Waterfront committee sinks slowly into the setting sun; a significant opportunity lost.

REVISED, January 1, 2013

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON.  December 31, 2012  When the Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee (WAPAC) was set up it wasn’t intended as an experiment.  There was a lot of hope in the air – the community was at last going to have something they could be a significant part of – the waterfront would be saved for the public.

They could be called the Pump House crew.

The committee that then Ward 2 candidate Marianne Meed Ward used to sail into office: Save our Waterfront (SOW) said proudly : Members and supporters of Burlington Save Our Waterfront achieved a major victory for community engagement Monday, as city council unanimously passed the Burlington Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee.”  SOW then began doing what they could to ensure they had at least one of “their” people on that committee.  In that they succeeded when Sarah Banks was appointed.

There were two representatives from each ward in the city. During the first few months of their existence  Councillor  Rick Craven chaired the committee which then chose Nick Leblovic to be chair and the re-elected him for their second year of existence.

Our Burlington began covering the committee meetings early in 2011 and was the only media to do so.  When the committee decided to invite former Toronto Mayor David Crombie to speak to them about how you get the community behind the development of a waterfront and not allow the developers to just take over it looked like they were going in a positive direction.

It took sometime to get former Toronto Mayor David Crombie in front of WAPAC but when he did appear he didn’t disappoint. Mayor Goldring joined Crombie but didn’t manage to pick up much in the way of enthusiasm for the idea of a design competition.

It took a couple of months to get Crombie to a meeting, which Chair Leblovic saw as a big feather in his cap,  and when he arrived he proved to be worth every penny of the $500 honorarium he was given.  Rick Goldring was now Mayor and he sat beside Crombie but really didn’t buy into much of what Crombie was suggesting.  While Goldring was still getting the feel of his job it was clear that he and Crombie had significantly different operating styles.

Crombie chastised the city for not following through on the once excellent reputation the city had for its participation in the Waterfront Trail; that was a lead the committee never picked up on.

It was also evident at that meeting that Leblovic was not going to be anywhere near as outgoing or as bold as Crombie.  Nevertheless, the committee was quite pumped with what they heard from Crombie and took on his idea of holding a design competitionn.  It was a great idea and was put in the hands of Sarah Banks who wasn’t up to the task – which should not be seen as a reflection on either Banks’s enthusiasm or competency.  She, along with everyone else on the committee knew nothing about how to host a design competition.  When the idea got to city council – it didn’t get much help there.

Unfortunately the Planning Department didn’t step forward and offer any help. Banks floundered and wasn’t given much help from her chair other than to be told she could not speak to media.  That was a ‘privilege’ apparently reserved for the chair and Our Burlington did indeed have numerous Saturday morning talks with Leblovic.

The idea for a Design Competition was to attract architects internationally who would look at the site and return with ideas and proposals – there was not much more to it than that  – which in itself was enough.  The objective was to get the public thinking about what it wanted and not wait until developer had assembled the land and then did what they wanted to do.

Banks didn’t have the help she needed and appeared not to know where to look for the help.  Sarah Banks was the kind of person who would walk into a room and radiate enthusiasm which made life in Burlington less than satisfactory for her and she later left the city and moved to Ottawa; Burlington wasn’t her kind of town.

Gary Scobie took on the task of getting a Design Competition going and came close to pleading with a city council committee to fund the $45,000 WAPAC felt was needed.  City council wasn’t adverse to the idea but they needed more in the way of a business plan from Scobie – and that wasn’t forthcoming.  They ran out of steam and in hindsight that can be seen as a turning point for the committee.

The WAPAC committee was made up of representatives from every ward in the city.  The problem was the committee met on Friday mornings which made participating very difficult for younger people with full time jobs.  A Saturday morning meeting schedule would have drawn an entirely different group of people.  They didn’t promote their activities,  they never held a meeting at which the general public could attend at a convenient time nor did they come up with a way to involve the public.  They saw themselves as “the” public and they would speak for the city.

Mohamed Alizadeh on the left with Bob Wingfield at the final meeting of WAPAC

Most of the committee members were well over 50 and closer to 65 in age.  The energy levels weren’t what they could have been.

As chair Leblovic would give every committee member more than ample opportunity to speak – sometimes for too long.  He didn’t limit speakers – his approach was to listen to everyone.

Leblovic chose to use the first year learning what the issues were and what the city was up against in terms of developing the waterfront.   The committee brought in speaker after speaker – all of whom knew their subjects very well.  City Planner Bruce Krushelnicki spoke to the group and appeared again at their next meeting to clarify what could be done with properties that were on the south side of Old Lakeshore Road.  They learned more about a piece of property that was once owned by Tim Horton’s Corporation than they really needed to know, including that it was once a gas station.

A committee put in place to advise had turned into a Friday morning class where you could learn a lot about what other people were doing with their waterfronts but WAPAC hadn’t gotten to the point where it was ready and perhaps not able to give any advice.

Senior city staff began to chaff at meetings that didn’t achieve anything and didn’t seem to have a purpose.  City council began to despair and during the end of Q1 in 2012 came to the conclusion that the committee wasn’t going anywhere and decided to bring it to an end.  There was much gnashing of teeth on the part of the WAPAC chair and several of the committee members who felt they had indeed done something useful – and they did do some very useful work for the city.

The development that is going to make the biggest difference to the waterfront in the next five to seven years was one that had been cast in stone before WAPAC was created.  Could they have done anything about the scale?

But the “grand vision” for the waterfront that many expected wasn’t forthcoming.  There is no vision for the lands to the east of the Spencer Smith Park other than saying OK to the committee of adjustment changes the developers of the Bridgewater project that will see a 22 story condo; a seven story condo and an 8 story hotel begin construction  hopefully sometime during the second half of 2013.

WAPAC didn’t have much to say either in terms of advice about the Beachway Park other than to say the residents should be allowed to remain.  For an issue that is central to the completion of what the waterfront looks like in the next ten years WAPAC was disturbingly quiet.

The properties to the east of the Bridgewater project, in an area referred to as “the football”  because of its shape, are owned by some 12 different people.  The WAPAC committee found that there wasn’t much in the way of opportunity for these people to work together and allow a land assembly, and without a land assembly there wasn’t going to be much in the way of development.

One of the things about land is that sooner or later a developer sees an opportunity and takes bold steps as well as  financial risk and buys the land, then hires the specialists needed to convince city council to give them what they want in the way of Official Plan and zoning changes.

The Planners who work for developers are much more motivated than those at city hall and they bring a level of creativity that just doesn’t come from municipal planners.  It takes a level of municipal leadership to get in front of situations like this and have the city heavily involved with the development process. This isn’t the kind of planner Burlington has in Bruce Krushelnicki.  The city does have one of the best thinkers in the planning field and he knows the process as well as anyone else out there – but he doesn’t see himself as the person to advocate for a particular direction.  Maintain what we have and ensure that the rules are followed is the planning department mantra.

There were far too many missed opportunities.  All that said – the WAPAC people did some significant work and took recommendations to city council – where absolutely nothing was done.

In their final report to the city, (which is set out below in bold with our comments beneath each) WAPAC said:

Development of Old Lakeshore Road

Council has our recommendations relating to the future development of the Old Lakeshore Road precinct.  These relate to design criteria including public space and access to waterfront, incorporation of Waterfront Trail, design conformity of buildings and mixed use commercial/residential.  The recommendations stressed the importance of the Old Lakeshore Road (OLR) being a welcoming and eye-catching eastern entrance to the Downtown Waterfront.

The Committee recommended ongoing dialogue with the OLR stakeholders concerning the development criteria and the ongoing participation of staff and Council representatives in this process.

The Committee initiated a staff direction (approved by Council) to make the OLR a specific focus area in the current Official Plan (OP) Review.  The New Committee will work with OP Review team on this initiative.

With the Official Plan Review now leaderless, the Old Lakeshore Road precinct may not get the attention it deserves.

Beachway Park Master Plan

 The Committee made recommendations on suggested uses for the Pump House (pub and/or coffee-house), animation of the Beach and walking path and incorporation of the Freeman Station on the Beach as well as recommendations to remove hydro towers/lines from the beach.  Hydro is studying this aspect on Council’s request. 

The Committee has given preliminary consideration to the issue of the existing residential community in the Beachway Park precinct. Based on the information provided to the Committee to date, there is a general consensus supporting the continuation of this community. However no final recommendation can be made on this matter until the issue of the final reports of the Region and Conservation Halton addressing applicable health, environmental, safety and other relevant considerations.  The New Committee will review these reports when issued and provide a final recommendation to Council.

Converting the Pump House on the Beachway into a destination as a coffee shop/wine bar with an outdoor patio was close to the best thing the committee did.  When it was being discussed by WAPAC there was considerable consternation behind the scenes with several members of the committee becoming more than agitated at what they saw as foot dragging by the chair.

Waterfront Encroachment of Public Land by Private Homeowners

The Committee has made recommendations to Council on Windows On The Water improvements (proper signage, public access, lighting, benches, vegetation trimming and trash receptacles).  We have requested enforcement of current encroachments bylaws to maintain public access to these Windows.  Council has directed staff to design a comprehensive encroachment policy and bylaw this.  The New Committee will review the draft policies and by-laws when available. 

The Committee has also suggested that a similar encroachment by-law be enacted by the Region in respect of waterfront property owned by the Region.

 WAPAC created a subcommittee that traveled from one end of the city to the other along the lake’s edge and identified a number of properties that were public but not very accessible.  It was a solid report with excellent field work done.  It sits on a shelf somewhere at city hall where key people over there responsible for acting on this hope it never leaves the shelf it is on.  When Bob Peachy spoke to the WAPAC people he commented that “this isn’t one of my favourite files” and it is a tough file.  There are some very influential property owners along the edge of the lake who don’t want to share those public spaces.  There are pieces of property the city owns and the public should have access to but property owners make it awkward, if not outright impossible for the public to sit at the edge of the lake and enjoy a picnic lunch.

It is going to take someone with courage and innovative ideas to give the public access to public property and right now that doesn’t exist.

 Rock Wave break at La Salle Park Marina

The Committee recommends that the appropriate modifications be made to the final design in order to accommodate the Trumpeter Swan population that resides in the vicinity of La Salle Park.

 A nice recommendation that doesn’t have the full support of several WAPAC members.  When Beverly Kingdon  made her second presentation to WAPAC she asked again for support to ensure that the planned wave break would not harm the habitat the swans had created for themselves.  Kingdon was quietly listened to and then sent on her way.  Once she had left the room committee member Les Armstrong said quite forcefully that the only reason the swans came to the LaSalle Park part of the city was because people fed them.  “Stop feeding them and they will find someplace else to get food”, said Armstrong.   The Halton Conservation Authority is concerned over waterfront pollution to which the swans and geese are major contributors – no one bothered to bring that concern up with Kingdon.  The biggest factor in making the water unsafe for the public is the waste from the geese that people continue to feed.  There are signs along the edge of the LaSalle Marina property asking people not to feed the geese; the swans appear to get different treatment – why?  Animal waste is animal waste.

While Armstrong’s remarks were valid – they should have been made while Kingdon was in the room – the chair should not have let that happen.

Public Boat Ramp(s) on Lake Ontario

Committee has expressed a desire to work with the City, the Region and the HRCA in determining future sites for recommendations.  The New Committee will work on this project.

A natural beach created when land jutting out into the lake was formed – some think the “mini-beach should have a boat dock dropped into place.

 Burlington has wanted additional boat ramps for some time – the political will to make this happen just isn’t in place.  Many think there will be boat ramps as part of the development of the Brant Street Pier.  There was discussion for a small set of docks that would be taken out in the winter as part of the pier and located in the mini-beach that got created when the pier pilings were put in place.  That got shot down quickly when the city’s Director of Engineering mentioned the $100,000 + cost.

 Acquisition of Waterfront Land

The Committee has recommended that Council develop a policy concerning future acquisition of waterfront lands for public use as and when they become available including how and when to use park dedication and section 37 of the Municipal Act. The New Committee will work with Council on this issue.

 City council didn’t need a reminder from an Advisory committee on this one; what the city needs is some bold thinking on the part of this council to create a land acquisition fund and perhaps agree that a percentage of every surplus be put into the fund.  When the hospital tax levy ends this Council might move to cut that back by half with the remaining half going into a Waterfront Land Acquisition Trust Fund.  They could do that tomorrow if they wanted to.

 Waterfront Access and Protection

As per the recommendation of the Committee the Waterfront is to be an area of specific focus within the OP Review. The Committee has provided City staff with various examples of plans and studies of other Ontario waterfront communities in relation to the development and public use of their waterfronts which will be part of the best practices review being undertaken as part of the OP review of the Waterfront.  The New Committee will work with OP Review team to add citizen views and expertise.

This one will go wherever Council and the people who head up the Official Plan Review want it to go.  In the past, WAPAC was able to ask city hall staff to make presentations and take part in discussions; that is a courtesy not likely to be extended to what will quickly be seen as a political arm of a Council member.

Support for New Committee

The Committee supports the future work of the New Committee in providing ongoing citizen input and advice on issues relating to the Burlington Waterfront.  The Committee recommends that the Council and City staff recognize the New Committee as the natural successor to the Committee and that they give appropriate recognition and support to the New Committee and any future advice and recommendations coming from the New Committee.

What is now going to be called the Burlington Waterfront Committee is a council member initiative that Ward two Councillor Meed Ward created when the decision to sunset WAPAC was made.  It is basically a group of citizens who care about the waterfront and want to see something replace what was sunset.

At the time Mayor Goldring said he would create a Mayor’s Roundtable on the Waterfront but nothing came of that idea.  However, you can bet the Mayor will have quite a bit to say about the waterfront in his One Dream report that is due sometime in January.

Meed Ward’s initiative needs to be seen for what it is; part of her 2014 re-election platform and the organization she will use to launch her bid for the office of Mayor, perhaps in 2020.

Expected to take part in the “new” Burlington Waterfront Committee are, from the left Bob Wingfield, Gary Scobie, Jeff Martin and Marianne Meed Ward, Councillor for Ward 2 who will chair the committee but not have a vote.

And there you have it  – the rise and fall of an Advisory Committee that spawned a few good ideas, and a whopper of a libel suit. The Pump House idea has gotten as far as the city advertising for expressions of interest.  Those are now being evaluated and we could hear something around the time the pier opens in June.  Any commercial venture will have significant short-term risk; longer term there is significant potential.

City council and staff have let themselves think someone is going to come riding in with a great offer that will not cost the city a dime.  The level of risk is such that the city is going to have to come up with some serious coin – and we are nearing an election year.  With the pier costing close to three times what it was originally going to cost and they have yet to contend with the legal fights that will get serious in February – don’t look for much in the way of appetite at council for a subsidy.  Someone out there is going to have to get very creative and somehow squeeze a long, long-term contract out of the city – and maybe ask that a tax break be thrown in as well.

Have we been too tough on WAPAC?; expected too much of them perhaps?  We don’t think so and we look to the Heritage Burlington Advisory Committee that is in the process of resolving a major community problem for the city. The working relationship between the city and the Heritage committee is superb; the Heritage chair has a strong working relationship at both the political level as well as with the bureaucrats.  Jim Clemens talks regularly with the city manager.  I doubt WAPAC chair Nick Leblovic even knew who the city manager was never mind meeting with him.

When the WAPAC committee members complain about how they were treated they might be well served to look at what Heritage Burlington has achieved and compare the leadership over there with the leadership they had.  Had WAPAC had the courage to install Bob Wingfield as chair and then asked the city to give them another year to fix the problems – WAPAC would be celebrating today instead  of licking its self-inflicted wounds.

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