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Elect the Planners

Last week (Tuesday 18 February) our councillors met to be briefed on the draft Secondary Plan that will guide development in Newmarket over coming years.

As I watch the presentation and listen to the questions the thought takes hold that we should elect the planners – or, more specifically, someone to take charge of the planning department. Alas, this option is not on offer.

Such an election would, by its very nature, offer the voters competing visions and different choices.

Instead we have had endless “iterations” of the planners’ “city-building” template.

Most of the people who were involved when the Secondary Plan process started have since dropped by the wayside. Few have had the stamina to stick with it. We have policy making by attrition.

I feel councillors, like the rest of us, have been ground down by the process.

Important issues are not being addressed head on. We have policy making by stealth.

The draft Secondary Plan, published in September 2013, refers to the completed Phase 2 report of the Urban Centres Transportation Study carried out by GDH. We learn that the number of people taking transit as opposed to using their own cars falls far short of what York Region wants. The September draft Plan says:

This suggests that aggressive Transport Demand Measures, parking management, transit priority and other measures will be needed to encourage transit use.

Five months on, we are told it (the Phase 2 study) “will be out shortly”. When Ward 4 councillor Tom Hempen raised the issue of car use we were treated to a folksy little tale from the planning director, Richard Nethery.  He tells us if we are stuck in a traffic jam we are part of the problem. He should have been telling councillors the details of the aggressive traffic management that will be needed as part of the corridor development strategy. After all, he has had the information for months.

That would have triggered a lively debate.

How big should Newmarket be?

The central question is the same now as it was at the beginning of this exercise. What are the Provincially mandated population growth targets that we must hit?  And how big should Newmarket be when there is no more land left to develop?

Regional Councillor John Taylor says 32,000 jobs in the Yonge Davis corridor, envisaged by the Plan, is going to be hard to achieve. He says we are growing at around 400 units a year – which translates into 1,200-1,600 people or around 2% a year. He wants a projected trend line showing how the town is going to grow in future. This is indeed what we need.

Tom Hempen thinks we are 10-15 years away from seeing significant height and density. Tom Vegh, likewise, does not believe we are going to see a spurt in development tomorrow.

Chris Emanuel wonders what are the consequences for the Town’s revenues if there is a slow down in growth. The Town’s Senior Planner in charge of the Secondary Plan file, Marion Plaunt, admits there could be spikes in development. She says the Town has tools to smooth things out if needs be through, for example, the allocation policy for water and sewerage.

The Mayor says investment strategies that gave us the Magna Centre and the Town’s Operations Centre were predicated on a population of 98,000. He wants population forecasts for the town. Why hasn’t he insisted on all this before now? He should be leading the process, not acting as a disinterested commentator.

Boundaries

The boundaries of the Secondary Plan area are being expanded in three areas. In one, a whole row of housing at Walter Avenue (near the junction of Longford and Davis Drive) is to be sucked into the new Centre. We are told this is required to give more depth to allow development. The planners picture a nice quiet Townhouse block.

Taylor cries Whoa! This is a bit late in the process to be adding substantial parcels of land to the urban centre. What about the people living there? It is a pretty big change even though the land may never be redeveloped.

Now we are into a long discussion on heights, density and bonusing policies which will transform the look and feel of Newmarket as we know it.

The draft gives three options with developers being allowed to go above the maximum height if they offer the Town some kind of public benefit (bonusing).

At the high end, options 1 and 2 allow a maximum height of 25 storeys with bonusing. The “medium high” variation allows for 20 storeys; the “medium” variation has a 15 storey maximum and low, 8 storeys. All these are with bonusing.

Option 2A reduces heights with bonusing to 20 storeys (high) 15 (medium high) 10 (medium) and 6 (low).

The planners tell us that bonusing is intended to be the exception and not the rule – but it is at the discretion of the Council. I suspect keeping a cap on heights would be difficult given pressure from developers and the tempting offer of some public benefit.

Tom Vegh is in favour of option 2a which he says will accommodate our targets for growth.

The Town’s outside consultant from the Planning Alliance, Jason Thorne, says all three options can carry the projected population numbers. The built form can either be “tall and skinny” or “shorter and fatter”.

Taylor is on record as being in favour of lower height caps. His October election opponent, Darryl Wolk, would let the market decide. A crucial difference between the two.

Burying hydro

Ward 5’s Joe Sponga focuses on undergrounding hydro. This will involve developers dedicating land to the Town. He fears law suits and wants the region to have a role. We learn that York is not interested and is content to leave policy on undergrounding hydro to the municipalities.

Much discussion follows on “triangular and angular planes” in the context of protecting low rise established residential areas from new, higher, developments alongside.  Councillors focus on Queen Street in particular and development around the hospital. Taylor is particularly exercised by the thought of five or six storey buildings cheek by jowl with single family dwellings.

Dave Kerwin wants them all to go on a site visit before making decisions.

The planners warn that there is only so much you can put in a Secondary Plan before it becomes too prescriptive.

Flexibility seems to be the watchword.

Perhaps we do need to elect the planners after all.

 

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