This Month at Council: Back to Committee, Patio Emergency, and South End Crunch

Although everyone was still meeting remotely, council got back to something resembling a normal schedule with September’s slate of meetings. From a new pedestrian bridge, to an update on Guelph’s tree health, to an emergency meeting about patios and a development crunch in the south end of the city, it was a very busy month around the (virtual) horseshoe. Let’s recap the last month.

Committee of the Whole Meeting – September 8

We return to our semi-regular council schedule with the first Committee of the Whole meeting since March, and there was a lot to digest.

About half the meeting was taken up with the presentation of the Schedule B environmental assessment for the Emma-Earl Bridge, with eight delegations and a lot of debate about what the bridge might look like and when it will get built. The bridge has been in the works since 2016, and it will be a multiuse bridge connecting Emma and Earl Streets as an alternative for pedestrians and cyclists to the Speedvale Ave bridge. Some delegates were supportive of the bridge as addition to the active transportation infrastructure, but others were worried that it could lead to more crime in the area by providing an easy escape route from the Trans-Canada Trail.

Council asked many questions about next phases, and the future design details of the bridge. Councillor Mike Salisbury confirmed that the bridge will be built in a way that will allow people to ride across it, and Councillor James Gordon got confirmation that lighting is intended to be a part of the bridge design to assuage fears about safety. Staff also said that they will be monitoring wildlife in the area to make sure that the eventual construction will do as little as possible to disturb them, and that there will be at least one open house sometime in 2021 that will go over the detailed design of the bridge.

A couple of councillors also explored some questions about the development of this bridge outside of the update to the Trails Master Plan, but there is a need to get this particular project in advance, or parallel to the start of work on the Speedvale bridge. Councillor Bob Bell made the point the project should be understood as a capital cost saving measure because of the expense of expropriating land along Speedvale to expand it for dedicated, separate bike lanes. The recommendations passed unanimously.

After a brief break, Committee heard about the initial phase of electrifying Guelph Transit’s fleet. There was some confusion about this being a motion to proceed with the operations campus, which was presented last fall, but there were two specific recommendations here. One was to continue with negotiations about the payment schedule for Federal and Provincial funds that will go to the transit portion of the campus, and to install four bus chargers at the present garage at 170 Watson Road that can me moved and re-installed at a new facility if council chooses to proceed. Staff is still working on the business case and supporting documents for the operations campus, and that could come back to council before the end of the year.

Having said that, the two recommendations were voted on separately, with council voting 12-1 in favour of directing staff to continue negotiations (Bell was the one hold out saying that he’s been unable to get his questions about the operations campus project answered in about eight months), and unanimously on the electrification pilot. Staff will replace buses at the end of their lifecycle with the four “practice” electrical buses and will then gage the successes and challenges in moving to an electric fleet.

The final report was the update on the Urban Forest Management Plan Implementation, and the second phase implementation. There was a lot of praise for the City’s forestry team, but there are some challenges still in reaching a 40 per cent tree canopy.

Gene Matthews, Manager of Parks Operation Forestry, said that using public land alone will only get the City to a 32 per cent canopy, so private landowners need to be brought on board, and they will need incentives. Matthews also said that the City needs to be proactive about the next pest so that we’re not “caught on the back foot” with another Emerald Ash Borer-type invasive species. He added that combatting EAB has helped put the City two-and-a-half years behind in its canopy goals. The recommendations passed unanimously.

Planning Meeting Recap – September 14  

September’s planning meeting pushed council nearly to the point of having to suspend the Procedural Bylaw, but they managed to wrap things up with time to spare before 11 pm.

The first of three statutory planning meetings concerned the addition of two units on a subdivision planned for 1159 Victoria Street South, a proposal that we were reminded has seen a lot of history over the last 10 years (!?). There were some concerns about making sure the stormwater management area was protected, and staff were asked about getting an executive summery together about the complicated development history of the site, but the presentation of the application proceeded rather smoothly.

In a new addition to the meeting process, the representatives of the applicants were given a chance to appear via video as opposed to just calling in. That move made perennial council delegate Susan Watson call out the city clerks for giving the people bringing the development applications a leg up, but the Deputy City Clerk Dylan McMahon said that his staff were experimenting with video delegations Monday night by using a small sample and that they hope to roll it out more universally if successful.

For public meeting number two, council heard about the plan to add a fifth storey of affordable housing onto the soon-to-be-refurbished old Uniroyal plant. Common concerns were about the effect of traffic on the area, what degree of affordability these 30 new units might offer, and how long they would be listed as affordable. Mayor Cam Guthrie got assurances that if the application for affordability was approved by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation for a 21-year hitch that the units would not become priced to market at 21 years and one day. There was also a lot of positive discussion about the possibility of adding to the City’s stock of affordable housing

The final application was by far the most contentious, at least in terms of delegations. Of the nine listed prior to the meeting, four of them represented the applicant and they discussed the tremendous care they had taken to develop the plan, how they made the proposed building aesthetically attractive, and how they went above and beyond to protect the natural features in the immediate area. The rest of the delegates were highly skeptical of those assurances and discussed their concerns about the potential for increase traffic in the area, and whether this stretch of south Gordon was starting to show signs of overdevelopment.

Many on council shared those concerns and they asked staff to prepare an overview of current projects on Gordon, and their prospective impact on traffic in the area along with their effect on reaching Guelph’s density targets. A couple of councillors also expressed concern about the developer’s laundry list of exceptions to the zoning regulations that they were asking for, and some on council even said that they will decline to support the plan when it comes back for final decision unless that exceptions list gets a lot smaller. Councillor Dominique O’Rourke, whose ward this development falls into, added that her constituents are starting feel “the crunch of density.”

No final decisions were made on any of these files.

Emergency Council Meeting – September 21  

At almost literally the eleventh hour, the Downtown Dining District was saved from having to close down at midnight. Instead, the district was granted an extension until November 30, and a special committee of stakeholders will be brought together to look at all the data collected on the project and confer on its future. An interim report will be brought to a future council meeting, but in the meantime, it’s business as usual for the Dining District.

There were a dozen delegates at the meeting. Some of them were downtown business owners who have enjoyed the benefits of the district, others were owners of downtown businesses that argued that the Dining District enhanced their businesses, and there were even a couple of people from K-W that called in to praise the district from across city lines. Guelph Chamber of Commerce President Shakiba Hayani, and Downtown Guelph Business Association executive director Marty Williams also spoke to council and answered numerous probing questions.

It took the better part of two hours to  get through all delegations and answer all of council’s questions, but when the debate finally came back to council Mayor Cam Guthrie said it was his hope that extending the date of the Dining District until January 1 would give businesses the stability and flexibility they need to make it through the rest of the winter.

The first one to offer an amendment was Councillor Cathy Downer who suggested extending the Dining District until November 2, and having the mayor lead a steering committee to bring back future steps in advance of the deadline. There was a lot of discussion about what the formation of the committee would look like, and whether they would be crossing streams with staff as they did much of the same work in preparation for a full council report in February. Eventually it was decided that the mayor should not lead the committee, and it should be left to stakeholders and staff to work directly to figure out the next phase of the district.

Councill Mark MacKinnon asked the most pertinent question of the night about why staff chose September 21 as the last day for the Dining District, and the answer apparently had something to do with the seasonal repair work that needs to be done on the corner of Wyndham and Macdonell including cleaning the basins, repainting lines and fixing trip hazards in the sidewalk. Deputy CAO Colleen Clack-Bush said that the work needs to be done, but staff would be fine postponing or working around the fenced in portions of the district.

Back to the date, and Councillor Dan Gibson upped the ante to November 30. Gibson said that he wasn’t proposing this as an end date, but was rather viewing it as an extension; council could always re-visit the decision if the weather holds up later in the season and if people are still taking part in the district. Council passed the amended end date of November 30 in a close 7-6 vote.

With the wording of the motion complete, Councillor Bob Bell offered a final amendment to ask staff to make the re-opening the Wyndham/Macdonell intersection to traffic a priority, but the amendment was eventually ruled out of order by Mayor Guthrie because you can’t have a dining *district* if people are still allowed to drive through it. MacKinnon challenged the ruling, but council voted 5-7 to uphold it.

Council eventually passed recommendation #1, the extension of the Dining District, by a vote of 11-2 with Bell and Councillor Phil Allt voting against. The second recommendation, which offered $2,500 to the DGBA to create and promote a Christmas market, failed 3-10 with most of council deciding that they didn’t want to micromanage whatever holiday plans that downtown merchants already have in the works.

Regular Meeting of Council – September 28

Monday’s regular meeting of council moved forward swiftly even as council dealt with a number of complicated items on the agenda.

Council passed the one consent item left over from Committee of the Whole, which was the City Operations Campus Part One. It was ratified by council 12-1 with Councillor Bob Bell persisting with his no vote from committee.

Council then heard one new delegate on the Urban Forest Management Plan and implementation, but Councillor Dominique O’Rourke still expressed reservations in telling staff to prioritize the funding requirements apart from the rest of the budget despite staff assurances that they just need direction on finding the funding to complete the review. O’Rourke asked for the two recommendations to be separated and voted against the second one, which was the funding direction. The rest of council voted in favour of both recommendations.

Three delegates were heard on the Emma-Earl Bride Environmental Assessment; two of them were in favour, but transportation consultant Martin Collier returned to try and make the case that the focus should be on improving access to Speedvale Ave for cyclists and pedestrians instead of building a whole new separate bridge for them down the road. After some back and forth between Councillor June Hofland and Collier about where the other’s evidence was, council unanimously decided to move forward with the bridge.

After a brief brake, council heard the main piece of new business, which was the Strategic Plan Action Plan and Performance Management Framework. Staff outlined how they would consider degrees of success for each of the five areas of the Strategic plan, and what pieces of information they will look at in order to determine that success. Staff will also be establishing a dashboard so that the community will be able to follow that progress as well.

Some on council expressed concern about community engagement in the COVID-era, and others wanted to make sure that they would be able to comprehend the multiyear budget when it’s eventually presented to council. CAO Scott Stewart explained that council will be given lots of education and assistance from staff so that they will be able to share that budget info with constituents. The three recommendations were passed unanimously.

Council then heard about Councillor Leanne Caron’s motion to request for more funding from the upper levels of government to support local charities, non-profits and minor sports through the pandemic. The three recommendations are based on motions passed by other municipalities, but there was one amendment to add the Ontario Big City Mayors group to the list of organizations to be carbon copied on the notification of the motion.

And finally, Councillor Rodrigo Goller made a case for his motion to move the City to an app driven system of advanced notification about temporary street closures over blanket parking restrictions in the winter months, but he only found the support for three other members of council to move the motion at a future Committee of the Whole meeting.

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