Corp Comm Connects

Why does Richmond Hill want to approve a contentious development in the midst of a deadly pandemic?
May 12, 2020
Noor Javed

John Li has been deliberating over the future of his neighbourhood for almost four years.

The Richmond Hill resident, who has a PhD in engineering, has spent hours studying reports, analyzing development plans, attending meetings and offering feedback to the city on how to best develop the suburban area of Yonge Street and Bernard Avenue, after the city determined years ago that it was ripe for redevelopment.

After all that, Li cannot fathom why the city is suddenly moving ahead with a controversial version of the plan -- in the middle of a pandemic -- that could bring in condos with heights of 40 storeys and make this area with just one bus stop as dense as Yonge-Eglinton.

Li and fellow members of the Yonge-Bernard Residents Association are furious that after so much time and more than a million dollars spent in community consultations, the council is trying to pass the most contentious version of the plan to date at a council meeting on Wednesday, during a time when most residents are pre-occupied with COVID-19.

“Most residents don’t know the latest developments -- right now the priority is the pandemic,” said Li. “For most people this is not a matter that has to be dealt with during a state of emergency.”

But councillors say the urgency to discuss this issue now is to give direction to staff ahead of the upcoming hearing of the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), the independent provincial body that adjudicates contentious municipal planning issues. The hearing was set for the end of June, but it’s uncertain if it will happen then.

In mid-March, local governments took their meetings online after a state of emergency shut down in-person council meetings across the country. In the past few weeks, some councils have allowed for public participation through letters, and more recently, deputations through Skype or Zoom.

But residents in Richmond Hill and Vaughan -- also facing the prospect of public hearings this month on controversial development applications -- say that public participation in virtual council meetings is not truly democratic.

“Meaningful citizen engagement in municipal council is a bigger hurdle than just moving council meetings online,” said Joseph Lyons, assistant professor and director of the Local Government Program at UWO. “Unequal access to technology, and ineffectiveness of traditional means of building community support,” are some of those hurdles.

Residents say online meetings should not be a replacement for in-person participation, especially in cases of controversial development decisions. Instead, they believe cities should defer contentious matters until things go back to normal. Bill 189 gives municipalities the option to defer development applications without penalty or legal consequences.

“When I read this bill, I thought we would have the power and jurisdiction to be able to delay things like this development,” said Ward 4 Coun. David West. “It’s a choice that councils have to make.”

Planning for the Bernard-Yonge Key Development Area (KDA) has been a rollercoaster ride for local residents, who accept the inevitability of development in their community. After months of consultation, the city and the public agreed on a plan in 2017 that included smart development -- given the limited transit in the area -- and had limits on density and condo heights up to 15 storeys.

But the developers balked, and took the city to the LPAT.

In April 2019, Ward 2 Coun. Tom Muench suddenly brought forward a motion to increase the maximum height of the condominiums in the KDA from 15 to 37 storeys.

“The original plan was an indefensible plan at LPAT,” said Muench. “I put forward a plan that was a more realisitic plan. I asked for the highest and densest right next to a transportation hub.”

Last weekend, Muench handed out flyers to residents on his position in which he says condos should reduce parking spots, which will force people to be less car dependent and make the area more walkable.

“If we want to give people the opportunity to have housing affordability, embrace transit, have intensification in a key development area on Yonge Street, where the Region and province have spent millions of dollars on bus rapid transit, is that a reasonable discussion to have?”

However, the latest plan has outright shocked residents, said Li

According to a draft plan released in April, the city will support a plan with no limit on condo heights, 11,000 new residents and a gross density of 510 residents and jobs per hectare. For comparison, the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, which has a subway and access to highways, has a planned density of 200 residents and jobs per hectare.

Of the nine applications already submitted for the KDA, a number have towers over 30 storeys.

“How can they double the density within two years?” said Li. “The roads, the transit, the residents -- nothing has changed.”

At an April 22 council meeting, West, who says he supports the 2017 version of the plan, tried to move a motion requesting the LPAT postpone the hearing to the fall to give time for public participation.

Residents who logged into the council meeting were shocked when West’s motion was moved in camera for legal reasons -- and not even an outcome of the motion was released.

In an email exchange between regional Coun. Carmine Perrelli and Li, the councillor said residents have had ample time to provide their feedback on the plan.

“The truth is that this KDA process was started long before the current Pandemic Crisis; in fact almost all of it has been completed well before the circumstances necessitated a shift to online meetings,” Perrelli wrote. “Since then, this council, the province and most of the world has made many thousands of important decisions using this format.”

Perrelli’s email continues: “To say that everyone who has wanted to be fully involved in every aspect of this process and, most especially yourself, has not been afforded every opportunity to do so, is factually incorrect.”

West says he “feels” for the residents: “At a time when public engagement is at an all-time low, these residents did everything we asked them to do,” he said.

Li says seeing all of his effort come to this makes him sad.

“I came from China ¬†and I came to Canada, a democratic country but have had to experience this completely frustrating process,” says Li. “To see how these people are planning the future of our city -- it doesn’t make me angry, honestly, I just feel really sad.”