By Ryan McGreal
Published March 05, 2009
The city's planning committee has rejected a motion by Councillor Brian McHattie (Ward 1) to increase downtown density targets from 250 persons+jobs per hectare to 400.
Bill Janssen, a city staff planner, responded at a planning committee meeting on March 3 to McHattie's motion (CATCH, as usual, made a transcript of the meeting) that staff:
don't know at this particular moment how high we can push the density without doing an evaluation of the current infrastructure and planning framework as well as undertaking an office and vacancy strategy to determine how high a density target could be established.
He added that the density goal of 250 people+jobs per hectare should "be recognized as a minimum target, and that increases in the density be encouraged" but that this should be done "through a review of the downtown secondary plan".
If this all sounds like bureaucratic boilerplate, that's because it probably is. Janssen followed up with what may be the real issue here:
The one concern that we have with increasing, or having a target in the plan that we don't know we can achieve, it may impact what other development can be undertaken, particularly in greenfield developments.
Read that a couple of times and let it sink in.
Staff don't want to increase the downtown density targets because that might threaten the city's greenfield expansion plans.
Isn't that the point of intensification - to limit suburban sprawl?
Janssen specifically stated that a higher downtown density target "may restrict where development can occur and potentially put off looking at" the planned urban boundary expansion in Elfrida, near Upper Centennial Pkwy. and Rymal Rd.
However, the province has already unilaterally removed the inclusion of a 2,800 acre urban boundary expansion at Elfrida from Hamilton's official rural plan.
While the province continues to push cities like Hamilton to commit fully rather than reluctantly and half-heartedly to intensification, the city continues to drag its feet.
Staff make noises about the city's intensification objectives being "minimum targets" that we should be aiming to exceed, but the ugly fact is that the city's long-term GRIDS plan is only shooting for the provincial bare minimum of 40 percent infill - and at that, only on development betweeen 2015 and 2025.
We're basically that slacker kid in school who aims to do just enough work to eke out a pass and keep the Principal off his back.
The Planning Committee ultimately voted to reject McHattie's motion to plan for increasing the downtown density target. The only supporting vote came from Councillor Terry Whitehead (Ward 8), who said of the motion:
we had the GRIDS that was highly touted by some of my colleagues across this table and here we have an example of something that came out of the GRIDS process is not being agreed to and I have some concern that you can't suck and blow. Either support the GRIDS process and the determinations of that process or we don't. And I certainly support it
Perhaps surprisingly, even Councillor Bob Bratina (Ward 2) opposed the motion, stating that he thinks "the downtown, in my humble opinion, is moving along very nicely". He prefers to reach the current target of 250 people+jobs in the next five years and then "set the next target".
In response to a question from Councillor Lloyd Ferguson (Ward 12, Ancaster), Janssen reported that staff don't know whether the city's water and sewer systems can handle a capacity of 400 people+jobs per hectare downtown. Staff would have to evaulate the current capacity and assess what, if any, changes are required to meet that capacity.
McHattie responded that he would "certainly be willing to add an amendment" to his motion "that the servicing capacity issue be examined at the same time". The motion was still rejected.
This ridiculously myopic decision comes in the larger context of a provincial government that has signalled strongly that it will support municipalities "who get it - who get the Places to Grow Act concept of trying to intensify as much as possible" as McHattie put it.
He argued that the city needs to send a clear message to the Province that Hamilton is committed to exceeding the bare provincial minimum - committed to meeting the spirit, and not just the letter, of Places to Grow - as the province makes its decisions on where to make infrastructure investments.
George Smitherman, the provincial Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, explained last November in a speech to municipal leaders that the province will invest in cities trying to limit sprawl and increase density - and conversely that the province will not invest in cities still focused on sprawl.
He stated very bluntly that municipalities which aim for higher density will get provincial money and municipalities which slack off will not:
I want to work with municipalities that share our vision for communities that are cleaner, greener, more compact and that work. ...
At the ministry we're working vigorously on the development of new infrastructure investment programs that will have a ten year run of at least $60 billion. As the minister tasked with drawing up these programs, I'm giving them very careful consideration to the priorities of municipalities who have done their work to meet the growth plan. ...
When things are tough, I will stand behind those who stand up for the Growth Plan. ...
I want to get things done. And I look forward to the opportunity to work with people who want to get things done as well. I think we all recognize that achieving the Growth Plan objectives is not just a numbers game. It's not just about how many more hectares you can squeeze into the urban envelope, or how many people you can fit into a subdivision. Ultimately our goal is to build better communities, places which are viable, sustainable and serve our people well today, and in the future.
Meanwhile, here in Hamilton, our municipal leaders vote against a motion to adhere more closely to the Places to Grow framework because it might undermine our plans to keep building suburban sprawl.
The mind absolutely boggles.