November 5, 2015– The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I’m a new voice on this Blog and my name is Karen Pagratis. I’ll be reporting on the Planning Committee meetings of Kingston City Council. ‘Cause planning is where it’s at, at least in this decade, in this great and growing city of Kingston.
The Planning Committee consists of 6 City Councillors, one of whom acts as Chair. Unlike many other municipal committees it includes no members of the general public. However its meetings are open to the public to observe and address. Meetings are held on the first and third Thursday of the month in Council Chambers commencing at 6:30 pm.
The current Planning Committee consists of Councillors: Kevin George (Vice-Chair), Jeff McLaren, Jim Neill, Lisa Osanic, Laura Turner and Liz Schell who is Chair of the group. With the exception of Councillors McLaren and Turner, this is a seasoned group. They are all at least in their 3rd term as City Councillors and have all sat and continue to sit on a variety of committees. Councillor Liz Schell is a dignified and soft spoken Chairperson who seems able to maintain a congenial atmosphere, at least so far.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Tonight’s meeting was a monster with not only the usual public meeting consisting of by-law amendment requests, but also the much anticipated 2nd draft presentation of the City’s “Official Plan”. Why the two would be combined is anyone’s guess, but it drew a huge crowd.
The owner of 84 Centre St., a residential semi, asked for a permit to build a secondary suite in his basement, a request very much consistent with the City’s urban intensification plan. Apparently the only one to have a problem with it was the neighbour who wanted to insist, among other things, that the owner add in 3 inches of sound insulation all the way up and down the connecting wall. The owner gave quite a clever response to this demand by insisting that he would be happy to do so if the neighbour did likewise on his side in order that all possible noise is muffled on either side.
Next came bigger fish, that of the creation of a new project area at 700 Gardiners Rd. (Which by the way is not on Gardiners Rd., but rather east of it and south of Taylor Kidd.) We are talking about the 40 hectare development planned behind the Rio Can Centre. The Developer here is Tamarack Homes owned by the Taggart Family, who speak through the planners at Fotenn Construction. They plan to provide a range of land uses, consisting of a mixture of housing options, “improve” traffic and parking patterns (although currently there exists neither traffic or parking to improve), provide social and recreational facilities and address brownfields. The last point is the most immediately significant as they wish to extend eligibility in order to apply for brownfield remediation funding. That is to say they want tax assistance to address any ground contamination which may currently exist. The property was formerly owned by Northern Telecom and later housed a cable factory which resulted in some chemical use.
Interestingly, Michelle Taggart addressed the committee herself later during the Official Plan presentation to request that the Plan be altered to accommodate an 18 metre road cross section rather than the existing 20 meter width. Also she would like to see the City abandon the sidewalk boulevard requirement, (that strip of land between between the street and the sidewalk) and have the sidewalks run directly adjacent to the street. There’s method here and in both cases it results in savings to the builder. Narrower streets obviously mean more houses and no sidewalk boulevards mean that short front yards can be made to appear longer, even though the buyer doesn’t own all of it. This is a builder who looks to the minute to increase profits and thus bears just as much watching as those who would construct a monolith with zero lot line in one brash move.
Finally, on to the real reason most people attended last night’s meeting, the latest update of the Official Plan. We are given some background by Rory Baksh, a planner with Dillon Consulting, hired by the City. In accordance with provincial legislation all municipalities must update their Official Plans every 5 years and must follow a specified process to do so. Public input is not only welcome, but required and every form of social media has been incorporated to aid in the “robust public consultation process”. Thus we have a new and very young face as Director of Planning blogging with stakeholders and holding “coffee mornings” and open house events. Personally I think that this is an innovative and healthy exercise for both the public and City Hall if, and only if, public opinion is truly and fully taken into account in the formulation of policies.
The Councillors had a few pointed questions. Councillor Osanic questioned the removal of specific measurements regarding “The Ribbon of Life” or buffer lands and why there appeared to be a softening of language regarding setbacks from bodies of water. This concern was echoed time and again by members of the public a little later. The official answer seemed to be that specific numbers in terms of measurement had been moved to another section of the report and that some exceptions were incorporated in the wording to cover existing lots/ houses that may be too close to the current water line.
Councillor Neill was concerned with the transparency of the Official Plan process and asked why there had only been one public meeting at the beginning of the process, particularly as other municipalities apparently have many more in their processes. The staff answered that is all that is required by provincial Act, but they may recommend another if Planning or Council directs them to do so. Two hours and much public commentary later, Neill asked the same question again and this time the Commissioner, Lanie Hurdle stepped in to assure those present that another public meeting would indeed be held.
Councillor George asked some very circuitous questions regarding transportation and residential intensification which seemed to boil down to cars may continue to go unrestrictedly through the city and secondary suites in “stable” areas are encouraged. You might recall that this councillor has had some very contentious and well publicized issues with some of his district residents regarding rental units within their subdivisions.
Councillor McLaren rode his usual hobby horse (but briefly) of cost/benefit analysis, insisting that growth should pay for itself. Not a misplaced sentiment by any means. He went on to insist that the term “new development” must be removed from the wording and that cost/benefit analysis should be performed on all development. Presumably he’s not asking for staff to evaluate that which has already been developed, or is he?
Councillor Rob Hutchison who is not a member of the Planning Committee, but dropped in, made a plea for a Secondary Planning Process regarding Greenfields (new, undeveloped areas) to be included in the Plan. Then somewhat oddly, he went on to call for a prohibition of cul de sacs, as they were a waste of valuable residential land and that a straightforward grid method was much preferred. (Let’s hope the good councillor doesn’t decide to become an urban planner, or we might be in for a spate of Soviet-style architecture.)
Next came what Jim Neill aptly called “Homecoming”, with a number of former city councillors coming to the microphone to express their concerns. Floyd Patterson wanted to know what would become of the Kingston Penitentiary lands, if the Wellington St. extension was tied to the Third Crossing and whether the Official Plan will protect the Inner Harbour as a natural greenspace. George Sutherland was very concerned about the expansion of an open pit mine off Hwy #15 and also wanted prison farms to be reinstated. Vicki Schmolka, who by her own count was the 27th commentator, wanted the language of the Plan tightened, because as she quite rightfully pointed out, it’s rather worrisome when a developer’s agent says that if the language is too hard, we’ll all find ourselves in front of the OMB more often. (This is in fact precisely what Mike Kean, the land use planner with Fotenn for Tamarack predicted.) Ms. Schmolka went on to give an impassioned appeal to the citizenry of Kingston to realize that this was “a chance for us to determine what kind of city we want to be”. For more on her urban vision see her Letter to the Editor of the Whig Standard published about a week previously.
Questions and commentary from members of the general public touched on a vast variety of issues, but most often focussed on greenspace, heritage protection, and sight-line preservation. Former Kingston Municipal Planner, Rob Fonger, stated that development standards must be more specific, especially in regard to areas to be densified and downtown height restrictions. On the subject of height restrictions, Giselle Pharand, who managed to secure over 100 signatures within 36 hours on a petition, asserted that no building in the downtown core including the North Block and the Capitol Theatre proposals should be allowed to build higher than 8 to 10 stories. She wants it specified in the Official Plan and she wants to see it enforced! Christine Sypnowych, president of the Barriefield Village Association, spoke eloquently at length about built heritage preservation, the importance of greenspace and buffer zones and to be wary of unsympathetic developers. (This is of course a very timely issue for Barriefield as the builder Patry (of Princess St. development in Williamsville fame) has bought the old school immediately adjacent to the village and is very busy trying to determine just how many units he can possibly squeeze in to every available metre in all directions, up, down and sideways.)
On and on the wish list goes, from Save our Farms to requests for more designated bicycle parking, to a concern that cars not be banned. What was most significant in the whole process was resident’s involvement. Almost everyone who spoke cared deeply about what their city looked like, and perhaps more importantly, felt like. Engagement is what City Hall asked for and it’s certainly what they got, and I suspect, will continue to get as we move forward to the 3rd Draft.