Ajax Mayor uses Strong Mayor Powers to expedite twin 60-storey development
Published September 7, 2023 at 10:13 am
Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, in what he described as “bold action,” used recently granted ‘Strong Mayor Powers’ to push through two proposed 60-metre towers in the town’s Major Transit Area that had been languishing at the planning stages for the past two years.
Collier became the first mayor in Durham to take advantage of the expanded powers that allow the Mayor to get by-laws approved with just one-third of the Council vote (instead of the traditional majority) when he brought out the newly acquired arsenal to win approval for the high-rise project at 190 Westney Road, immediately south of the Ajax GO Station.
Other mayors, including Collier, have used the new powers for committee appointments or hiring staff but this may be the first time they were used in Ontario to push through a major project without the usual approval process.
“I see this as a win. This is the right place for this,” Collier said at a special council meeting called to address the issue Tuesday.
Collier admitted the move is “unprecedented” but needed to accelerate development in the area and to ensure the Town meets its provincial government-imposed housing targets.
While the development, which will provide more than 1,200 residential rental units at build-out, skipped a few steps at the planning stages and was not approved by Ajax staff, Collier assured councillors and residents in attendance at the hybrid meeting the project will still have to undergo the site plan approval process.
“We knew people would come out against it. People are averse to change,” Collier said, noting some residents were “pretty passionate” about the project. “This is new. This is different.”
Reaction from residents who took the podium was mostly respectful, with concerns raised over density and building heights – zoning amendments had to be passed to increase the maximum from 25 storeys – while resentment over the actual use of the strong mayor powers was reserved for Collier’s colleagues on Council.
“We need to go through the proper planning process,” said Councillor Joanne Dies. “It’s not good planning.”
Collier ended up getting a majority anyway, with the vote passing 4-3, though the Ajax Mayor said he used the new powers because his belief was that the proposal would not be supported without it and would end up at the Ontario Land Tribunal.
Turning over power to non-elected people in Toronto to make decisions on the project was not going to fly with Collier, who added that existing height, density and parking requirements were “no longer valid” in 2023.
“We’re in a housing crisis.”
Collier also said the developers – Max and Denis Tarsky of Ledim Developments attended Tuesday’s meeting – were getting “frustrated” with the delays in gaining approval for the proposal.
“We recognize bold action is required by all levels of government to collectively address this housing crisis, Collier said. “While municipalities don’t build homes, I’ve said I will use all the tools available to help Ajax reach our housing pledge target of 17,000 new homes over the next 10 years.”
“Council is committed to moving forward quickly and taking bold action to get more homes built faster,” he added. “This unprecedented step will accelerate desired development in this new growth area and ensure access to affordable and desirable living spaces sooner.”
The development will have a nine-storey podium base with twin towers soaring 55-62 storeys above the ground, with the final height still to be determined, though Colliers said engineers have told him 60 storeys is the “sweet spot,” with costs rising disproportionately after that.
The project will also include more than 50,000 sq. ft of commercial space, including a grocery store, daycare and other wrap around amenities. At 60 storeys, the buildings would be the 14th highest in Canada.
The Tarsky’s have agreed to set aside five per cent of the rental units for affordable housing, with Collier saying he was “waiting on the province” to determine the definition and formula on what is ‘affordable’ housing.
Collier said he has already used the Strong Mayor Powers granted Ajax in June on some housekeeping matters and Tuesday’s “bold action” was “just an extension of that,” though three of his colleagues didn’t see it that way, with Lisa Bower and Nancy Henry joining Dies in voting against the proposal.
“Do we really need the strong mayor powers to pass this?” asked Bower.
Councillor Marilyn Crawford expressed her approval for the plan, however. “It’s different. It’s crazy different,” she said. “I think it’s an opportunity to pump life into the area.”
The Province unveiled the Strong Mayors Policies last December for Toronto and Ottawa and added 26 more municipalities in June, each with a population of more than 100,000. That rollout included all five of Durham Region’s five urban lakeshore communities.
Last month nearly two dozen more towns with populations exceeding 50,000 were also given the ability to expedite decisions on budgets, staffing issues and infrastructure and housing development.
Queen’s Park also launched a $1.2 billion incentive fund to reward municipalities that meet the provincially mandated home-building targets.
Collier opposed expanding the urban boundary of Durham Region during the Region’s Official Plan review earlier this year and is in favour of expanding the Greenbelt so homes are not built on farmland.
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