Categories: DevelopmentDowntown & Waterfront

Tall building guidelines: Is Burlington headed for Vancouver without mountains?

Analysis & Opinion

On Oct. 3, city council is poised to endorse “interim” tall building guidelines and send them out for public consultation. You need to make your voice heard, because Burlington’s future will be shaped by these guidelines. I didn’t endorse the guidelines at committee and won’t at council.

The guidelines are more than an endorsement of good design. They’re an endorsement of tall buildings. They could lead to approvals for tall buildings on lots not intended for them, so long as they conform to the guidelines.

Do we want a future which protects the livability, diversity and small town feel of our city, or something akin to Vancouver without the mountains?

How did we get here?

The guidelines were developed by outside consultants (BrookMcIlroy) at the request of city staff to deal with tall building applications already coming in.

They draw heavily on a style of planning called “Vancouverism” – narrow towers on podiums, setbacks to allow public activity on the street. Vancouver’s former city planner, Brent Toderian, is advising the city on planning, transportation and transit. He’s got some helpful insights, but they aren’t all applicable to Burlington.

Tower guidelines make design suggestions to create visual interest, and keep a distance between towers to preserve views.

Lack of public input

This article from Urban Land provides a sympathetic primer on Vancouverism, but also warns against simply adopting the model:

 “But while planners and developers elsewhere seek to copy the salient features of what has come to be known as “Vancouverism,” those involved in the shaping of modern Vancouver caution that there is more to it than just view corridors, slim towers juxtaposed with mid-rise development and bike paths, or the breathtaking natural environment

Instead, they say, the real secret of Vancouver’s success has been its deliberative, values-driven evolutionary process, in which local government planners, developers, and the citizenry have labored over the past few decades to form a consensus vision of what their city should be like—and then come up with creative solutions for achieving it.”

Our guidelines have missed that last part – a values-driven process that brings the community together to form a consensus on what we’re trying to achieve, and find solutions.

Council had one week to review the guidelines. There was no prior public consultation. The development community was consulted before the report was prepared. Members of the city’s Housing & Development Liaison Committee received an electronic copy, with an invitation for tall building developers to attend one-on-one meetings with staff. But even developers said there wasn’t enough public consultation.

Given the lack of public input, I had proposed the guidelines be considered “draft,” then sent out for community input. We need a “Made in Burlington” solution, not a model designed for a different city.

However, the rest of council voted at committee to endorse the document, considering it “interim,” with public consultation to come. Council will vote on that recommendation Oct. 3. The planning department committed to following up with the development community to hear their concerns.

Save Our Waterfront secured public input on waterfront, and better community engagement overall.

The process has echos of the Old Lakeshore Road changes in 2008-2009 that gave height along the waterfront without meaningful city-wide public input. That process created the Save Our Waterfront movement where 2,000 residents across the city sought better public consultation on changes like this, and eventually led to the creation of Burlington’s Community Engagement Charter. We’re heading back to that era at council, where public input is bypassed, minimal or after the fact.


Highlights of the guidelines

Tall building guidelines propose narrow towers on podiums

The guidelines for tall buildings (over 11 storeys) focus on building style and relationship to the street: the bottom, or podium, at street level, the middle tower rising above the podium, and the top of the tower.

Generally, the podium is wider; the number of storeys varies to a maximum of 20m (about 6-7 storeys). The tower narrows to a maximum of 750sqm as it rises up from the podium. For multiple towers on a block, the guidelines propose a minimum 25m distance between towers. (In Vancouver, this was to preserve mountain views.)

The setback from the street is 6m, to provide for benches, trees public art and other street amenities.

Publicly-accessible private open space (courtyards/parkettes) is “encouraged” but not mandatory. Public space would be achieved through Section 37 negotiations, which allow extra height/density in exchange for a community benefit. It’s worth noting the city can already compel a percentage of land be donated for public space, under parkland provisions that apply to each new unit built above existing units. The city usually takes cash-in-lieu instead of parkland, which goes into a parks reserve fund.

Proposed 26-storey building at Martha/Lakeshore. Developers pointed to the 22-storey Bridgewater across the street.

My Take:

While I applaud the move toward better design of buildings, these guidelines will create a momentum toward more applications for tall buildings, including on lots not intended for them. Endorsing the guidelines now before we have finished our Official Plan & Zoning reviews may end up superceding our planning vision.

The risk: we’ll get development applications that conform to the guidelines on setbacks or podiums, but are in places we don’t envision tall buildings. It will be very difficult to hold our ground and direct height to where we want it if the building meets our design guidelines, especially with the ever present threat of an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (something no other province faces; reform can’t come soon enough!).

Tall buildings lead to more tall buildings. These guidelines help pave the way, and pretty soon we will have lost meaningful control over planning and implementing a community vision for our city.

Bridgewater is – so far – the tallest approved building downtown at 22 storeys.

I’m also concerned about the lack of public input, and focus on “educating the public” rather than listening to and working with you.

So I wonder where we’re headed, as city hall fosters a momentum toward intensification coupled now with a focus on tall buildings.

Momentum toward intensification (without specifying limits)

There is an active push at the city toward intensification, without defining limits (intensification doesn’t mean anything goes). So I’m concerned about where this momentum is leading, especially as we head into Official Plan discussions.

At a recent Chamber of Commerce panel on intensification (where there was representation from the development industry and planning, but no resident voice) a question came from the floor: when is intensification overintensification?

The response, from our city planner: Burlington is at risk of underintensification, not overintensification. Our planner has brought some positive changes to the city; we will disagree on this point.

The dialogue on intensification has been largely one-way, designed to “educate the public.” Consider the mayor’s series on intensification, with Vancouver’s Toderian, designed to educate you on its benefits, without a balanced discussion of the  drawbacks of intensification and potential solutions.

Consider the Grow Bold branding for the Official Plan review.

It isn’t bold to approve tall buildings; it’s what developers want to build to maximize their investment. We will need to be bold to limit intensification to avoid the negative impacts. The risk is that by following the easy path, we will lose our community character.

What’s at stake:

The city is sending the message that it’s open for developments beyond the Official Plan/Zoning, so long as they conform to the tall building guidelines. Consider the Thomas Alton Boulevard application for two 19-storey towers, along with towns, on land zoned for 10 storeys. Staff recommended (and council approved; I did not support) that staff  prepare an Official Plan/Zoning amendment to allow the development subject to certain conditions, including design changes that align with the tall building guidelines. Staff wasn’t proposing a reduction in height.

This creates uncertainly in our community about what our neighbourhoods will look like.

The downside of intensification:

Missing from the discussion of tall buildings and intensification is the downside. We stand to lose important community features like green space and community character. Once it’s gone, it’s hard to recover.

Here’s a summary of the arguments used to justify overintensification, along with an alternative perspective:

  • “We need “intensification” to conform to provincial legislation.” A recent council workshop on intensification provided population projections and showed we can meet and exceed our growth requirements within existing Official Plan and Zoning provisions. The same is true downtown, an urban growth centre, with a requirement to provide a minimum 200 people or jobs per hectare. We are just over half way there, and can meet the balance of  growth requirements under the existing Official Plan & Zoning provisions, according to the staff report on the Martha St. proposal (pg 32).
  • “We need intensification to support transit and other amenities.” Transit works best with a minimum of 50 people per hectare, according to the Ministry of Transportation’s publication Transit Supportive Guidelines (pg. 21). We’re at double that density downtown. Our downtown business community also includes 430 retail offerings. More growth, in keeping with our existing planning/zoning is welcome, but we don’t need overintensification to support transit or other amenities.
  • “We need intensification to give us affordable housing.” Generally, highrise units are cheaper than single family homes, but that’s not the case with newer developments in the downtown. Most of our existing downtown highrises attract downsizing empty nesters who can afford the prices. A recent development approved for Caroline/ John/ Maria/ Elizabeth streets was supposed to provide affordability as a community benefit, but that was renegotiated from about 73% of units to roughly 27%. Council approved this 6-1 – I didn’t support the change. Further, tall buildings cause land prices to escalate, such that building a diversity of housing – mid-rise, towns, semis or singles – are harder to build because land is now more expensive. Our single family homes will escalate out of reach for many families (already happening), potentially driving families out of the core. Overall diversity and affordability in housing – something we are trying to achieve in our Official Plan – is eroded with each new tall building. We could lose our “small-town” unique feel in our downtown.

A better approach:

Where do we go from here? The interim tall building guidelines will go out for public consultation, if approved at council Oct. 3. It won’t be enough to tinker with the setbacks (6m or 7m?), podium design, size of floor plate or distance between towers (do we even want several towers on a parcel or block?).

Here are three suggestions for a better way to proceed with our discussions of intensification and tall buildings:

  1. Shift the focus from intensification to a higher community aspiration. Intensification is not an end, tall buildings are not an end; they are a means to an end. We  haven’t done the work yet to determine the outcome we are trying to achieve with tall buildings. Our guidelines didn’t start with a higher aspiration, as Vancouver’s did – preserving mountain views through narrow “point” towers on wider podiums. Let’s adopt a made in Burlington solution, not simply cut and paste a model designed for a different city. Let’s complete our community building vision for the future, through our Official Plan and Zoning reviews, then determine how tall buildings might fit to help us achieve our goals.
  2. Let’s take our time and get it right. Other cities, notably Toronto and Hamilton, have spent several years in extensive public consultation developing tall building guidelines. The public had a week. Let’s take the time to get a made in Burlington solution. 
  3. Acknowledge intensification has limits – so should tall buildings – both in number and size. A singular commitment to intensification can create negative consequences for the community, not least of which is lack of affordable choice in housing, congestion, loss of greenspace and demolition of low-rise historical buildings, reducing community character. Downtown and across the city we can meet our growth targets within existing Official Plan and Zoning provisions. Overintensification creates negative impacts for the community.

Throughout this process I will advocate for meaningful consultation with the public to learn from and work with you, not a “check off the box” exercise to educate the public.

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. The best decisions are made when elected representatives tap the wisdom of our community members, and welcome many different perspectives.This site allows residents to comment and debate with each other; our Commenting Guidelines established in 2016 aim to keep debate respectful. Got an idea or comment you want to share privately? Please, get in touch:

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