This Month at Council: Patios, No Proxies, More Supportive Housing, and Patios(!)

At Guelph city council, March came in like a lion, and it went out like a… slightly smaller lion. Since the weather was (mostly) nice, it was perhaps unsurprising that this summer’s patio program took up so much of the meeting time this month, but there were other matters covered including more planning applications, and the mid-term governance review. Here’s the council recap from March.

Committee of the Whole Meeting – March 1

After the monthly staff recognitions, committee began with the quarterly update about the municipal response to COVID-19. Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer spoke about the rate of infection and the vaccine rollout strategy, while Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart talked about the corporate response from the City of Guelph.

For the most part, council were curious about the vaccines: when members of the community might be able to get their shots, when essential workers will be eligible, and how members of the community will be able to find out when their day arrives. Committee also asked about the efficacy of the proposal for the outdoor dining area proposed for downtown this summer, and Mercer said that between indoor dining and outdoor dining, it’s outdoor dining that’s the safer option.

After passing the consent agenda from Infrastructure, Development and Enterprise, council dug into the debate over the 2021-23 Seasonal Patio Program. Manger of Economic Development Christine Chapman laid down the engagement done after the Dining District closed last summer, and the plan they came up with for the next three years of patio programs. Staff recommended option #1, a plan that would allow full street closures only for special occasions.

There were 15 people that delegated, including yours truly. Many of the delegates were downtown business owners in favour of the same rules used to create the Dining District last summer, or they were happy customers that enjoyed the Dining District experience. Some business owners expressed sympathy with other downtown businesses that felt left out by the district, while Downtown Guelph Business Association executive director Marty Williams expressed a desire for compromise, either shutting the streets down for special occasions, or closing them down every weekend as suggested in option #3.

Concerns were also expressed about the negative impact on transit, and all the traffic detoured away from the main streets onto side streets in neighbourhoods outside downtown. Still, the business case was strong with two restaurant owners suggesting that their insurance rates would be negatively impacted if they start running patios along streets that are still open to traffic.

When it was council’s turn to make a decision, things got considerably more complicated.

Councillors Rodrigo Goller and Dan Gibson moved to replace option #1 in the six referral items with option #2, which would close the streets for the entire summer in a similar way as the Dining District in 2020. The change would also add a little over $300,000 to the budget for the project, but Goller said that it would give the City a better idea about the darts and laurels of a possible car-free downtown.

It was not meant to be though because all but three councillors voted against option #2. The feeling that it gave an unfair advantage to some businesses, the added cost, and the unknown unknowns about the immediate future of the spread of COVID infections were among the reasons council didn’t go forward with a full shut down.

Next, Gibson proposed moving with option #3, the closure of streets on weekends from Friday morning to Sunday night saying that it was a good compromise. The budget impact was nearly $295,000, but that was still too rich for some people on council. Some were still concerned about encouraging large gatherings every weekend without having a handle on the future of the virus and vaccination, and there were also uncertainties about the future of the University of Guelph, and whether students will be back in town for usual Frosh Week activities in September.

Ultimately, the vote on option #3 failed by a 5-8 vote, which brought committee back to staff’s original recommendation, option #1.

Even with this option there were still concerns about proceeding with a long-term version of this project for the next three years. Another councillor wanted to set up some reporting mechanism, but Mayor Cam Guthrie didn’t want to put staff in the position of going a fulsome, post-project follow-up report like this after every patio season. Eventually, committee agreed to proceed option #1 without any further amendments, and it passed unanimously.

To close out the file, two more motions were passed, one to implement reporting on traffic impacts for any street closure longer than 48 hours, and another motion that directed staff to prepare a report for information on the 2021 patio program in the first quarter or 2022.

The meeting ended shortly before 9 o’clock with the passage of the two items from the Corporate Services agenda.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Planning Meeting of City Council – March 8

It was another very busy planning meeting for city council this month, and it started like last month with a proposal for supportive housing. This time, it was the 30-plus units proposed for the Willow Road area by the Kindle Community and Skydev, a subsidiary of local developer Skyline.

Nearly a dozen delegates offered their thoughts and insights into the proposal, and there were some common themes. There were some concerns about the proprietorship of the laneway and whether the City would be responsible for snow removal, as well as concerns about the decreased number of parking spaces, and the decreased amenity space. Many people were enthusiastic about the development, but others were worried about the usual notes like over-density and lack of public engagement.

The second planning application was more straightforward, a plan to build a duplex on Kathleen Street on a property where there was once a single detached home. Council voted to receive that report without much of a fuss.

Third, council heard about the plan by the owners of Willow West Mall to build two apartment buildings on their corner of Silvercreek and Willow. Many on council, and a few of the delegates, seemed to enjoy discussing the possibilities of redeveloping an outdated strip mall property, but there were some critiques that need to be addressed. Primary among the concerns was the lack of common amenity space, the absence of greenspace on the property, and making sure there was a transition between the commercial and residential buildings on the property.

The final item of the evening was the draft land use strategy for the York Road/Elizabeth Street triangle, which got way more laurels than darts from the four delegates and city council. The dedication to creating active transportation options and making 106 Beaumont a community park were especially welcome, but one delegate pointed out a need for more pedestrian crossings on York Road, and there was some discussion about making the heritage registry process more simple to explain along with the rights and responsibilities for homeowners.

The meeting ended with a tribute to the women on council in time for the last few hours of International Women’s Day, and a tribute to departing Deputy CAO Kealy Dedman since Monday was her last meeting of city council as a staff member of the City of Guelph.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Special Meeting of City Council – March 22

It was a special meeting of city council at a special time. The topic was the mid-term review of the Procedural Bylaw, which are the rules and procedures that govern how city council operates. There seemed to be no specific issues with the changes proposed by the City of Guelph’s clerks’ office including a pilot for video delegations, the allowance of petitions, and a change to shorten the window for Notice of Motion actions, but there were some other concerns.

After a short verbal presentation from City Clerk Stephen O’Brien, council heard from the five delegates, all of them proverbial returning champions. Most were concerned about the possibility of proxy votes being allowed, a measure that wasn’t even being considered by the clerks’ office but was nevertheless allowed by changes to the Municipal Act last year at the provincial level. There was also a request to look at the inclusion of council members on advisory committees as non-voting participants.

There were 15 recommendations from staff and working backwards council swiftly approved 3 through 15.

The most debate was around recommendation #2, which was the motion that would direct the City Clerk to come up with a policy for the submission of petitions by the fall. The intent was to receive the policy though an information report, but council passed an amendment to have it come back directly to council. A couple of councillors want to make sure that there are measures in the policy to guarantee signatories on electronic petitions are actual Guelph residents and not bots or people that don’t live in Guelph.

On the matter of advisory committees, the clerks’ office is presently reviewing those terms and conditions, and that report should come back to council sometime in the early summer. On a similar topic, it was also suggested that staff look at drawing up some policy for the creation of task forces, like Mayor Cam Guthrie’s own Task Force for Poverty Elimination. An additional motion to look at this issue passed unanimously along with all of staff’s recommendations.

Council members also asked about the set up a hybrid system where people will be able to attend council meetings either in-person or virtually, but it will require an investment in technological upgrades to the council chamber that could be approved for next year’s budget and performed during the election period next fall.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Regular Meeting of City Council – March 29

The big issue of the night was about this summer’s patio program, and the big question was whether or not council would decide to amend their March 1 committee decision to only allow road closures on special occasions. Was there a compromised path available?

To get there, we had to hear from 13 delegates starting with Downtown Guelph Business Association executive director Marty Williams, who said that he and the board had a re-think on the options and were supporting weekend closures after being unable to come up with a way to properly define what a “special occasion” would look like. Over the course of the night though, it became painfully clear that some downtown business owners feel that Williams and the DGBA don’t speak for them.

Those same business owners were still hoping for an eleventh hour 180-degree turn to doing a seasonal patio program, but there were other delegates urging the compromised weekend option. One delegate, a retired epidemiologist at the University of Guelph, advised caution and noted that a dining district would be a “beacon” for people to gather, and the variants are far more contagious than the OG COVID ever was even with the standard safety precautions.

When it was council’s turn, an amendment proposed by Mayor Cam Guthrie was passed to allow patios to start rolling out after April 1. This would change the start date of the regular patio season outside of any road closures, so essentially the City can start handing out approvals shortly after they start receiving applications this Thursday instead of waiting until May 1 to let people set up patios on their own private property.

Then it was time for the big one: road closures! Guthrie asked council if there was any interest from council to make a motion to approve the second option, which was a seasonal closure of the intersection. There was not.

So the question was whether council would stick to the status quo, or if there were two or three people willing to move from their position at committee and support weekend closures.

The first amendment came from Councillor Cathy Downer who suggested the weekend closure option to be in effect from June 18 to the Labour Day weekend. It would create less disruptions for a shorter period of time, and it would end before in-person classes resume at the University of Guelph this fall and thus avoiding any confusion with Guelph Transit’s biggest customer base.

Councillor Dan Gibson countered with a different timeline, April 30 to September 6, but that was apparently too long for the majority of council who voted against the amendment 4-9. Gibson then suggested a timeline of the Victoria Day long weekend to Labour Day, and that seemed to hit the council sweet spot. The amendment passed 7-6.

The completed motion had an even stronger endorsement from council with eight voting in favour and five voting against. So, patios can open on after April 1, and the corner of Wyndham and Macdonell will be closed for the first time on the Victoria Day long weekend, and every weekend after that from Friday to Sunday. It’s not the answer everyone wanted, but it’s also the answer that nobody’s happy with.

In one last piece of business, Councillor June Hofland proposed a motion to have the City of Guelph endorse universal paid sick days and appeal to the Ontario government to legislate it. A similar motion was passed by St. Catharines city council last month, but somehow there was even more division on this straightforward endorsement than the patio program.

After about 30 minutes of debate council approved the endorsement by a slim 7-6 majority. Some of the points against it included not enough information to make an informed endorsement, the fact that it’s not within the City’s jurisdiction, and too much focus on the Provincial government since it didn’t appeal to the Federal government too.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

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