes proposes to build a 23-storey building at 58 Wellington St. E.

If you want to know why I can never be a city councillor, it’s because in the middle of a city council planning meeting, I would look across the room at the veritable professional planner delegating and ask a simple question: “Do I look stupid to you?”

I would probably get called out for my lack of decorum, and fair enough, but in my defense, I could have thrown in the F-word too. What can I say, it’s hard to contain myself when I hear B.S., and I heard a lot of it at this week’s planning meeting.

What else is new?

At the presentation of the application to turn the former gas station now vacant lot at 58 Wellington Street East into a 23-story residential/commercial building there were a lot of lofty (pun intended) promises made about how the building doesn’t need to follow the rules by having one parking spot for all 250 units in the building.

Why? This is a lifestyle building! There’s secured indoor bike parking, it’s in a walkable area with connections to bike lanes and trails, and it’s close to several transit routes with the city’s transit hub just a five-minute walk up the road. In fact, the site’s planner, Hugh Handy, touted that there will be real-time bus schedules on screens in the lobby.

I had a good laugh at this one. The only way you’re going to get anyone who can afford a luxury condo like this onto a Guelph Transit bus is to drag them inside, probably kicking and screaming. But sure, let’s pretend that everyone living here is going to be flooding our bus stops eagerly for a 45-minute ride across town.

But if the script from the developer was predictable, so was the reaction from the area residents who listed all kinds of the usual concerns, including increased traffic. So on the one hand, this is a lifestyle building that’s home to several hundred people all biking, walking or taking transit and leaving their one car at home, and on the other this building means nothing less than more traffic.

Who do we believe?

Now this isn’t about calling the developers liars, and it’s also not about calling the people concerned that their neighbourhood is changing liars either, but every month the story is the same. Someone says their development is the right size at the right time at the right place, but then others come to speak in front of council and say that they’re wrong.

This predicament is not unusual to council meetings, and I’ve written about his before, but the stakes are so much higher now. At next week’s regular meeting, council will be asked to formally commit to the province’s demand to build 18,000 units of new housing here in the next eight years, and what happens if we don’t is still a question with no apparent answer.  

So we’re under the gun, we’re re-writing the rules as we go, we don’t know who to trust, and we all have a visceral allergic reaction to change. On top of all that, the crisis is real. Once again Guelph has been judged one of the most expensive cities in the country to rent, and that’s not a trend that’s reversing itself.

It’s also worth noting that I think this meeting went down in a way that Mayor Can Guthrie said he wanted to avoid just a few weeks ago at the State of the City.

“The community must stop being NIMBY,” he said. “More often than not, it’s the same recipe of complaints from every neighbourhood. Not every development is going to destroy the value in your home, cause accidents and have children or animals run over or cause massive parking issues or have a design element that you don’t like.”

I know some people didn’t like this commentary because it sounded like the mayor was telling people not to engage, and that he didn’t want to hear people’s concerns. That’s not it. What he was saying is that if you’ve been to enough planning meetings you know what criticisms are coming.

It’s like when Wheel of Fortune started giving contestants in the bonus round R, S, T, L, N, and E because those were the letters that were constantly being guessed. I think there should be a new rule where, before delegations, the mayor should tell staff to look at the project and determine if it’s too big, too tall, if it has enough parking, if it’s too ugly and if it will have a negative impact on traffic.

That way, we can ease up on the other increase in traffic that’s coming, the one at the planning meeting itself.

If we’re to build 18,000 units in eight years, then we’re going to be seeing planning applications come fast and furiously, and because of the requirement changes, some of them will not have all the information that council and the public wants to know about.

Spending two hours on each plan, at that point, is going to start meaning later and later nights, and that’s before we start factoring in what will surely be some controversial decisions.

But now controversy lies in wait in other ways after council set a tone on Tuesday that they will at least flirt with rejecting a decision of the Ontario Land Tribunal. How many projects could be lost, stalled and forgotten if council accidentally starts a legal war against the province’s zoning oversight appeal board?

We have to be smarter about planning meetings. The cards are almost all in the hands of the developers now (if they were ever not), and that means we must focus on the things we know we can’t live with instead of demanding that everything we don’t like gets taken off the table.

So do we look stupid? I guess we’ll find out.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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