One Size Fits All Does Not Fit Guelph
April 14, 2023
In the wake of the recently announced changes made to Guelph's Official Plan by the provincial government, there is a lot to consider. The potential impacts are signifcant -- far too much for one social media post. I have consolidated my response into a series of articles, including:
1. One Size Fits All Does Not Fit Guelph: denisty, downtown and how to design the city of the future.
2. Use/Abuse of Authority: "might" is not always right, especially when it comes to political jurisdiction.
3. Where's the "Mix" in Mixed Use? - a great idea so why is nobody building it?
One Size Fits All Does Not Fit Guelph
Those who worship on the altar of density are praying to a false deity. Height and density alone will not solve our housing crisis. There are better ways to build a great city -- one that people want to live in and will stand the test of time.
The Ford government released its forced changes to Guelph's Official Plan this week. Among 18 modifications, which are not subject to appeal, there are two major changes that will affect how our city looks and functions in perpetuity.
This article will focus on the provincial amendment that will have the greatest impact -- the decree that will permit 23 story buildings within most of our downtown boundary.
It's a Toronto-centric one-size-fits-all solution to a national housing crisis. A one-size-fits-all approach to land use planning does not fit Guelph.
My critics will say "we're in a housing crisis" and "you don't care about the younger generation" and "we can't afford to live here". Let's get that out the way first. Yes, we are in a housing crisis, it's real, it's serious and it's now. My own children are part of the generation priced out of the housing market, so I know it all too well. My point is this -- the modifications to our Official Plan don't address any of that. The housing crisis was not created overnight, nor will it be solved in the short term.
The impact of over-densification is impossible to predict. Do we have the water supply and wastewater capacity? Do we have capacity in downtown schools? What is the cost to expand the necessary infrastructure? If new highrise projects are exempt from development charges how much will taxes increase? Will the increased taxes affect our affordability crisis? So many unanswered questions...
What does the Ministry-imposed plan say?
This is the map of the new "23 story zone" in our downtown. Everything shaded WHITE is open for 23 story towers.
It encompasses the historic core and side streets, from Surrey Street (to the south) to London Road (to the north). That's not just our shopping and dining district -- that's a significant part of our city landscape.
But Leanne ...we need more housing!
Yes, we do. The current made-in-Guelph plan (called Shaping Guelph: Strategic Growth Management Plan, or OPA 80) was unanimously approved by City Council in July 2022. This plan adds significant density to our downtown, but it recognizes that some sites are more suited to added height than others. The made-in-Guelph plan envisions the historic core having a variety of different heights and has site specific mapping to demonstrate that some sites are better suited for 4-6 stories, or 8-12 stories or up to 18 stories.
For the record, I fully support adding height to specific locations where appropriate. For example, any site identified for 18 stories could handle 23-25 stories. More of those sites are in the "lower town" area (south of the railroad tracks) because the impact is softer due to topography.
The Ford-forced plan's biggest fault is the blanket approach to an entire area. I have to question whether the Ministry even visited the city before taking a hatchet to our award-winning Downtown Secondary Plan.
But Leanne...what's your solution?
The best predictor of future success is past success. We must look to best practices around the world and model those here. We must also look at our higher end goals - the long game. Building more housing is a short-term goal, and an important one. Other goals include: interconnectivity, economic development, preservation of greenspace, tourism, social housing, reducing reliance on automobiles, heritage conservation, quality of life.
The good news is that we can have all of that! Here are five proven and tested ways to build a great city:
1. Plan for a wider variety of housing forms:
- Increase height by 25% using the site-specific made-in-Guelph plan (ie. sites zoned for 10 can now build 12 stories)
- Lower heights between Woolwich and London.
- Greater heights between Fountain and Wellington (aka "lower town")
- Protect heritage buildings and urban design through Downtown Heritage Conservation District.
2. Create policy that 20% of all new housing must be affordable, social or co-operative housing.
- Provincial and federal grants and financing programs must follow
- Remove Bill 23 exemption from DCs or add condition that any waived fees MUST be passed on to buyers or rent subsidies.
3. Create policy that penalizes vacant space -- upper stories above stores, abandoned buidlings, brownfields, vacant investment portfolios, etc.
- develop a tax-increment based grant (TIBG) program for building owners to convert vacant space to housing
- restore and increase TIBG grant program for brownfields and heritage adaptive reuse for housing projects
4. Promote conversion of existing housing stock to duplexes and triplexes, and allow new build fourplexes on arterial roads and plans of subdivison.
- Spread density throughout the city, which stabilizes school enrolment, commerical viability, parks, transit, water and wastewater infrastructure
- Require minimum number of 2-3 bedroom units based on building footprint
5. Invest in sustainability. The true cost of housing is not just construction, purchase or monthly rent.
- Lower utility bills through green building standards, used in other Ontario municipalities to reduce energy costs and meet net zero carbon goals
- Acquire downtown parkland NOW along Wellington Street to accommodate the expected population growth
- Incentivize transit and active transportation through accessibility improvements, trails, car-sharing, etc.
We owe it to the generations who come after us to leave this city better than we found it. Layers of settlement send a message about the people who built our city. Cities around the world tell their story through architecture, urban design, public art, green spaces and parks, and public spaces.
What will our actions in the next five years tell future generations about the citizens and leadership of the City of Guelph?