Let’s get dense, Guelph

January 25, 2011

Guelph has known growing pains before. But when it comes to our swelling population, it’s remarkable how dense we can still be.

Two high-rise projects that will change the character of our neighbourhoods are getting a less than warm welcome from some residents. To some at City Hall, this must be incredibly frustrating.

People talk about the need to grow more wisely, to grow up, not out, to intensify development and live within the space we already have, and we all nod our heads. We know more people are going to keep moving to Guelph – another 50,000 of them in the next 20 years, if you believe the provincial government’s projections.

And most of us seem to get that we can’t build a fence around the city and hang up a sign that says ‘no more newcomers.’ And yet, as soon as a development that will pack more people into our neighbourhood comes along, we’re the first ones to stand up and shout about how it will change where we live.

People are already complaining about a plan to build an 18-storey luxury condominium in the heart of downtown, at the corner of MacDonnell and Woolwich streets. They say it would change the character of the area. What’s not clear to me is if they’d prefer the alternative – another 150 homes on the ever-expanding edge of town that gobble up more farmland.

In the Stone Road and Gordon Street area, homeowners are in a flap over a proposal to build a massive student housing building on the site of a hotel. Residents have created a community association and have vowed to fight the project.

Not that I blame them. A 16-storey building with 1,500 students would loom over the neighbourhood like a “monster,” as one lady put it. And the developer is asking for a long list of concessions from the city to skirt local zoning bylaws.

But eventually, residents there may have to accept a smaller project more in line with other apartment complexes in the city. The simple fact is Guelph needs buildings like this, whether we like it or not, and they need to go somewhere.

Plenty of neighbourhoods around Guelph have had to adjust to 12-storey and 10-storey apartment buildings that have sprung up on their streets over the years. They too change the “character” of their neighbourhoods.

As this city swells by the tens of thousands, we’re going to have to get used to this transformation. Cleary, we can’t all live in single, detached homes with a garage and a backyard. And just because you were here first doesn’t mean you get to decide what all other homes in your neighbourhood will look like.

Neither of these projects propose tearing down heritage buildings or destroying parkland. Yes, they may need to be tweaked – significantly, in the case of the proposed student housing project.  But they’re a preview of what’s to come – building on top of what we’ve already got. Or what we once had, namely the so-called brown fields like the overgrown property at the corner of Wellington and Gordon streets that will eventually be filled in.

No one said intensification would be easy. It may hurt some people’s property values. It may block our views and increase traffic on certain streets. But we don’t have a whole lot of choice. This is what happens to cities that grow.

That doesn’t mean we have to blindly accept whatever high-rise project developers propose. We should have a say in how our communities grow – but at the same time, we have to be prepared to make concessions, and accept that our neighbourhoods will change.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

5 Responses to Let’s get dense, Guelph

  1. Kortright Resident on January 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I just read your column in today’s paper – THANK YOU !!! I wish more people would see the light.

    We live on Kortright Rd and never imagined 18 years ago that our neighbourhood would become so heavily populated by students. Just a fact of life we have had to accept. I do find it interesting though, that until reading your column, the views of those people opposing the building of the student housing complex seem to have been the only ones featured prominently in The Mercury and apparently welcomed by City Council. It makes you wonder if it is because their property value is more than mine.

    Thanks again for seeing another side to the story.

  2. Kate MacDonald on January 27, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Hi Greg,

    Your argument went seriously downhill when you concluded that the developers need to “tweek” the current proposals. I am not sure what your idea of” tweeking” is…. but the proposal for Stone and Gordon needs a little more than “tweeking.” At present there are 20 apartment towers in Guelph. The current proposal would house the equivalent of 30% of the population of all of the existing towers in Guelph. That is not getting dense, it is just plain dense. The proposal doesn’t address the places to grow guidelines or the need for densification as it is not a building that would likely attract anyone other than students given the layout.

    I worry the developer has drastically overestimated the demand for this type of housing in Guelph. If it doesn’t attract students what will we all be left with ? A giant youth hostel, an enormous hotel or a half empty bankrupt mistake. With a bathroom ( toilet and shower) for every bedroom and rates in excess of $600.00 plus plus per bedroom, it is not designed for any group other than students. It doesn’t help our city grow responsibly and it doesn’t provide affordable housing.

    It targets a population of people, most of whom will live in Guelph for 4 years or less. Even if many decide to make Guelph their home, they would surely not want to live in dorm style accommodation. The developer made it abundantly clear at the council meeting that they have no idea what it would become if it wasn’t successful as student housing. They hadn’t turned their minds to that possibility. Maybe that is because this developer has never actually built and run this type of project… anywhere. It is true that in Hamilton and London, cities with more than 5 times and 3.5 times our population, there are a couple of developments of this type. If you look carefully at those projects, in those cities, they are less than 1/3 of the size of this proposal, they are not located right next to low density residential neighbourhoods and they are not at the busiest intersections of those cities.

    As we get dense, lets think smart.


  3. Stephen Saines on January 28, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Excellent editorial. I’m new to Guelph, love it, albeit there is a high incidence of ‘yoghurt poisoning’ in some sectors. Better that than the opposite, I suppose, but ‘densification’ is not just the way forward for Guelph, it is for the world.

    What you didn’t mention in your piece is the need for more core densification to support public services, like transit. Guelph, as outlined in the the ‘consultant’s report’ on transportation, must move to a ‘spine and tendril’ system from the present ‘hub and spoke’ model.

    Intensified development along the ‘main drag’ is highly indicated to make that work.

    Unscientific as it is, I’m encouraged by the on-line poll at the Mercury, today’s standing:
    Do you like the notion of a cluster of high-rise, high-end condo buildings being developed in or around Guelph’s downtown core? (This is not a scientific poll.)

    Yes (65.46 %)
    No (34.54 %)

    What I would encourage council to pursue is the greater use of ‘brownfield development’, as much as just plain infill. As many European cities show (and even some US ones), density and character are by no means mutually exclusive.

    Very good piece, Greg.

  4. Jason Querel on February 17, 2011 at 9:39 am

    You lost me with;

    ”Cleary, we can’t all live in single, detached homes with a garage and a backyard. And just because you were here first doesn’t mean you get to decide what all other homes in your neighbourhood will look like”

    Really??? because I’m pretty sure being here first gives me that right.

  5. Kriss Shrive on June 1, 2011 at 5:02 am

    Guelph has been so uptight about building codes for the 20+ years I have lived here. Though I do not agree with all the decisions , the end result is a pretty nice city . The way I see it is if you don’t like it here go drive through Cambridge or Kitchener and pick yourself out something there and see how it treats you


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