Hazel McCallion and Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie Disagree on Growth and Sprawl

Hazel McCallion and Bonnie Crombie don’t agree on everything, and that’s become more apparent as Crombie’s term has unfolded.

One major disagreement? Urban sprawl.

If you take a look at the cover photo, you’ll see the Greenbelt of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It is a permanently protected area of green space, farmland, forests, wetlands, and watersheds located in southern Ontario, surrounding a significant portion of the GTA. Created by provincial legislation in 2005, the Greenbelt is considered a major step in the prevention of urban development and sprawl on environmentally sensitive land in the province. At over 1.8 million acres (7300 square kilometres), the Greenbelt is one of the largest and most successful greenbelts in the world.

But lately, there has been some contention regarding the Greenbelt and how it has affected, over the long term, the price of housing. Because the Greenbelt protects all that land from the future development of subdivisions with single detached homes, the lack of such housing—and the provincial mandate to create more densified developments (think condos)—has created a housing shortage that has resulted in skyrocketing housing prices.

Apparently a number of developers argue that easing restrictions on the construction of detached homes and townhouses on “greenfield” land - areas set aside by municipalities for development as part of Ontario’s growth plan a decade ago - could help boost supply. And those developers that believe this have certainly found a formidable and familiar face to champion their cause: former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion.

McCallion ruled Mississauga for 36 years with a firm hand before retiring in 2014. For many people in Mississauga she is considered an icon, a living legend, and worthy of incredible respect for building a city literally out of nothing but empty farmland. Even though she may no longer be mayor, Hazel has kept busy in her post mayoralty career, and one of her current roles is serving as an advisor for Premier Kathleen Wynne on growth in the GTHA.

We documented back late last year, that after a summit of municipal leaders on growth and development, McCallion drafted this report based on “her findings,” expressing collective doubt about the province’s growth plan in terms of residential development. She suggested that, perhaps, densification needed to be slowed down somewhat “so a proper plan” could be completed. Hazel McCallion recently sat down with TVO’s Steve Paikin for an interview about growth in the GTA.

To be clear, “The Crombie Report” referred to by McCallion is the report commissioned by former Toronto mayor David Crombie, not Bonnie Crombie, McCallion’s successor as Mississauga mayor. David Crombie also penned a recent editorial for The Star outlining what was in his recommendation report to the province on growth in the GTHA, alongside Ajax Mayor Steve Parish. What I found interesting was that while McCallion said she supported The Crombie Report, she went on to say that there is serviceable land that should be taken out of the Greenbelt for development while at the same time land should be put into the Greenbelt, which was the opposite of what Mr. Crombie was saying. McCallion also mentioned that some land is already serviced inside the Greenbelt but didn’t specify which plots.

In his editorial, Mr. Crombie stressed that using land from the Greenbelt is not the ideal solution.

The bottom line is that we must use land more effectively and create livable communities. This has the added benefit of reducing capital and operating costs for infrastructure, encouraging a greater mix of housing types and building a strong economy and good jobs. This cannot be achieved without intensification, by relaxing density targets, or freeing up the Greenbelt. The Greenbelt is an essential tool to contain urban sprawl.”

I also take issue with McCallion saying there is ‘an overwhelming consensus’ amongst municipal leaders supporting her findings, since several have recently spoken out publicly. Oakville Mayor Rob Burton, while being interviewed by CBC’s Matt Galloway, disputed the notion that housing prices were skyrocketing because there wasn’t enough land being developed. He suggested there was enough land, it’s just that developers are sitting on it. Burton called this need to build on the Greenbelt a ‘con-job,’ operated by a ‘cartel economy.’

For the record, this is a response from Bryan Tuckey, the CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development Association. Tuckey disagreed with Mayor Burton’s assertion that his industry was running a so-called ‘cartel economy’, that with over 400 members there is no economic benefit for developers to just ‘sit on land’ waiting for prices to go up. Tuckey also stated that his industry does not want to build on Greenbelt land and that developers for years have accepted that the Greenbelt is off limits for their activities.

As for Mayor Burton, before you think he is just some renegade politician who is an outlier in terms of his opinion on this matter and that maybe McCallion has some merit in saying that there is an ‘overwhelming consensus’ from the GTHA mayors, here’s current Mississauga Mayor Crombie, along with the aforementioned Steve Parish from Ajax, also being interviewed by Paikin on TVO.

Mayor Crombie repeated her familiar line that we needed to build Mississauga as a “complete city”, as opposed to a bedroom community. The idea that land in southern Ontario, especially in the GTHA, is too precious to simply apply the old formula with redeveloping land again and spreading development out instead of building up.

Both mayors also raised the point that the developers who are proposing to pursue intensification along the fringes of the region are being unrealistic. Mayor Parish argues that that kind of intensification is best suited to city cores, downtowns, and centres where there are ample transit nodes or anticipated transit nodes for people to have options besides using a car.

If we had the growth targets established today back some 40 years ago, Mississauga would still have land for development,” Crombie said during the interview.

In layman’s terms, Crombie is basically saying that if Mississauga had applied densification policies during the post war period instead of what Hazel did with suburban sprawl, the city would still have ample amounts of land to build on.

Could you imagine what Mississauga could have done today with all that surplus land? We might actually have a credible downtown where Square One stands now, an area that would most likely be more transit-oriented. And not only that, other areas of Mississauga could have had “downtowns” with unique vibrancy of their own; more areas like Streetsville and Port Credit, but across the rest of Mississauga.

At the end of the day, what we should take from all this is that the iconic former mayor of Canada’s sixth largest city has taken an age old formula of sprawling development, backed by what Mayor Crombie termed as ‘the residential development industry,’ and is seeking to export it beyond Mississauga’s borders into the rapidly growing smaller towns that surround the GTHA periphery. As a former small town mayor herself (Hazel was mayor of Streetsville many moons ago), McCallion still commands much respect from a number of those municipal leaders who administer smaller places that are rapidly growing in population.

But the time for building more single detached homes has long come and gone in the GTHA. Even if you do get approval in some plot of land around the GTA for more houses of the traditional kind, you would still have to wait out around 10 years for them to be ready for residency. Not to mention they take up a lot of land, require much more infrastructure to service, as well as the money.

At least by building smaller, more compact, transit-oriented communities as mayors Crombie and Parish are suggesting, you make sustainable usage of the land that is left while getting the most bang out of your buck.

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