Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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London’s necessary ‘bitter pill’

LATEST REPORT #1,051: Intensification is the cornerstone of the new London Plan and the route by which taxpayers will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades to come. But it comes in the form of one project at a time, projects that often create noisy arguments in neighbourhoods and at city council. 

Friday, Nov. 21, 2014 – London Ontario

There was a dress rehearsal of sorts this week for one of the noisiest issues the incoming city council will face – infill development in existing neighbourhoods. 

Infill development – or intensification as it’s often called – is the cornerstone of the new London Plan. That document argues the future London needs to grow up (no pun intended) as much as it grows out. And if that would create would you might see as a city more tightly bound, there are huge financial rewards for future taxpayers.

But it’s one thing to say it, yet another to see it done, especially when it’s being done in your neighbourhood. 

This is not to say every neighbourhood opposes every infill project. But projects of this sort tend to create more neighbourhood noise – arguments, demonstrations – than just about anything else.

Last Tuesday night city council’s planning and environment committee, at its last meeting before the new council is sworn in, took up a proposal to build a multi-storey condo building on a vacant lot at the corner of Central and Waterloo in the shadow of downtown. Or more accurately, smack dab in the middle of the Woodfield Heritage District.

It should be said Woodfielders are perhaps the city’s most protective residents. This was the city’s first heritage district and it has won national recognition for the careful preservation of the existing housing stock.

That’s the rub in this piece actually. To provide underground parking for the condo – a bonus in an established neighbourhood with limited on-street parking – two adjacent houses must be demolished.

Well, boom. 

In fairness, both the Woodfield Community Association and the builder, chiropractor B. J. Hardick, have been around the block a few times in trying to find a project acceptable to nearly everyone. 

There’s agreement, certainly, that almost anything is better than the vacant lot, former site of a long ago (1988) demolished Supertest service station. Remember them? 

But knocking something down NOW to build something newer, well that is too much for some people – and not just in Woodfield. 

“This is setting a precedent, knocking down two valuable heritage sites and effectively doubling this site to make something workable and maximize income,” one resident told the planning committee. “Heritage buildings are being undervalued.”

The city’s planning department didn’t necessarily disagree with that conclusion. However, noted the staff report recommending approval, there is this issue of infill and intensification.

“The removal of these heritage properties cannot be justified on the basis of either catastrophic damage or structural instability,” the report said. “The only remaining justification . . . is on the basis of ‘redevelopment in keeping with appropriate city policies’. Here those polices are intensification and infill particularly.”

Ultimately the planning committee voted 5-0 to approve the demolition, and city council is expected to ratify that decision this Tuesday. 

Judy Bryant, an architect by training, represents the Woodfield neighbourhood on council. She had some wise words on the subject of infill and intensification to which the incoming council members should pay attention.

“This project has created an interesting debate,” she told the planning committee. “No one wants to lose old buildings, but parking lots are building sites. Parking here is going underground and we couldn’t wish for anything better than that. And we do need more people in the Woodfield community.

“Heritage districts do need a cross-section and variety of uses. The demolition is a bitter pill to swallow yes, but once in a while I do agree there is a good reason for it. If the houses don’t come down it would be very difficult for this development to make a strong statement at the corner.

“This corner will help anchor this part of the city where we have a large transient population and because it is condos it will encourage them to put down roots.”

In the long term, the London Plan says, intensification will save city taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by making more efficient use of existing infrastructure and in enabling an improved public transit system that will reduce the need to build and rebuilt the road network.

But savings those hundreds of millions of dollars depend on city councils now, incoming and far into the future doing the right thing over and over, one small project at a time – bitter pill notwithstanding.