Aurora apartment complex on Yonge approved despite traffic, retail issues

Council has approved zoning bylaw changes that will pave the way for an apartment complex on the southwest corner of Yonge and Irwin Avenues – but in doing so, a councilor opposed to some aspects of the project has questioned if his colleagues

Council has approved zoning bylaw changes that will pave the way for an apartment complex on the southwest corner of Yonge and Irwin Avenues – but in doing so, a councilor opposed to some aspects of the project has questioned if his colleagues were “afraid” of the promoters.

The issue was raised by Councilor John Gallo at last week’s council meeting where lawmakers approved amendments to the city’s official plan, allowing a six-story building along Yonge Street – and an eight-story at the rear of the building – with a bonus to allow heights above and beyond what is currently allowed in the OP.

The bonus allows for flexibility on height and other building components if there are trade-off benefits for the community as a whole, such as public spaces.

With that in mind, Councilor Gallo said the plan doesn’t go far enough, nor does it allow retail on the ground floor, as the city’s plan for Aurora Drive calls for.

Developers filed a report with the city in April 2021 stating there is no business case for ground floor retail, citing seven vacant commercial spaces a short distance from the property.

“To date, only one of these seven [are] empty,” Councilor Gallo said. “Everyone else has small businesses in them. To me that says one of two things: either what they’re saying is incorrect, that… we’re overcoming a pandemic and it’s possible to rent these units, and they also say that adding more retail retail on the ground floor add further competition for, in their view, limited businesses that would like to move downtown.

“I don’t subscribe to it. I have no problem changing the official plan if there are community benefits and we’ve all said across the table that we work very hard to keep our official planning documents up because they are important to us. In this case, the only benefit to amending the official plan is for the proponent; there is no benefit to the city in removing this ground floor retail, which is a large part of our upper downtown.

Planners stating that some ground floor units would be convertible to retail, without much of the necessary infrastructure planned to be put in place, are a “red herring”, he added.

Councilor Rachel Gilliland expressed a similar view, saying it “didn’t look like an easy conversion”, but she was not in favor of Councilor Gallo’s motion to refer the matter to staff.

“I am in favor of additional housing,” she said. “While I want to defer this, I don’t know how much it will change the mind of the developer at this point. I’m fine with the design as it is now and will vote against dismissing it.

Councilor Michael Thompson was of the same opinion regarding the potential to change the minds of developers.

“Enough conversations have taken place around retail that if the plaintiff wanted to do it, they would,” he said. “I don’t see the dismissal changing and I think we’re back in the same place except we run the risk of it just being pushed back. [Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT) for appeal]. In the end, we have been waiting for a long time to make a decision. If you agree that retail should be there, vote no. If you can live with the app as is, vote yes.

As the discussion continued, Councilor Gallo said, “At the end of the day, what I’m hearing is that we’re afraid of the developer and that’s not what I stand for,” a statement that caused disagreement from the other board members.

“Just because I’m not totally in love with retail for this site doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the OP and fear the developers,” Councilor Sandra Humfryes said. “What I would like to see is that we provide appropriate housing in appropriate areas of our city. I’ve seen enough empty businesses at the bottom of buildings and condos. That’s a shame. It’s north of Wellington, it’s farther from our city center. I don’t see anyone using them except the people who live in the building and they’ll probably use it conveniently whenever they want or leave.

“Housing is a problem. We need to increase that, but this development, to me, doesn’t mean it’s out the window because we don’t have retail on the ground floor; it has more pros than cons for me.

Mayor Tom Mrakas also pushed back against claims that council members were “afraid” of the developers.

“I believe we have to make a decision,” he said. “Any councilor who thinks it’s not fair, vote against it. Let’s make a decision. It’s our obligation to the community: to make decisions on their behalf. We constantly hear from the province that they want to take away our powers to decide how our community grows and here we give them a great example of why they want to take those powers away from us.

“Let’s stand up, make a decision and show the province that we are adults and we can make those decisions. I will not be in favor of dismissal.

The changes were approved by Council on a 5-2 vote with dissenting votes coming from Councilor Gallo, as well as Councilor Wendy Gaertner who had previously voiced infrastructure concerns about the plan.

“There are just too many unresolved issues,” she said. “If we’re going to change the OP there should be a substantial community benefit and that’s just not here. I think this app needs more work.

Brock Weir is a federally funded Local Journalism Initiative reporter at The Auroran

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