Apologies. This Open letter issued on August 8, 2022 incorrectly stated that “…it has already been 24 years since the first phase of this development in 2008.” It has been 14 years since the first phase of this development in 2008.
The June 9, 2022 decision of the Ontario Land Tribunal to throw out Unity Project’s appeal of the East Village Land Holdings Phase 3 development in the Old East Village area is certainly a great disappointment, maddening even, but it is not surprising.
Even more disheartening is what this appeal has exposed about the system itself. The planning and development regime eludes and disadvantages the public as to the policy, process, and profits dictating how our community is or will be developed. This system appears to advantage the developer, transferring millions of dollars from the public purse to the private pocket in exchange for parsimonious, at best, public benefit.
Making this appeal was an enormous undertaking. Unity Project did not challenge the development merely to draw attention to our cause or for our convictions to be admired. Rather, we sought to have our City enact the true spirit of its own planning policies for sustainable urban design and particularly, affordable housing. We sought to assist our City in the midst of a dire affordable housing crisis.
The blunt, twenty-two-page decision summed up four days of hearing without referencing any of the conflicting nuance. It lifted text straight out of the City’s witness testimonies, used adjectives like “passionate” to describe the witness testimony from the “winning” side and did not even mention the compelling testimony provided by Unity Project’s Executive Director, Chuck Lazenby.
Do we feel heard? No.
What did we hear throughout this process? We heard that commensurate public benefit was not actually legally required. We heard that the “should” not “shall” language in our relevant public policy documents allows developers, and the planners they either bully or charm, off the hook for making any meaningful advance to provide a “true” public benefit within the intent of the policies. We heard that our City’s position is that they are doing a fine job because they technically followed “the rules” as the City itself is allowed to interpret them.
One need only look around – just half a spin will do – to see that technically following the rules as allowed is not working… not for poor and working-class people.
What is the point of having policy that new, large-scale “bonused” developments should provide 25% affordable housing if the policy is never implemented? Why does the City never do what it says should be done?
Our appeal largely concerned the tiny and incommensurate concession given by the developer in relation to the provision of “affordable housing” in exchange for the very substantial bonusing awarded to it by the City for increased scale and density.
In the course of our appeal, we appeared to expose a hidden agenda. Or, maybe we discovered something missed by all the well-intentioned, but it was too late.
What the developer showed us was the 4th new tower – a shiny bauble building distracting our attention on the corner lot in our quaint village. The developer then boasted that 13 affordable units represents 10% of the new development’s “lift” (i.e. the difference between existing zoning height and density and the bonused/awarded height and density). However, this calculation is deceptive because the developer applied for and was awarded a zoning “lift” from 600 to 750 units per hectare across the entire amassed property including those lands already utilized and bonused in the prior two phases of development, not just this Phase 3 subject site. These lands include the vacant lands at 701 Dundas Street, important lands at the heart of Old East Village which this developer has avoided developing as per previous bonusing agreements.
The developer does not use all of the available lift within the confines of the shiny bauble building distracting our attention on the corner lot. This means that the developer can now retrofit more units within the pre-existing towers, and/or build whatever they want on the remaining lands within the confines of the City’s zoning by-law, as a matter of right.
The developer will have no obligation to engage in further public consultation, no requirement to provide any commensurate public benefit (not even shiny bauble building exterior considerations) and no requirement to provide even one additional unit of affordable housing. The developer can pretty much build whatever they want on the remaining lands fronting along Dundas Street, within height and density allowances of their remaining lift and subject only to permitting and site plan approvals. The City would have us believe – and the OLT seemed to agree – that public frustration with this developer’s failure to honour their previous agreements is equivalent to public permission to do whatever they want to develop it… as a matter of their right! Yes, the developer has not provided the public benefits agreed to as part of the prior tower developments on the lot.
Our City lost an opportunity for much needed affordable housing, both in the previous phases of development and in this current phase.
Further, neither the City nor the Ontario Land Tribunal is required to consider or account for displacement of the existing affordable housing eliminated by the new tower. A minimum of 7 deeply affordable units were lost to make way for this new development. We do not know with certainty but we can safely assume that more were lost in previous phases of development. It is likely that this development represents a net negative for affordable housing in the City of London.
Further still, the developer has protected the shiny bauble building from affordable housing by offering to place the affordable units in their more dilapidated existing towers and convey this as a benefit to the public on the basis that the affordable units may be available sooner than waiting for the new build to be completed.
They buy cheap land in a poor neighbourhood. The moment they get that rezoning bonus the value of their asset shoots up right along with the number of stories and units, and the profits they are able to make. Then, the land values, housing prices and rents go up all around them. Public funds are often used to subsidize the rent differential on those “affordable units”. The rent goes up with the market – the very same market that these developments contribute to pushing up. Low-income individuals need be subsidized to afford even the 80% market rent. Not only does this indicate that the “affordable housing” is not affordable, but it is also another way that public funds travel into private pockets.
Then, they only have to provide this measly number of affordable units for 30 years. If you think that’s a long time, consider that it has already been 14 years since the first phase of this development in 2008. The cost to them is negligible in relation to the enormous benefit they receive, and they only need suffer it for a tiny fraction of the lifetime of our investment in their profit.
We provide millions in public funds creating the water, sewage and roads infrastructure to support this height and density increase. We suffer the traffic congestion, the wind, the shade and the disparaged view. Development charges have been waived, and other benefits have been provided to orient the development toward revitalization plans for Old East Village – specific plans and bonusing obligations that appear not to have been completed.
Building more and more unaffordable housing does not solve the housing crisis in our growing city; it perpetuates it. They use each tower to justify the next. And so it goes until an entire city block towers over one of London’s most charming neighbourhoods.
We give them our sky. They give us their shadow.
Unity Project is proud to have done our small part in pulling back the curtain to give everyone a better view of what really goes on behind the scenes. We are not appealing the decision any further. The adversarial moment has ended, and we return to our collaborative state, prepared to do our part as a good neighbour and friend to our city partners.
We encourage one and all to be informed, vigilant and participatory in the development of our city.
Our rather delayed response to the OLT decision is now timely with regard to the forefront issues of our homelessness crisis raised by #TheForgotten519, and with regard to another rezoning development currently being debated at City Hall.
In that case, the developer is pleading for a reduction in the affordable housing obligation which the Planning Department is recommending to Council, that rezoning be awarded in exchange for 93 units, or 10% of the massive development’s lift be designated affordable housing at 80% market rent for 50 years. Though considerably shy of the 25% affordable housing that our London Plan states should be included in larger residential development proposals, the recommendation is at least progressive relative to previous bonusing, particularly in duration. Instead, the developer is seeking for 65 affordable units limited to 35 years which effectively represents a 50% reduction in their affordable housing obligation in exchange for the massive bonus in height and density the public would be providing them.
The matter comes before Council again on August 22, 2022 and we urge, plead and beg our City Councillors to stay strong in support of maximizing the desperately needed affordable housing.
Unity Project is enormously grateful to those who supported our appeal including our legal counsel, expert witnesses, the official participants who submitted their concerns in writing to the tribunal, and those onlookers who sat silently to bear witness to these proceedings.