Between November 14 and 17, 2017, the Ottawa Planning Committee heard 3 days of emotional presentations from members of the public over the proposed Salvation Army social services complex on Montreal Road in Vanier. The large majority of delegations were residents opposing the project, worried what would happen to their neighbourhood if the 350-bed emergency shelter was built in the middle of their community.
At the beginning of the first day of public consultation, the Chairperson of Planning Committee explained the process and rules for presentations. The Chairperson emphasized that the item under consideration was a planning report with recommendations dealing with Amendments to the Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw and as such, the ultimate Committee decision had to be based on sound land use planning principles. The public delegates could, therefore, only speak to the proposed land uses and their social, economic and environmental impact on the community and not on the “users of the land”. The users of the land pertained to the individual persons or homeless people coming to the proposed complex to use its programs and services. The presentations would also exclude activities that may result from such users such as illegal drug use or trafficking, panhandling etc. either within the confines of the proposed facility itself or any spillover onto nearby sidewalks, streets or other private properties. Otherwise, this would be considered to be “people zoning” involving the regulation of people or users and their activities and not the use of the land. Such people zoning would be considered to be discriminatory under the Ontario Human Rights Commission Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Chairperson also identified 3 specific examples which were not part of sound planning principles and therefore not to be considered: the funding of emergency shelters from the City, Province or Federal Government; programming or services associated with the proposed centre, and; other government housing policies / programs such as Housing First and the 10 Year Housing and Homelessness Plan. The same decision-making parameters were again repeated by the Mayor at City Council when it dealt with the planning report on November 22.
The limits placed on the content of presentations did cause some confusion amongst public delegates most of whom were there to express their concerns on those matters which were now considered to be inadmissible. There was also uncertainty as to what social impacts included. It should be noted that the uncertainty was not just limited to public representatives- it also included elected members of Planning Committee and City Council.
Moreover, perhaps an even more difficult question for public members in attendance is what constitutes sound land use planning principles? There was no definition offered by the Chairperson, City lawyers or City planners at the Planning Committee meetings. Indeed, I tried to find a clear, succinct definition of this phrase by researching the internet sites of the Canadian Institute of Planners, Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Ontario Municipal Board and the City of Ottawa, without success. Surely, then, the recommendations contained in the planning staff’s 83-page report that reviewed the Salvation Army’s Zoning By-law and Official Plan Amendment applications and supporting documentation must have been based on sound planning principles. So, let’s look at the planners’ rationale for recommending approval of the Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw Amendments.
As stated in the report, the reasons for approving the project were based on the following three main reasons: “(1) the proposed development is a relocation of an existing shelter; (2) the built form has been designed in a manner to mitigate land use and physical compatibility impacts and; (3) the subject development does not preclude the ability for Montreal Road to develop in a manner that meets the intention of the Traditional Mainstreet designation.”
Shelter Use (The 85% Factor)
The first reason is tied into the City’s 2008 Interim Control study which addressed the issue of the concentration of social services including shelters in the Rideau-Vanier Ward 12. The particular relevant elements pertain to the limit of a maximum limit of 4 shelters in the Ward and a minimum 500 metres separation distance between shelters. Since the Salvation Army project on Montreal Road involves the relocation of the existing Salvation Army shelter (Booth Centre) on George Street in the Byward Market, the proposed new shelter does not represent an increase in the number of such facilities, according to the report.
The planning report also describes the proposed project has having both a 801 square metres, 140-bed shelter and a 5,359 square metres residential care facility with a total of 210 beds, the latter being a permitted use according to the existing Traditional Mainstreet zone. This distinction is important because it establishes the impression that 85% of the proposed project, based on square footage (60% based on bed-types), would have been allowed to proceed without any amendment to either the Official Plan or Zoning Bylaw – a point made by the Mayor in his summary statement at City Council. More important, by establishing the fact that 85% of the proposed project is a residential care facility offering ancillary social support services which is permitted under the existing zoning, the proposed inclusion of an emergency shelter could then be looked as a complementary use which would also allow for more efficient service delivery according to the planners.
However, the report did not provide any explanation as to why the planners describe the proposed project as containing both a 140 bed shelter and a 210 bed residential care facility as opposed to just a 350-bed shelter. The latter is also consistent with the definition of shelter in the Zoning Bylaw – Shelter means an establishment providing temporary accommodation to individuals who are in immediate need of emergency accommodation and food, and may include ancillary health care, counselling and social support services. The 2008 Report also adds that “wherever any shelter beds are provided to serve the homeless, the use will be classified as a shelter and not as some other use, including a group home”.
Furthermore, the supporting consultant’s Planning Rationale report prepared for the Salvation Army describes the project as a shelter with temporary accommodation without any reference to a residential care component although the report does state that some “longer term” housing is provided. The consultant’s report does try to soften the shelter presence by claiming that the proposed facility is “a truly mixed use” development and the shelter is “only one aspect of the many services that will be offered at the facility”. This line of argument is similar to the one presented in the staff report although I would tend to disagree that this is a truly mixed-use development just because it provides auxiliary social services to 210 homeless men as measured by the number of beds. Truly mixed-use developments would be those types of projects one might find near Light Rail Transit stations, for example, with residential, commercial and public space uses and amenities.
The planning report also does not indicate that the 140 emergency beds is close in number to the 150-bed Booth Centre which is the targeted shelter to be relocated to Vanier. Furthermore, the view of the planners that the 140 emergency represents a complementary use is only realized because of the overall large size of the complex which has also been described as a mega-centre. The proposed Salvation Army facility is planned to have 350 beds compared to the Montfort Hospital which has a capacity of 289 acute care beds. I will return to this size issue in the next section.
The impression that the City’s planners seem to be promoting in their report is that the proposed Salvation Army project is made up primarily of a residential care facility which is a permitted use and that the shelter component is a complementary but secondary use and corresponds to the size of the Booth Centre facility and therefore is consistent with the 2008 Study policies on shelter counts in Ward 12. Presumably, by presenting the proposed project in this manner, it would be more palatable to City Council to approve the planning applications applicable to the secondary or ancillary shelter use.
Built Form and Compatibility
The planning report identifies a number of performance enhancements to the proposed project in terms of building design, landscaping, parking etc. Without going into detail, the report concludes that the proposed project would “co-exist with existing development without causing undue adverse impacts”. The report also points out the security strategies that have been incorporated to limit activities within the boundaries of the complex. While there was some discussion at Planning Committee on issues regarding the impact of parking etc., my interest here is not with micro planning concerns related to built form, site layout and design.
There are three points worth mentioning however.
First, the planners’ review of built form elements does not consider the potential spillover impacts of users. While it is well to say that the user activities will be maintained within the confines of the site through landscaping and location of buildings etc., pedestrians still must get to and leave from the centre primarily through the Montreal Road frontage. But the difficulty of presenting this arguement is that all these spillover effects involve “people zoning” which are not defensible from a land use perspective.
Second, the subject property is unique in that it is a large parcel of 1.8 acres in the middle of a large neighbourhood block with only 15 metres frontage on Montreal Road. The site is currently used as a motel and because of its Montreal Road frontage and commercial use, the entire property is within the Traditional Mainstreet designation and is part of the Business Improvement Area. Because of its unique shape, the subject site is also surrounded on three sides by low rise residential homes. However, the planning report argues that “although it is not necessarily the same as or similar to existing buildings in the vicinity, nonetheless enhances an established community and presents a built form that coexists with existing development, without causing undue adverse impacts.” This is achieved through appropriate setbacks and landscaping as well as quality architectural design. (The consultant Planning Report prepared for the Salvation Army notes that the project is designed by the highly respected and highly regarded architect, Barry Hobin, and as such, would be a valuable asset to the community and an anchor for commercial revitalization).
This is all nice but if I was one of the adjacent owners of a home, I would be hard pressed to think that a large 6,000 square metres facility, 6 storeys high behind my house would not have an adverse impact on my property. As noted above, the 350 beds in the proposed Salvation Army facility is more than the 289 acute beds in the Montfort Hospital.The fact that, as the planning report states, the physical attributes of the proposal are more compatible with adjacent residential sites than what would be permitted for a development under the existing zoning permissions (i.e. there could potentially be an even more larger and uglier development behind me), does not ease my concerns. I would also have to contend with increased truck traffic on my street since the only way they can serve the new building is by entering the site on St. Anne Ave. which requires trucks to travel around the entire block to enter because of turn restrictions on the other two street frontages.
The third point deals with the scale or size of the proposed facility. In October 2016, the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) Division organized a charrette to bring together government officials, real estate professionals, communications experts, residents and community groups to look at new ways of introducing new homeless shelters in Toronto. The discussion involved all aspects shelters including operations and physical assets. One of the conclusions that came out of the discussion that is relevant to built form is that when Councillors were asked about shelter size it was clear that it would be easier to site a new facility if it was under 100 beds. This is consistent with another recent study surveying 91 cities in Canada and the United States on their planning approaches in accommodating emergency shelters. The study found that 60.6% of the municipal responses believed that the ideal size of an emergency homeless shelter was 25 beds or less while 6.1% preferred shelters with 250 or more beds. Another 20.2% thought that shelters between 25 and 100 units was ideal.
The preference towards smaller shelters is based, in part, by the recognition that smaller shelters are better able to integrate the homeless into the community compared to larger facilities. This does get into the non land use planning consideration of programming but it does point to the importance of looking at homelessness beyond just land use principles.
The Future of Montreal Road
The planning report does not spend much time rationalizing how the proposed project will impact the future of Montreal Road as a Traditional Mainstreet, which to me is one of the more significant strategic issues related to this file. The essence of the planners’ argument is that most of proposed project contains uses that are already permitted under the zoning bylaw – the rationale here goes back to the 85% factor I identified earlier. The report states that the shelter size will be limited and will serve as an “integral component of the overall compatible development” and therefore “cannot inhibit the ability of Montreal Road to develop as a Traditional Mainstreet.” The report further adds that the Site Plan Control process provides future opportunity to work with the community in terms of strengthening potential design elements which can better reflect the French Quarter history of the community as identified in the Montreal Road District Secondary Plan recently approved by Council in January 2014.
In my opinion, this section of the planning report presents the weakest arguments in terms of “sound planning principles” especially given the social and economic importance of supporting Traditional Mainstreet revitalization in Vanier. The planners’ rationale is defended by treating the shelter component as a secondary or minor (the 85% factor reappears again) but integral part of the larger social services complex comprised of residential care uses permitted in the existing zoning. In fact, except for the policy on French Quarter history, which the planners deflect to the Site Plan review and approval stage, the report offers limited rationale or evidence on how the proposed project supports Traditional Mainstreet policies in the Official Plan and the Montreal Road District Secondary Plan. The underlying question here is whether or not the LOCATION of the proposed Salvation Army at 333 Montreal Road, not just building design and form, supports the future revitalization of this commercial area in accordance to Council approved policies.
Some of the critical questions not addressed in the planning report that come out of the sound planning principles contained in the Traditional Mainstreet policies are as follows:
- How does the proposed project promote mixed-use (residential-commercial-retail-institutional), pedestrian oriented development linked to street level amenities? Indeed, the proposed project is inward looking in terms of pedestrian activity and community interaction beyond the users of the facility.
- How does this proposed project contribute to the creation of “more liveable communities by focusing more on community design and by engaging in collaborative community building particularly in and around Mixed-Use Centres and Mainstreets”?
- How does the proposed project strengthen the function of the Business Improvement Area as Vanier’s primary shopping destination and business location?
- How does the proposed project complement and enhance the cultural and historical importance of Montreal Road as Ottawa’s French Quarter?
- How do the uses in the proposed project complement and are compatible with surrounding land uses (beyond built form and design)?
A consultant study was prepared for the Salvation Army looking at the economic benefits of the proposed project to Vanier and Montreal Road. The report fails to adequately address the above questions as I outlined in a separate blog, as does the supporting consultant’s planning report prepared for the Salvation Army. The consultant’s planning report also mistakenly describes the proposed project as an example of a Housing First initiative.
City Council Decision Making Outcomes and Implications
City Council convincingly approved the Salvation Army’s planning applications by a vote of 16 to 7. Members of Council are allowed to provide summations of their positions and reasons for voting for or against staff recommendations. Interestingly, 6 of the 7 members who voted against the Salvation Army presented their summation and only 3 of the 16 who voted for the project did. The Mayor’s summation is particularly revealing about the decision-making thinking. The Mayor’s summation lasted 11 minutes exactly. He restated that the decision of Council must be based on sound planning principles but then spent almost his entire 11 minutes speaking to issues related to the services and programs offered by the Salvation Army at the proposed new centre making reference to leading experts who presented to Planning Committee about the importance of continuum of care to homeless and the shortage of shelter accommodation. He spoke about the fact that the existing status at Booth Centre was not acceptable, about his own experience at volunteering in the soup kitchen and other non-land use planning matters. I estimate that the Mayor may have directly addressed land use principles for no more than one-half minute but then only by simply referring to the staff report and the planners’ rationale.
It was clear from the Planning Committee and City Council meetings that there was a failure in the community consultation and planning decision making processes. The public delegation presentations and political debates showed that the issue of homelessness cannot be dealt with one planning application on one site but needed a comprehensive city-wide approach that looked at programming, funding and the alignment of priorities from the provision of shelters, possible alternative shelter locations, size of shelters, continuum of care for the homeless to permanent housing as advocated in the Housing First policy thinking as well as the recently announced federal National Housing Strategy. A few Council members suggested that the Salvation Army proposal be dealt with at joint Planning-Community and Social Services Committee where the project can be part of a more comprehensive discussion on homelessness as part of the review of existing homeless policies and the recent federal housing strategy in February. A motion to have the Salvation Army application be considered at a joint Committee was defeated at Council.
It is useful to point out here that the Ontario Smart Growth for our Communities Act 2015 made changes to the Planning Act. One of the changes included an enhanced requirement to have regard to public input. For example, municipalities are now required to explain the effect of public input on planning decisions. The Ontario Municipal Board must now have regard to all public input received from the municipality when making final decisions on appeals. This leads to the question if the community consultation process undertaken for the Salvation Army proposal was at least consistent with the policy intentions of the 2015 Act.
According to Canada Revenue’s information on registered charities (T4033) for the Salvation Army Booth Centre, approximately 66% of the Centre’s total revenues in 2017 came from government sources (City, Province and Federal). As the lead public agency and front end contact with the Salvation Army, the City has a vested interest in its operations both financially and socially. The close partnership that exists between the City and the Salvation Army would reinforce the importance of aligning the priorities between the two organizations to ensure that community needs are effectively addressed and that communities have the opportunity to provide input into key strategic directions.
Perhaps it would have been better to deal with the Official Plan amendment separate from considering the rezoning request. This may have reduced the confusion over what social and economic impacts could be considered and over people zoning. Then, there seemed to be some urgency in dealing with the Salvation Army planning applications within the required 180 days after receipt of the complete applications (which in the case of the Salvation Army ended on December 13).
Then again, maybe the end result would have been the same because of, as some have suggested, the Mayor’s political agenda or legacy to rid the downtown / Byward Market of emergency shelters. Vanier has long been the poor cousin of urban Ottawa in terms of income status and may be viewed by proponents as a convenient and the easiest (in terms community resistance and the existing rundown characteristic of Montreal Road) solution to the downtown shelter problem at least for the Booth Centre.
While the City’s planning report makes recommendations on the Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw Amendments based on sound planning principles, I believe that the rationale presented suffers from at least three major weaknesses. One, the report attempts to give a planning spin in supporting the proposed project by (i) introducing the residential care component which is a permitted use and treating the shelter as a secondary and ancillary use when indeed the entire 350 bed facility is a shelter as defined in the City’s own Zoning Bylaw, (ii) promoting the project as a mixed use development and, (iii) downplaying the impact that the project will have on the surrounding residential uses by focussing on the architectural qualities and landscaping features. Two, the report fails to consider other important City policies related to Traditional Mainstreets, commercial revitalization and healthy and dynamic communities. To me, these are more important as sound planning principles than considerations like building design, landscaping etc. Three, the community consultation process and input into the planning analysis falls far short of meeting the policy objectives of both the City’s community engagement strategy and the Province’s Smart Growth for our Communities Act. If you want to understand more on how the community consultation process failed miserably, listen to Councillor Dean’s emotional summation at the City Council meeting. Unlike the Mayor, she tells it like it is.