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Are we getting enough benefit to warrant 23-storeys at Brant/James? A summary of the staff recommendation and My Take

To committee Nov. 1, council Nov. 13

City staff are recommending modified approval for a 23 storey highrise at the northeast corner of Brant and James streets, originally proposed at 27 storeys, including a rooftop patio. The site includes five properties – 421, 425, 427, 429 and 431 Brant Street, from Wardell Insurance to the corner of Brant and James – which the applicants have assembled.

Given the scale of the project and significant variance from existing Official Plan and Zoning provisions, the city can take negotiated Section 37 community benefits. Should the application be approved by council, staff will start those discussions and bring a proposal back to council for approval at a future date.

Three city trees will need to be removed, at the developer’s cost, with compensation provided to the city via replanting or cash-in-lieu of $3,750 (for all three).

More detail on the proposal and My Take is below.

The Planning & Development Committee, which includes all council members, will discuss the application Nov. 1, with a final vote at council Nov. 13. Residents can attend both meetings and share their views on the proposal; you must Register as a Delegation in advance. Delegations are permitted up to 10 minutes at committee, five at council.

Recommendation Report

Date: Nov. 1, 2017
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Location: Council Chambers, Level 2, City Hall

Council Recommendation

Date: Nov. 13, 2017
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Location: Council Chambers, Level 2, City Hall

Learn more by visiting the planning page dedicated to this application: 421-431 Brant St

Read the staff recommendation report: P&D Agenda, Nov. 1, Item 5.3

Summary of the Proposal

Staff recommended several changes to the original application for design and public realm improvements, detailed below.


  • Staff recommend a height up to 23 storeys, including a four storey podium, with stepbacks at the 4th and 16th floor (down from 27 storeys, including roof top amenity area).

Current and proposed permissions:

The current Official Plan permits 8 and 12 storeys on this property; the Zoning permits 4 and 7 storeys. The on-going Mobility Hubs Area Specific Planning process has identified this site within the Brant Main Street Precinct, and part of the larger Downtown Core Precinct in the City’s current Official Plan (these studies have not yet received council approval). This precinct responds to the overwhelming public feedback about the importance of retaining the character of Brant Street, by retaining a pedestrian-scaled character along Brant Street with maximum heights of 3 storeys on Brant and 11 storeys along John and Locust Streets.

Within the precinct there is a Special Policy Area to create a “civic node” that applies to this property and the one across the street (currently Elizabeth Interiors). Additional height, up to 17 storeys is allowed here to achieve significant building setbacks, sight lines to key civic features and the creation of new public space at the corner of James and Brant Streets to serve as a public extension of Civic Square. According to the staff report, the increased height would “highlight this prominent node and announce arrival into this civic node, through the provision of a landmark building, urban plaza, public art, enhanced landscaping, façade design, and a higher order of streetscaping.”


  • The proposed Floor Area Ratio is 10.29:1, where the Zoning By-law and Official Plan currently permit 4:1 and 4.5:1 (The floor area ratio is measured by adding the retail floor area, office space, indoor amenity area and residential floor area and dividing it by the site area).
  • The proposed density is 895 units per hectare, where the Downtown Urban Growth Centre targets are 200 people or jobs per hectare. These are minimum targets and can be exceeded, where appropriate, according to the Provincial Policy Statement (Section, pg 8) and Places to Grow (Introduction, p 9).
The Berkeley, currently under construction by the same developer.

Current downtown Density

According to a detailed analysis in the staff report (pp 23-27), we are on target to meet or exceed our density targets based on developments already in the pipeline, and expected. We are currently at 156.6 people and jobs per hectare, or 78% of the minimum density target. If you add current developments that have site plan approval, or are already under construction (including the Bridgewater on Lakeshore, the Joseph Brant Hospital expansion, the Saxony on Locust, Cherish Homes on Brant St, and the Berkeley at John/Maria/Caroline/Elizabeth streets) we are at 177.5 people and jobs per hectare – 88% of the goal. When you add current applications that are being processed, but have not yet been approved (including this one), and pre-consultations for potential development, we would exceed the target (215 people and jobs, or 107% of the target).

According to the staff report, “The city only needs roughly 60% of the people and jobs proposed through development applications and development pre-consultations to achieve the minimum density target. Further additional development proposals and applications may come forward in the next 14 years to further contribute to the city’s growth projections.” (p 27)

Units & Parking:

  • 169 residential apartment units (down from 179 proposed)
  • A parking ratio of 1.2 parking spaces per residential unit in 4 storeys of below-grade parking, in addition to 8 dedicated visitor parking spaces, 1 car share space (with car) and 69 bicycle parking spaces (roughly 211 spaces provided up from 183 spaces proposed, with no visitor parking)

Current requirements:

  • 1.25 spaces per unit (224 total), including visitor parking, but there is no current requirement to keep these spaces as visitor spaces once built; they have been used as resident parking after the fact.


Staff have indicated the existing transportation network can accommodate increased traffic from this development, which is expected to generate 99 two-way vehicle trips in the AM peak hour and 103 two-way vehicle trips in the PM peak hour.

Office & Retail:

  • a minimum of 365 square metres of office space on the second floor (down from 870.8 sq metre proposed)
  • 900 square metres of commercial retail space at grade on the first floor (down from 1019.5 sq metres proposed). This is a 30% reduction of the current retail that exists today.

Current requirements:

Retail must be provided at street level in buildings on Brant; there is no requirement for second floor office.


  • Building setbacks from Brant Street (2.95 metres), James Street (2.6 metres) and John Street (1.8 metres);
  • Building stepbacks and terracing above the 4th floor and above the 18th floor.

Current requirements:

There are no required setbacks from the property line in the current plan.

The view from the South side of John to City Hall.

Civic Node:

  • A 128 square metre (16 metre x 16 metre) visibility triangle (publicly accessible open space) at the corner of Brant Street and James Street; The visibility triangle would result in an extension of Civic Square on the east side of Brant Street and provide view corridors from James Street Civic Square, City Hall and the War Memorial (Cenotaph). A public access easement would be registered over this corner to ensure that the public function is maintained. It is expected that whatever is approved on the NorthEast corner, including the visibility triangle, would be repeated when the South East corner is developed (currently Elizabeth Interiors).
  • The view from Civic Square of the node, with building cantilevered overtop.

    The 3rd and 4th floors of the building are cantilevered overtop of the civic node, to frame the space and provide wind and weather protection.

  • Staff support a tall building height peak here to “highlight the prominence of this site as a civic node and to also reflect the substantial public realm improvements and design excellence that could be achieved.” (p 40)

Current permissions:

The city already has the right to take a 5×5 metre “daylight” triangle at this corner for turning movement visibility. Some, if not most, of the balance of the triangle could be taken by the city through parkland dedication, taking land rather than cash per unit (worth about $5500 per unit). I have asked staff for precise calculations.


Staff  reviewed the proposed development against 13 criteria in the Official Plan for evaluating housing intensification to protect neighbourhoods from potential negative impacts of intensification. Criteria include: adequate municipal services and off street parking; transportation system can accommodate any increased traffic; sun-shadowing; accessibility to community services and transit; buffering to minimize impacts (for example increased setbacks); and redevelopment on adjacent properties isn’t compromised.

There is further criteria to determine compatibility with the existing neighbourhood, which staff also assessed, including: scale, massing, height, siting, setbacks, coverage, parking and amenity area, so that a transition between existing and proposed buildings is provided.

In addition, internal departments and local agencies were circulated for comment, and none raised any concerns. Those circulated include: Halton Region, Halton District School Board, Halton Catholic District School Board, Burlington Hydro, the transportation department, the capital works Department, Burlington Economic Development Committee and the city’s citizen Sustainable Development Committee.

As noted above, staff reviewed this application through the ongoing work on the downtown precinct and mobility hub, as this project fall within the radius of the mobility hub (the John St bus terminal).

Staff also assessed this project through the Tall Building Guidelines, approved by council in May.

Staff’s opinion based on their review is that the project represents good planning. Some of the key considerations noted in the report are the design of the building, increased setbacks from the property line which widen the sidewalk and allow for trees, benches and other public amenities, and the public triangle at the corner which provides views of civic landmarks, such as the Cenotaph beside City Hall, and expands the space of civic square when the road is closed. Both retail and office space are provided; the project brings more people downtown and helps the city meets its growth targets.

States the report, page 70: “It is staff’s opinion that the modified high density development recommended by staff represents an appropriate form of intensification and an efficient use of … under-utilized lands within the City’s downtown. It is staff’s opinion that the proposal satisfies the City’s objectives to develop downtown as a mixed use community; provide housing opportunities that encourage use of public transit and active transportation; achieve design excellence and provide development that is compatible with surrounding properties.”

My Take:

When changes are requested to existing Official Plan and Zoning regulations, we must ask “Do the changes materially benefit the community, without undue negative impact?” Can the outcomes of this project be achieved another way, without granting excessive height and density? “What’s missing – and is it significant?”

The benefits, achieved another way:

Regarding the civic node: We are entitled to take a 5×5 sqm visibility triangle, and take land (instead of cash) for parkland dedication, and we could have used these tools to achieve the civic node, instead of granting extra height and density.

Regarding design: Buildings over 11 storeys must adhere to our Tall Building Design Guidelines, so a 12 storey building would have to comply with good design; we don’t need to grant extra height and density to get it. As an aside, one of my ongoing concerns with the Tall Building Design Guidelines is they are used to justify tall buildings where they aren’t intended. We’re seeing that with this project, as well as the proposal on Brock/Ontario at 22 storeys – building heights proposed well above existing permissions. The height is being justified on the basis that it conforms to the guidelines.

Regarding intensification: We are well on track to meet our targets and need only 60% of current projects to meet them. A 12 storey building at half the size of what’s proposed would represent intensification and bring more people downtown.

Regarding commercial space: We are getting more office space – that’s good – but we’ll see a reduction of retail space by 30%. Going forward, we should write into our bylaws a requirement to provide second floor office space downtown, just as we already have requirements for retail at grade. When it’s optional, office space becomes a bargaining chip to negotiate extra height and density.

Regarding setbacks and wider sidewalks: We should also require minimum setbacks from the property line to achieve a wider sidewalk, rather than have to negotiate this with extra height/density.

What’s missing:

Despite the size of this project, there are no affordable units, no assisted living units and no rentals (this will be a condominium). There is no requirement in either the Official Plan or Zoning approval for a set number of 3-bedroom units, so the mix of units is up to the developer.

The bedroom mix is still being finalized, but the applicants have indicated that the units will be larger than typical units and there will be a high percentage of multiple bedrooms, proposed as: 20% – 1 bedroom, 60% – 2 bedroom, and 20% – 3 bedroom. However, there is nothing in the Official Plan or Zoning bylaw to compel this unit mix and it’s up to the developer what is provided.

Affordable housing has not been secured as part of the recommended Official Plan & Zoning By-law amendment, but consideration could be given to that as part of the subsequent Section 37  community benefits negotiations. However, as we’ve seen before from this developer on the Berkeley project, promises of affordability negotiated under Section 37 for the Berkeley were significantly reduced after approvals are granted (from roughly 75% affordable to 20-30% affordable). If we want housing for families, we need to cement it into the approvals and there’s no mention of this in any of the approval documents, no guarantee we’ll get it under Section 37, and no guarantee it will stay that way if we do negotiate it.

Negative impacts:

There are also negative impacts from a project of this size, including extra traffic and congestion, and sun shadowing to the North and East. The shadow east during the shortest day of the year extends past Holtby and almost to Crosby at 330pm and up to the No Frills plaza at 9:30am.

In March, the shadow reaches to Caroline Street, at 9:30 and past John St at 3:30.

See the sun shadow report filed by the applicant here: Shadow Impact Assessment.

Towers also escalate the price of land, and we’ve already seen the impact with land speculation downtown: if you can build 23 storeys on a plot of land, it’s worth more than if you can only build 4 storeys. With each new tower that gets built, land prices rise, and low density developments become almost impossible because the land gets priced for high density; single family homes and family oriented townhouses spiral out of reach. This compromises our stated goal of ensuring a variety of new housing options.

Finally, towers set a precedent. The staff report itself (pp 45, 65)  references other highrises downtown as justification for this one – using these buildings as precedent setting. If this project gets approved, it will similarly set a reference point (precedent) for the next application that comes along. We don’t want (or need) a forest of highrises in the downtown. Our tall building guidelines are also being used to  justify height.

If not here, then where should buildings of this scale go? Our highest buildings should be near GO stations – like the Paradigm project beside the Burlington GO with five towers up to 24 storeys. It was a lost opportunity at Aldershot GO where townhouses are being proposed.

In conclusion, we can achieve the benefits of this project – good design, a civic square, wider sidewalks, more people and jobs downtown – within the existing planning provisions, and without creating a precedent for tall buildings on Brant. We’re not getting enough to warrant going beyond existing height and density; we’re not getting affordable housing, have no guarantee of family-sized units, and there’s a 30% reduction in retail from what’s there now. Though the project aims to enhance the civic node with view corridors to City Hall and the cenotaph, in a “landmark” building, it’s this building people will notice given its height at almost triple City Hall – which will be mirrored across the street when that is redeveloped. The defining landmark should be City Hall.

In short, the benefits of this project can be achieved within existing planning permissions, without overintensification and the negative impacts that come with it.

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

A Better Burlington began in 2006 after my neighbours said they felt left out of city decisions, learning about them only after they’d been made.

As journalist for 22 years, I thought “I can do something about that” and a website and newsletter were born. They’ve taken various forms and names over the years, but the intent remains: To let you know what’s happening at City Hall before decisions are made, so you can influence outcomes for A Better Burlington.

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