BLOG #691: A decision by a city council committee to order the fast tracking of a huge medical and high-rise residential project in SoHo possibly doesn’t surprise Londoners, but it should concern them. It is council’s job to protect the interests of all Londoners, not to shill for the development industry.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012 - London
It was, at least in recent memory, a rather extra-ordinary decision. Last Saturday, with no more to go on than a couple of fancy (and possibly fanciful) architectural drawings and accompanying marketing platitudes, a city council committee came within a whisker of tentatively approving a $300 million development project in SoHo.
What it did do, which is just as astonishing, is order the civic administration to fast track the project – two 26-storey condo towers between a 12-storey medical centre at the southeast corner of Wellington and South Streets.
Based on current site plans, the development would front onto South Street and back onto the south branch of the Thames River, abutting the old Victoria Hospital grounds in the next block east.
Bub Polhill, who as chairperson of city council’s planning committee which will ultimately have to judge its veracity and therefore should know better, was the one leading the charge. “This is a great project. I want to make a motion today to endorse this.”
Mayor Joe Fontana, as pro development as ever, wasn’t far behind. “Any time you can get something like this it is a pretty strong show of confidence in the future of the city.”
Well, maybe it is. Certainly, if what FinCore Canada’s people told the investment and economic prosperity committee Saturday comes true, the development would bring between 500 and 975 permanent jobs to the city and an annual property tax payment of $9 million.
The difference in the job estimate is interesting. The lower number was included in published material the company supplied in advance. The higher number was provided orally by the company at Saturday’s meeting. Similarly, the mayor’s State of the City speech in January pegged the development cost at $200 million; the printed material said $250 million. The oral number was $300 million.
Obviously there is still some fluidity to this project.
The happy-talk presentation to the committee virtually had the bulldozers lined up and ready to start construction. But the truth is, FinCore doesn’t yet own all the land it needs. The city owns some of it; the Upper Thames Conservation Authority owns some of it.
The city has not yet officially announced its land is for sale and, if and when, there must be an open bidding process. The UTCA hasn’t sold its land to anyone yet either.
As well, the parcels FinCore does own at the corner aren’t zoned for what it wants to do. It wants a high density designation; the current zoning is medium density similar to what is along Wellington now. On the other side of South Street are family homes.
Residents in the SoHo neighbourhood, pumped with the possibilities for the soon to be cleared hospital lands that promised an integrated land use plan, are understandably concerned about the scale of the FinCore project.
Not to fear, the FinCore official said Saturday. “This project will stabilize residential property values for the area.” He said it with a straight face, but did not explain how that would happen.
All told the project would be 1.3 million square feet. The two towers would total 275 condo units, about half for seniors and the rest at market rates, including 23 penthouse units. The medical centre, already named the Wellington Wellness Centre, would be “a state-of-the-art anti-aging and rejuvenation facility combining both traditional and alternative medical treatments and procedures, a destination for national and international clientele who seek world-class medical facilities and treatment.”
In other words, in the hometown of the provincial minister of health, this would be a private medical clinic.
So what does fast track mean?
To FinCore it apparently means approval in one month. That’s how long their official said it took for Thames Centre to approve a project there. Of course, it wasn’t 1.3 million square feet in the middle of a transitioning neighbourhood along the Thames River flood plain.
Nevertheless, barked Stephen Orser, once again showing his general ignorance of how the city functions: “If Thames Centre can do it in 30 days, then certainly London can.”
Well, no it can’t. Planning officials say it will take at least three months, and possibly as long as six, for this project to work its way through the processes proscribed by the provincial government. This assumes all the ducks are in order, which at present they clearly are not. It also assumes total public enthusiasm, which seems unlikely.
All this should have been known by the committee majority before they got all googly-eyed Saturday. Their job is not to shill for the development sector; their job is to protect the interests of all Londoners.
And by ordering the fast tracking of a complex and intrusive project that exists at the moment only imprecisely in the imagination of the company that wants to do it, the mayor and his gang let us down.Most Londoners probably aren’t surprised, but we sure as hell should be concerned.