April 21, 2016 – Let’s Get Cozy (The Intensity Report)
My name is Karen Pagratis and I report on the Planning Committee meetings of Kingston City Council.
The Planning Committee consists of 6 City Councilors, one of whom acts as Chair. Meetings are held on the first and third Thursday of the month in Council Chambers commencing at 6:30 pm. and are open to the public to observe and address.
The information report submitted by planning staff to the Planning Committee is entitled “Pending and Committed Residential Development Supply Update to December 2015”. The purpose according to Paige Agnew, Director of Planning, is to “provide ongoing technical education for the committee and interested members of the public” in order to enable a “real understanding of the numbers before the staff”.
As the reader might imagine, this report touches on a number of topics beyond mere housing requirement projections. In terms of which, by the way, Kingston is in fairly good shape. Contrary to popular belief, we are very close to the 3% vacancy rate, which is considered the golden mean or “acceptable” rate by both the CHMC and current industry standards. (Note population projection figures do not include students, which for six months of the year at least, does cause a misleading sense that the vacancy rate is much lower than it is.) Currently Kingston has a 15 year supply of committed and pending housing which actually exceeds our forecasted requirements.
According to staff, housing trends suggest that multiple dwelling units are increasing in popularity while medium and low density housing (the typical single family house) requirements are in decline. It would seem that the millennials aren’t as keen to be mortgagees as their parents were, nor of course can they readily afford to be. However pay attention here because this is not just about multi-residential buildings, its about their location as well. In the words of one planner: “we’re trying to analyse what the numbers are telling us. To chart the trends…also the location of where these trends are taking place.”
Next we learn that there is an increased desire to live in a “complete community” which incorporates “mixed use” and is “walkable”. Moreover good planning is based on Intensity Centre’s or Nodes in which density gradually declines as you move from the centre outward and on Corridors like our Williamsville corridor.
We are told that the municipality should regulate building height through its zoning by-laws, not its Official Plan. Indeed the Director tells us that: ”Too much detail in the O.P. actually weakens it, (because) it requires constant amendments”. (Should a document such as an O.P., which according to legislation, must be reviewed every 5 years anyway, need constant amendment in between time?) Another staffer, when asked by Councilor McLaren about the sustainability of an O.P. that contains no specific numbers, said: “Well we won’t take out all the numbers … we certainly would keep density figures (numbers) in the O.P. … How we achieve the vision of the O.P. is through zoning standards”. Keep in mind that in the last few years in Kingston, zoning by-laws have been very easily and frequently amended.
However the best is yet to come, in the form of “Density Bonusing” or “Community Benefits” as it is to be called in the future. Density Bonusing, which is outlined in Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act, refers to a practice whereby a developer is allowed an increase in height and density in exchange for other benefits the developer is willing to offer the city or community. The “bonus” can be in goods or services such as an additional playground or park space, or cash directly given to the city. Our planning department will be determining a set of guidelines to be followed in this regard. The bonus or “benefit” must take place in the area that’s affected by the height or density by-law suspension. (In other words, the playground must be near the location of the hi-rise.) Also the bonus must be of equitable value to the community in which it is to be allowed. This is where the equation gets tricky. When Councilor Allen asked if it would be similar to a rule apparently in use in Montreal that allows a developer to exceed the by-law requirement by one floor if the developer provides a “green roof” (solar panels), the answer was that things would be evaluated on a case by case basis. Similarly there was no definitive answer when Councilor Hutchison asked if the planning department would have a rubric to accurately determine “the equitable value” of the benefit. The Director stated that the guidelines, they were developing would have to go through consultation “with the developers, the public and the Council. (At the risk of sounding cynical, isn’t asking the developer for his idea of equitable value a bit like the farmer asking the fox what kind of gate should be built on the hen house?) When Hutchison further asked if these “guidelines” would become part of the OP, he was told that no, they would only be “back- up to the policy”. But there will be “open houses” to discuss what the guidelines should look like.
A concerned citizen, Tim Soper, probably said it best, when he addressed the planning committee and the city as a whole with “we can all agree that empty parking lots on Queen St. are ugly. But will we be proud of what we build?” Let us use rational thinking rather than be swayed by the promise of bonuses.