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Toronto Population density concerns grip City of Burlington residents as new waterfront development is approved

The empty lot of the Nautique development is seen in Burlington, Ont. on Thursday, March 14, 2019.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The biggest development bogeyman in this city west of Toronto is a building that hasn’t been built, a site now distinguished only by construction debris, muddy snow and bits of litter.

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But the 26-storey tower slated for near Burlington’s waterfront – a building approved by a provincial tribunal, over the city’s objections – has ruffled so many feathers that the new mayor and council voted this month to clamp down on development.

For one year, and possibly more, the city won’t approve any development applications in an broad area that stretches from Lake Ontario north past the Burlington GO train station. Staff will use the time to try to assess the city’s land-use policies, which politicians hope will strengthen their hand in future development disputes by giving them the data they need to push back. And the ultimate goal is maintaining the current feel in the centre of this city of 185,000.

The development debate in Burlington is one that reflects growth across the Greater Toronto Area, which is expected to receive roughly 2.8 million new residents by 2041, according to provincial projections. How to accommodate these people – who will be looking for housing they can afford and a commute that isn’t too terrible – is one of the biggest issues facing the region.

“If we just have highrises everywhere in the downtown, you lose your sun, you lose that small-town feel where people know each other’s name,” said Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward, who displaced two-term incumbent Rick Goldring in a fall election that she described as hinging on development concerns.

“We had a comprehensive five-point platform that we would talk about at the doors," she added, in an interview at her office. "And the residents wanted to talk about overdevelopment in their neighbourhoods and downtown in particular, and a sense that they were losing what made Burlington unique and why they moved to Burlington in the first place if they’re not from here. We heard that everywhere.”

Albert Schmid, 82, is photographed out front of his Watch & Clock repair shop in downtown Burlington. Mr. Schmid has been at the same location for 25-years and is being forced to move to make way for a development.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The issue has divided locals, with some striving to protect Burlington’s modestly scaled downtown and others eager to build a different future. But some, even among those directly affected by the development, have found a more measured middle ground.

Albert Schmid came to Canada from Germany in the 1950s and joined a family business selling and repairing watches and clocks. At one time it had locations across Southern Ontario and Mr. Schmid has been in Burlington nearly half a century.

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Twenty-five years of his time here has been in the business’s current location, a former ice-house downtown that is slated to be demolished for a development. But he was sanguine about leaving, saying “You don’t get too sentimental” and putting the change in a broader context.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘Save the downtown,’ ” the 82-year-old said, “but where were they when they built all the malls?”

ACCOMMODATING GROWTH

The development debate in Burlington is one that reflects growth across the Greater Toronto Area, which is expected to receive roughly 2.8 million new residents by 2041, according to provincial projections.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

Weighing heavily on the broader debate about accommodating the people expected to come to the Greater Toronto Area is the history of a region traditionally reliant on single-family homes as its dominant form of real estate.

It’s an approach requiring swaths of land that are in increasingly short supply. Burlington is one of several GTA communities where new greenfield building sites are essentially used up, making its downtown development freeze more meaningful.

“When you cut off supply, we know what that does to the price of houses,” warned Suzanne Mammel, executive director of the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders’ Association.

“The average homeowner, they want to move to Burlington, supply has now dwindled. So we know that, based on pure economics, the prices will go up. And that makes it harder for people who want to live here.”

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Trying to add density to residential areas can pose its own problems. Homeowners are often protective of the value of their property, and believe an influx of people will threaten that. Many cities, including Toronto, place heavy emphasis on keeping established neighbourhoods unchanged, which limits options for accommodating additional residents without relying on towers.

In Toronto, an official-plan amendment seeks to keep redevelopment consistent with the buildings nearby. The policy, according to architect George Popper, writing in Spacing magazine, will ensure that “neighbourhoods will remain frozen in time.” With the bulk of Toronto designated as stable residential areas and essentially off-limits to development, the city has absorbed much of recent growth in newly created tower neighbourhoods. It’s an approach that has gradually been gaining ground in surrounding municipalities as well, in some cases reflecting profound changes in public opinion.

Richmond Hill deputy mayor Joe DiPaola explained that his city, north of Toronto, recently voted to kill its downtown plan. He said it placed too many restrictions on builders and generated no development applications. The city wants to set new rules that will spark a building boom.

“I was elected first 21 years ago and there was this desire to have no development in the core,” he said.

“Now the vast majority of residents of Richmond Hill want to be part of an urban centre and understand and accept that Yonge Street is such an important corridor that there will likely be, you know, very high buildings and very high densities.”

A Condo development sign is seen amongst a boarded up block of businesses across from City Hall in Burlington.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

POTENTIAL DENSITY HUBS

High densities remain controversial in central Burlington and, as part of its one-year development freeze, the city is looking at where else taller buildings might go. The lands around the GO stations – which would be less controversial to develop, but also farther from amenities – are being eyed for potential density hubs.

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“We’ve made a livable quaint downtown where there’s a mix already of high density, medium and low,” said Ms. Meed Ward, the mayor. “We risk upsetting that fine balance of all those components by just jamming in high-rise after high-rise at an unsustainable scale and cost.”

The freeze has ensnared four development applications that were made before it was instituted. These will be advanced only to the public meeting stage and then stopped, according to Burlington chief planner Heather MacDonald, as will any applications that come in during the freeze. But a number of tall projects that had already been approved are expected to go ahead.

Among them is a condo now being built on the water that stands over 20 storeys. The 26-storey one that sparked political pushback will go up steps away. And a few blocks away is a development that would stand 24 storeys, triple that of City Hall, which sits across the street.

These towers will loom large in a downtown featuring the mix of shops and modest buildings that is the pattern for many small urban centres. The core is largely filled with low- and mid-rise structures, with the tallest buildings tending to max out around 10 or 15 storeys.

But the city’s core is also inconsistent, with elements that hew to a more suburban feel. There’s the seven-storey parking garage that offers spaces free for 20 minutes, the sprawling gas station by the waterfront, the big-box strip mall only 500 metres from City Hall.

How a flurry of new towers will fit into this eclectic mix is a fraught question locally. Roland Tanner, co-chair of the advocacy group Engaged Citizens of Burlington, said that he supports adding people downtown as long as doing so doesn’t destroy what is there now.

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“What we see in other parts of the world is you don’t sacrifice what you have, if you’ve got something special,” he argued. “It’s not about putting up a wall and saying, ‘You can’t come here.’ It’s saying, ‘Where’s the right place?' ”

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