Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Open Letter to Greater Sudbury Council re: Kingsway Entertainment District Site and Building Design and the Need for Public Engagement

The following is an open letter to Greater Sudbury Council re: the Report to Council dated August 9, 2017, from CAO Ed Archer regarding Site and Building Design for the Kingsway Entertainment District.

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I am writing today with regards to a Report to Council, dated August 9, 2017, prepared by CAO Ed Archer, with regards to the Kingsway Entertainment District and the community events centre development initiative (see: http://agendasonline.greatersudbury.ca/?pg=agenda&action=navigator&lang=en&id=1132&itemid=13757).  The Report proposes that Council endorse a number of actions as part of a way towards developing lands on the Kingsway for a community events centre and a casino, including confirming a single-source contract for Cumulus Architects, described as the architect for Gateway Casinos.  The Report also recommends that Council proceed with site and building design in conjunction with obtaining land use approvals.

I strongly urge Council to hold off on issuing a single-source contract to Cumulus Architects, and to not proceed with site and building design until appropriate land use approvals for a community events centre and casino are in place.  Similarly, I also strongly suggest that Council not finalize any property purchase until appropriate land use approvals are obtained.

At this time, the subject lands are not zoned to permit a community events centre or casino.  While I understand that the Report is recommending that Council add a 'community arena' use to the zoning for lands intended to be used for a community events centre, it is not clear that this approach is in keeping with the City's Official Plan, as community facilities of this nature appear to only be permitted in Regional Centres and the Downtown (the proposed use does not appear to be contemplated for lands designated Industrial by the Official Plan).  Further, the City has already expressed a position that a land use permission for a casino in the Kingsway location will require an amendment to the Official Plan.

Site and building design are likely to be constrained by specific land use issues unique to the site.  For example, we know that there are development constraints already on the site in the form of necessary setbacks from the existing landfill area.  An analysis of site topography may also identify restrictions for development.  On an earlier (2014) application to rezone part of this property, the City of Greater Sudbury identified two other significant issues which appear to require further study, namely: the potential presence of species at risk habitat on the subject lands (blanding's turtle and whippoorwill); and issues related to traffic.  Issues related to road salt and the contamination of surface water from runoff into the Ramsey Lake Watershed - a significant source of our City's drinking water - may also lead to further development constraints.

Proceeding towards site design at this time, without first knowing whether the proposed uses are appropriate for the lands, or what development constraints may be imposed through further technical studies related to natural heritage, community safety and traffic, is akin to putting the cart before the horse.  It may also lead to the costly duplication of designs and cause the City to spend more taxpayers money to resolve issues after the fact.

The single-source contract to Cumulus is suggested by the Report due to what are perceived to be time constraints with site and building design.  The Report does not appear to take into consideration the need for public consultation and engagement.  The Kingsway Entertainment District, anchored by a new community events facility and a casino, represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the City.   The development of this site should not be rushed.  Development, including site and building design, should benefit from significant public engagement.  For example, we have a chance to here to create true carbon-neutral facilities, which will assist the City in meeting its greenhouse gas reduction commitments.  We have the opportunity to influence the flow of traffic along the Kingsway through the creation of high occupancy vehicle lanes.  And we have the opportunity to design the site in such a way that it is truly integrated into the physical and natural environment, including the use of bioswales and permeable hard surfaces to address stormwater runoff issues.  There are likely many other design elements that the public would like to see addressed through a comprehensive design process that truly engages the public.

The legitimacy of the entire project may be at risk if Council does not receive the public's buy-in through significant engagement. After all, it's our tax dollars that are going to be paying for this project.  Any site and building design process that does not commit to fully engaging the public will be problematic for the City to obtain the social license it needs to move this development initiative forward.

With this in mind, I strongly urge Council to reject the Report submitted, and to not pass the recommended resolutions.  Instead, I urge Council to direct staff to undertake a Secondary Plan for the entirety of the Kingsway Entertainment District, so that all land use issues, including the appropriateness of the site for the development proposed, along with planning constraints, may be addressed in a truly comprehensive manner that engages the public.  I have written to Council about the need to for a comprehensive process for this new District in the past (see: "An Open Letter to Greater Sudbury Council Regarding a Kingsway Entertainment District," July 11, 2017).  I again implore Council to consider a Secondary Plan as the only legitimate way forward for the Kingsway proposal.

At the very least, please hold off on site and building design until land use permissions are obtained.  And please ensure that significant public engagement is built into any site and building design process.

Thank you for considering these comments.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Site Design for the Kingsway Entertainment District Must be Unfettered by Constraints, Include Public Engagement

Whoa. Hold your horses, City of Greater Sudbury! 
A report dated early August from Ed Archer, Greater Sudbury's CAO, envisions moving the Kingsway event centre and casino developments ahead via some form of 'comprehensive process'. It sounds good, but it certainly appears that the process the CAO has in mind is one that will likely shut the public out of meaningful engagement. Par for the course for Greater Sudbury.
Some things to be concerned about:
1) Although 'public consultation' is referenced as part of a "Site Design Strategy", the timeframes are short. And since the strategy is to be led by Gateway Casino's preferred architect, it's not clear at all how much of an influence public opinion might have on the shape of the buildings and the overall site (Archer's report goes to some length to indicate that many of the design elements of a casino are pre-determined - which, I'm sorry to say, is nonsense - if the province is going to invest in a building to meet the needs of our community, it ought to bloody well meet the needs, and not come in a pre-fab buildable box).
2) About that sole-source contract. Why is the City suggesting that only an architectural firm - one used by Gateway - is the appropriate vehicle for site design? We're talking about a project that is MUCH larger than a casino here. Why not tender, and let's see if we can get some interesting and innovative firms to get involved with the design of this new Entertainment District? I realize that there is a perception that "time is of the essence" - but give me a break - we are talking about a once-in-a-generation project here. Let's not rush this.
3) Public involvement must be an integral part of site and building design. I sincerely hope Council amends the Report so that it's clear that public consultation and engagement must take place throughout the process - at the beginning, pre-conception; and after a concept plan for the site is developed. The public must be involved in helping shape the direction of this development.
4) Oh, and about the desire to comprehensively develop the site? How is that going to happen when the Report also directs the City to beging a re-zoning process for a 'public arena' use? No way. The rezoning needs to be put on hold and addressed as part of a larger Official Plan process - a process envisioned by the report as necessary for the Casino use to move forward. You can't address development 'comprehensively' when you first go ahead and set out the criteria for a portion of that development through zoning - not unless you're willing to revisit zoning at a later date. And that doesn't appear to be in the cards here, and frankly would be redundant.
5) There is no need to start building roads here now - not until issues of servicing and a comprehensive site design process that plugs in the public has been completed. If you start building roads, you constrain the design process - and that's absolutely not the way to do it.
6) Purchasing the property prior to determining whether the site is appropriate for an arena is also something that our Council ought not to be doing. If zoning eventually can't be achieved, the City is going to be left with a piece of worthless, unserviced industrial property. Taxpayers need to be protected here - Greater Sudbury needs to postpone the purchase of this property until all planning approvals are in place.
So while I agree that the notion of 'comprehensive site development' is one that the City ought to strive for, clearly this Report is mostly unhelpful in moving us in that direction. Plug the public in, stop introducing site constraints, and start by providing facts to the public so that we may participate in a design process informed by this information (like, how much is servicing this site really going to cost taxpayers?).
Again, this is a once-in-a-generation project. Let's take the time we need to make sure that we get this right.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

It's Going to be More Difficult to 'Drain the Swamp' in Ontario

“Drain the swamp!” might have been the cry that helped put Donald Trump in the White House, but as far as preserving Ontario’s natural heritage goes, it’s really bad advice.  Swamps and other wetlands – bogs, fens and marshes – have been disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate.  Once viewed as unproductive land that stood in the way of expanding agricultural operations and subdivisions, the movement to conserve wetlands for their ecological functions has been growing.

What Donald Trump might not understand is the very important role that wetlands play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Northern Ontario’s vast Hudson Bay Lowlands contain some of the most extensive peatlands in the world.  These “unproductive” bogs are actually providing a significant ecological service to the planet by sequestering carbon – as much as one third of Ontario’s annual carbon emissions, according to provincial figures.  Smaller wetlands in developed urban areas can also help regulate temperatures by minimizing heat island effects.  Wetlands also stabilize soils and decrease the impacts of flooding events.

Last month, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry released its much-anticipated “Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario”.  An earlier draft of this strategy had drawn some critical comments from environmental organizations like Ontario Nature, and Conservation Ontario – the umbrella organization for our province’s 36 Conservation Authorities.  The good news for wetlands is that Minister Kathryn McGarry seems to have listened to the advice of the conservation experts – for the most part. (see: “Help protect wetlands,” Ontario nature, November 9, 2016, and “Conservation Ontario’s Comments on “A Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario 2016-2030” (EBR# 012-7675),” January 9, 2017).
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The new strategy includes important targets for halting the net loss of wetlands by 2025, and achieving a net gain in wetland area and function by 2030. Using 2010 as a baseline, these targets will provide a yardstick for the Province to measure the success of the strategy’s implementation.

The strategy calls for additional funding for mapping wetlands - an important starting point for the discussions that need to take place between the various level of government and governmental organizations charged with looking out for the health of wetlands.  Indeed, the the web of bodies who oversee wetland conservation sometimes appears to be as complex as a wetland ecosystem.  The strategy acknowledges the roles of all partners, and states that it wants to do better - but it seems that some gaps still remain.

The gaps are there because oftentimes wetlands are located inconveniently on private lands.  Regulating land uses on private lands isn't as straightforward than for lands in the public domain.  And that's where a lot of Ontario's wetlands have been lost.  Many of the existing tools identified in the strategy are ones that aren't being used in many cases to protect wetlands - and the toolbox itself might not be large enough.  Cut and fill by-laws might prevent wetlands from being filled in by private landowners, and municipal tree cutting by-laws might protect trees from being harvested, but there is little protection for wetland 'understory' - all of the other plant species that make wetlands wet.  Even today, authorities appear to be perplexed about how to save a significant Great Lakes coastal wetland from a private landowner bent on destroying it (see: "Sault residents react to developer's logging activity," SooToday.com, July 27, 2017).

Still, there's a lot of good in the strategy - from raising awareness to promoting partnerships, to a commitment to protect and conserve all wetlands deemed provincially significant in mid- and Southern-Ontario.  The strategy also calls for a review of the Ontario Wetlands Evaluations Manuals, which might strengthen wetland evaluation (see: “What will the future hold for Ontario’s wetlands?” Ontario Nature, August 3, 2017).

The strategy, however, stops well short of extending protection to all wetlands.  Only the largest, most diverse wetlands – those determined by evaluation to be provincially significant – will remain protected.  Regional and local wetlands will continue to be exposed to displacement by development.  The difference now will be that where wetlands fall victim to urban and economic development, they may need to be replaced elsewhere.

This practice is known as “offsetting” and it’s extremely controversial. On the one hand, offsetting can assist in achieving a net gain of wetlands by allowing less-productive natural wetlands to be destroyed based on a commitment to build or enhance a wetlands elsewhere.  On the other hand, the ecological services provided by smaller wetlands are not well understood, and permitting their continued destruction may lead to negative local outcomes.

Offsetting could lead to the creation of ‘Big Box’ wetlands at the expense of local diversity. And that seems to be at odds with the results of a recent University of Guelph study that determined smaller wetlands are more effective than larger ones at filtering pollutants before they enter rivers, streams and lakes (see:“Destruction of small wetlands leads to more algal blooms, Ontario study finds,” Sudbury.Com, July 23, 2017).

Ontario has already ventured down the offsetting road for species at risk habitat.  The results have been mixed.  While offsetting is a practice intended to be used as a tool of last resort, that’s not what appears to be happening , with roads like Sudbury’s Maley Drive and other infrastructure projects being pushed through the habitats of threatened and endangered species without much in the way of assessing alternatives (see: "Ontario's Environmental Assessment Process is Failing Species At Risk in Sudbury," Sudbury Steve May, April 26, 2016).

Ontarians should continue to demand the government to conserve all wetlands – not just the largest - for their natural heritage values, biological functions and the role they play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, even with offsetting, one thing is clear: it’s going to be harder to justify ‘draining the swamp’ in Ontario in the future, due in large part to the Province’s collaborative wetlands strategy.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

An edited version of this post originally appeared in the Sudbury Star, as "May: Getting harder to 'drain the swamp' in Ontario,'" online, and in print as "May: It's getting harder to 'drain the swamp' in Ontario," August 5, 2017 - without hyperlinks.