Sun is going to set on the Waterfront Advisory Committee, chair says he was blind sided. He was actually wearing blinders.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  July 10, 2012  It could have been different, for the sake of Burlington it should have been different, but when the Budget and Corporate Services committee report on Tuesday set out the recommendation that the Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory committee be sunset December 31, 2012,  the city lost eyes, opinions and advice that is badly needed.

The problem was that the Advisory committee didn’t give very much in the way of advice or direction but instead got stuck in endless meetings during which they were briefed by expert after expert.  It was a little like a university course, interesting and instructive but not the purpose or mandate of the committee.

There are some fine people on that committee – they were just poorly led.

The recommendation to the Council committee was brief and brutal – one thirteen word sentence.  Kill it, and other than Councillor Marianne Meed Ward, no one really came to its defense.

Chair Nicholas Leblovic spoke to the Council committee and said he felt he had been “blind-sided” by the recommendation,  which is a bit of a stretch.  He had been told numerous times by people who knew this committee was in trouble.  As chair he didn’t have the capacity to lead nor did he appear to have the capacity to listen.

Despite the chair, the committee did some very good work and some of that work does need follow up.  The Windows on the Lake problem has to be resolved and without a committee to press the matter – not much will get done.  Rob Peachy, Manager of Parks and Open Spaces for the city told the committee that “this was not one of their favourite files”.  Having to go up against influential landowners along the Lakeshore who don’t want people wandering about close to their property is not an easy task.

At one point the city gave a resident a lease on a strip of land leading to the edge of the lake for 50 years at $2 a year.  That is called a deal.

One of the ideas the Waterfront Advisory people had that actually got out of the committee and to Council was to turn the Pump House into a coffee shop. Councillor Dennison wouldn’t hear of it – he wanted an upscale wine bar where he could watch the sun set. He did vote to sunset the committee.

The committee managed to get a resolution through that asked the city to look into making the Pump House more than an empty storage space and look for ways to turn it into an upscale coffee shop.  When the recommendation got to Council Committee, Councillor Jack Dennison would have none of that – he wanted a place where he could sit on a deck with a glass of wine in his hand and enjoy the setting sun.

Council was eager for advice, directions and ideas from this committee – there were just so few, and not because the members had nothing to say – they just couldn’t get much past the hands of the chair who seemed unable to let his members do what they were very capable of doing.

Leblovic did pull of one significant event and that was getting former Toronto ,Mayor David Crombie to speak to the  committeeCrombie was energetic and had all kinds of ideas for the committee.  Crombie urged them to be proactive and to hold a design competition that would bring forward ideas and get something happening.  But that was about as far as it got – except for the work that Gary Scobie and Sarah Banks did with that idea.

A city council committee kind of liked the idea when Scobie took it to them.  They didn’t buy his first cut of an idea – and asked him to work on it more and bring it back.  Unfortunately, Sarah Banks, the intellectual and emotionally driven leader behind the idea moved from Burlington, a city she was never particularly comfortable in.

Banks didn’t have the best of working relationships with Leblovic and really didn’t get the support she needed.   She was one of those people who just wanted to get things done and not just spin her wheels.

City General Manager Community Services, Scott Stewart,  spent far too many hours at the committee table gnashing his teeth and told council committee that he voted with his feet and just stopped attending the meetings.

In her passionate plea to not sunset the Waterfront committee Councillor Meed Ward pointed out that there were some structural problems with the committee but they could be fixed.  The demands on city hall staff could be reduced.  She made no comment about the leadership of the committee.

This was a Committee that had three Council members on it; the Mayor, who attended frequently along with Councillors Meed Ward and Craven.  There is no other Advisory committee in the city that has as much Council representation.

Where does the city go now for advice on the waterfront ?  The Mayor thinks he might just `grab a bunch of people and look to them for input” – so much for city wide representation.

The city report suggested there was considerable overlap between the Waterfront Advisory and the several other Advisory committees in place; they didn’t think that when the committee was created.

Members of the Waterfront Advisory Committee tour the Pump House on the Beachway. One of the really solid recommendation that made it out of the committee to city council was to turn the Pump House into a coffee shop – wine bar. The Committee won’t exist to see that happen. Nicholas Leblovic is on the left.

Waterfront Advisory was created by former Mayor Cam Jackson, who at the time saw the issue of the pier and the whole waterfront mess as having  the potential to substantially impact his re-election campaign.  The Committee was set up to counter some of the clout that Save Our Waterfront (SOW) was having.  They had 2000 members across the city, they were active and they were focused And they had some money in the bank.  The committee served as part of Marianne Meed Ward’s election apparatus.  It was never official, but there was little doubt in the minds of many that SOW and Meed Ward were joined at the hip.

And there was very little doubt that Nicholas Leblovic and Mayor Jackson were joined at the hip as well when Leblovic was appointed to the committee and quickly became its chair.

The Pier turned out not to be quite the issue many thought it would be during the municipal election and it turned out not to appear on the Waterfront Advisory Committee agenda as well.

It was called the “football” because of its shape. This view, from the east end looking west, is land privately owned. There are more than a dozen property owners in the “football” with none of the land owned by the city. Getting the property owners to work together to develop a waterfront that will compliment Spencer Smith Park and lessen the massive impact the eventual 22 story tower to be built to the immediate west of the football requires the kind of leadership the city has yet to see.  The Waterfront Advisory did some excellent research but wasn’t able to land the idea – or the opportunity.

What was called the Waterfront Precinct drew most of the time and attention of the committee.  They believed that citizens should have some say in what happens to private lands in such a sensitive part of the city but try as they did – they were never able to get any traction with the major players.  They did do a lot of solid ground work and they helped the city fully understand who the players were in the game on what came to be called – the football, that oblong piece of land between Old Lakeshore Road, Lakeshore Road from Pearl on the west to where the two Lakeshores merge on the west.   But they were not able to create any consensus on what was really a political issue.

There had to be some major “bully pulpit” leadership from city hall that would leverage what the Waterfront Advisory people were doing and what was coming from city hall – that didn’t happen.  Mayor Goldring never really had much in the way of a working relationship with Leblovic who probably saw him as a Cam Jackson holdout.

David Crombie had the right idea – he just wasn’t able to effectively infect Mayor Goldring with the kind of grit it takes to lead this kind of community building.

The Waterfront Advisory should have had a major impact on the input side of the Official Plan Review.  People in the Planning department, and elsewhere in city hall, realized the Advisory committee was never going to get anything done and various people on the Waterfront committee managed to slickly slide the issue out of Waterfront over to Official Plan Review.   The report that recommended sun setting the committee put it rather well when it said:  With the issue of the Old Lakeshore Road re-development now being addressed through the Official Plan process, the current work plan of the committee is substantially complete.”

They took Leblovic’s lunch off his plate while he had his knife and fork in his hand – he missed that play completely.

West of the Pier, the waterfront is nicely developed and if we do it right the Beachway should make the lake frontage from the park to the canal a great place to be. The task, that the Waterfront Advisory wasn’t able to do is come up with advice the city could use to develop east of the pier. That is still a challenge waiting for some leadership.

What now for the Waterfront?  Does SOW have to come back to life and lead that agenda.  That wouldn’t be a bad idea.  During the Council committee meeting it was suggested that perhaps BurlingtonGreen could take on the task or perhaps the Sustainability Advisory people; the Mayor has an excellent working relationship with that group.

Right now however, one of the two most vital elements in the city’s identity are either adrift or under threat.  The continued chatter at the provincial level about a road through Mt. Nemo and the Niagara Escarpment and no real community led leadership on waterfront development, our anchors are laying underneath the water unattached to any chains.

This is not a healthy place to be.



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3 comments to Sun is going to set on the Waterfront Advisory Committee, chair says he was blind sided. He was actually wearing blinders.

  • John Lawson

    Do we need another place to sell alcholre Pump house? Could we use it for arts etc. A place where young artists can show their work. Never thought I’d say that I’m supposed to be more “right” tthan that.

  • Penny Hersh

    I was involved with Save our Waterfront from day one. This was a grass roots operation that had the potential to ignite the residents of Burlington to protect Old Lakeshore Road.. By the time it had morphed into the Waterfront Advisory Committee I realized that this had become an organization that I felt would go no where. The original mandate was lost from trying to preserve one area in Burlington to a major effort to protect a huge area of waterfront mired in bureaucracy. I for one am not surprised that this was a committee that held many meetings that went nowhere. At a time when many municipalities are standing up against developers and the OMB and winning the right to protect their waterfront Burlington unfortunately is not one of them.

  • A sad tale of civic disengagement with City Hall.

    And it took only 2 years. From the momentum created by Marianne Meed Ward and her dedicated members of “Save Our Waterfront”, to the need to form a “Save Our Waterfront Access and Protecti…on Advisory Committee” (hopefully, they won’t try to save that name).

    Should City Hall take this opportunity to take a closer look at the roles and effectiveness of all citizen committees – to help avoid similar dysfunction, overlap, frustration, etc. on such important long-term issues for Burlington?

    I also wonder what Our Burlington thinks about those committees and might contribute to that conversation.