Back in Feburary (on Monday the 26th) at the Planning and Environment Committee, a development by Ali Soufan’s York Developments was under examination (as covered by Gina Barber in this post). The development applied to put together and re-designate 6 different properties on the southwest corner of Southdale Road East and White Oaks Road. The proposal began as a grocery store, and staff recommended a change of use from auto-oriented commercial to a Neighbourhood Shopping Area. So far, so good.

But there’s a rub.

The applicant wasn’t content with this decision, as this application was based on speculation. He didn’t have a tenant for the property yet, so he wanted to leave his options open. He wanted the Neighbourhood Shopping Area but also leave the option open for an auto sales lot, as well. The applicant also wanted several special considerations.

This didn’t sit well with staff, and a lengthy debate insued. There was concern voiced by staff that any changes to the Official Plan would require public notification, and could be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The applicant said there were time constraints, and that they would need changes to be made by the end of the month (March). However, Council wasn’t meeting again until April 10 and nothing could be decided before that. The applicant asked if they could be granted a special provision. As Gina Barber observes:

And so without further ado, the applicant was granted the Neighbourhood Shopping Area with a special provision for an auto sales and service establishment. So what if it violated all the planning policies. No member of the public was there to object and even if they had been, they wouldn’t have understood what was happening.
 This last sentiment was spoken by the Mayor: “the average person can’t understand what we’re talking about”. No problem, citizens are disengaged and uninformed, Council can make any decisions they want without recourse.

More than one citizen begged to differ.

Because of this concern, after reviewing the application and the situation leading up to the special provisions made, I co-signed this letter of objection addressed to Council and added to the April 10, 2012 agenda. Councillor Judy Bryant stood up in Council to indicate that as a member of the PEC she had voted against the special provision, and didn’t believe the application should have been allowed to leave the committee in the state it was in. Gina again:

Council ultimately decided to circulate the modified request to the public. It would not have happened if the members of the public, three of whom were watching from the public gallery, had not sent that letter of objection. The decision was unanimous.

I am relieved that Council decided to circulate the modified request to the public. However, I’m concerned that the application got as far as it did in Council, and that it took a public letter of objection to overturn it.

I am concerned that these actions are part of the broader pattern repeatedly addressed by Council members such as Branscombe and Baechler as “policy on the fly”. These concerns have come up several times recently, including during the deliberations over the development on Reservoir Hill, the development proposed by York Developments on Southdale Road, and the Mayor’s “eleventh hour” decision to cut contributions to affordable housing and focus on rent suppliments. On the last point, Gina writes:

He may have a point; perhaps a greater emphasis on rental supplements would be beneficial. But it doesn’t add to the housing stock, it doesn’t create jobs, and it doesn’t leverage private sector money. Nor does it meet many of the housing needs identified in the development of the council endorsed policy. People like Paul Hubert to tend become suspicious when there is a sudden change of direction without debate, without public consultation. And just why would it be better with less money? This, several councillors pointed out, was policy on the fly. It was disrespectful of council and the public. It wasn’t developed to meet the legitimate needs of the community but to achieve a zero tax increase.

However, the problem may run deeper than simply members of Committee/Council not properly informing themselves on the issues that come before them, and/or making it up as they go along. In several of the contentious planning issues I have now witnessed before PEC (and ultimately, Council), the developer in question has been Ali Soufan of York Developments. As Gina Barber points out, there may be method to the planning madness:

Soufan usually does well at planning committee. He’s a generous donor to political campaigns; he and his various businesses and family members had donated generously to the campaigns of a number of members of council including the Mayor, committee chair Bud Polhill, and committee member Sandy White. Those donations may not be the deciding factor in approving an application, but they do tend to help you get a warm reception.

Mayor Fontana certainly seems to offer Mr. Soufan and other developers a warm reception to City Hall, and to often see members of the public wishing to voice their complaints about developments happening in their neighbourhoods as meddlesome pests. “Why consult the neighbours? They’ll just cause problems” seemed to be the Mayor’s attitude at PEC Monday February 26. At the last PEC on Reservoir Hill leading up to tomorrow’s meeting, the committee and especially the mayor pressed to see the project finally move forward. Fontana pushed staff to get their information together, analyze and put together development agreement clauses for the public site plan meeting, to be ready April 24.

How quickly can we do it? This seems to be a recurring theme with Mayor Fontana. I’m concerned that this phrase, repeatedly often and loudly enough, will stifle and silence legitimate objections by the city’s staff. As citizens of London, we must participate in the public process, and hold our elected representatives accountable. I deeply hope to see our city grow and flourish, but not because we’ve cut corners and refused to do due diligence. If the public continues to be ignored and derided when they work to become part of the process and development companies are perceived as holding the reins of planning policy in this city, we will see what fragile participation is left crumble.

Despite, even perhaps because of this, I am excited to participate in civic engagement workshops, meet interested Londoners and encourage everyone to join me in learning more about our city hall, the people that shape our city on our behalf, and how we can make our voices heard. We all want a vibrant city, but it can only truly happen when all of London is interested and engaged in the process and give their input.

I’ve been accused of being part of a “special interest group” because I’m interested in city politics and try to stay connected at City Hall. I don’t want to bepart of a vocal minority, but part of a diverse group of many citizens learning, discussing and engaging with our city and those that shape it. I hope you’ll join me as new projects and initiatives happen across the city to help this happen (I’ll write more on this in a later post).

*Note: I relied heavily on posts by Gina Barber for my information, as it is difficult to find local media writings on planning issues outside of contentious/interesting cases like the Reservoir Hill debate. I usually try to use a more diverse selection of sources, but I found Gina’s many articles on planning-related issues at City Hall gave me a lot of material.