Coleman: Thinking Differently on Downtown Planning

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Joey Coleman/The Public Record

Hamilton's Downtown as viewed from James Street South

This column was first published in The Public Record’s newsletter last Thursday. Get our content and columns before they appear on our website by subscribing to our newsletter edition.

Tuesday night’s community meeting on the Downtown Secondary Plan was hugely successful.

Moderator Cameron Kroetsch and the organizing team successfully brought together over 100 people representing a wide range of interests from across Hamilton’s Downtown communities. The format saw four speakers provide an overview of the plan, what plans look like in other communities, consideration of the competing interests involved in a secondary plan, and methods of ensuring development creates opportunity for as many as possible such as Chicago’s planning regiment and Section 37 benefits.

Following the speakers, breakout groups formed around interest topics, including small business, music venues, creative studios, affordable housing. Recommendations and ideas from the groups will be compiled and released by organizers in the coming week.  (Further reading: The Inlet’s excellent summary of what happened at the event)

The biggest achievement of the event was commercial building owners sitting beside homeowners joining with tenants at the same table alongside interests ranging from heritage to churches, music venues to small shopkeepers.

There has never been a meeting on the future official plan for the downtown that has brought these interests together to express their desires, and begin the community discussion of how to balance them in such a way as to ensure a vibrant downtown beyond the accounting ledgers of development and taxation. Absent from the room were large developers and noticeably absent Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr.

The City’s Director of Planning and Chief Planner Steve Robichaud attended, sitting in the audience, listening intently, and taking notes. He stated to me staff continue working on the final draft of the Secondary Plan that will go to Council in April, and that changes have been made based upon feedback from various stakeholders, including community groups and neighbourhood associations.

What Happens Next? What Will Change in The Plan?

Planning practice and policy across Ontario is in a state of some uncertainty with the change from the Ontario Municipal Board to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. Nobody outside of Queen’s Park knows exactly how LPAT appeals will work compared to OMB appeals.

We do know that LPAT will defer to local planning policy, and make it possible for municipalities to create clear planning policy without guessing what developers will to get approved at the OMB despite local policy. The significance of these changes should not be underestimated.

In practical terms, the City’s October plan was outdated on December 12, 2017 when Royal Assent was given to Bill 139, completely changing the foundation of local planning policy across Ontario.

The soon-to-be-old existing Downtown Secondary Plan is not even a paper tiger; developers knew they could propose nearly anything, and if they couldn’t convince the Ward Councillor to support it; they would be able to go to the Ontario Municipal Board to argue for what they wanted anyway.

Once Places to Grow was implemented in 2005, the existing Secondary Plan was completely eclipsed by the OMB’s mandate to implement intensification. Height limitations set low that were designed to force developers to negotiate with City Hall to build tall buildings instead became the very reason the OMB would allow tall buildings near almost no regards for the Secondary Plan.

LPAT changes this, municipalities no longer enter negotiations with developers with both hands tied behind their back, City Hall’s hands are untied, and they now set the agenda. Municipal plans must comply with the provincial frameworks, of course.

In practical terms, zoning under the OMB was planned with lower height and density limits than what the City wanted, knowing that developers would seek 20 if they were allowed 10, and the OMB would likely approve it. Under LPAT, what the Secondary Plan – combined with policy – says is what developers will be allowed.

What does this means for changes we should expect to see when the final draft Downtown Secondary Plan is released? For one, we should see the Tall Building Guidelines brought into the Plan as policy, instead of a mere suggestion as they were in the revised draft in October. Expect an increase role for the Design Review Panel. Most visible should be a refinement of the as-of-right height permissions if the Tall Building Guidelines are made policy, made rules, the guidelines will limit tall buildings to sites which are appropriate for height.

The final draft of the Secondary Plan will be posted to the City website on March 19. Council will debate the plan during the April 17, 2017 Planning Committee which will begin at 9:30am that day.

In the coming weeks, we need focus on the underlying planning matters we need to understand to effectively engage on the Secondary Plan. This will be the focus of my coverage.

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