Courtesy | Doug Hallett of the Guelph Mercury Tribune

March 1, 2017

City hall seems to be losing patience with Loblaw Companies Ltd. over the lack of a Zehrs supermarket that could act as an anchor for commercial development in Guelph’s east end.

On a 10-2 vote, council agreed on Monday, Feb. 27, to refer a motion by Ward 1 Coun. Dan Gibson about east-end commercial development to the March 6 meeting of council’s committee of the whole for a full debate on the issue. But preliminary debate that happened on Monday clearly showed city hall’s frustration with the lack of progress in getting commercial development at a designated mixed-use node at the corner of Watson Parkway and Starwood Drive, where Loblaw owns a lot of land. Coun. Bob Bell, who also represents Ward 1, said the city’s plans for commercial development near this intersection hasn’t resulted so far in much more than a public library branch. And, he added, Loblaw is pressing city hall for more residential rather than more commercial development in this area. “Loblaw is at our door as we speak, wanting more residential” and wanting to “snuff out” what remains of the designated commercial land in the area, Bell charged. Loblaw is “a developer who has been unco-operative” in regards to the city’s development goals for the east end, Bell told council.

The city’s last commercial policy review, approved 11 years ago, set out a vision that included mixed-use commercial nodes in the east, west, north and south ends of Guelph. Since then, there has been a lot of commercial development at all of these nodes, except for the east end’s. In November, council approved a two-year project to update the city’s commercial framework through a new commercial policy review. One of the purposes of this comprehensive review, a staff report says, is to address the “role, type and amount” of commercial space in four types of areas — community mixed-use nodes such as Starwood/Watson in the east end and the proposed Silvercreek Parkway South development in the west end; intensification corridors such as York Road; the downtown; and land areas currently having “service commercial” designations.

Gibson’s motion, which will be fully debated March 6, aims to provide direction to staff about the new commercial policy review. It would tell staff to “consider other opportunities for neighbourhood commercial development along the York Road intensification corridor” east of Victoria Road “with the intent of attracting further commercial investment” to that part of the city. The motion would also direct staff to report back to council “on these opportunities as they emerge, or at established reporting milestones for the commercial policy review.”

Scott Stewart, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer of infrastructure, development and enterprise, told council that Gibson’s motion could send a signal to Loblaw about the need for something to happen on the commercial front on the east end. “It has taken way too long to get, officially, nothing from them,” Stewart said, referring to Loblaw. He said a “dance” has been going on for years between the national food giant and city hall to get commercial development in the east end on vacant Loblaw-owned land.

Gibson has said now is the time to be welcoming expressions of interest for commercial development along York Road, with the city having taken steps in the past couple of years to move forward with a long-delayed project for reconstruction of York Road east of Victoria. He assured council on Monday that he isn’t clearing the way for any particular developer. “There is no developer in the background working through me,” he said, adding that he is not “trying to Trojan Horse something.”

Gibson said what he’s trying to accomplish is about more than commercial amenities for east end residents. It’s also about such things as providing local jobs in the commercial sector for young people living in the east end, so their parents don’t have to drive them all over the city for summer jobs, he said, as well as moving traffic away from Grange Road and its schools and getting it onto York Road. His motion “is about so much more than amenities,” Gibson said. “It is about community building.”

Not everyone on council was convinced of the merit of Gibson’s notice of motion, though. Karl Wettstein of the south end’s Ward 6 and Mike Salisbury of the west end’s Ward 4 both voted against referring it to the March 6 meeting for full debate. Such notices of motion are “generally used for policy change” by council, Wettstein said. Gibson’s motion implies future “preferential treatment” for development along York Road, he said, expressing concern about the precedent this might set. Council has an obligation not to “set a bias for any one area through policy,” said Salisbury. He said Gibson’s motion could pull the “rug” out from beneath developers in other parts of the city, including the west end.

This drew a sharp retort from Bell, who suggested the part of the city represented by Salisbury has done well since the last commercial policy review was done. “He’s fine out there with lots of commercial, a balanced community,” Bell said.

Mayor Cam Guthrie, who was in favour of having a full debate on the issue on March 6, said the lack of east end commercial development is an issue he hears about from residents almost every day. “It is an onslaught of people constantly asking” about this issue, he said.

The city’s new commercial policy review is a three-stage project that will see an initial report — on market analysis and background — go to council this fall. “Over the past decade, a number of land use policy changes have occurred, impacting the commercial land use sector, which necessitates a comprehensive commercial policy review,” said the staff report in November on the review. “Overall, commercial trends have moved away from a commercial hierarchy, including big box retail, to mixed-use nodes and corridors, including urban village layouts with main street areas,” it said. The purposes of doing a new commercial policy review, the report said, include updating Guelph’s commercial policy structure “in light of significant changes in the retail market nationally, provincially and locally”; ensuring the amount, location and type of commercial land designated in Guelph is in line with a 2031 planning horizon; and considering the feasibility of second-storey commercial space in the downtown, in the community mixed-use nodes, and along intensification corridors.