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City council hot to trot on accelerating fairgrounds project

'It’s a gateway site. It’s a really large proposal,' says Barrie ward councillor
Rendering of a proposed development at Barrie's old fairgrounds property at Essa Road and Highway 400.

The province should decide how Barrie’s former fairgrounds are developed, says Mayor Alex Nuttall.

On Wednesday night, councillors approved a motion to have city staff initiate a community infrastructure and housing accelerator (CIHA) application for more than 4,000 proposed residential units on the 55.4 acres of land at Highway 400 and Essa Road.

The CIHA gives Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing the power to make orders to respond to municipal requests to speed approvals of rezoning, in this case from highway industrial to residential and open space.

But Nuttall pointed to a directive from Ontario’s Ministry of Education to schools boards, essentially saying there needs to be some innovation, especially in urban schools, on the efficiency of land use, on a smaller footprint or using co-locations between the different school boards. School sites are planned for the fairgrounds development.

“This really does draw out why the province needs to be the decision maker on this (fairgrounds) project,” Nuttall said. “We’ve got school boards saying one thing, we’ve got the Ministry of Education saying another, we’ve got the MTO (Ontario’s Transportation Ministry) talking about traffic and flows on and off the highway, we’ve got the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing talking about the need for housing everywhere, always, all the time.

“And so we (council) are a regulator over the land use on the local level, but really these questions and these competing priorities … are not ours,” he added. “They are the province of Ontario’s and they should be the ones making the decision and they should be the ones … figuring out what works.” 

This CIHA order, if it goes ahead, could approve construction of 4,054 residential units, school blocks and parks for 175 and 199 Essa Rd. and 50 Wood St. 

Coun. Jim Harris, who represents this part of Barrie, said the motion — which still requires council approval Dec. 6 — is essentially just the beginning of the process.

“What we’re doing tonight (Wednesday) isn’t final approval of anything on this development. We’re not approving the number of units. We’re not approving this development, we’re approving to go forward with the CIHA process,” he said.

“Knowledge is power and when fear is there people kind of get misinformation and all of a sudden we’re giving away the responsibility to plan this site to the province. We’re not doing that,” Harris said. “It’s a gateway site for our city. It’s a really large proposal.”

Michelle Banfield, the city’s director of development services, said the motion is just to start the process for a CIHA.

There would be online public consultation, its feedback would be presented to council by report, then council would decide to tell staff to prepare a CIHA order for the housing minister, or do not prepare one. This should happen in the first quarter of 2024, she said.

There could be many layers of feedback during this process.

The Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) and Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) have collectively requested about 12 acres of developable land for future school development there. The fairgrounds' developer, Greenworld Construction, has identified six acres in its CHIA submission.

The motion councillors approved also says that if neither school board exercises the option to build a school in this development, the property would be given to the city at no cost for parkland.

In Nov. 14 correspondence to the city, the SCDSB raised concerns about inadequate sizing, configuration and location of the school block on the fairgrounds property, and the school board said it could not support this CIHA application, given the current proposed configuration of the school block.

The SMCDSB has reviewed school block options made available by Greenworld and said the current application does not represent a cohesive effort to achieve a built form to support future residents, in Nov. 8 correspondence with the city.

The Barrie Curling Club (BCC), located on the fairgrounds property, expressed concerns with the development process and asked that the BCC’s viability be considered when it addressed city councillors last April.

Curling club director Norman Speake, in Nov. 14 correspondence to the city, said the BCC doesn’t oppose the fairgrounds development, but has concerns how it will impact the club — noting the BCC has a long-term lease for the property, including the parking area, and that lease would need to be changed if this development proceeds. 

Speake also said Greenworld committed to work with the BCC, to come to an agreement to satisfy both parties, but no discernible progress has been made to reach a satisfactory agreement.

It is Greenworld that has asked the city to support the CIHA order and initiate a CIHA application.

That order would support the development of 4,054 total residential units — highrises, mixed-use highrises and townhouses, along with commercial uses and a school block. That breaks down to 13 residential towers of 15 to 40 storeys, 113 townhouses and 98 three-storey townhouses.

Also proposed in the new development are 196 parking spaces for the townhouses and 3,260 spots for the highrises, including those in a five-storey parking podium. There could be a public/private park almost a half acre in size and walking trails.

Commercial uses would front Essa Road, and there would be no development on the Wood Street property, which includes Hotchkiss Creek. It would be for stormwater management and open space uses.

The development proposed includes two new city access points from Essa Road and Anne Street. 

Last April, Greenworld’s plan for the old fairgrounds was 2,828 residential condos and townhouses in nine towers, with heights from 12 to 35 storeys, along with retail space. The property still needed to be rezoned and redesignated with an Official Plan change, and have its draft plan of subdivision approved. 

Greenworld’s planning consultant has called the old fairgrounds property under-utilized, vacant land, at the prominent location of Highway 400 and Essa Road. The land provides an opportunity to substantially contribute to Barrie’s housing stock and provide for development to take place in a comprehensive and cohesive manner, in an area where intensification is encouraged, the consultant has said.

Barrie is designated by the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe as an area where the projected population and residential growth is to be accommodated through ambitious levels of development, with emphasis placed on the development of lands to support new housing options along intensification corridors and within designated strategic growth areas.

On Nov. 1, the city received correspondence from Greenworld requesting approval of the project be considered through CIHA as opposed to completing the Planning Act applications.

Ontario’s More Homes for Everyone Act, 2022, changes the Planning Act to create a minister’s order authority, known as the CIHA tool, giving the municipal affairs and housing minister the power to make orders to respond to municipal requests for expedited zoning, not counting the Greenbelt.

A CIHA can be used to regulate land use and the location, use, height, size, and spacing of buildings and structures to permit certain types of development. The requesting municipality is responsible for providing public notice and undertaking consultation and ensuring the order, once made, is made available to the public.

The minister can provide an exemption for other necessary planning-related approvals from provincial plans, the Provincial Policy Statement and municipal official plans, if specifically requested by the municipality, and impose conditions on the municipality and/or proponent.