A Response to London Chamber CEO Gerry Macartney

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Yesterday, London Chamber of Commerce CEO Gerry Macartney decided to publicly weigh in on the controversy surrounding the PenEquity development on Wellington Rd S and Dingman Dr, just south of the 401. I have written extensively about the topic, and while I appreciate Mr. Macartney’s point of view on the subject as CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, I feel he’s off-base on several topics he addressed (not to mention he clearly hasn’t seen very many, if any, of the well written citizen blogs about the issue).

The PenEquity development is not a watershed moment for London. To believe that new retail development in London, or any city for that matter, is a “watershed moment” does the term “watershed” a great disservice. It’s certainly a high profile one given the tensions surrounding the issue, and the proposed location, but not a watershed moment.

I’ll agree that Sysco Canada choosing Woodstock over London for their distribution warehouse was a bit disappointing, but if I recall correctly there was very little discussion, if any, about Sysco in the media until after Sysco had chosen Woodstock. Was London ever in the running? Maybe not. I’ll give Mr. Macartney the benefit of the doubt in him having more “insider info” than I do, but Sysco never seemed to be on the radar until after we found out London wasn’t chosen for the location.

As for the Sun Life Industrial Park – please Mr. Macartney, give me a break. That was not going to be a boon of any sort to the local economy. It was a highly speculative venture that may or may not have panned out for Sun Life, and the potential tenants. Given the glut of empty warehouse and manufacturing space in the city, mostly on the east and south ends, I don’t see how Sun Life’s industrial park would have been filled in the middle of a recession. Sun Life pulled out because they saw the writing on the wall, and likely decided they could put all of their old paperwork elsewhere for the time being. If you’re going to bring up an issue like this one, let’s look at where the economy was going just as Sun Life decided to nix the entire proposal near the end of 2009.

Of course the City, and the rest of the County around it, will accept deals that cost money, don’t produce only 6 figure incomes, and impact the environment somehow. Have you not seen all of the new high-rise apartment buildings pop up downtown, near Oxford and Wonderland, and at Adelaide and Kipps? Lots of infill and brownfield development, which is much easier for the City to service and re-purposes existing land (as laid out in ReThink London – have you read that?). That’s smart development, if I do say so myself. There have also been several large industrial parks pop up on the east end near the airport, further south on Veterans Memorial Parkway, and of course we have the much-maligned SWAP moving forward somehow (though being ferociously challenged by many of the very developers that will eventually build there). Do yourself a favour and don’t make things are so full of shades of grey into a black and white issue. You’re doing yourself, and the Chamber, a great disservice.

As for the integrity of the woodland and “small pond” on the property, I would urge you to read the “Environmental & Parks Planning Section” of this document (starting on page 10) that went before council on June 25. You will note that, though a thorough assessment had not yet been done before this date, what PenEquity terms an “unevaluated vegetation patch” is of much greater importance than previously believed. In fact, that woodlot is helping to prevent the erosion of the very land PenEquity wants to build on. That sounds important, doesn’t it? As for the “small pond” created by run-off, I would argue that it’s a semi-natural pond now, and removing it could have disastrous consequences for any properties around it. Where do you suppose that water will go if that body of water is filled in and built on? Water doesn’t just disappear, you know? Given how that body of water was created, I would argue it’s actually serving a fairly significant purpose in preventing the flooding of the surrounding land. But neither you, nor I, are environmental experts.

To consider retail a “Gateway” is, dare I say, “old school” thinking. I fear you may not be keeping up with consumer trends. And to use Saks Fifth Avenue as an example of the type of shopping people will do at this new development, again, shows your state of mind. Saks Fifth Avenue is a very high end store that, in all reality, likely won’t do very well in London. And if it does, it will almost certainly be the death knell of similarly targeted local businesses that you don’t seem to care much about (Fisher & Co. and Channer’s come to mind). I am well aware that the City of London’s citizens need new jobs, but the funny thing is that a Saks Fifth Avenue, gas station, new cinema, etc. won’t be generating the types of jobs that keep Fisher & Co., Channer’s, or a Saks in business. Game development companies do, web development firms, manufacturing jobs, and other professional jobs do. I think you missed the “retail follows jobs” argument someone made recently, but it feels you’re thinking the other way around.

A lot of retail does move around, and the City already has plenty of empty properties ready for the filling by the very businesses you’re hoping PenEquity will bring to London. If you haven’t yet, take a look at this non-exhaustive list of under-developed retail properties I identified in June. As Chamber CEO, I would like to think you would be better off advocating for the family that owns London Mall to sell it to PenEquity, and entice PenEquity to snatch up that high visibility parcel of land, and turn it into something special.

Let’s look at some recent failings, in fact. Rona, Westmount Mall (which has been undergoing a hard fought renaissance for several years now, but still requires a great deal more tenants and traffic), and Citi Plaza has been going through a major redevelopment as well into a more office-friendly space, as well as the library relocating there, and only recently does it look to be viable for the future. Without the library, what would Citi Plaza look like? I wonder.

I’ll end this in talking about transit. Sir, what planet are you on? The LTC’s current service to the area is deplorable at best, running only during the morning and evening rush hours. If you’re hoping the LTC will get teenagers to and from PenEquity’s development, you’re either banking on their parents driving them to/from jobs there, or the LTC expanding its service out to (at least) 11pm to account for late cinema showings. Good. Luck. The LTC barely has the funding to continue operating its existing routes, and is woefully underfunded by the City compared to many other transit systems. The LTC does very well given how it’s funded now. So where does this extra funding come from? It won’t instantly come from ridership, which already bears quite a bit of the brunt. Indeed, if you think the LTC is going to start servicing the area, then be prepared to champion the cause for the City to expand funding, and increase everyone’s taxes and/or usage fees. Somehow I doubt you’ll be jumping on that bandwagon.

In all reality, very few of us are calling for the outright rejection of PenEquity’s proposal. What concerns me is the lack of foresight for the existing natural properties the land possesses, and the effect removing the trees and body of water will have on that very property, and properties surrounding it. Costco has also brought up issues with the traffic study conducted by BA Group (on behalf of PenEquity). But hey, no big deal, right? It’s not like ignoring environmental issues as ever caused us (“us” as in “humanity”) trouble before. Oh, wait…

I left out some of your points because I don’t have hard numbers to counter them. We don’t need the next Mayo Clinic or Microsoft to locate here. It sounds like you’re also missing the boat on the fact that small businesses account for more job growth in this country, as in the United States, than medium or large enterprises do. Well done, sir. Well done, indeed.

Letter to Coun. Henderson, Mayor Fontana, and other members of council

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I just sent this letter off to all Councillors, but addressed primarily to Councillor Henderson and Mayor Fontana. Feel free to read it yourself. I assure you it isn’t all doom and gloom, but rather some more practical thoughts on the big developments going to City Council this evening.

Councillor Henderson, Mayor Fontana, and other esteemed Councillors,

I know that you have already seen a deluge of comments on several proposed developments that, to my knowledge, will all be brought to City Council later today. I’m going to do my best to share some pragmatic thoughts on three.

1. Wonderland Rd S & Wharncliffe Rd S – Extension of Wonderland Rd S and Southdale Rd W commercial area.

It is simply too soon to approve York Development’s plan for this area. With the Southwest Area Plan under heavy scrutiny and before the OMB, approving this plan now sends a message to other developers that due process means nothing to the City of London. It also ignores much of the feedback the City has received during the ReThink London process, and the public participation meetings that have provided feedback for the Transportation Master Plan and Downtown Master Plan currently in circulation.

I appreciate that London’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high following the global recession, but far smarter people than I have pointed out again and again that retail jobs do not lead to prosperity. I would also like to see the City leave some money in its coffers, rather than spending it fighting a needless legal battle.

2. Dingman Drive & Wellington Rd S proposed development.

I have misgivings of this development, but the ultimate success or failure of this development is clearly up to PenEquity, the organizations that choose to locate there, and whether consumers choose to patronize this location. My primary concerns come down to two things:

a) The lack of transit outside of rush hour service (please reference the schedule for the 30 Newbold bus).

b) The PEC’s approval of removing a 4.2 hectare woodlot that, by all accounts, has been deemed environmentally significant.

Coun. Henderson, I note you expressed great appreciation for trees during one PEC meeting last week, but then voted in favour of allowing PenEquity to clear this woodlot. This strikes me as extremely odd in the Forest City, and that we really must push to protect woodlots deemed environmentally significant when possible. I don’t see why PenEquity cannot simply build around the woodlot, and ultimately I hope the development is referred back to staff to work with PenEquity on a new site plan.

However, if it’s true (as I have heard) that PenEquity doesn’t even own the lot in question at this point, perhaps it would be more prudent to encourage PenEquity to acquire an existing parcel of land in desperate need of redevelopment? For example, London Mall at the corner of Wonderland Rd N and Oxford St W. This would also fall in line with ReThink London and the Transportation Master Plan. Please give that some thought.

3. Fincore Development in SoHo.

I am actually quite happy with this development! I know that Fincore has some issues to work out with adjoining property owners, but overall I think this is a development I would like to see go through, with a few notes:

  • The City needs to do what it can to make sure it actually happens, like institute a clause in the land sale contract stating that, if Fincore does not begin development within a specified period of time, then the property is to be returned to its original owner (including the City and Upper Thames River Conservation Authority).
  • Ensure the general public has equal, or better access, to the waterfront after building is complete.

I thank you for your time and diligence on this matter. And for the record, I don’t feel a replica Eiffel Tower would do much for the City on its own, or without the Downtown Master Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Cultural Prosperity Plan, and the entirety of ReThink London comint to fruition. :) Besides, the Eiffel Tower’s been done. We would need something unique!

Derek E. Silva

UPDATE: As of 2:53pm, both Councillors Denise Brown (Ward 11) and Joni Baechler (Ward 5) have responded thanking me for my comments, and Ms. Brown and I have had a short back-and-forth about the changing attitudes amongst young people with regards to driver’s license acquisition and car ownership (dropping fast!). As I said on Twitter, acknowledgement goes a long way.

London’s Under Developed Retail

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There are several, I assure you, under developed commercial developments well within London’s urban growth boundary. And after this and this, and even people asking where they are on Twitter this morning, I thought it prudent to identify them. You can click on the images below for bigger versions.

Spot #1 – Crossroads Centre at Wellington Rd S and Exeter Rd. No, it may not be the greatest location on Earth, but right now it’s just an ugly, highly under utilized land mass taking up precious space at a very busy intersection.

under-utilized-retail-001

Spot #2: Corner of Deveron Cres and Commissioners Rd E. There was a Zellers there until recently, and a Tim Hortons, Food Basics (I think!), and Dollarama. The parking lot is half empty though and has plenty of space to be used by restaurants, smaller stores, health services, etc.

under-utilized-retail-002

Spot #3: Notre Dame Centre at Viscount Rd and Notre Dame Rd. It’s already there, has plenty of space, and is under capacity last time I drove by. It’s prime to become a hub for this residential community if done right.

under-utilized-retail-003

Spots #4 and #5: The corner of Wonderland Rd N and Oxford St W. London Mall is, well, an eyesore. It needs a massive overhaul and has plenty of empty parking spaces that are almost never used. And on the north side of Oxford St W, an empty field where corn used to grow. I think the Transporation Master Plan is attempting to designate this area for increased population density, so it may not fall in the plan, but the point is these spots are empty now, prime for development.

under-utilized-retail-004

So again, I fail to see why an environmentally significant woodlot must be torn down for “progress” when, even despite the areas within the city that could use redevelopment, there are several pieces of land around PenEquity’s proposal without environmentally significant woodlots, like the below.

no-trees

How about them trees, PenEquity?

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Earlier tonight the Second Planning & Environment Committee voted to allow PenEquity clear a massive 4.2 hectare woodlot with the promise of 1,200 jobs. There won’t be 1,200 jobs coming to this massive monstrosity of a shopping plaza south of the 401, behind the Costco and Gold’s Gym. Here’s why. Let’s assume that 1,200 jobs does not include construction jobs. For comparison’s sake, let’s take another proposed development over at Wonderland & Wharncliffe (1,300 retail jobs, 690 construction jobs) to task, which has similar job number projections. Electricians, plumbers, brick layers, pavers, etc. Many of those people are already employed by the contractors that will be bidding on the work to be done building the plaza. These are not new jobs. And not all of the buildings are going to go up at the same time, so the same contractor and workers may end up working on multiple buildings (especially the electricians and plumbers). This is actually work for contractors that already employ these construction workers. So out of 600 “new jobs,” you’re probably looking at more like… 50? 100 tops. And while I’m happy to see those contractors get more work, it’s all temporary. Now what about the 1,200 permanent jobs in the plaza itself? I worked in retail. I know what it’s like. High turnover, low wage, part-time work without benefits. So a lot of people are going to be debating driving out to the middle of nowhere (or maybe taking the 30 Newbold bus from White Oaks Mall) for a job that pays $11 an hour, slightly more if you’re in management. But wait! There’s more. The 30 Newbold only runs from 6:27am to 9:17am, and again from 2:24pm to 5:49pm. It also doesn’t run on weekends! It’s clearly designed to help dayshift workers get in and out of the industrial area between Wellington and Highbury, not for retail workers. So… 1,200 new jobs? Who exactly is going to be applying for these jobs? To be honest, mostly people who have been out of work for awhile, and have given up finding work in their field because they’re debating selling their car just to make ends meet. It’s funny… most businesses look at the workforce available in the cities they’re looking to set up shop in. I wonder how many businesses will actually bother showing up in PenEquity’s new monster plaza after they realize all of the above? And don’t look to the LTC to put in extra hours on the 30 Newbold. Fontana’s made sure that won’t happen with his desire for 0% tax increases (which, in reality, he has yet at all to achieve thanks to assessment growth). So, how about them trees?

Letter to the Planning & Environment Committee

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I took some time to write to the Mayor and members of the Planning & Environment Committee today. Why? Because the PenEquity proposal is… well… not great the way it stands. It’s massive, practically in the middle of nowhere, and threatens to eliminate thousands of strong, mature trees that do us a lot of good, no doubt. Unfortunately I forgot to mention downtown in my list of concerns, but hopefully others will/have (and the committee members will have it top of mind as soon as the effects on other areas are pointed out).

We’ll see what happens this afternoon! Until then, here’s what I sent to the Planning & Environment Committee (Bud Polhill, Joe Fontana, Phil Hubert, Sandy White, Dale Henderson, and Nancy Branscombe). If you like it, feel free to copy & paste and send it to them again. Citizen Corps has a list of councillors and their email addresses.

Good afternoon Mayor Fontana and Councillors,

I am writing to express my concern over the proposed retail and hospitality development on Dingman Drive that will be reviewed by the Planning & Environment Committee today. I have a number of concerns, including but not limited to:

  1. The negative impact it is likely to have on existing retail and hospitality developments further north on Wellington Rd, Westmount Mall on Wonderland Rd S, and the proposed Southwest Area Plan (SWAP) for Wonderland Rd S.
  2. The environmental impact it will certainly have on the rather large (4.2 hectares) woodlot currently on the land. Based on average statistics, this represents roughly 4,200 mature trees that the proposed development would eliminate. I consider that to be too large a number to lose, and the positive environmental impact that woodlot has on our air quality, preventing erosion, and the pleasant view it provides while driving down the 401 consider it a “must keep” for me.
  3. In addition to that, here is a link to the Criteria for Identification of Significant Woodlots (PDF, page 2). I think you’ll find, especially if you consult employees in the planning department, that the woodlot meets at least one of those criteria. I would hope you’ll take that into consideration moving forward and as leaders of the Forest City. [UPDATE: Link to report provided to committee by City staff on environmental significance of this woodlot]
  4. Also, there is a large body of water on that property. I must admit I’m not certain what purpose it serves, but I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t there. Has the purpose and future of this body of water been addressed by PenEquity or the planning department? As it stands it appears as though the development would eliminate this potentially important body of water.
  5. That is a huge parking lot. There is really no other way to put it. If this moves forward, is it within the City’s power to request that a parking garage be constructed instead? It would use less space, allow for the protection of a significant portion of the woodlot as is, and only increase PenEquity’s costs slightly when compared to the amount of expense they’re looking at currently. If White Oaks Mall can do it, surely PenEquity can as well.
  6. Lastly, correct me if I’m wrong, but the average hotel tenancy rate hovers around the 60% mark last I heard. This sounds rather decent, and hopefully is enough to maintain a profit for all of the hotel and motel operators in the area. As such, is another hotel (or two) really necessary at this point? I’m all for a free market, but given the gravity of this decision and the impact it could have, have existing hotel operators been approached by the committee and/or plannign department (or approached the same) regarding this development? I’d be interested to hear whether they’re prepared for additional competition given the fairly new hotels that went up only a short time ago near Exeter Road.

Thank you for your time, and I’ll be paying close attention to the PEC meeting today. I also look forward to any responses should you find the time.

Derek E. Silva

UPDATE June 25, 2013: I received a response from Sandy White’s office thanking me for sharing my thoughts on this matter.