Editorial: Embracing change in Burlington.

Change.  It is something that for most of us, is not easy to accept.

But we all know that change is inevitable.  We see our children grow, we see how technology has impacted our lives.  Sometimes we accept and appreciate it and at other times, we wish for an alternative.  Regardless, change occurs, and it is all around us.  This is also evident in the cities we live in.

I live in Burlington.  I raise my family here.  And I see our City changing.  Of course, I have the benefit of understanding planning policy and the variables at play, more than the average person.  I live it every day, not only in what I do, but in where I chose to live.  You see, I live in downtown Burlington, one of the largest hotbeds for NIMBYism (Not in my back yard!) I’ve seen.  Before I moved downtown, I lived in north Burlington, in the Orchard.  One day I was on Facebook and saw comments from a group of residents complaining about the “ghettos” that had been built along Dundas Street.  I thought to myself, well my $700,000 semi detached is not a ghetto.  Where do these people think the average person is going to live?  Many can’t afford to live here!  This is what I can afford, it is a lovely neighbourhood, and I’m sorry you don’t like it.  Burlington should be for everyone, not just the elite few who can live in lovely older subdivisions with large lots close to the lake.  They didn’t like “urban sprawl”.  They wanted to see larger lots, more trees.  But that is a dichotomy – if lots were larger the City would have sprawled further.  And it would have been far more expensive, and land is usually what drives price more than any other factor. 

And now, the City of Burlington has no more land.  What it had  2-3 decades ago was used up by fast paced development, that was not balanced with the appropriate intensification or redevelopment.  Regardless of where we are at, Burlington has to accommodate its share of growth.  And so, City planners have to determine where those people and jobs should be located.  So where will it go?  Don’t go downtown, people say, we don’t want downtown to change.  Don’t build anything tall, we don’t want tall buildings.  Don’t build townhouses near my single family home.  We don’t want that.  Let’s stop talking about what we DON’T want, and try and figure out a solution to the problem about what we SHOULD do.  What in some cases, we MUST do. 

Here’s the thing.  New development will take the form of denser products, that can at times be different than what it is located beside.  That is for several reasons:  if you tear a house down, you don’t replace like for like – it doesn’t accommodate more people that way.  So you have to build more intensely.  Also, Burlington is an expensive place to live.  With supply virtually dried up, it’s going to get a lot more expensive, because people still want to live here.  And with no land, it’s extremely expensive and to make a new project viable there’s only one way of doing that – going up.

And regardless of what you may think, Burlington is NOT booming.  It is not meeting the targets set by either the Region of Halton nor the Province.  Downtown Burlington is, amongst other things, an Urban Growth Centre.  Many cities’ downtowns are, and Burlington is no exception.  That means, that it is required to house, at a MINIMUM, 200 persons/jobs per hectare.  The mayor has recently acknowledged that it has not yet done this.  I hear the word “overdevelopment” thrown around in political circles frequently.  The reality is, while the GTHA is one of the fastest growing centres in North America, Burlington is the slowest growing city in the GTHA.  Here are some statistics:  of the 7,933 permits issued City-wide between 2006-2016, approximately 2,827 permits were apartments, of which just 528 units were located downtown.  This equates to 48 apartment units constructed per year downtown. 

You may say, but what about all these cranes?  The Bridgewater, the project right on the waterfront, is an approval from the late ‘80s.  The Berkeley, on Maria Street, was originally approved in 2010, and only started occupying in late 2018.  It can take a long time to get a project going.  Nautique, which is now infamous for its OMB appeal, has not even started construction due to delays that process took, and is an application from 2014.

Many will say – these aren’t the projects we want!  Why not build more projects that are smaller, with much less height?  And the answer is really quite simple – regardless of the fact we won’t achieve the mandated density for the area, they are very expensive to build, and the end product is very high end as a result.  This doesn’t achieve affordability for anyone.  I have friends who say to me, my kids would like to move back to Burlington – they have a great job, they love the City they grew up in, but they can’t afford it. 

Let’s talk about the downtown.  It’s lovely, lots of shops and restaurants, a beautiful waterfront.  And almost dead once the sun goes down.  I’ve talked to shop owners who struggle to stay in business.  Restaurants turn over.  Do you know what they need?  People.  People to keep them thriving.  People who are there after 6pm to keep them going.  People who have chosen a lifestyle that is based on walkability, which then relates to shopping locally.  Except for those people to afford it, they may live on the 14th floor – far higher than what you’d like to see.  Because that’s where they can afford it.  It may be a family raising their young boys and dog in a two bedroom condo.  They have chosen the area they like, and that is what they can afford.  For others, environmental factors are an impact – they want to drive less, and downtown allows them to do that. 

Regardless of what you may think of the OP approved by the previous council, one thing was important in there.  The choice to intensify in specific areas minimized the areas disrupted by intensification.  It elected to put people where there were appropriately located, downtown and near mobility hubs, thereby leaving as many stable neighbourhoods intact, while still moving towards the required population and densities.

Who are we to say “THOSE people aren’t allowed?”  “We don’t need them” I’ve heard.  But we do.  Our municipal finances depend on a growing tax base.  Infrastructure improvements are paid for by development charges THEY pay, parks THEY provide.    They need a place to live, the Region and the Province require us to provide them one, and we need them for us to stay financially viable.  If we don’t, only rich and wealthy people will be able to afford to live here.

Let’s stop thinking about what we DON’T want, and figure out how to create a city that is affordable, livable and lovable, for everyone.

Suzanne Mammel, CEO, Hamilton-Halton Home Builders’ Association

April 2019