Urbanization Approaching Reality

On Wednesday, December 6, Council formally received a proposal for an eight-story condo with street-front retail. The development is proposed for the north side of Innisfil Beach Road, adjacent to Alcona Home Hardware and west of the corner plaza.

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Development Proposal – 828 Innisfil Beach Road

The building would consist of eight floors and 80 residential units. Designed as an adult building for ‘seniors’ aged 55+, the condo units would consist of one and two bedroom layouts. The ground floor would provide a total of about 5,000 square feet of retail space along the street. Parking is situated behind the building in a lot with a landscaped perimeter. In a unique approach to snow management, a snow melter would be utilized to remove accumulations.

In some ways, watching the planning process play out in Innisfil is the municipal equivalent of watching paint dry. The final report of the Inspiring Innisfil Official Plan was released in February 2011. It advocated for an “urban core”. The design guidelines proposed multi-storey zoning in an Innisfil Beach Road commercial zone with retail situated at the street. More than six years later we are just beginning to see this concept take shape. Two other buildings are reaching completion near Adullam Ave., and a multi-storey rental building is expected to receive approval for the south side of Innisfil Beach Rd at the 25th Sideroad.

This development addresses several needs. It provides local accommodation for an aging population (a neighbor has reluctantly moved to Barrie recently); it fills a gap in the streetscape with more convenient local retail and encourages more activity (social and economic) on the street. The condo proposal has been working its way through the planning and approval process since May of 2016 and reached a final proposal of zoning bylaw amendments in November this year. The building proposal was received as ‘information only’. The development will require Council approval of some zoning bylaw amendments concerning height (8 instead of 7 stories) and small changes to setbacks. The developer’s plan comes back to Council for consideration in the spring.

Download PDF:

828 Innisfil Beach Road ZBA & OPA Presentation

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Innisfil Welcomes Santa this Weekend

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Just a note to remind my ‘younger’ readers that Santa will make a bright and colourful appearance in Cookstown during Light Up Night this Saturday (25th) which takes place from 4:00 to 6:00 pm. Enjoy treats and cider at merchants along Queen St.

The traditional Lighting of the Tree is at 6:00 p.m. followed by the Santa Claus Parade at 6:30 p.m. The party continues afterward with hot chocolate and caroling at the Cookstown Library.

Santa must love Innisfil because he’s making an encore appearance at the Alcona Santa Claus Parade on Sunday (26th) along Innisfil Beach Rd. from 25th Sideroad to Jans Blvd. starting at 1:30 p.m.

Place Making in – Alcona

Placemaking concepts contained in the draft Official Plan, Our Place, for Alcona focuses on the portion of Innisfil Beach Road from Jans Blvd. to Innisfil Beach Park as a “compact and walkable commercial core”.

“With the right mix of commercial and civic uses, active parks and plazas, and opportunities for community gatherings, Innisfil residents will have more reasons to walk.” To that end, suggestions for this area include:

  • “a town square to serve as a gateway to the commercial core of Alcona that could include a coffeehouse, outdoor seating options and a play area visible from the street. Introducing visible activity at the entrance to the commercial district will encourage people to park their cars and explore.”
  • “The parking lot at C.W. Coops is currently underutilized and has the potential to become redeveloped as a semi-enclosed public space with benches and a fountain. Parking can be relocated to the rear allowing for more visible activity on the street.”
  • “a bike/pedestrian loop via roads and trails connecting Alcona to other destinations in Innisfil.”
  • “Strengthen and intensify the corridor by encouraging mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and residential above, fronting the sidewalks. Limit building heights, and consider the architectural treatment of the buildings and storefronts with the goal of enlivening the street and creating an attractive retail
  • “Program the spaces in front of and behind the library to include outdoor activities such as concerts and performances, outdoor reading rooms, art displays, movies, children’s play and small maker fairs or markets.”
  • “Create a teen hangout space with a plaza where the Idea Lab is currently located, providing indoor uses such as a pool hall and coffee bar with unique seating, and outdoor activities that could occur in the area currently occupied by the parking lot such as games, outdoor study areas, an outdoor skate park, and a lounge area.”

Several Place Making ideas extend to Innisfil Beach Park as another focus of community activity:

  • A community garden and outdoor oven to be used by the community for communal dinners, gardening events, plant sales and children’s classes.
  • Beer garden and picnic area
  • An environmental education and welcome centre that functions all year to showcase the ecological assets of the park area and connects to the nature trail along the creek.
  • Waterfront restaurants with outdoor dining
  • A quiet area to sit and relax on hammocks and lounge chairs
  • Opportunities for water activities such as such as canoeing, kayaking, water trampolines and boat rentals, supported by cafes, food kiosks and a beach shop.
  • Provide a complete walking loop around the park that can also be used for cross country skiing in the winter.
  • Transform one of the existing structures into an information and snack kiosk that opens into the park with outdoor seating options near by and located in close proximity to the playground.

Of course, the Official Plan also addresses other vital questions about parks and community spaces, transportation, neighbourhood growth, densities and development, commercial areas, employment areas, sustainability, natural heritage system, “countryside”, and Lake Simcoe shoreline. Policies and proposals in the plan aim to ensure that Innisfil is socially, culturally, physically and digitally connected.

Signs of High-Rent Blight

While Cookstown works within the framework of a Heritage Conservation District to preserve the essence of the community and Alcona struggles to create a new but traditional shopping district, both Innisfil neighbourhoods are plagued with under-utilized and undeveloped commercial spaces.

In my last article, I questioned the logic of giving property tax rebates on empty commercial spaces. It seems entirely counter-productive to the economic and social health of our community. However, in some circles, it’s seen as being ‘business-friendly’. I was told that the real problem is that Innisfil property taxes are too high. It was suggested to me that commercial rates should be lower to compete with neighbouring communities like Barrie. That seems too simplistic for a couple of reasons:

  • We already tried that approach on a national scale with lower corporate taxes and ended up with companies sitting on what the Bank of Canada described as a mountain of “dead” money. There can be little expectation that lower taxes for landlords would proportionally benefit their commercial tenants.
  • We shouldn’t necessarily be trying to energize our local economy by impoverishing a neighbor’s opportunities. Can’t we create incentives and opportunities to motivate entrepreneurship within our own growing community?

The factors involved are more complex and in trying to understand it, I came across a revealing article Continue reading

Better ‘Guidance’ Needed

The Cookstown HCD meeting (see my previous post) stressed the need to “guide” change to “preserve the essence of a community”, and underlined that people, not land, define the value of a place. I think a lot of the challenges Cookstown faces are also shared by Alcona. And I’ve come to the conclusion that we need more municipal tools to help create the kind of change we’d like to see.

Here in Alcona the Town invested millions of dollars to create the kind of attractive streetscape that would, according to planners, inspire commercial development in a designated shopping core. That work was substantially complete in 2012, and fully complete in 2013, yet 3 years later few desired results are evident. The air of frustration is evident among some Town staff as well as residents.

My own peeve is with some retail spaces that sit empty for prolonged periods, or transition briefly from one struggling business to another before falling empty again. I was startled to discover that the province requires municipalities to provide a 30% discount on property tax for most empty commercial space. This, to me, is an absurd subsidy that encourages speculators and unrealistic rents that are out of touch with market conditions. I’d say this Ontario tax policy is misguided and harmful to local economies.

Some news articles illustrate how ridiculous this tax provision is. The City of Toronto, for instance, paid out $367 million in property tax rebates between 2001 and 2013. That’s $30.5 million a year returned to landlords of idle Toronto commercial properties. Yet, this year, Toronto has a long list of “unfunded” budget priorities like $13.7 million for community housing repairs, $9.6 million for a poverty reduction program and $1.6 million to enlarge a school breakfast program in low-income areas. Does this make any sense? Shouldn’t tax policy act as an incentive to keep as many commercial spaces as possible occupied, instead of empty? Why should taxpayers subsidize the poor marketing decisions of landlords?

A speaker in Cookstown mentioned that potential developers pay close attention to the appearance of a neighbourhood, noting whether area properties look shabby, neglected, or run down. Several property owners along Alcona’s commercial core aren’t doing us any favours with their littered, overgrown frontages, and empty derelict buildings. Owners of other commercial buildings in Alcona are in no hurry, either, to find tenants.

Wasting the potential of these idle assets is stunting local grass-roots economic activity in Innisfil and all over Ontario. And, it can only be directly fixed by the Ontario government. Shouldn’t we use tax policy to discourage commercial space from sitting idle for a prolonged period? The legislature needs to remove this property tax rebate that rewards idle, wasted commercial assets. Towns all over Ontario need tax policy to guide change toward local, grassroots economic activity and revival.

Abandel Group Revises Development Plan

A public meeting was held to discuss the new development proposal from Abandel Group Ltd. for their property on Innisfil Beach Road (#1124, 1130. 1136, approximately opposite Shoppers Drug Mart). The developer is appealing a Town decision to zone the rear of the property as “Future Development. It is seeking a zoning of “Mixed Use 2” to allow for the construction of three commercial buildings. A hearing scheduled at the OMB on August 25, 12014. This more comprehensive proposal replaces their earlier partial plan to construct a multi-story condominium building on the rear portion of the land, which would have been accessed by a driveway to Goshen Road. That concept is no longer valid.

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The Town background information describes the zoning issue this way: Continue reading