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Mall madness fires ’em up

  |   Community Engagement   |   No comment
(originally published in Toronto Sun)

There are ways to make people feel totally disengaged from community planning consultations, and intentionally or not, this happens too frequently.

Case in point: Last week Burlington city councillors approved plans to redevelop the aging Appleby Mall in the city’s east end into a series of standalone buildings. The mall is used regularly by seniors, especially in winter months, who use the indoor corridors as walking and community gathering spaces. This recreational use will be seriously compromised by the standalone replacements.

It’s the exact campaign the residents of Don Mills mounted in 2006 against the bulldozing of their indoor mall in favour of the new, outdoor Shops at Don Mills, that earned critical approval in the 416 but hasn’t exactly quieted the anger of its neighbourhood.

The Burlington “demalling” was approved despite extensive input from local residents, including a petition with hundreds of signatures.

The property owners said the current mall setup wasn’t working, and indeed there were many empty stores in the mall. Further, demalling is part of the “big box” development trend, with store owners requesting larger footprints than can be accommodated in a typical mall.

Residents are not insensitive to these economic pressures, nor are they opposed to redevelopment. As one resident poignantly, but ultimately fruitlessly, pleaded at the meeting: “We want something that is fair to residents, council, (store) tenants and the developer.”

A reasonable goal. And yet, far too often decisions seem almost completely weighted in favour of property owners, with minor concessions to residents being presented as major evidence of balancing community needs with developer priorities.

In this case, the “concessions,” if you can even call them that, focused on patio uses, parking and setbacks from the road. These details may well be important from an aesthetic and usability standpoint, but they miss the bigger picture of the changing nature of the site itself and how it negatively impacts community gathering. It’s like selecting paint colours while the house burns.

Yet when residents tried to highlight the big picture, they were essentially told developers can do what they want with their private property.

I’ve heard this time and again, and it’s neither true nor helpful. Worse, it’s the root of why people feel disengaged from community planning consultations. One might reasonably wonder: If nothing can be changed and developers have all the rights, why are we here?

A BETTER PROCESS

God bless residents for continuing to volunteer their time and energy to making their views known. What’s needed is a better process, along with a changed mindset.

First, we need to get rid of the idea that people can do what they want on their property. If that were true, we wouldn’t need zoning bylaws and we could cut in half the work load (and paycheque) of city councillors.

Furthermore, residents constantly run in to a double standard between individual homeowners and big developers. Here’s one case in point: My neighbour recently tried to convert a side porch on his home into a wrap around and was told no because it altered the historic character of the home (which wasn’t a designated heritage property, and thus shouldn’t have been treated so restrictively).

The wrap around would likely have aided community building — allowing more people on the front porch, closer to the street, the easier to say hello.

And yet a developer can take the indoor gathering space away from hundreds of seniors without so much as a by-your-leave. Is this fair? I don’t think so.

Property rights — for developers and residents — must always be balanced with community responsibilities and the greater good.

Second, we need a better community engagement process. We still have a reactive, site-planning style that only seeks community input in reaction to a proposed development that’s well underway. We need to back up a few steps and involve the community in a visioning exercise that asks all stakeholders — residents, businesses, developers, and city officials — to envision the possibilities for creating a better city for everyone, then seeks out community-minded developers to build it.

Whistler, B.C. embarked on such a process with great success. This weekend, the city is hosting the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities gathering. More councillors are going from Halton (13) than from Toronto (12), a source of much amusement (and criticism), but nevertheless a small comfort to residents like me who hope our elected officials will use the time wisely to learn about new ways of community engagement.

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