London faces a ‘critical moment’ as transit and city planning are put to the test

ANALYSIS: The city has drawn up a new transit plan focused on rapid bus service — plus an Official Plan to guide development along with it. Both now face challenges as they move from idea to reality
By John Michael McGrath - Published on March 17, 2017
rendering of London rapid transit with train and roadways visible
A light rail vehicle passes through downtown London in this artistic rendering. (City of London/shiftlondon.ca)

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London’s city council wants to fundamentally change how the city is built and moves, but they’re not there just yet. Recently, the city’s new Official Plan — the document that’s supposed to guide new construction according to city and provincial policy — has faced challenges at the Ontario Municipal Board. Meanwhile, the city’s transit plan has attracted criticism from downtown businesses that would be affected by construction and the inevitable neighbourhood changes major investment brings.

Councillor Jesse Helmer, a member of London’s planning committee, says the city is at a “critical moment” for both plans.

“They’re very tightly linked … we’ve integrated land-use planning and transit in a way that London’s never seen before,” Helmer told TVO.org in a phone interview Thursday.

London has been drawing up rapid transit plans since 2006, a process that has accelerated these past few years as council has debated whether to build a light rail line downtown or to opt for a cheaper bus rapid transit system, in which buses use dedicated express lanes outside the normal flow of traffic. Following a heated debate last year, council opted for two BRT lines based on staff advice.

But as the plan has become more detailed it has also become clearer who will be affected by traffic disruptions and construction as ideas become reality. Construction could be a serious pain: the plan calls for a nearly one-kilometre tunnel and underground station downtown, beneath a major rail line.

Merchants have warned that if not executed carefully, the plan could push business to the city’s periphery and leave the downtown a playground for university students.

Helmer says these concerns are natural and expected as the plans become more detailed.

“I’m not surprised they have reacted with a degree of concern as they see these details for the first time,” he says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘It’s coming to your street’; it’s another to say, ‘It’s coming, and it’s going to look like this.’”

And then there are those challenges to the Official Plan from the OMB, which are not exactly unexpected: plans are almost always appealed before they become official. (All Official Plans are approved by city council and sent to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs to ensure they comply with provincial policy — but even after the ministry signs off, the plan can still be appealed to the OMB.)

But two things are different in London’s case: First, the new plan constitutes a substantial departure from the city’s last one, and it adopts policies that try to restrict the traditional pattern of sprawling into rural farmland. Second, this is the first Official Plan appeal of a large Ontario city since the government in 2015 passed Bill 73, which limited the kinds of appeals that can be made against official plans. This was partly blowback against a decision the OMB made in Waterloo Region. There, developers successfully challenged the region’s plan — even though the document encouraged the kind of dense, transit-oriented growth provincial policy calls for. (The region appealed the OMB’s decision to court, and eventually settled with developers.)


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Because Bill 73 outlawed so-called global appeals — that is, attempts to upend entire plans — developers have instead targeted specific elements of London’s plan. Some are minor tweaks to lines on a map; in other cases, builders with projects in the approvals process may simply want to protect those projects from changes. But some appeals do go to the heart of the plan. For example, the city set a new target for intensification: 45 per cent of all new homes must be constructed on existing built-up land, and three-quarters of those must be located near the new transit lines. This has traditional developers worried, especially as the plan removes some high-density zoning permissions from certain areas of the city. In appeals to the OMB, developers have asked for the target to be deleted outright.

Helmer thinks the city is in a strong position to defeat most of the major appeals, but he acknowledges that some of the site-specific ones will likely be settled.

“We’re in a very good position going into appeals, but the difficulty is it slows everything down,” he says. Delays can be substantial: Toronto last passed a major new Official Plan comparable to London’s in 2002. It didn’t escape the final OMB appeal until 2006.

Helmer also hopes to see the province help defend London’s official plan at the OMB, since the municipal affairs ministry approved the document with very few modifications (the most substantial of them pertained to building near university neighbourhoods), and since the government has stressed the importance of protecting prime farmland.

“We have some of the best agricultural land in the world,” Helmer says. “So expanding into that is a huge trade-off. You can’t just sprawl out everywhere.” One potential point in favour of developers is that much of the language in Bill 73 aimed at protecting green space applies to the Greenbelt or the Greater Golden Horseshoe — which includes Waterloo, but not London.

These OMB appeals also come as the province considers farther-reaching reforms to the board, with new legislation expected before Queen’s Park breaks for the summer. What that will mean for appeals already underway isn’t clear, but developers may want to hold their fire. After all, in Waterloo Region developers achieved a pyrrhic victory at best. The decision was so unpopular in the Region — and so seemingly contrary to provincial policy — that the government limited the OMB’s power to make similar rulings in the future when it passed Bill 73.

London’s plan shares many aims with Waterloo’s. The appeals the city now faces at the OMB will demonstrate whether Bill 73 went far enough in protecting official plans from developers who never saw a farm they didn’t want to pave — or whether the province must go further.

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