Tomorrow, the issue surrounding a new development on Reservoir Hill will be before London City Council, perhaps for the last time. I imagine there will be a great deal of conversation, discussion and debate around the issue both inside and out of City Hall before Council takes its position.

Today, the London Free Press published this article on the issue, which includes answers members of Council gave to the question “Will you vote in favour of the Reservoir Hill highrise?”. Few of the members of Council that could be reached seemed to have a firm stance, with some remaining undecided or decided unless new information becomes available before Council meets.

The importance of the planning profession was heavily impressed on me when I was in school, and continues to be now. Planners are trained and hired to adhere both to planning guidelines and statues such as the Planning Act, as well as social and cultural analysts that gauge the optimal uses for land. Like politicians, they are in the public employ to best serve the needs of the community, and make choices devoid of personal consideration. Yet, I and my college classmates were repeatedly told that the planning process is highly political, and planning professionals can often effectively argue both sides of an issue. I’m reminded this by this development issue, where individuals both in support and against the development have said there is misinformation swirling around this issue. As I asked before, what is the truth?

The background documents are a good place to start. The crux of the argument seems to be, if a building larger than one of the buildings proposed by the developer is allowed under the 2001 OMB decision made by Rosenberg, and the decisions made by Council afterwards that stem from it.

The Rosenberg decision as written in the Feb.1, 2001 OMB report includes:

(i) Maximum one 12 storey apartment building located roughly in the middle of the two apartment buildings as set out in the existing proposed Site Plan and driveways to the site can be angled;

(ii) Maximum of 165 apartment units with a minimum of 215 underground parking spaces…

There’s no reference to the exact size of the building. However, Council repeatedly stated that since the 2001 decision, the applicant Ayerswood Development were to revise the plan to have one building the same size (not larger) as one of the buildings in the original application, as the applicant brought forward new proposals with larger buildings. This is reflected in this June 13, 2011 report to the Built and Natural Environment Committee by D.N. Stanlake, Director of Development Planning. From the report:

On November 15, 2004, Municipal Council Resolved:

That, on the recommendation of General Manager of Planning and Development, the following actions be taken with respect to the site plan approval application of Ayerswood Development Corp. relating to the property located at 940 Springbank Drive:

a) the applicant BE ADVISED to review their site plan to meet the requirements and intent of the OMB decision as follows:

i. the building be shifted to the west to a location that is “roughly the middle of the two apartment buildings” as set out in the site plan before the Board in 2000;
iii. the size of the building be revised to be the size of one of the buildings identified in the site plan which is before the OMB to be approved;

As well:

On June 15, 2009, Municipal Council resolved:

15. That the following actions be taken with respect to the site plan approval application of Ayerswood Development Corp. relating to the property located at 940 Springbank Drive.

(a) the Ontario Municipal Board BE ADVISED that the Municipal Council reiterates its position taken on November 15, 2004 with respect to this matter, in that:

(i) The developer has proposed to dedicate a two-acre parcel portion of its lands for parks purposes at a location that is supported by staff;

(ii) The proposed building has been shifted to the west to a location that is “roughly in the middle of the two apartment buildings” as set out in the site plan before the Board in 2000; and

The revised site plan does not meet the position adopted by City Council at its meeting held on November 15, 2004 with regard to the Ayerswood site plan appeal in that:

(i) The size of the building has not (emphasis mine) been reduced to the size of one of the buildings as shown on the 2000 site plan;

Again, planning/development is highly political, perhaps especially in London. I have heard a variety of perspectives on this issue, and some very disturbing allegations, including that city staff have unfairly tried to obstruct the process for this project being approved. It has been said to me that city staff had the recommendation process taken out of their hands last fall because they were blockading this project, though to what end wasn’t made clear.

I’ve heard the concern voiced by several people that council is the face of democracy, and the city staff are only hired to give advice. If the unelected city staff becomes the final voice of authority, we aren’t being properly represented. However, I feel there must be a fine balance. On the other hand, if city council refuse well-founded advice from city staff, they are effectively silencing the professionals we pay to lend their experience and expertise. They’re the ones well educated and experienced in a specific field and well informed on specific files, something city council members are unable to be with the myriad of issues they face in their role at council. Why shouldn’t we put a great deal of value in the work they do? As well, if city staff is completely disregarded, it won’t take long for them to feel undervalued and ultimately seek other opportunities, and create a toxic environment in city hall. This may already be happening.

Ultimately, the concern is that decisions are being made on this file for personal reasons by staff. I share that concern, though I see it from the opposite perspective; I am concerned that some may be making decisions for this project because of support they’ve received from members of the development business community.

I am neither pro- nor anti-development. What I hope to always be is standing in support of proper planning, I’m concerned that isn’t what is happening here, based on what I’ve read from the history of this application, as shown above. The applicant repeatedly comes back to the city with similar plans knowing the OMB stance, yet hoping Council will bend. It repeatedly failed to happen before previous councils, but it appears the applicant now has a receptive audience in at least some of the current council.

So, I am concerned about the amount of leverage the development community in London has at City Council. When members of Council have accepted campaign donations from groups that form delegations before City Council with a special interest, I’m concerned that decisions will be swayed not only by best information, but also personal interest. I would like to see greater transparency of election contributions (though all election 2010 campaign information is available here, there are ways of making this information more accessible). This is something I hope to explore further in future posts.

I believe this issue is an excellent gateway into discussion on other issues, including:

  • How much stock should be put into staff decisions? When/why is it appropriate to take control out of their hands?
  • Should campaign contributions be scrutenized more than they are now?
  • Should members of Council be recused from committee/council decisions concerning people/businesses/organizations that support them financially?

For the Reservoir Hill project, I hope informative and enlightened discussion/debate can happen tomorrow night, and that Council makes the right decision based on what is best for the community as well as what is correct according to best planning practice. I completely accept that a development is going to happen on that hill. I hope that what is built there fits with the spirit of the Rosenberg decision, to have one building of the original specified size. If the applicant had revised their design based on what the OMB said in 2000/2001 as well as follow-up by city council in 2004 (and again in 2009), and made a site plan with one building of the original size roughly between where the two had been proposed, this matter could have been settled several years ago.