I understand that when the planning staff report on EcoDensity came before Council Tuesday afternoon, “sustainability” and “reducing our eco-footprint,” and “improving neighbourhood centres” were the words on every councillor’s lips. But when night fell on City Hall, councillors belonging to the party known as the Non-Partisan Association underwent a dramatic transformation which would have made Count Dracula and the Wolfman of Paris drool and turn green with envy; for suddenly EcoDuncity and EcoLarceny reigned supreme.

It wasn’t just that every NPA Councillor voted for the rezoning that will result in a 255,000 square foot highway-oriented retail power center sprawled across a site larger than 4 (Canadian) football fields, adjacent to one of the lowest density areas of the city; it was the specious excuses, soaked in greenwash and dizzy with spin. Councillor Suzanne Anton made much of the few hundred car trips a day Canadian Tire’s PR rep had claimed the development would “repatriate” from big box centres in Richmond and Burnaby, completely ignoring the thousands of additional car trips it would have to generate to turn a profit. Peter Ladner focussed on how “unfair” it would be to turn down the rezoning after the applicant indicated they had already spent $20 million on the site and proposal; but he conveniently disregarded the South Fraser Street BIA, whose representative had protested that it would suck business out of their neighbourhood centre. Several Non-Partisans praised Canadian Tire to the skies for agreeing to build to the LEEDS gold standard. It was really just a smart business move as the increased capital costs will almost certainly be recovered in energy savings over time.

Staff were in a somewhat awkward position: tasked to ensure that the application fit within the existing policy guidelines for “large format” (formerly called “highway-oriented”) retail, while at the same time developing “EcoDensity.” At one point, planning director Brent Toderian expressed willingness to examine the application in light of the new sustainability guidelines–if Council wished. But they didn’t wish hard enough; David Cadman’s amendment to that effect was voted down by the Non-Partisans, 5 to 4. One speaker, Richard Campbell, astutely observed that the proposal didn’t even satisfy the old policy which limited retail uses to those inherently unsuited for neighbourhood centres. Originally, the zone was not supposed to include clothing sales, but the Non-Partisans have also chipped that protection away, making the Marine Drive large format retail zone even less consistent with CityPlan or EcoDensity. But for me, the saddest aspect of this dreary business is the missed opportunities: this site and neighbouring parcels–so well situated in regard to transit–have been relegated to a car-oriented single-use monoculture, when they could be put to much more productive use (for more on this see my recent article in The Tyee: “Thinking Outside the Box Store.” <http://thetyee.ca/Views/2007/11/08/BigBoxCanTire/>http://thetyee.ca/Views/2007/11/08/BigBoxCanTire/

I figured the fix was in several months ago when planning staff mentioned to our delegation of concerned citizens that they felt they couldn’t just return the same application that the previous Council had rejected. So they had improved the proposal with two left turn bays and reduced access from the Ontario Street bikeway. I realized then that Canadian Tire must have been unofficially assured by the Non-Partisans that this time it would pass, and therefore felt no pressure to introduce significant changes. The clincher, though—and it was a shocker even to this jaded observer—was when out of the blue Anton moved an amendment that the area devoted to clothing sales (tenants Mark’s Work Warehouse and Winners) be upped from the 40,000 sq. ft. limit recommended by staff, to 60,000. Her only explanation was that staff hadn’t convinced her that it would hurt business in neighbourhood centres, and that Oakridge shops were always marking up their prices, anyway (very scientific). When another Councillor reminded her that there was a Zellers at Oakridge, and it showed no signs of going upscale, her face turned red and she hung her head, but refused to utter another word to justify the amendment, nor would any other NPA councillor, despite urging from the opposition. A telling point was that Canadian Tire hadn’t even asked (publicly, that is) for the bonus. This amendment passed, of course– by one vote.

Vision’s George Chow had been away on leave when the hearing commenced two weeks ago, and therefore couldn’t vote, allowing Sam Sullivan to conveniently absent himself from the final night of hearings, the debate and the decision. But it sent a clear message to the big business community: EcoDensity will be available when you need it, but if it gets in your way, don’t worry—EcoHypocricy is here to stay.

By Ned Jacobs. Ned is son of pioneer urban philosopher Jane Jacobs.

"The fix was in," Canadian Tire big-box hearing