On Monday, October 27, 2014, Council voted to allow a rezoning of a plot of land in Kenmount Terrace on Ladysmith Drive from "Institutional" to "Apartment Medium Density." This was requested because the owner of the land would like to enable the development of three, four-story apartment buildings.
Click here to read specifics about the Ladysmith proposal (there are Background and LUAR links at the bottom with maps and specifications).
It was a contentious issue, with many residents expressing concern about what this would mean for their community. Like my fellow councillors, I received many emails and phone calls, and I read and heard every one.
Because Council voted to allow the rezoning -- against the wishes of residents -- some have said that councillors don't listen. I understand why they feel that way, but it's very important to me that residents know I listen very closely and consider deeply the decisions I make on your behalf.
So as is common for me, I am sharing publicly an explanation of why I voted the way I did. It is an extended version of the speech I gave during the council debate, and I structured it to respond directly to concerns I heard from residents.
Council does listen, and while listening doesn't mean we will always come to the decision residents favour, your input factors heavily into how we vote and operate. I hope my explanation below conveys this. Please feel free to comment below.
Over the past few weeks, I've been reviewing all of the comments and points of view regarding the proposed apartment buildings in Kenmount Terrace. This is a difficult -- but important -- decision for Council.
After considerable thought and dialogue, and given the fact that we have this vote before us today, I would like to explain the position I have arrived at.
First, St. John’s is growing rapidly and is projected to grow in population for at least the next several years. That's why the developers want to build these buildings: they know our market is growing and they are investing in it.
More people means higher demand for various types of housing as well as services like water, sewer, snow clearing, garbage pickup, etc.
Dense developments like these save the City money because we can provide services to lots of people without adding miles of pipe and pavement that have to be maintained. Ultimately this keeps our taxes low.
In other words, the main reasons we are often heard encouraging apartment construction is that an increase in housing options helps to meet demand and assist us with our housing affordability mandate by stabilizing costs (more choice means more competition on price); and encouraging density keeps long-term service costs (that is, taxes) from growing too quickly.
There have been many concerns from residents, and as always they are legitimate. But fear of the unknown as well as spotty information can sometime cloud our decision-making. So we have to take a sober look at the concerns to make sure we're measuring the correctly.
Here are some points I’ve considered:
Many people are worried about lower property values, and there are competing claims as to whether this will happen, however I have yet to hear a good reason for either side of the debate.
Here's why I think this development is unlikely to reduce neighbouring property values. Let’s consider things that could cause a reduction in neighbours' values: ugly, imposing buildings with poor maintenance and disruptive tenants.
These proposed buildings, however, will be of good quality and design and will house responsible tenants who are screened before renting and required to take on a year-long lease. The developer will also be the landlord, so it is in their interest to have an appealing place and community. They will not detract and will likely try to add to the neighbourhood.
Competition with basement apartments: the buildings and the basements are targeting different demographics (the difference between $900 and $1500 is large), so this is likely not going to be a big problem. Also, if this building is put elsewhere, we will be in the same position of more apartments on the market.
Some have noted that market conditions may force the developer to lower their own prices, but the risk is low for two main reasons: They have a detailed, professional assessment of the market forecast of increasing demand; and they have minimum costs to cover which would require the rates they’ve set to remain. Any case, the market is growing, so the demand should be large enough for the foreseeable future to satisfy the increased supply.
Traffic. Yes, more homes means more traffic, and traffic is admittedly bad in Kenmount Terrace (mostly due to the road layout and access points, as far as I can tell). However, apartments have one of the lowest impacts on daily traffic. To reject this development on the basis of traffic would be basically rejecting it in favour of developments currently allowed under the existing zoning, most of which have worse traffic impacts.
The promise of a school: Many residents are frustrated with Council for even considering this rezoning, because the expectation has always been that a school would be built in this area. I understand this frustration, but there are some important facts that must be considered.
This land in question was zoned a a potential location for a school in the 90s -- about 20 years ago. In that time, the local school board has indicated they were not in a position to use the land for a school in the foreseeable future.
During the course of this issue, the School Board was contacted about this, and their CEO's response was that they have not made a decision to build a school there, however, that "it is possible that a school may be required in the future in response to infrastructure and/or population demands."
This lead to some confusion, but here are the facts: The School Board does not own the land; it is privately owned and the owner would like to have it developed. The owner has an opportunity to build something now, and has found a developer who is ready to build. Given the deep uncertainty of the School Board ever being interested in buying the land to build, it is the owner's right to pursue other options.
For those hoping for a school in the area, the good news is that by the time the School Board makes a decision, there will be more land available in the adjoining region about the 190 Contour, a plan for which is being created as we speak.
No amenities in the community: This is the concern that has caused me the most pause for thought and is probably the most important one to consider.
When we talk about density, it doesn't just mean "build up" or "cram everyone into apartments and condos." It means making great use of our land to maximize its potential. The residents of Kenmount Terrace, while technically near a big box centre full of amenities and an upcoming large parkland, still have to drive to get to any sort of amenity.
Having to drive places is part of the reason we try to avoid "sprawl." More people driving means more congestion, less productivity (waiting in traffic instead of doing your job / being with family / etc.), and lower quality of life (walking even short distances makes you healthier).
Kenmount Terrace is made up only of houses and the only sidewalks are on streets with speedy traffic, dangerous for children and adults alike. Simply adding more homes will not address any of the issues in this community.
An opportunity to improve the community
This being said, I believe we have a big opportunity here. Northern has shown themselves to be a truly engaged corporate citizen. While we have just released an Engagement Framework that looks to do a much better job of involving residents in the planning and changes in their community, Northern has gone above and beyond our current policy and we have to recognize and appreciate this.
So with their engaged spirit in mind, I think we should work with them to see how they can provide benefits to the community along with their apartments. It would benefit both existing residents and their future tenants to have, say: shops in the bottom of one building; walking trails in the Open Space between Kenmount Road and Iceland Place; or other amenities that are brainstormed with the residents.
The point is this: we need density, but we also need complete neighbourhoods, and unfortunately Kenmount Terrace is not really "complete" yet. So we should ask the developer (and future developers) to work with us to "fix" or enhance the community they wish to develop in. Northern has indicated to many of us on Council that they are willing to do this.
In principle, with the perspective of our city's future in mind, I am supportive of this proposal. I will, however, work closely with staff, my colleagues on council, and the developer to find a final agreement that includes enhancements to the community alongside the development of these apartments.
As well, the residents and public at large will have another opportunity to express their views at an independent commissioner's hearing once the Province has reviewed our application to change the zoning. By then I hope to have some recommendations to accompany the final plan.