Commentary

Paying Lip Service to Provincial Growth Plans

A developer hopes to get council approval to convert highway accessible employment lands to a new big box complex on a technicality.

By Don McLean
Published May 26, 2009

Hamilton councillors get another chance next month to decide whether or not they've had enough of bad planning.

At issue is another big box development that seeks to rezone industrial employment land fronting on the QEW at Fifty Road in Winona to permit an 183,000 square foot Wal-Mart (the biggest in the area) plus nearly 200,000 square feet of additional retail and 3,025 parking spaces.

There can't really be any doubt that this is not in the public interest, and it's in clear contradiction to provincial rules that forbid conversion of scarce employment lands to major retail uses.

Yet its proponents are counting on a technicality and the planning foolishness of a majority of Hamilton's councillors.

Application File Date Technicality

That technicality was trumpeted by the proponent's land use planner, Ed Fothergill, at a public meeting held earlier this month in Stoney Creek.

A citizen challenged the plans by pointing to Places to Grow, the provincial anti-sprawl legislation that says cities can only convert employment lands "through a municipal comprehensive review where it has been demonstrated that there is a need for conversion [and] the lands are not required over the long term for the employment purposes for which they are designated."

Fothergill responded that those provincial rules don't apply because the application for conversion was originally filed in October 2005 before the provincial legislation was passed.

"The growth plan at the time of our application did allow commercial uses in employment lands," he explained. "There was a change in the growth plan, that's correct. That came after our application, and that we're pretty clear about - the law is sort of pretty black and white on which policy applied when you make your application. So I don't think we have a problem with that."

He added, "There can be differences of opinion whether that's a good idea, but practically we don't have any problem conforming to the provincial documents."

In other words - we don't care about whether this is good planning because we're going to do it anyway if we can get away with it on a technicality.

It isn't that the provincial rules came as a surprise. The Places to Grow discussion paper was issued in July 2004 and the draft plan came out in February 2005, followed by the first piece of legislation in June 2005 - all months before the Wal-Mart application. It was only the final approval in June 2006 that came later.

Commercial Approval Despite Shortage of Employment Lands

In the wake of these provincial policies, Hamilton staff and their consultants undertook a municipal comprehensive review in 2007 and concluded that the city has a substantial shortage of employment lands.

They argued that this specific site on Fifty Road, with its QEW frontage, must be retained to attract industrial jobs to Hamilton, and pointed out that any loss of existing employment lands would mean more farmland around the airport would have to be used in its place.

Any loss of existing employment lands would mean more farmland around the airport would have to be used in its place

City council had a different idea. At the urging of Winona area councillor Dave Mitchell, they ordered staff to make this area available for conversion.

They provided the same favour to three other councillors backing other big box developments in their respective wards - Lloyd Ferguson on Wilson Street in Ancaster; Chad Collins on Centennial at the QEW in his east Hamilton ward; and Tom Jackson with a Stone Church Road proposal.

Several other councillors, including Mayor Eisenberger, opposed all or some of these moves.

Test of Commitment to Provincial Growth Plan

The Fifty Road one is the first to come before a public meeting for an actual conversion decision.

Residents at the Stoney Creek meeting pointed to lots of flaws in the Wal-Mart plans. Fifty Road is the gateway to Hamilton (and to Niagara in the other direction). "Why are we wasting our gateway?" one resident asked.

Fifty Road itself is only two lanes with no sidewalks or bike facilities, and it has a level crossing with the busy CNR mainline. Grade separations and other required upgrades, Fothergill acknowledged, will have to be paid for by the taxpayers, not the company he's representing.

The 3,025 car parking lot was compared to the 3,000 cars a day that visit Winona for the annual Peach Festival in August and create so much congestion that it is far faster to walk in the community than drive that weekend.

While much of this end of the city was recently brought inside the urban boundary, the planning for retail is far from complete, and it is supposed to generate a high density walkable commercial area in a much more central location along Highway 8.

That would be pre-empted by the big box complex - perhaps making it uneconomic in the fact of the established big box competition.

Council Priorities vs. Provincial Plans?

Provincial officials aren't likely to be surprised by any of these problems. Avoiding them is part of what has driven the McGuinty government's planning reforms. Many Hamilton councillors either misunderstand or oppose (or both) these changes.

Exactly how many we'll see at the planning committee meeting on June 2 and the subsequent full council vote on June 10.

Don McLean is chair of Friends of Red Hill Valley and coordinator of Citizens at City Hall, a volunteer group that has monitored city affairs since 2004 and distributes free news articles via email. The group can be contacted at info@hamiltoncatch.org.

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By Riko (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2009 at 21:57:48

Here's hoping common sense prevails. The last thing Winona needs is WalMart.

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By Hopeful (registered) | Posted May 26, 2009 at 23:02:20

I'm quite certain that Walmart has better demographers than me but I fail to see where the clients for a 183,000 square foot Wal-Mart will come from in Winona. Is the area slated for suburban sprawl greatness? Man, it was great when you could buy preserves that were made with local fruit around here. What ever happened to those? Oh yeah, they were too expensive to be stacked upon the racks at Wal-Mart.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 27, 2009 at 09:08:44

It seems to me that Wal-Mart and the other big box stores are doing now what the auto industry was doing 5 years ago. Holding on to an unsustainable business model rather than looking at reality.

Even if you account for people using the QEW/Service Roads rather than the inadequate city streets how many people do they expect to drive to a Wal-Mart out in Winona when there are already 3 in the area (Eastgate Mall, Rymal Rd., and Upper James), 2 more in each of Burlington and St. Catharine's and one more in Ancaster, plus a "Real Canadian Superstore" in Grimsby, and Costcos in Burlington and Ancaster. Thats alot of competition for a (relatively) low number of people.

Not to mention all the other practical problems mentioned in the article. I know Wal-Mart's doing very well thanks to the recession but is there some big advantage to locating a Wal-Mart in an inconvenient location surrounded by competition that I'm not seeing?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 27, 2009 at 11:16:14

In the deepest pit of a major global economic crisis, oil is trading at around $60 per barrel. Economists are now telling us that the end of the recession is in sight, and I have no reason not to believe them.

So what will happen to oil prices when demand picks up again?

By extension, what will happen to the Wal-Mart business model when the operating cost of their 20,000 kilometre rolling supply chain takes off again?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2009 at 13:18:42

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted May 27, 2009 at 13:30:31

It very well could have changed, but I thought that Wal-Mart needed a community of at least 120,000 to sustain each box store - at least I learned that years ago when I worked there in high school. The model could have changed though.

I remember that because we had two Wal-Marts in our city, but the suburban population surrounding it made it workable even though the city proper didn't have enough to sustain both.

There are situations (like Macomb, Illinois - I remember being there a few times and thinking about how they'd keep it up) where even though the town is only 20,000 people or so they get lots of people from outlying areas - because statewide they only have 1 for every 250,000 or so, I believe, and people will drive significant distances when they're coming in for farm equipment and all their other necessities, which is not the situation here.

Perhaps the Canadian model is different from the American one, but it seems like the numbers are getting stretched.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 27, 2009 at 13:37:58

Ryan, if peak oil is going to drive people into denser communities, why don't you support policies that hasten its arrival?

Your logic is downright eschatological in its parallel with fundamentalists who drive around in supergiant SUVs to help usher in the Rapture sooner.

I don't support policies that make it more difficult and traumatic for us to transition to a more sustainable economy than is absolutely necessary. It's going to be challenging enough as it is, and we can't afford the luxury of squandering the remains of our one-time allocation of petroleum wealth on perpetuating a land use arrangement with such poor long-term prospects.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2009 at 15:01:59

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 27, 2009 at 15:17:24

Stop attacking a straw man.

How is it that high energy prices can both kill and improve the economy at the same time?

Stable high oil prices through gas and/or carbon taxes do two things:

  1. They send clear and consistent market signals to both manufacturers and consumers to choose efficiency. Consider Europeans, who drive nearly as much as North Americans but use only half the fuel to do it.

  2. They generate enough revenue to invest in high quality public transit, which in turn creates a stronger incentive to live in denser transit nodes.

Volatile oil prices, on the other hand, create escalating market chaos when there is a hard geological ceiling on how much fuel the suppliers can bring to market. When demand tries to grow past the supply ceiling, the marginal price explodes and the market price follows.

Since oil is central to our economy, a dramatic super-spike in oil prices brings supply and demand into balance by destroying demand - what we call a "recession" of falling profits, lost jobs, bankruptcies, cutbacks, and so on.

This destroys so much demand that the price of fuel then collapses, causing the investments into non-conventional oil to stagnate (since they're only profitable when oil prices are high). As a result of this stagnation, the supply situation actually gets worse.

Eventually, the usual stimulants work and the economy recovers, spurring a new wave of demand growth for oil. Sooner or later the demand bangs up against the flat supply and the cycle of super spike and crash starts again.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2009 at 17:34:57

Ryan >> They send clear and consistent market signals to both manufacturers and consumers to choose efficiency.

Market signals are those that come from the market, not government.

>> Europeans, who drive nearly as much as North Americans but use only half the fuel to do it.

If owning a small car is a net benefit to consumers, why does it take artificially high gas prices to convince people?

>> Since oil is central to our economy, a dramatic super-spike in oil prices brings supply and demand into balance by destroying demand

Oil is not central to our economy, people are. That's why Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore are richer than Nigeria or Saudi Arabia. Good ideas are what drive productivity gains, not ever rising consumption of oil products. Take a look at this link for more info...

www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/mer/pdf/pages/sec1_16.pdf

From 2003-08, US GDP grew from 10.3B to 11.652B, an increase of 13.11%. However, during this same time period, total energy consumption only grew 1.09%. If oil is central to our economy, why isn't it reflected in the actual numbers?

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted May 27, 2009 at 17:37:56

It seems to me that people should of been thinking about this a long time ago.

This current recession has been traumatic to many who have lost jobs and struggle to even find work.

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in the period from 1998 to 2007, the salaries and benefits among 100 highest paid CEO's has increased from 3.5 million to 10.4 million annually, while during the same period the working people have seen increases slightly less then the cost of living.

More people are struggling to find work that pays a living wage, transportation is an issue for many when they can no longer afford to travel out of town for work, as there is a real lack of local jobs that pay a living wage or benefits for the working class people.

Seems to me that we should be investing in green technology, to come up with new sources of energy that take into consideration the environment. Sooner more than later, the oil supply could be completely dry and then who will be suffering?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted May 28, 2009 at 01:06:03

"If owning a huge car is a net benefit to consumers, why does it take artificially low gas prices to convince people?" Fixed.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted May 28, 2009 at 05:23:38

nobrainer, according to the feds ( www.fin.gc.ca/toc/2006/gas_tax-eng.asp ), 1/3 of the retail price of gas is comprised of taxes. In Europe, taxes account for more than half the cost of retail gas.
Therefore, where is the evidence that suggests that gas prices are kept artificially low? You're probably thinking about subsidized transit when you are referring to artificially low prices.

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By Bass Awkwords (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2009 at 10:51:19

I'm kind of wondering about the euphemism of "employment lands" for areas zoned for industrial development. The industrial sector has been downsizing for some time now. Jobs have lead the rush to low-wage overseas development. Others have been lost to robotics. Either way, industry provides less and less employment as it becomes increasingly efficient.

On the flip side, the service economy is growing, and that includes Wally World. I suspect their proliferation, and the problems that come with them, would be addressed more effectively by improving minimum wages and union organization legislation than by Ban Wally movements.

But whether it's a new medical equipment factory or a big-box cigar store, it's still considered sprawl. Then again, it is kind of silly to imagine Winona as an isolated, self-supporting community when South Ont is essentially one, big urban grid. Was I the only one who laughed at those old Presidents' Choice commercials about condiments manufactured in the bucolic town of Winona, but failed to mention that E.D. Smith's was about 10k away from the Stelco blast furnaces?

Thing is, farming provides employment too, maybe as much as a big box store, while growing tender fruit is still unusual in Canada and dependent on micro-environments such as the north side of the Niagara Peninsula. Global warming may make it less unique, but even so the wine industry and selling fresh fruits have been, and could again be significant contributors to a local, diversified economy, especially when tied to tourism.

I think the notion of "sprawl" and the idea of creating "employment" lands are equally misleading. Sprawl is essentially an accomplished fact where we live, and the idea of segregating employment into separate zones from living, shopping, and recreation, is equally reactive. What we should be working on is maintaining and increasing economic (as important as social) diversity in an environment of increasing density.

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