The Month at Council: Planning Decisions, COVID Money, and Paused Procedures

It was an unusual month at city council, because August meetings of city council are themselves unusual. At the three meetings, we heard two planning decisions, the latest (and last?) COVID response meeting, and a very long regular meeting, which generated more than its share of friction. Here’s the recap of our once in a blue moon August month at city council.

Planning Meeting of Council – August 10

Technical difficulties were perhaps the most controversial thing about this month’s planning meeting.

After quickly dispatching the consent agenda item, a decision report on a zoning bylaw amendment for 167 Alice Street to allow the construction of two more single detached dwellings on the property, it was time to hear from two delegates on the decision report for a ZBA for 1300 Gordon Street. Unfortunately, the meeting was delayed for about 15 minutes as staff from the clerk’s office tried to resolve some technical problem that prevented the delegates from being heard.

Once resolved, council heard from Claudia Espindola about her concerns about over-intensification of Gordon between Arkell and Kortright, and then they heard from the developers agent, Astrid Clos, about the changes made to the proposal for 1300 Gordon that secured the approval of staff. (FYI: The application for this development was accepted exactly three years prior to this meeting on August 10, 2017.) A couple of councillors investigated their concerns about the lack of visitor parking and holding the developer to their promises to explore net zero and affordable housing options for this project.

The project was approved by council with Councillors Phil Allt and James Gordon voting against.

COVID-19 Response Meeting of Council – August 12

The fifth and final (?) COVID-19 response meeting of city council began with a bit on unexpected good news that the first phase of emergency funding, $12 million, would soon be received from the Federal and Provincial governments. When asked later if that might effectively wipe out the $10 million deficit that the City is looking at for the end of the year, Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart told Councillor Dan Gibson that his assessment “nailed it.”

Stewart and his deputies then reviewed the latest information on the City’s response to the pandemic: a return to a normal council schedule next month, further refinement of the patio program and dining district, re-opening the indoor portion of the Farmers Market, and planning for a potential second wave.

Councillor Mike Salisbury confirmed that Guelph is still technically under a state of emergency even though the provincial one has been lifted. Mayor Cam Guthrie explained that it was agreed between the medical officer of health and the emergency operations group to remain that the state of emergency should remain in place as Guelph cautiously re-opens. Salisbury then added that it might be “foolhardy” to end these COVID response meetings until the state of emergency is lifted, but they should instead be scheduled on a quarterly basis. Salisbury’s motion was approved by council as an additional recommendation to the staff report.

In terms of other intentions, Councillor Bob Bell wanted staff to work with the Downtown Guelph Business Association to re-open Wyndham Street, and he wanted staff to be weary about future spending in case Guelph’s not as fiscally fortunate in a second wave. Councillor Gibson asked staff to look at suspending for a year the one per cent infrastructure levy, while Councillor Christine Billings asked staff to bring forward a budget with a zero per cent increase in taxes for 2021. Councillor Rodrigo Goller added that he would like to see a comparison between the services and levels of service mandated by the Province, and the ones that are offered at the discretion of the City.

Regular Meeting of Guelph City Council – August 24

The council meeting began late as the closed session ran long, 20 minutes long, and it still wasn’t over when Mayor Cam Guthrie began the open portion at about 6:50 pm. With a packed agenda, and numerous delegates standing by things had to get started, and the meeting began with the swift passage of the continuation of the RideCo on-demand service for mobility transit.

There was one delegate on a last-minute addition to the agenda, the procedural consideration for Committee of the Whole. This motion would make Guthrie the vice-chair for all service area committees, and it would effectively allow him to chair each section when CoW meetings begin to be held again next month. Susan Watson was concerned about how the motion was brought forward, and whether or not committee chairs would still control their own agendas. City Clerk Stephen O’Brien said that this move was done in consultation with the chairs – who will still set their own agendas – because it would be easier to run committee meetings with a chair based in the council chambers. The motion was passed unanimously.

Next, council heard about the Schedule B Environmental Assessment for Gordon Street improvements between Edinburgh and Lowes Roads, which will see the expansion of Gordon to create a turning lane to ease the flow of traffic. The project will start construction in 2023, and there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of detailed planning, which includes Councillor Dominique O’Rourke’s comment about the need for mid-block pedestrian crossings. O’Rourke also had questions about the expropriation of land that had to be answered in-camera, after council voted to unanimously to receive the recommendation.

Council resumed after a 10-minute break to discuss a request to transfer funds from the affordable housing reserve to St. Joseph’s Housing Corporation for the Silver Maples Seniors Community project, which is building 65 affordable units for seniors, but due to a number of dramatic developments has found itself $2.4 million in the hole. Wellington County put $1.6 million on the table to help finish the project contingent on the City of Guelph coming up with the remaining $800,000. Initially, the City only offered $500,000, but the motion was amended to the full $800,000.

Council would go on to approve the money, as well as a recommendation for staff to explore the transference of responsibility for distributing municipal incentive funds for affordable housing to the County. Before moving on though, council also debated a motion from Councillor Mike Salisbury based on the delegation of Drop In Centre executive director Gail Hoekstra, the opportunity to turn the Parkview Motel into supportive housing.

Salisbury’s motion asked for staff for a report on supporting the purchase and transformation of Parkview into supportive housing by October, as Salisbury underlined the imperative of getting this done in advance of the arrival of winter. Although some on council expressed concern about the quick pace of committing to this project, and the fact that there are other perhaps equally viable options coming together, everyone agreed that the 30 or 35 spaces of supportive housing that this project provided are desperately needed.

Councillor June Hofland’s motion to refer to September’s Committee of the Whole meeting a debate to close the two leash-free dog parks in Guelph failed in a 5-8 vote.

Then, in an unusual move, council voted 12-1 (with Councillor Mark MacKinnon being the lone holdout) to suspend the procedural bylaw. Councillor Christine Billings brought forward a motion with her ward-mate Salisbury asking their colleagues to support the staff position that a traction power station not be constructed in Margaret Greene Park in the interest of protecting park and community space in Guelph. The motion needed to be passed outside the confines of the procedural bylaw since the public engagement portion of the project closes this Friday (see above), and it would take too long to bring this forward in a regular notice of motion process.

While the procedural bylaw was paused, Councillor Phil Allt brought forward his own motion concerning Metrolinx actions, a series of four recommendations directed to get information on the effects of closing Dublin Street at the train tracks on traffic in the neighbourhood, and the demand for further public engagement on current Metrolinx plans for the area. Some on council, including the mayor, felt it was a bridge too far, but Allt said that it was all of a piece with the Billings motion because Metrolinx’s present engagement is about the electrification of the entire Kitchener line, and not just about the placement of a TPS in an area park.

In the back and forth on the Allt motion, staff revealed that there will be two big engagement projects on this issue later this year: Metrolinx will be doing a study of graded crossings along their tracks, which will require the assistance of the City to organize public engagement, and the City will be doing its own explorations of traffic patterns in and around the core. In the end, council endorsed two of the recommendations, one about reporting to council any costs that the City might incur from the electrification of the tracks, and that staff bring forward a report that studies potential rail crossing closures from Guelph Central Station to the Hanlon.

Council then returned to closed session to finish their discussion about the Baker District Redevelopment.

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