Planning Bill Stirs Debate

Opponents say it will stifle creativity, make municipalities arbiters of good taste

Municipalities in Ontario now have the authority to tell developers exactly what new homes should look like, from the materials used, to design features, character and scale.

But this new-found power, granted earlier this year under Bill 51, the Planning and Conservation Land Statute Law Amendment Act, is creating confusion and debate among architects, developers and planners.

Opponents of the law argue it will stifle creativity, make municipalities the arbiters of taste and lead to homogenous neighbourhoods, while supporters, like Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, say it’s “a great step for all municipalities.”

“Communities can be planned and well laid out, but the look and feel of buildings and how they relate is important to creating a livable community.”

The specific design guidelines are being worked out now in municipalities, but could cover how far the garage projects toward the street, exterior cladding, articulated cornices and roof lines.

Not everyone is happy about the changes this new bill will bring.

Richard Librach, a Toronto architect who specializes in custom homes, agrees that certain planning principles are good, but “to go beyond this, to say you can’t use a flat canopy in a neighbourhood of sloped roofs prohibits personal expression. It’s a really serious issue. I don’t think design control makes a hell of a lot of sense.”

Scarpitti says that Markham has been working with developers for years on design guidelines, and points to the Cornell community as an example of how good architectural control can be used to create a unique neighbourhood.

Featuring all-brick homes with verandas and rear lane parking, Cornell is a walkable, live/work community with a vintage-country feel.

While Scarpitti has found that many developers adhered to Markham’s design guidelines voluntarily in the past, he’s pleased to now have legislation that “will give us a leg up.”

Paula Tenuta, director of municipal government relations for the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), says Markham has really pushed to get the bill passed into law.

She explains that municipalities have until January 2009 to implement these new policies into their official plans, and there are concerns about how far some municipalities will go.

“This sort of architectural control shouldn’t be mandated on a builder or developer,” Tenuta says. “You can’t dictate taste.”

Helen Bulat, project manager in the City of Toronto’s planning department, says the impact of this new law remains to be seen, but “I would suggest there are opportunities for better buildings to come out of it.

“Site planning is already an important means of encouraging well-designed and functional development in Toronto that involves the city reviewing plans that show the location and massing of buildings, structures and spaces on-site. Now, we will be able to make a more qualitative assessment of development projects that are subject to the site plan review process.”

Another municipality in favour of architectural control is Mississauga, where Ron Miller, acting manager of long-range planning, says Bill 51 is something the city has been after for a long time.

“We want good context in terms of design for custom homes and infill developments,” he says.

One of the reasons Toronto, Mississauga and Markham are embracing this legislation is the clarity it offers developers.

“Municipalities aren’t good at articulating what they want, and developers don’t have a lot of respect for the site planning process,” explains Valerie Shuttleworth, Markham’s director of planning and urban design.

“They want approvals and permits and get frustrated when it takes too long.

“The province wants more intensification so we have to make sure we have good built form – how buildings look and feel. We need to be able to control it. This bill will help speed up the process.”

But, says Hugh Heron, president of Heathwood Homes, the problem with the new law “is all this subjective stuff. It amazes me at the moment that municipalities want more control. They don’t have the staff or budgets to make these changes and it will increase development fees for the consumer.”

Heron explains that his company and many others already use architects approved by municipalities to carry out architectural control. For example, there can only be so many of the same elevations in a row and consumers are limited to specific brick colours. Architect Gary Watchorn, who works with Heathwood Homes as well as other developers, agrees that private architectural control is effective. Yet, he’s strongly in favour of Bill 51.

“We’ve always involved municipalities in the design process because they have the final say over the site plan,” says Watchorn, principal at MBTW Group and president of Watchorn Architect Inc. “It becomes a team approach – our client has a vision and during the review process we work side by side with the municipality.

“A neighbourhood is more important than a street, which is more important than a house.”

His fellow architect Librach prefers to think in terms of each and every house, and says “massive housing creates monotony.

“Subdivisions built today restrict their vocabulary and repeat. If we become confined to a certain vocabulary, the exercise would be relegated to cutting and pasting acceptable elements.

“Is it more important to crystallize history, or allow change?”

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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