Super tall buildings kill downtowns

Super tall buildings kill downtowns

Medium density smart growth – a growing trend


Situation, timing and a quietly good economy has inched Burlington into one of the top spots for attractive cities to live in North America and arguably the world. A summer walk along Spencer Smith Park’s promenade reveals the wonderful cultural diversity of the travellers and residents that confirm that this city is in the spot light.

With popularity comes opportunity and pressure. Along with people’s desire to live in this city comes competition for homes and rentals and the prices go up. With higher prices and shortages of residential property, the market for new construction becomes rich and along comes the gold rush of developers looking to build as quickly and as much as they can while the going is good.

City Hall, during tougher times when planning had all the time to, plan, studied what the future could be like for the city and specifically the downtown with regard to growth and intensification which if done right would promote cultural and economic stimulation while curving the city’s appetite to build outwardly.

The Official Plan saw guidelines for development in the core that detailed heights, uses and forms in what the city believed to be a responsible smart growth strategy. 4 story buildings with mixed use to ensure a balance of residential and professional business spaces, retail and cultural space on the ground to ensure good dynamic pedestrian places and a parking strategy aimed at curving building bloat that results when structures oversize to hold onsite commercial/retail/professional parking.

The Official Plan was ratified by the city and set in motion, awaiting development. A few quiet years passed while we waited for the strengthening economy to allow us to apply the Plan once development knocked at the door eager to work together to fulfill the strategy to build a great downtown.

But things are never that easy. Once development came knocking their mood was not agreeable — but entitled. Development was not interested in community or responsibility, no, it was self interested in profit. Development looked at the Official Plan and zoning and concluded it wasn’t for them and that they did not care what was right for the city or its residents and visitors. And so they applied pressure, legal tactics and full on money fire power to change the plan — to distort the path of the evolution of the downtown and the way people lived. Not for any reason than it is profitable for a few developers.

City Hall and Planning itself is not immune to this gold rush excitement and panicked to grab the first bags of cash thrown their way by development. Under pressure of proving that investment in the city is being made under the council’s term, they have been eager to bend to the first courters and accept any development for sake of optic and cash influx. They seem too flexible to alter a plan that was never exercised. Too quick to adopt vertical intensification trends instead of taking a breath and holding strong to what was put on paper and looking outside to see what other municipalities have learned from the negative effects of rash intensification driven by development.

MaClean’s Magazine recently published an article ( that is a good segue into the growing municipal backlash toward developer driven vertical intensification. What they and many critical respected planners from around North America are saying is beware — vertical high density intensification doesn’t work. It isn’t livable, it doesn’t solve traffic, it isn’t more energy efficient than mid rise (4 story) and it diminishes mixed use and diversity needed in healthy downtowns. You could say it’s been a disaster.

The trend shift is toward mid-rise 4 to 8 story mixed use developments as well as flexible “granny suites” or apartments in existing houses to achieve the required target densities as well as business growth. Others are doing it and so should we — it was our plan.

So now what. How do we as citizens and residents of the downtown sort this mess out. How do we ask City Hall, Council and Planning to slow down, take a breath and hold to the plan. How do we ask development to respect us and our zoning and planning or move on? How do we take control of the evolution of the place where we live?

The answer is simple. Get involved. Voice your opinion. Start and support a dialogue with neighbours, city council, downtown businesses and developers. And, connect with the Core Residents Group. Together we can fix the problem.

Right Now

A developer has made an application to the city to build a 28 story super density mega building at the bottom of Martha Street at Lakeshore. And on January 19th, City Council will review staff reports on the request this developer has made to change zoning and amend the Official Plan to accommodate their desire for commercial profit.

This is your opportunity to help. Write the city with your objections and opinions. Attend the meeting so that we all have a stronger voice. Participate in the dialogue — we need you.


This is not just a grotesque mega build. This is a precedent. All developers intent on doing the same in the downtown and in other downtowns are watching this one. They are watching to see whether you care — and whether the city cares. They are hoping you are weak and that the City is a pushover. If we don’t resist this one and send a message that we care, it will get harder.

Come out in droves. Let’s see you on the 19th.

Stay tuned.