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Way back when the city manager made comments at a committee meeting that could be described as an effort to influence the decision that was to be made.

background 100By Staff

October 30th, 2018

BURLINGTON, ON

 

It was a pivotal meeting; took place on November 1st, 2017 when the Planning and Development committee heard the staff report on the development application for the NE corner of Brant and James Street.

421 Brant

It’s a done deal – the 24 storey tower will go up. And it is likely to be twinned by a tower of the same height on the SE corner

The development application got approved and was named The Gallery by the developer.

The eventual decision meant a 24 storey tower opposite city hall and the issue that became the focus point for the election that took place a week ago yesterday that put a new Mayor in office.

When development applications go before a Standing Committee they start out with a presentation by the Staff Planner, often followed by comments from the develop.

Rarely does the most senior bureaucrat make comments before an application is discussed publicly. The Gazette has never seen a city manager do this in the seven years we have covered city council.

On November 1st, 2017 city manager James Ridge said the following.

“I’d like to make a few introductory comments just before I turn it over to Kyle.
There are two issues that I would like to address in relation to this application that have come up over & over again in the context of the last number of months.

“The first is the relationship between the application and the new plan for downtown and the Official Plan.

“The timing is unusual.

Ridge shilling for the developer

James Ridge: “”You’ve made a decision …

“This is coming just months before we consider the new Official Plan and has been going through the approval process in parallel with conversations we’ve been having about the downtown.

“I’d like to start with the Strategic Plan.

“You’ve made a decision as a City that the City will grow in certain strategic locations and downtown Burlington is obviously one of the locations.

“Tonight, you are considering the merits of this application which addresses at least some of the goals identified in the Strategic Plan.
It delivers a mix of housing, office, retail, in the City’s urban growth centre.

“It’s walkable.

“It is close to major transit hub and it is arguably higher density.

“There can be an argument about whether it is the right density or not,
and people have asked how this relates to the work done in recent months in downtown and that’s been engaged a lot of the community and there are obvious questions about the relationship.

“The short answer is this.

“The application is not bound by that work, by the work that’s been done nor is it bound by the new Official Plan, but nonetheless, it reflects much of it, and that’s the interesting reality of this application.

“The new Official Plan hasn’t yet been approved.

“It won’t be for a month or so, and as such, this principle by law must be considered in the context of the existing Official Plan.

Ridge shilling 2

James Ridge: “The application in front of you takes the density that is allowed in the existing Official Plan, and reconfigures it …

“The application in front of you takes the density that is allowed in the existing Official Plan, and reconfigures it in a way that we believe is consistent with the work that’s been done in recent months in the downtown and the intent and goals of the Official Plan.

“The applicant has a right now in law today, without further council approval, to build 12 storeys across that sight, and the fact that we have been able to take the rights that the applicant has under the current Official Plan, 12 storeys across the whole site, and reconfigure it in a way that is far more reflective of the work that’s been done over the summer around the downtown growth plan and the new Official Plan is a function of hard work that’s been done by Kyle and his colleagues and the applicant and I thank them both for that.

“The application in front of you isn’t bound by the new draft Official Plan, it still achieves a number of the key priorities that the public told us were priorities this summer.

“When we talked about the downtown, they include wider sidewalks, less sun shade impacts, respect for the character of Brant Street, more public open spaces and excellence in architectural design and Kyle will talk about these in more detail.

“So I’m very pleased that staff and the applicant have been able to incorporate many aspects of the new plan and the public’s priorities for the downtown in this application on an entirely voluntary basis.

“While some may argue, and I’m sure many will, that this application doesn’t fully or sufficiently reflect the new downtown plan, I think that any fair-minded person says, looking at the application, there has been a real effort to at least address some of the vision for the downtown in the plan, notwithstanding the fact it’s not bound by the new draft plan.

“The second thing I’d like to talk about is height and height is often the issue that generates the most conversation and controversy about an application,

“You know that as well or better than I do, and yet decisions based primarily on the height of a proposal can have bad outcomes, especially dangerous in my professional opinion is the notion that shorter buildings are always preferable to taller ones and this application is a case study in that fallacy.

“This applicant has a right to build 12 storeys across the whole site In our professional opinion, having the site developed as a full 12 storey block is as inconsistent as you can possibly get with the vision for downtown that has developed through the summer.

Ridge 4

James Ridge: “… the applicant has the right to do 12 storeys across that site today …”

“Once again, the applicant has the right to do 12 storeys across that site today and we think that would have lasting negative impacts for the downtown, and that’s nor an extreme case or hypothetical.

“The applicant came in in 2012 with a proposal to do exactly that, 12 storeys across the whole site.

“We have pictures if you would like to see them, and to the applicant’s credit, they backed away from that proposal and have come with something different, and while height is clearly a consideration, I want to stress it is not first and foremost about height in this application.

“Show this to you graphically … this is about taking the densities that the applicant has as a right by law right now and reconfiguring it differently.

“Height is part of those considerations but it is not the only one.

“So simply put, our collective professional advice to you is that reconfiguring much of the density on this site from 12 storey monolith to a taller skinny to tower on a smaller footprint is far preferable.

“It is better to have wider sidewalks.

“It’s better to have the expanded view to City Hall and the cenotaph.

“It’s better to have more open space on the street and more sunlight than have 12 storeys across the whole sight, in our professional opinion.

“The benefits of height need to be considered fairly.

“In my professional opinion, that happens rarely.

Ridge 3

James Ridge: “Height tends to be a bogeyman …”

“Height tends to be a bogeyman, something that is seen as fundamentally bad in a development.
and we ask only that we have a fair and an honest conversation about both the downsides of height and there are some, but also a conversation about the benefits and there are many of those as well.

“So with that, I’ll turn it over to Kyle”

Kyle Plaz

Kyle Plaz

Here is what is interesting about the comments made by the city manager: they sound like someone acting as a shill for an initiative.

Mention is made of a 12 storey monolith on several occasions but the public never got to see a drawing of what the monolith would actually look like. No architectural rendering.

421 Brant 12 and 23

The dark shading is what the developer had an “as of right” to build. The light blue is what city council approved instead.

There was never the sense that the 12 story’s was actually seriously considered. The public was just given the impression that it was going to be plunked down on the land and that it would be squat looking and really ugly.

Ridge uses the word fairness in his remarks – many of the delegators who spoke to council later on in the process (there were 30 of them) had to focus on a development that was going to change the city they knew radically.

It was clearly what the city planners wanted.

12 storey design

Some creativity might have solved that 12 storey situation.

What if the city had challenged the developer to hold a design competition for a building that was just 12 storeys – what have others done with 12 storeys?

12 storey desigh 2

Others have dome some very good 12 storey designs.

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18 comments to Way back when the city manager made comments at a committee meeting that could be described as an effort to influence the decision that was to be made.

  • Jim Young

    Surely it is time to move beyond the council/staff mistakes of one year ago.
    The electorate have spoken their disapproval loudly and many councillors have paid the price. The new council/ staff/ citizen rapprochement promised by our new council elect cannot keep relitigating past council errors.
    Moving forward, reconciliation will require an atmosphere of fairness.
    That must include fairness to Mr. Ridge.
    City Manager is the only appointee council make.
    Hired by a council who voted 6 to1 in favour of almost every development application, it is hardly surprising that Mr Ridge’s advice to his bosses and in support of his staff technicians would be pro developer.
    He was tellling 6 of his 7 bosses what they wanted to hear and what they had doubtless been primed by developers to expect.
    Let us suspend judgement on James Ridge until we see if he can move with the new mood of the people, a new council promising greater citizen involvement and judge him by how he works with council and citizens to live up to those promises.
    Citizen Engagement cannot be allowed to become a blood sport.
    We must work together, Council, Staff and Citizens to undo the mistakes that can be undone, and to ameliorate the ones we cannot undo.

    • Don Fletcher

      OK. James Ridge should be tasked to undo/ mitigate the two mistakes (both 3 times the height of City Hall) at Brant & James, and to direct planning staff to quickly recast a new Official Plan with maximum, mid-rise permissions downtown!

      • Hans

        Clearly the Goldring “Official Plan” was created (and its approval rushed through) much too near the end of council’s mandate to be considered legitimate. It must be reviewed and revised to conform to the vision of the new council.
        In addition, Ridge should be reminded – and it should be written explicitly in his job description, if it is not already – that his function is limited to the execution of policy created by the city council and that it is not his job to influence policy, unless the contemplated policy will create unforeseen problems. If he wants to influence policy, he should run for office.

  • Penny

    There is only 1 employee that Council hires and can fire and that is the City Manager. Don’t forget that the outgoing council hired Mr. Ridge. My question – When did this go off the rails where the “tail wagged the dog”.

  • Don Fletcher

    Representing/ being accountable to the residents of Burlington and managing suppliers (incl. developers) is a critical role of our stewards at City Hall, is it not? I get the distinct feeling that City Hall has gotten it backwards, because we, the residents were being managed and the developers in this case were being represented?

    A case in point, was the new Official Plan being hastily adopted (not approved) against many delegations asking for it to be considered an election issue.
    Guess what?
    The electorate persevered and made it an election issue overwhelmingly with their votes on October 22nd. The tide is starting to turn!

  • Penny

    I find it hard to believe that some members of council did not know that Mr. Ridge was going to take control of the meeting. ” What Mr. Ridge did was not illegal,” someone in the know told me, “but the delegations should have questioned it at the time. Ask for ” A Point of Order” the minute he started to speak.”

    Personally, I don’t think I would have known to do that. As residents we have so much to learn.

  • Bob Wilson

    Ok. So using this logic, any developer as a multi-site owner can agglomerate height allowances. In planning jargon, that is transfer of development rights and our City Manager just dropped his pants and gave that away in this application. This kind of unsophisticated bafoonery was a central theme in this election and propelled an almost 100% turnover in Council. Hopefully a more critically minded and citizen-focused Council can put the development community in check and extract maximum value instead of giving it all away.

  • Andrew

    So if a developer secured, say a city block (not out of the question) he would prefer 50 storeys?

  • Allan S

    Ridge needs to go as part of the City Hall clear out.

  • Dave

    As a resident with no relationship to anyone at City Hall or the development community, living 50 yards east of James and Brant on James st, street level, I would much prefer “wider sidewalks” and “expanded view to City Hall and Cenotaph” and “open space on the street”. This “Shill” has got some solid ideas and recommendation’s and is acting as a City manager should. Taller and skinny vs still pretty tall and taking up all the ground level space is pretty solid planning from where I’m sitting.

  • Kevin

    This seems to be a common place argument with our city staff for every development application placed. Our city staff should not be advocating for the developers, trying to find ways to approve applications by bending, tweaking and massaging the rules/interpretations of the OP and PPS. In fact they should be pushing back to developers by enforcing our by-laws and OP. There seems to be little in overall planning and more of “shoe horning” as many units in a piece of space as possible with very little character being designed into the buildings.

    • Hans

      Agreed – city staff should tell developers to go and read the zoning bylaws again when they apply for something that isn’t allowed.
      Hopefully the developers will eventually get the message – that city staff are not their advocates/employees.

  • Stephen White

    If the Staff Planner is the technical subject matter expert then the City Manager should be there primarily to address procedural issues, not advocating in support of a proposal. The developers usually bring lots of lackeys and underlings to these meetings. We don’t have to supplement their ranks by providing reinforcements and cheerleaders.

    There are plenty of attractive 12 storey buildings around….and lots of attractive 6 storey ones too. The growing mundanity of Burlington’s downtown is a reflection of the lack of variety that now characterizes most of these developments. Another pencil thin, tall silhouette of a building configured at right angles flush against street corners offering limited setback from the road, and offering glorious panoramic views of another tall silhouette of a building situated right next door and configured at right angles, etc., etc….

    Boring!

  • Don Fletcher

    James Ridge failed to mention that the whole property was not zoned for up to 12 storeys, that such a monolithic building design would not comply with the City’s Tall Building Guidelines (which “kicks in” at 12 storeys and that the proposed building design would yield an unprecedented 9.45 FSI.

    The product of a negotiation is always negotiable.

    While the City still has leverage with the developer (and you don’t need a great imagination to figure out that it does) James Ridge should be tasked with re-negotiating the design with the developer, Carriage Gate, to conform to what is allowed in our existing Official Plan/ or envisioned in our soon-to-be updated future Official Plan. .

    • Gary Scobie

      Absolutely right, Don. The site was zoned only partially for 12 storeys. The rest had a lower height zoning. It still could be developed using that current zoning.

      I witnessed the unprecedented advice/lecture given by the City Manager to Council and wondered what could be any purpose of my delegation or others in influencing a Council obviously already aligned in the majority with the Planning Department’s recommendation for height beyond anything conceived in the future Official Plan for the downtown.

      A very sad demonstration of the City’s administration leading our elected leaders instead of the other way around. I hope I never have to witness such a disrespectful address again in Council chambers.

  • Jim Barnett

    Pepper is absolutely right. The ugly six story option was never presented, it was only spoken as a bogyman to support the direction the planning department wanted to be the conclusion. Sad.

  • Hans

    Ridge is quoted as saying “…in my professional opinion…” a few times. I wonder what profession that would be?
    And he certainly seemed to be working as an advocate for the developer, not for the CoB.