Resident asks council if they want to be remembered as the ones who created a high-rise jungle in downtown Burlington?

Stephen Chen is a retiree who has lived in Burlington for many years.  He delegated to the Special Session of City Council that is the early part f the Official Plan Review, expected to take about two years to complete.  Mr. Chen made comments that Mayor Goldring later said reflected the views of many people in Burlington.  City Director of Planning and Building, Bruce Krushelnicki said he understood the remarks Mr. Chen made and hoped there would be an opportunity during the review of the Official Plan for there to be an educational component to the review.  Each of the situations Mr. Chen detailed have solid explanations behind them, said Krushelnicki.

By Stephen Chen

May 7th, 2012.

Presentation to Special Meeting of Council, Review of Official Plan.

My topic tonight will be about Downtown Burlington

Downtown Burlington has been identified as an area for increased population, aka intensification in the 2008 Official Plan.  My concern is that we will have a Downtown dominated by very tall buildings which will completely change the character of the area and not for the better.

The Downtown already has buildings of five storeys or less which work well  visually, have appropriate scale and provide increased intensity.  Why then does the Planning Department permit and even encourage taller buildings?  Does Burlington feel the need to compete with Toronto or Mississauga?  Oakville has a vibrant downtown without any tall buildings in its core area.

Four storey buildings are what Stephen Chen thought the Official Plan was all about - he reads about 17 and 22 storey buildings and asks if this is the kind of "high rise jungle" citizens want.

My concern arises both from a review of the Official Plan as well as what has taken place in terms of new buildings over the past few years.  The Official Plan, if you can call it a Plan, exhibits a distressing amount of elasticity when it comes to building height.

In the Official Plan we come to a part called the

Downtown Mixed Use Centre (Part III, Sec 5.5)

Allow me to take you through this particular section of the Plan which covers the area we generally refer to as Downtown Burlington.   It is divided into smaller parts called precincts.

St Luke’s is the area North of St Luke’s Anglican church on Elgin Ave.  Emerald is the area to the East and South of the No Frills plaza.  We first read that the precinct will have detached dwellings, 25 units per hectare (ha) and a maximum building height of 2-1/2 storeys.  Later on we read that, notwithstanding what we just read, a density greater than 50 units per ha and a maximum building height of 5 storeys may be considered in a certain part of the precinct.

For the Downtown Medium and High Density precincts we read that there will be between 25 to 185 dwelling units per ha.  These are the areas to the East of Maple Av and East of Martha St.   Right after reading that we discover that one building on Maple Av has 321 units per ha and 21 storeys.  Another at the corner of Elgin and Brock will have 353 units per ha and 14 storeys.

Stephen Chen doesn't understand why a developer will be allowed to put up a 12 storey building on this part of the Lakeshore.

For the Old Lakeshore Rd precinct, the land between Lakeshore Rd and Old Lakeshore Rd, Area A on the West, we first read that maximum building height will be 10 storeys.  For Area B on the East the maximum height will be 6 storeys.  Right after that we read that, never mind what you just read, the Planning Department will actually allow 15 storeys in Area A and 8 storeys in Area B.

For the Downtown Core precinct, which is pretty much the central part of the Downtown, we read that the maximum building height will be 4 storeys.  But the Planning Department will let you have up to 8 storeys if you use terracing above the second floor.  If you contain a public post-secondary educational institute, why, you can go up to 10 storeys.  And, by the way, they`ve also allowed one 17 storey apartment building, just so you know.

For the Wellington Square precinct, mostly the North side of Lakeshore between Locust and Pearl, the maximum building height will be 8 storeys with terracing required above the second floor.  But they`ll allow you up to 14 storeys if they think your building looks good and you give them some Community Benefits.  Never mind the 17 storey building already standing on the NW corner of Pearl and Lakeshore.  And, by the way, an even taller building could be coming South of Lakeshore between Elizabeth and Pearl.  Would you believe 22 storeys?

Well, with that kind of track record, what do I think of the 2008 Official Plan?  Truly I think it should be renamed.  It should be called the Official Suggestion.

Community Benefits

Community Benefits are an interesting concept.  They are used to justify the ad hoc nature of permitted building height.

When I first heard of the expression I thought ok, we are allowing the developer to take away a piece of the sky, so to speak, with the additional building height  over and above what the Plan specifies, but we the community will be compensated in some fashion for him being allowed to do that.

Stephen wonders how development money was used to pay for this public art and exactly who benefits from something almost underneath a reailway underpass.

It seems reasonable to me that the compensation would be somehow related to the increased economic benefit that the developer obtains from however many additional housing units he can put into the building.  Like maybe 50%.  Hey, this could be a good thing for the City.  It would certainly buy quite a few of those “Windows on the Lake” that we would like to have.

Alas, I have since learned that our Community Benefits have nothing to do with the extra $$ the developer pockets.  It is based on the difference in value of the land alone with and without the additional building height and density.  Which has to be a pittance compared to what my suggestion would bring in.

In fact, with Community Benefits set up that way, why wouldn’t a developer push the envelope on building height?  The upside is enormous for very little expenditure.  And the City has a track record of allowing the additional height and density.

The City likes to portray Community Benefits as something really good for the community.  I disagree.  I think it’s a sell-out.

On the Ground

Well enough of Official Plans or Suggestions and Community Benefits.  What really counts is what you see as you walk around Downtown Burlington.  How’s the city coming along?

Right along the North side of Lakeshore road from Locust over to Pearl there are 4 tall buildings.  Two have terracing extending all the way up to the top and are attractive.  Two have the minimum amount of terracing required.  If the other lots in this precinct get re-developed with minimum terracing we will have a high rise wall along Lakeshore Rd, not a particularly attractive architectural feature.  And don’t forget what’s potentially coming along the South side of Lakeshore Rd, East of Elizabeth.  Why, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll have our very own Grand Canyon along Lakeshore Rd.

This part of Burlington is a lost cause to Stephen Chen.

How about over on Maple Ave?  That’s a lost cause.  Just one tall box after another.  And there’s another one going in at the corner of Brock and Elgin.  This may be great for meeting the Province’s intensification goals but pretty it ain’t.

Is There any Hope?

If I didn’t think there was I wouldn’t have bothered to come here tonight to talk to you and make you aware of my concern.  I can imagine the developers and the Planning Department filling the Downtown Core precinct with lots of very tall and not very imaginative buildings.  Which would be a shame.

It’s really up to Council.  Do you want to be remembered as the Council who created a high-rise jungle in downtown Burlington?  Or do you want to be remembered as the Council who encouraged innovative design and made downtown Burlington a place of creative buildings of 5 or 6 storeys where young families wanted, and, equally important, could afford to live and possibly work?

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2 comments to Resident asks council if they want to be remembered as the ones who created a high-rise jungle in downtown Burlington?

  • Couldn’t have said it better myself. The only thing Stephen left out is the destruction of the core’s heritage district that Council is allowing to happen.

  • Follow the money trail. Who is contributing to the political campaigns? Is that info available to the public?