Resident explains why the high rise development in the downtown core can and should be brought to an end.

opinionred 100x100By Gary Scobie

February 13th, 2019



I am a citizen of Burlington who has taken an interest in the re-development of Burlington’s downtown, delegating at numerous Planning and Development Meetings and City Council Meetings in opposition to the over-intensification of Burlington, particularly our downtown.

I wish to participate in this LPAT appeal, speaking in opposition to the appeal by Reserve Properties Ltd. I have no direct pecuniary interest in this development. My written submission follows.

Gary Scobie

Gary Scobie

I have delegated at City Hall on this development proposal, on the 421 Brant Street proposal (now approved), on the 374 Martha Street proposal (now approved) and on Burlington’s new Official Plan (unapproved), so I have a history of engaging in development matters in Burlington. I am fully aware of the Places to Grow, Greenbelt and Metrolinx legislation in Ontario and the desire to intensify Southern Ontario municipalities, reduce urban sprawl and protect our natural and agricultural greenbelt.

I understand the minimum density targets assigned to areas designated as Urban Growth Centres and Mobility Hubs. I also understand that there are no building upper height regulations in Provincial legislation. Building height upper limit is left to municipalities and their zoning regulations. Thus municipalities have the obligation and the right to define how they will meet Provincial people/jobs density targets and where high buildings should best be situated to add to density while preserving the urban character and living environment for citizens.

I do take issue with the Provincial designation of Downtown Burlington as an Urban Growth Centre and the Metrolinx designation of the Downtown Burlington Transit Terminal as an Anchor Mobility Hub. They each bring density targets to our downtown that I feel are excessive. I believe that our new City Council will be debating the merits and validity of these designations and consulting with the Province on the ability to move the Urban Growth Centre elsewhere in Burlington and un-designate the Anchor Mobility Hub. I will reference these two issues further in my submission.

I will also reference our new unapproved Official Plan and how it has been used by developers and our former City Council to gain inappropriate building heights downtown while violating our current approved Official Plan. Our new City Council will also be debating amendments to limit height in this unapproved plan before sending it back to Halton Region for approval.

In actual fact, this appeal is not inconsistent with a Provincial Policy Statement and does not fail to conform to a provincial plan. But that is in itself a real problem. The policy statements and plans of the Province place no upper limits on building heights, so when the sky is the limit then there can be no violation or lack of conformity by a developer’s application that involves high rises. With no limits on height, no building adding density in a designated urban area would ever fail a provincial mandate or target. The density targets, whether within a Mobility Hub or Urban Growth Centre or not, can usually be met with mid-rise buildings. But developers like high rise buildings because their motivation is profit rather than public good. Public good (or bad) is just a by-product of the constructed building.

Brant looking north - Kellys

What a develop wants to build on the south side of James Street on Brant will dwarf city hall even further. Gary Scobie spoke at the LPAT meeting which is hearing an appeal of the 17 storey’s the city approved for the site – the developer wants 24 storeys.

Developers can dress their proposals up to look and sound pretty nice and say that the Province is demanding that they build high rises, but that is not true. The Province is simply asking municipalities to build to an area density target, not a site specific one. And yes, the target can be exceeded, but it is not mandated. My understanding is that most cities are well short of their assigned area targets, unlike Downtown Burlington which will reach its Urban Growth Centre Target well ahead of time. And there are no announced penalties for cities that do not meet target. So the Province’s targets are just that; targets that have no teeth behind them and leave the real work to the municipalities to figure it all out. I ask the Tribunal to let the City of Burlington do just that.

Let me use an analogy to make a point. Pretend we’re in a very small room that has a grid pattern of downtown streets on the floor, with electrical connections running along each street. The Province says heat the lower half of the room to a certain average temperature. Developers suggest that 150 watt incandescent light bulbs at most corners should do it. They each produce a lot of heat as a by-product of lighting them. But this creates high heat just at each location, while other parts of the room stay cool. It is inefficient, but it does eventually bring the average temperature up, but with hot areas at street corners and cool areas elsewhere. The average temperature is likely felt by no one.

light bulbs

How many light bulbs will it take for the decision makers to see the light?

The Planning Department and Council have a better idea. Use 40 and 60 watt incandescent bulbs not just at corners but also along some more of the downtown streets, so heat buildup at each bulb location is less, but more bulbs spread this lower localized heat around much more efficiently to bring the same average temperature as the developers’ solution, but spread more evenly across the downtown so more people actually feel the average temperature.

In real life, the 150 watt bulbs are high rises. The 40 watt bulbs are low rises to 4 storeys. The 60 watt bulbs are mid rises to 11 storeys. High rises concentrate people, parking and traffic congestion, shadowing and wind effect in high degrees at major corners. Low and mid rise buildings concentrate fewer people per building across a greater spread of the downtown, so congestion for traffic and parking is lessened because it is spread out in the wider area. There would be less shadowing and wind effect from lower buildings. The ability to fight a fire in such lower buildings would be much easier than to fight a high rise fire, lessening the danger to tenants. Both solutions can reach an area target, but the low to mid rise solution does it in a kinder and gentler way, without packing in hundreds of people in small ground area sites soaring to great heights just to give us a new skyline.

Of course neither solution would have to be considered if our downtown was freed from Urban Growth Centre and Anchor Mobility Hub designations and their growth targets.

City Hall BEST aerial

Quite where the city hall fits into the longer term development picture is not at all clear. There is a report in a file outlining what might be possible.

Getting back to this proposal, to build to match the height of the tower across the road (421 Brant Street) is simply using as a precedent a poor decision by our former City Council to over-reach in height its own current and proposed Official Plans, against the public outcry and the public good. The idea of the twin towers as a gateway to our iconic eight storey City Hall and its adjacent Civic Square is one great marketing scheme, but fails as suitable to this location. I believe it fails as suitable in any location in Burlington. A gateway is usually a structure far lower in height than 23 storeys. And no gateway is required to our City Hall. The approach along New Street, then James Street is a grand enough gateway.

I ask the Tribunal to keep in mind that the new City Council may succeed in removing the Urban Growth Centre and the Anchor Mobility Hub from the downtown, making a mockery of any claim that we must build this tall building here or anywhere downtown to conform to provincial policy and plan. The old Council assured citizens that no new single building creates a precedent. Yet developers seek to use precedent as a reason to build ever-higher (and in this case near twin) buildings and the OMB has in the past let precedent seep into decision-making. I request that the LPAT not be influenced by precedent-based arguments from developers. Using bad precedents will only produce a worse future.

The Urban Growth Centre can be moved by a municipality – Oakville did so in 2005. An Anchor Mobility Hub is required to have a dedicated rapid light rail connection with a Gateway Mobility Hub. There are no plans for an above-ground or subway rapid transit linkage connecting the Transit Terminal to the Burlington GO Station. Thus, it does not qualify as a valid Anchor Mobility Hub.

Boundaries set out for the Downtown mobility hub.

Boundaries set out for the Downtown mobility hub. Scobie argues that the criteria for a hub don’t exist.


Now to the factual reason that the Tribunal should deny this appeal and in fact, if within its power, reduce the height to a mid-rise limit. Our new Mayor, as Councillor for the Downtown in the previous Council, proved that we were on target in moving toward the 2031 density numbers with the current Official Plan and advocated for an easing of height limits that were proposed in the new Official Plan. With a new Council in place, with a majority of members who were elected advocating for such an easing, I am confident that they will support the Mayor in her advocacy for reasonable height downtown.The appeal height request and the previous Council decision to award 17 storeys height both fly in the face of the current approved Official Plan which designates a 4 storey height, moving to 8 storeys with negotiated community benefits. As do the density numbers which are proposed by the developer at 1135 units per hectare.

If we use a conservative average of 2 people/jobs per unit, this would translate to 2270 people/jobs per hectare, where the current Official Plan would allow up to an 8 storey building, roughly one-third as high and therefore holding approximately 700 people/jobs per hectare, still fairly dense and helping move toward the area target of 200 people/jobs per hectare of an Urban Growth Centre.

high profile 421

Opposite city hall on north side of James

409 Brant image

Opposite city hall on the south side of James. Developer wants same height as the other side of the street 24 storeys – city approved 17 storeys.

An eight storey building on this site would aid the target and impose a much less imposing structure on this neighbourhood. It would be a model to replicate in other downtown core locations that the Planning Department and City Council deem suitable to intensification toward target. It would also agree with the current Official Plan. These are reasons enough to turn down the appeal by the developer and allow the City to decide on height in the downtown core that is more in line with citizen wishes. If possible, I would recommend that the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal not only do this, but rule to uphold current City Zoning at this site if it is within its power.

This appeal is clearly in violation of the Official Plan of our municipality. The past poor decisions of City Council and the OMB on excessive intensification in our downtown cannot be undone, but they can serve as learning experiences to help guide our planning in the future to increase density, in a way that helps our downtown maintain its character and attraction without the over-congestion that comes with high rise after high rise appearing at each major corner and section assembled by developers.

Elizabeth Interiors - Brant Street sign

The former retail location is empty – developer has been given approval for 17 storeys – has appealed to allow 24 storeys.


Once a popular restaurant location – it will be redeveloped and become a 24 story condominium.

The history of treating each high rise application as a one-off decision in isolation without looking at future ramifications of the cumulative effect of successive high rise applications in a small area should end here. I’m asking the LPAT to consider this issue and support our municipality in its quest to grow its density in its own way, by rendering a decision that will promote this.

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12 comments to Resident explains why the high rise development in the downtown core can and should be brought to an end.

  • Alfred

    Does anyone have other alternative areas they might serve up as ideas. Some people are writing novels here. I have not yet heard 1 good idea as to were you would like the development in this City to take place other than. Not downtown. Are we asking that Burlington not have any high rise buildings anywhere? Time for talking is over. Ideas and good ones are needed.

    • Perry Bowker

      Alfred, For ideas on how growth might be better accommodated, you need look no further than the Burlington Strategic Plan, which the previous Mayor trotted around the city a couple of years ago. It spoke of infill and replacement of low rise strip malls with 3-4 story commercial/residential units, much as are being built along Plains Road. Unfortunately, ex-councillor Craven and his cronies on the Planning and Development Committee made short work of the strategy by eagerly rolling into bed with the developers promoting tall downtown towers, and dismissing alternative inputs out of hand.

  • Perry Bowker

    Gary has made an excellent case, and it is sad that he must depend on the LPAT tribune to read it, or not.
    In 2017, like many others, I made a detailed submission to the Public Consultation on the review of the OMB, in response to the terms of reference provided for the feedback. These included many positive ideas to improve citizen engagement. I supported these, but ultimately made the recommendation that the OMB had served its century-old purpose and was now
    interfering with the rights of municipalities and their citizens. I cautioned that simply tweaking the OMB process would not be enough. Also, that same year I implored (futilely) the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General to take ‘provincial interest’ in the ADI hearing, on the basis that they could, if necessary, intervene on behalf of the citizenry in view of upcoming changes to the OMB.
    It now appears that the LPAT as implemented is simply a re-branded OMB, featuring an unelected adjudicator, well-paid duelling lawyers, and testimony from so-called ‘expert planners’ hired by the developers to make their case. The voice of the average citizen group, unless well funded, is still swept away in this quasi-legal arena.

  • Stephen White

    Great submission Gary.!! Thank you for your detailed research and insights.

  • Don Fletcher

    Gary, you are an great example to us all that one person, who is passionate, respectful and willing to put in the “hard yards” can make a difference. Good luck!
    Our existing OP, in the hands of supportive, competent legal & planning staff (hopefully the City can avail themselves of a few), is our best defense right now before the LPAT.

    We really cannot finalize a new OP until the UGC and Anchor Mobility Hub designations for downtown Burlington are decided (hopefully moved/ eliminated), and so Penny is right in that these initiatives with the province should be underway now. Why are we not hearing of movement on these files from our Director of Planning or City Manager?
    This is not rocket science!

  • Deborah

    Thank you Gary for this thoughtful and factual overview of the dire situation downtown. Something that might help everyone to understand the impact of current applications better would be a 3-D model of all proposed buildings. This has been requested of the City of Burlington a number of times, albeit most of those times were during the previous Mayor and Council’s term. Another request has been made and was responded to promptly by the Acting City Manager, so hopefully we will see some progress on this request soon.

    It is great to see that another large step was made by the wonderful group Friends of Freeman station, who ensured the station was saved when COB could not, and again for their upcoming Open House this weekend, with:

    “The Friends Of Freeman Station (official) group is hosting an Open House this Saturday (Feb. 16) showcasing a 1/24 scale model diorama of Burlington in the 1920s, complete with rolling stock locomotives, mini historic houses, animation, and sound.”

    They have been able to produce a scale model of Burlington in the 1920’s while we still await a 3-D model of the downtown core …

  • Carol Victor

    Thank you Gary for your interest, insight and indefatigable energy in pursuing this situation. Many of us have opposed this unwarranted “growth” for a long time and we are grateful for your clear vision and dedication..You are truly an “engaged” citizen.4

  • Tom Muir

    This is a superb piece of work Gary. I add to Joe’s thank you for spending the long time needed to do this.

    I knew that participants had to make a submission 30 days before the LPAT PHC. People just can’t walk in cold anymore and ask for participant status.The submissions asked for are I think a form of screening for substance of the citizen arguments.

    This is a high bar for most people and you are correct when you say it tends to exclude them. I couldn’t get it together for 409 Brant before leaving on vacation. And the $$$$ are just another obstacle not even considered.

    Look at the Notice sent from LPAT for the demands made and the arguments that are asked for. It is clearly stated.

    The City planning and legals will have to up their game right from the start with rigorous arguments about what meets policies and how the existing OP does that. They have been using the adopted OP for far too long, and they are infected with it.

    This planning infection had better be cured before it needs to be cut out to save us.

    The planning themselves stated the existing OP was not defensible, and apparently even the adopted one was never enough even when used as guidance, as several applications proved.

    Because of this they created a zombie plan out of the existing OP, infected with the adopted but not approved OP they are carrying around.

    You can see the evidence that the planners animated and walked this zombie plan around where they wanted it to go with the applications in hand.

    And then they seem to always fail because they are not prepared with suitable arguments for what they want according to the existing OP that they have already said is not defensible.

    In my mind they have never tried to defend it as they have been locked into creating the adopted one for too long, and they are indoctrinated, by themselves, or otherwise, by orders.

    I think that the existing OP can be used to make a defensible case. They ask for amendments to everything, and maybe these are not needed to meet provincial policies or growth targets, so the city can make an argument based on this and show that the OP, as base permissions, or with some amendments the city can live with, that meets Provincial policy.

    The city OP is one of the policies considered in the LPAT directions. Why can’t it meet provincial targets? Show me why?

    In his comment above, Gary states the planning reasoning from an expert source, and I agree with it. It can be done for sure.

    I have said many times that the developer arguments are always lengthy argument-ed OPINION (BS of course) in the Planning Justifications. If you read the staff recommendation reports they do basically the same thing. Yap yap yap in generalities about policy frames.

    Developers never have to definitively show how the city OP does not meet policies, just yap about it like they know the truth of the matter by right as “experts”. You see this at ADI Martha, 421 Brant, 409 Brant and other applications.

    The staff planners basically do the same thing – its called “expert planning opinion”. It is said that “good planning” is what the planners say it is.

    These people are little more than like appointed high priests that cannot be questioned.

    City staff under Ridge blew it with the Vancouver model, and other proponents of this model. There was no resistance from the previous Council or staff except for MMW and a few citizens.

    These few didn’t have a chance, but now they do. It needs a lot of thought.

    There needs to be a thorough quantitative planning argument showing what would meet the existing OP policies in terms of the provincial targets, whatever they are.

    The LPAT or the OMB PHC s are not designed as fora for arguments to be made. They determine Parties, set plans for procedural process, and for issues selection.

    If citizens want to be participants involved they will have to up their game big time. The Mayor and Council needs to consider novel citizen engagement means to develop this capacity.

    The staff running the pre-application consultation will have to refuse applications with city planning policy reasons based on the existing OP only, and not yield to developer threats for doing this.

    Evidence of conformity with provincial targets of 60 to 200 p&j per ha. are needed, and scenarios to achieve these accompanying the analysis.

    No more talk about the adopted OP. Otherwise the flood of over the top applications will continue

    I think the City needs to go with the existing OP, amended if need be to what they can live with. Let the developers do as they will, which is what they will do because the planners have encouraged them to do this, and because of this have shown themselves to be vulnerable and biased.

    They have really messed things up with their collaboration – Ridge called it “negotiation” – with the developers. There are more details too much for here, but recent history illustrates the possible scenarios and results.

    That’s the only real choice we have in my opinion. We need a thought out strategy and a plan. The planners cannot be solely relied on for this in my opinion.

    The City planning house, and the transportation house need a cleanup, and new uninfected minds to carry out the new ideas and vision brought in by the Mayor’s unanimously approved motion, by Council, to bring about such change.

    I normally don’t go after staff in this way, but I have really had it with what I have seen for years, and continue to see, so I am tending to lean into this crap.

  • Lynn Crosby

    What an excellent submission, Gary, and I’m very disappointed that you weren’t allowed to read it aloud at the LPAT hearing. This summarizes every issue so well.

    I think we are at the point where we and others must make this a provincial issue, shining a light (with a 150 watt bulb) on what is wrong with the new LPAT, as well as the provincial mandates/targets/Places to Grow, etc. Residents from communities all across Ontario are trying to fight this, each in their own corner of their cities and towns. Every day you read about a new group of citizens in a new city fighting the same issues. Similar to the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures, we may get heard if we combine our voices.

  • Penny Hersh

    Gary, I have attended 3 LPAT pre hearing meetings. What I have learned is that when a development application appeal comes before LPAT it is basically over. The Tribunal when deciding the merits of an appeal seem to be governed by the Provincial Places to Grow Policy.

    I have come to believe that in order to stop the over intensification of the downtown Council needs to have the downtown mobility hub un designated and at the same time change the boundaries of the the downtown urban growth centre. This once again in my opinion needs to be done ASAP.

    I don’t think that changing Burlington’s Official Plan will have the effect of stopping this intensification, this is like “Closing the barn door after the horse has bolted”.

    • Gary Scobie

      Penny, I do take your point, but a good source on planning who has been through Places to Grow legislation while leading a major GTA city Planning Department has directed me to sections in provincial legislation that clearly outline that a municipality’s Official Plan that is in compliance with the legislation’s direction on intensification takes precedence over broad provincial direction when it is able to use its rules and zoning to move the intensification area to the density target required over the duration of time given to reach it.

      Burlington’s current Official Plan is compliant with the density target for the downtown. It simply has to be enforced by our Planning Department and our Council. Yes, removing the two provincial designations is important, but will take time and discussion with the Province. For now, our current OP is our best defence against applications promoting over-intensification downtown. I believe that is where we should be concentrating our efforts right now.

  • Joe Gaetan

    Gary’s cogent arguments against this development are well established in fact versus emotion or nimbyism. For those who have never delegated or have never been a participant in such proceedings, this statement represents many person-hours of research. Well done.