Was the Planning Act Used as a Stratagem in the Case of Vanier and the Salvation Army’s Proposed Shelter Complex?

It was over 50 years ago when Jane Jacobs wrote in her famous The Death and Life of Great American Cities published in 1961 that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Following the lead of Jane Jacobs, the City of Ottawa prides itself as being a leader in community engagement and community building. One of the strategic directions in the City’s Official Plan is “building liveable communities”. According to the City’s web site, the Plan

proposes to create more liveable communities by focusing more on community design and by engaging in collaborative community building, particularly in and around the Mixed-Use Centres and Mainstreets that have a great potential for growth.” 

So then, what happened in Vanier where the outcome of the Salvation Army’s proposed development was so different than Jane Jacobs quote or the City’s vision? Councillor Diane Deans described a very different result in her closing summary after City Council debated the proposed Salvation Army project on Montreal Road in Vanier – “as a community we could do a lot better and that there has been no compromise along the way.”  She added that the experience was “a complete failure of process, and there are no winners todaywhy are we here today debating, dividing our community…this is a failure of leadership.”

In a recent interview between the Ottawa Le Droit and Mayor Jim Watson, the Mayor was asked if there should have been more public consultation on the Salvation Army proposal in Vanier. The Mayor’s response was effectively a cop-out,

There were community meetings and 150 people expressed their views to the Planning Committee. It’s an emotional issue for people, but my responsibility is to follow the law and it says that every organization has the right to request a zoning change. Citizens also have the right to challenge the board’s decision; we will see what the Ontario Municipal Board will decide.

One wonders then why the Mayor expressed his support for the project even before the Salvation Army submitted their applications and before there was any consultation with the community, even though it was minimal.

When asked at Ottawa Planning Committee why they did not consider consulting more closely with the residents of Vanier, the spokesperson from the Salvation Army’s Toronto head office replied that their core business was not in real estate development and that we acted according to the best advice given.

As I stated in other blog, it is difficult to understand this response given that the Salvation Army has over $580 million invested in capital assets in large cities throughout Canada predominantly in land and buildings including numerous emergency shelters. How could they not anticipate strong concerns expressed from the community? After all, this is their core business and they have faced the challenges of managing the Booth Centre shelter in the Byward Market since 1948.

Moreover, the Salvation Army hired one of Ottawa’s most respected architects, Barry Hobin, who has been involved in numerous development projects for both private industry and non-profit organizations and who would have been very cognizant of the importance of community consultation. The Salvation Army also contracted FOTENN as the planning consultant and applicant representing the organization. FOTENN has extensive planning experience in the local real estate marketplace and is well learned in the planning approval and community consultation process. Indeed, the consultant brags about their consultative planning approach on their web site,

“Our approach when working in and for other communities is to visit, engage and listen to learn about community values, issues and areas of interest before proposing solutions. We encourage and foster best practices and sharing information. We understand that one size does not fit all and hold a strong appreciation for community stewardship.”

In the case of the Salvation Army proposal, there was no real community input or engagement. One information open house was held on September 13, 2017, 3 months after the planning applications were filed at the City and a mere 4 weeks before Planning Committee eventually approved the Official Plan and Zoning By-law amendments. Indeed, City planners considered the Planning Committee meeting as the public meeting satisfying the requirements of the Planning Act. Cleary, this process cannot be described as being collaborative community building for such an important initiative.

How and why did the planning process reach such a disastrous outcome then? After all, City Council and City planners have been considering applications for Official Plan and Zoning By-Law amendments for years. The City currently has 103 Official Plan and 587 Zoning By-Law Amendment applications in its online database.

I haven’t examined the 690 development applications involving either Official Plan or Zoning By-Law amendments but it would be a reasonable guess to say that the vast majority of them have been submitted by private sector, profit motivated builders and/or real estate developers. In contrast, as a non-profit charity organization, the Salvation Army’s development proposal is driven instead by a social need – in this case, emergency shelters and support services for the homeless. The Salvation Army and other charity organizations are, in many ways therefore, extensions of municipal government.

It is this social dimension that makes Salvation Army’s development application more complex, from a planning perspective, than market driven proposals. For builder/developer proposals, planning considerations are largely based on traditional Planning Act criteria associated with the doctrine of “sound land use planning principles”. For example, communities opposing residential intensification projects like high rise condominiums often focus on issues related building height and density, traffic impact, shadow effects, setbacks and side yards, urban design and built form. These criteria are all associated with physical or environmental impacts and are relatively easy to measure or model. It is not too often residents complain about the high income households moving into a proposed high rise condominium in the Byward Market.

In comparison, community opposition to socially driven projects often involve another layer of concerns in addition to the above physical dimensions. This other layer relates more to human traits or behaviour. For example, residents opposing a new emergency shelter in their neighbourhood are worried about increased crime associated with drug use and vandalism, panhandling, harassment etc. and about lower property values. Businesses are concerned about the loss of customers and the future decline in the commercial viability of their commercial district.

However, the problem is that this additional social layer is closely tied in with “people zoning” involving the regulation of people or users and their activities and not the use of the land. Such people zoning could potentially be considered to be discriminatory under the Ontario Human Rights Commission Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I have expressed my views in a separate blog around the doctrine of “sound land use planning principles” and the impact it had on the discussions during the 3-day public meeting at Planning Committee. In the end, this doctrine, which was also strongly advocated by the City’s legal staff as being entrenched in the Planning Act, turned out to be nothing more than a statement of intent. A large part of the presentations made by representatives and supporters of the Salvation Army focused primarily on service delivery and social issues as did the Mayor’s closing arguments at City Council. In addition, there was considerable uncertainty and unclear understanding of the concept, not only from members from the public but also councilors.

Building liveable communities goes beyond sound land use planning principles, bricks and mortar and urban design. Safe and resilient communities have a full range of citizen participation and dialogue; they have social cohesiveness and a unique local culture or identity, and; they have the compassion and capacity about caring for people. These attributes all describe Vanier but ignored by the decision-makers at the City and by planners maintaining their overly strict adherence to the Planning Act.

The Mayor is right when he stated that the Salvation Army or any other organization, private or nonprofit, has the legal right to request a zoning change. However, given that the Salvation Army’s operations are very dependent on government funding support (and hence our taxes) and that the City of Ottawa is the gatekeeper of such funding, I would also argue that the citizens of both the City and Vanier have the right to expect better leadership, to re quote Councillor Deans, from both City Council and the Salvation Army in addressing the needs of our most vulnerable residents while supporting the revitalization efforts of the local community.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s