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Does a pause on development in the core make sense during a housing crisis?
A recent WR Record editorial praised Kitchener’s ward 9 councillor Debbie Chapman for recommending a moratorium on downtown development. The editorial board queried what role zoning regulations even play if they are seemingly not followed. The editorial also notes that while Ontario’s population is growing, we must defend ‘neighbourhood integrity’. There’s a lot I want to dig into more deeply, starting with everyone’s favourite topic, zoning regulations!
The editorial board asked if zoning rules are not followed precisely, what’s the point of even having them? This is a question I hear a lot. And while I agree that city- or region-wide zoning plans can be beneficial, allowing variances and amendments is one of the only tools municipalities currently have to ensure developers include certain community benefits in their proposals. So, the city can now say, for example, that if you want to build higher than existing zoning allows, then you must guarantee a certain level of affordability or public green space, etc. While we can each decide whether that’s the best system or not for negotiating such community goods, we must at least develop a plan that addresses how we will achieve those goals if we were to move away from our current system of zoning and variances.
If we are to follow zoning rules without any negotiation permitted, we must also consider when and how zoning regulations get updated. I’m sure most agree that it doesn’t make sense to adamantly adhere to zoning rules from 50 years ago. But are zoning rules from 20 years ago still relevant? Or 10 years? A lot of change can occur in a community in less than a decade. Are we to rewrite zoning regulations every 5 years to ensure they are reflective of our community’s current growth and housing needs? How will our community grow and evolve if we believe that “regulations that required years of time, energy and money to implement” are somehow etched in stone, never to be discussed or changed?
In response to a proposed 25 storey development, the editorial board writes, “this particular site on Victoria Street South is zoned for a structure no higher than 13.5 metres, the developer wants to erect a 25-storey tower 86 metres in height. That’s more than six times what the regulations permit.” Many people have concerns about such a large discrepancy between what’s currently allowed and what is being proposed. Yet, it is equally possible that the current zoning is not appropriate given its location and the need for housing.
The editorial board states that Councillor Chapman “criticized city council for ignoring Kitchener’s Official Plan and zoning bylaws when it approved a 10-storey condo tower in Belmont Village on land zoned for no more than eight storeys.” I’d suggest that no one was “ignoring” anything, but rather carefully considering our community’s current housing needs, and in this housing crisis, whether it would make sense to add additional homes to this location. We can disagree on whether or not council arrived at the correct decision, but it’s unfair to say council was ignoring any zoning rules.
Chapman notes “that the area of Victoria Street between King and Park streets will soon house about 5,000 people.” The editorial fails to ask where these people will live if not here? It seems to me that those 5000 residents would be bidding on our limited housing supply, causing more pressure on the housing market.
The article also states that Councillor Chapman has concerns about affordability. I’m glad that affordability is on our council’s radar. However, fighting developers one proposal at a time misses the point and isn't going to solve our housing crisis for us. Instead of demanding a few affordable units from developers in each new proposal, I’d rather see us put our collective energy into requiring significant action from our governments - at all levels - to invest deeply in social, supportive, and co-operative housing. If we believe that affordable housing is truly a human right, then let’s demand that our governments, not a handful of private developers, use our collective resources (i.e. taxes) to build and maintain affordable and supportive housing.
The editorial board asks, “Why don’t we collectively take greater care in defending the integrity of neighbourhoods that have been built and lived in over decades?" To which I can only respond with several questions. What, or who, are we 'defending' neighbourhoods from exactly? Who is doing this supposed 'defending'? And what 'integrity' are we trying to protect that would apparently be ruined if we allowed more housing?
After praising Councillor Chapman’s proposed moratorium on downtown development, the Record concludes its editorial with their fairly standard “There are no easy answers” but suggests, “we need workable solutions for this province and this region.” I don’t believe Councillor Chapman’s proposed moratorium will provide any of the solutions we are searching for. In fact, I fear it would make them worse. Furthermore, if it’s “workable solutions” we are looking for, then we need far more details about what the proposed pause on downtown development would entail: Does council have the authority to proceed with such a plan? How would this impact developments that are in process currently?
The editorial board supports a moratorium, while recognizing that our “population is growing by roughly a million people every five years”. Instead of diving into the challenging issues of implementing a development moratorium with a growing population, they wipe their hands of it. They claim there are no easy answers while throwing their support behind a simplistic and unrealistic ‘solution’.
There may not be any easy answers, but we must face those challenges head on, rather than delay or avoid them altogether. I believe a moratorium does the latter. Our community has worked hard to protect its countryside line. So I know that we can make difficult decisions for the good of our community. Let’s not shy away from our responsibilities to ensure all of our residents have the housing they need.
I have some suggestions on what that could look like, so stay tuned for future posts!