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Councillors split over development plans for London

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by Daily Commercial News last update:Jul 17, 2008

It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and reaction to plans for additional bigbox development in the northwest edge of London seems to bear that old axiom out.

BY DAVE MILNE

DCN CORRESPONDENT

LONDON, ONT.

It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and reaction to plans for additional bigbox development in the northwest edge of London seems to bear that old axiom out.

For opponents like Councillor Joni Baechler, chair of this southwestern Ontario city’s planning committee, outlying bigbox stores like Wal-Mart pull shoppers and money out of the downtown core where the city has already made a major commitment to revitalization.

And with approximately one million square feet of commercial space already vacant across the city, such development will only serve to exacerbate an already undesirable situation, she said.

“That’s why we have the problems we have in North America in terms of cities and peripheral growth,” Baechler said.

“We all know the basic principle; the more peripheral growth you have, the bigger the draw it is. It’s just a basic planning principle that any 12- year-old in Europe knows.”

It’s a lesson London city planners seem to have learned as well. According to senior planner Chuck Parker, there is about 450,000 square feet of retail-commercial space already built in the area of Hyde Park Road and Fanshawe Park Road, the bulk of which includes a new Wal-Mart and a Walt-Martowned Sam’s Club warehouse store directly across the street.

A previously approved community plan for the Hyde Park- Fanshawe area had sought to cap development at 880,000 square feet, but city council earlier in the summer approved requests from two major landowners to bump that to about 1.2 million square feet.

City staff argued against the additional space, Parker said, contending that what was being proposed by the landowners was simply too much.

“We identified the size of land that should be designated for commercial, just based on how big the surrounding area was and what we thought was an appropriate size. It was just too much space, and it might have an impact on existing commercial centers.”

One of the things the community plan originally sought to do, Baechler said, was to protect the integrity of the village of Hyde Park, which now lies within London’s borders. City housing developments have crept up around Hyde Park, but the village business section remains a collection of quaint, individually owned specialty shops.

“There was a goal to maintain the village-like centre of Hyde Park as it is,” she said.

“When you’ve got massive magnets on the corners, the reality is it makes it much more difficult for these smaller stores to compete.”

What particularly irks Baechler about the planned Hyde Park-Fanshawe development is the fact city council has spent millions to help prop up the downtown core, including the newly built John Labatt Centre, home of the Ontario Hockey League’s Jr. A London Knights and a popular city concert venue.

“One-hundred million of taxpayers’ money has already gone into the core and we need to be prudent about what we do on the periphery,” she said.

“Because the success of the core hinges to a great degree on what occurs on the periphery. And so a lot of people are asking, ‘What are you doing? The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.’

“There’s a lot of implications to it. There’s been a lot of community outcry. In my four years (on the city planning committee) there have been few other issues that have raised the ire of the community more than this one did.”

But fellow city councillor Cheryl Miller, who supports the additional commercial space, said the Hyde Park-Fanshawe development is a natural progression. She acknowledged what has been approved goes above and beyond the community plan for the area, but said most other plans in the city have gone that way too.

“This has been a long time coming and nobody should be surprised at the commercial node at the corner of Hyde Park and Fanshawe,” Miller said.

“There isn’t a community plan in London that hasn’t changed. That community plan was never etched in stone.”

Unlike Baechler, Miller said she believes the development will help London as a whole, not hurt it. The city is a regional centre, she said, meaning it draws shoppers from outlying areas who come to town and spend money. If the public was so opposed to the development, they would not be supporting the commercial development that has already occurred at the corner of Hyde Park and Fanshawe in droves, she said.

Part of the reason there is excess commercial space available in London right now, Miller said, is the fact that it was poorly developed in the first place.

She pointed to a plaza near the corner of Commissioners Road and Highbury Avenue, which was built so far back in from the intersection it is hardly visible and has gone largely ignored by the public.

To that end, Miller said it is not council’s job to question the marketing savvy of big-box chains, which know better where to locate their stores.

“They come in where the public is going to travel. They come in where the land is cheap and they come into where they can develop into exactly what they want—it’s strictly market-driven.”

Miller also balked at Baechler’s suggestion the downtown core will suffer if the city continues to permit peripheral development. As evidence, she pointed to the fact a London law firm just broke ground on a new $9- million downtown headquarters and there are plans for a new $30-million apartment building as well.

“Anyone who uses that argument is not involved enough in the downtown to understand the tremendous changes that are going on down there,” she said.

“The buildings are selling, we’ve had an influx of new restaurants, Second Cup is located down there. Has the downtown been hurt? Absolutely not.”

For now, city planner Parker said nothing remains settled on the contentious Hyde Park-Fanshawe development.

Council has given its approval, but there are now three separate appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board, one of which is from Riocan, the owner of a number of competing London plazas and malls, he said.

It will likely be six months before a hearing is even scheduled, and the battle there could be a long one, he said.

last update:Jul 17, 2008

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