The Month at Council: Growth and Patios!

Things got back to a certain kind of regularity at Guelph City Council this past month with a proper schedule of meetings that covering planning, COVID-19, and the ordinary business of city council. So let’s recap this busy June that saw debates over growth, establishing more patios, and the appointment of new people to board and committees.

Planning Meeting of Council – June 15

Council had one item to discuss, which was the Community Engagement and Growth Vision and Principles. The report represented the first phase of public feedback for the update to the Official Plan and other documents that will account for how Guelph grows until 2041. There were four delegates on the agenda, but only three of them “appeared” before city council. Their concerns, generally, had to do with the environment, the cost of growth, and making sure that building intensification means taking a transit-first approach.

Initial commentary from council tackled how the unanswered questions about Bill 108 and the general fiscal picture might impact the City’s plans for growth. Treasurer Tara Baker noted that there’s a lot of work being done on the various fiscal outlooks, but the City has to have a rough idea of where the growth is going to be and what it’s going to look like, so they have something to work off of. In the end, it will be up to council to decide whether or not the City can afford a course of action on development.

Councillor Phil Allt expressed concern that the population number of 191,000 by 2041 might be the minimum and not the cap, and he also asked about “Europeanizing” downtown in the wake of COVID-19 and how that might drive investment in the core. On that, staff said that it might be too soon to tell what kind of positive economic impact there might be from changed social behaviours after COVID, but they are looking to capitalize on whatever money from higher levels of government they can get for Guelph construction projects, including ones in the downtown.

Councillor Dominique O’Rourke probed about the methodology of the phone survey, and wanted to make sure that the City got an accurate reflection of the City’s demographic make-up in addition to the online surveys, which might attract people who are already fairly active in City politics or planning. O’Rourke also wanted to make sure that the plan was going to take into account future plans for more long-term care homes and an additional hospital.

Before voting to endorse the report, O’Rourke asked if there was any appetite to refer the motion until July because of some unknown email information that council received on Monday afternoon. Staff was fine with a motion to refer, but many on council were not and the motion failed 4-9.

Mayor Cam Guthrie said that he was assured that there was still going to be lots of public engagement coming for the growth strategy. He also encouraged everyone on council to not get too stuck in their own expectations, as this was a living document and sure to change over the next year when the final version is brought to council for approval. The endorsement was passed unanimously.

COVID-19 Response Meeting of Council – June 17

After going the extra mile to promote Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day before reading the territorial acknowledgement, the nearly six-hour meeting exploring the latest impacts from COVID-19 began.

Here are some of the highlights from the staff presentation:

*Public drop-off for yard waste is expected to begin again on July 6.

*Revenue and cashflow are balancing out right now thanks to lower compensation costs and the fact that Guelphites have, for the most part, been keeping up those property tax payments.

*ServiceGuelph will be re-opening sometime next week with changes like plexiglass barriers and directional signage.

*Despite the efforts of some councillors to delay for an extra month, both transit and parking fees will return on July 6, but people will have their July passes covered if they bought one in March. The $5 fee for the OnYourWay Transit card will be waived until September 7.

*Washrooms in Market Square are now re-opened, and the washrooms in 11 public parks including Riverview, Eastview, Exhibition, Silvercreek, Norm Jary, Lyon, Larry Pearson, Margaret Greene, and Guelph Lake will open next week. The hours of operation for these washroom facilities are now 8 am to 8 pm.

*The Market Square splash pad should be open by the end of June, while other outdoor aquatic facilities will start to open in July.

*A smaller outdoor Farmer’s Market in the lot behind the Farmer’s Market building will be open on July 4 with a focus on farm produce and about 25 per cent of the normal compliment of vendors.

*COVID-19 costs are so far pegged at about $1.3 million, including $500k is for PPE, $135k for tech, $165k for overtime, and $465k to write-off interest and penalties on taxes. There are still additional costs coming in, but numbers won’t be firm until the second quarter variance report comes back in September.

A number of delegates discussed the disappointment over how long it took to re-open washroom facilities and how people living rough in Guelph have been unable to access basic hygiene and access to water for the last three months. A couple of delegates voiced their concerns about the re-opening of the leash-free dog park at Peter Misersky, and how they think it’s unlikely that users will be able to observe physical distancing while using the park.

Among the suggestions from council, Councillor June Hofland asked staff to explore the idea of using the Our Water truck to meet the needs of Guelph’s vulnerable community since it won’t be going to very many events this summer. Councillor Dominique O’Rourke tried unsuccessfully to get the Elliott Community excluded from council’s request to all local boards and shared services to watch their budget requests for 2021, but staff said it was easier to just send the request to everyone since it wasn’t an order.

After a brief break, council tackled the big question about patios, and expanding patios. Colton Proveau of Brothers Brewing delegated about the need for bars and restaurants downtown to maximize patio season because it’s going to be a difficult fall and winter. Hofland expressed some concern that council was putting the cart before the horse with the temporary seasonal patio program by initiating the program, and then asking for feedback and doing consultation with businesses, but Councillor Dan Gibson said that this may be one of those situations where a solution doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be fast. The program was approved by council unanimously.

After that, council looked at a series of motions brought forward by Mayor Cam Guthrie to create Outdoor Dining Districts that would allow the temporary closure of parking spaces, roads, and other spaces to allow for the expansion of patios, and wave the enforcement of zoning. Guthrie said that with this move the City was “dipping a toe” in a new type of program that would spurn on economic recovery and turn Downtown Guelph into a regional destination as the province continues to re-open.

Councillor Rodrgio Goller, who had previously expressed concerns about whether the expansion of patios might have a negative effect on other types of businesses, wondered if there should be limits on the number of parking spaces downtown that are converted into new patio space. Councillor James Gordon expressed his own concerns about accidentally creating a festival atmosphere, and it came up later that the City will have to manage a balancing act between messaging on physical distancing and encouraging people to dine out more. Hofland wondered if maybe the City was putting a lot of eggs in one basket and ignoring businesses outside downtown that might need more help.

There were somewhat serious concerns from Councillor Mark MacKinnon about designating authority to staff to close down streets, but Guthrie said that time was a factor, while CAO Scott Stewart added that council meets too infrequently to approve every application one-at-a-time. Gibson also noted that council has delegated authority in other matters during the pandemic. The motion ended up passing 12-1.

In one final motion, Councillor Cathy Downer asked for $350,000 from the GMHI dividend to help support organizations who collect the annual Community Benefit grants assist them in recovering from the impacts of COVID-19. With some groups and events shutdown till next year, and fundraising opportunities limited, about 7,000 people will be helped by the extra funding, which was unanimously approved by council.

Regular Council Meeting – June 29

The regular council meeting for June was short, sweet, and to the point. Despite some technical difficulties that forced four councillors to vote orally over the phone instead of by video, council approved the slate of new appointees to local boards and committees, agreed to guarantee another $2 million loan for the Elliot Community, and approved the cash-in-lieu proposal for an apartment building on Willow adding two new units.

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