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Don't rush development of 'gem of Orillia,' new councillor urges

'Time is of the essence,' says senior city staffer; Public meeting related to zoning changes needed for waterfront development set for Dec. 21

A new city councillor is cautioning his colleagues not to rush forward with redevelopment of the waterfront, while one veteran politician says he’s tired of waiting for something to happen.

At a planning and priority-setting meeting involving the mayor, city councillors and members of the municipality’s senior management team this week, council made the development of the waterfront its No. 1 priority.

Richard Bertolo, the city’s director of business development, made a lengthy presentation about the waterfront plan that included historical perspective, outlined the impetus for the ambitious initiative and stressed that it was time for action.

“Time is of the essence,” said Bertolo, noting the development community is waiting and eager to invest. “The momentum has to be maintained if we want to have maximum success.”

Referencing recent delays by council, Bertolo said “timelines have to be observed” or the consequences could be significant.

“There are pressures on the economy right now,” he told city councillors, hinting of a coming economic downturn. “If we miss the market opportunity … quite frankly, the viability of the project” is in question.

But rookie councillor Jay Fallis said he was loathe to fast-track any decisions, noting concerns about the environment, public engagement and a lack of affordable housing in the current plan.

“I’m conscious (that the waterfront) is truly the gem of Orillia,” said the Ward 3 councillor. It’s important “to make sure we don’t rush through this (and) take our time, relatively speaking.”

Long-time city councillor Ralph Cipolla agreed with Fallis about the importance of the project and its potential impact, but stressed the plan has been years in the making and has included “extensive” public input.

“I don’t want to wait 40 more years like we did for the recreation centre,” said the Ward 2 councillor. “We owe it to the people of Orillia to get this done.”

Cipolla said he knocked on 2,000 doors during the October election. He said only two people expressed concerns about the city’s plans.

This summer, the city adopted a preferred vision that calls for a mix of residential and commercial development on the land between Couchiching Beach Park and the Metro plaza, on the old rail beds and the former Co-op Feed plant property.

The city paid $100,000 to hire a consultant to help stick-handle that vision to reality; they recommended a two-stage process starting with a request for qualified bidders, followed by a request for proposal (RFP).

Bertolo said it’s paramount the RFP be designed to ensure the bids reflect the city’s preferred plan. He said the key is developing an evaluation matrix that “telegraphs to the marketplace” how the bids will be scored.

In his overview of the project to city council, Bertolo said the waterfront development is driven by four goals:

  • To develop the link between the waterfront and the downtown;
  • To create a year-round, four-season cycle of activity;
  • To increase the tax base and take the burden off of residential taxpayers; and
  • To meet intensification targets set out by the province.

Bertolo said punching Coldwater Street through a section of the Metro plaza slated for demolition, to the waterfront, will “enable that linkage to flourish. It’s the catalyst you need to reduce vacancy rates that occur in the commercial sector, which are extremely high.”

He said revitalization of the entire area is needed to make it sustainable. “You have to have development of the underutilized lands sitting there … in a key area of the city,” Bertolo said.

A second public meeting on proposed zoning changes needed in advance of the development will be held Dec. 21 at 10 a.m. at the Orillia City Centre.

Council held a public meeting earlier this month and staff wanted council to skip the usual two-week cooling off period and make a decision that same night.

However, with many people expressing concerns about the speed of the process and elements of the plan, council opted to delay the decision and hold a second public forum. The earliest they can make a decision to ratify the proposed zoning changes that would pave the way for the development is Jan. 21.

Bertolo warned further delays could imperil the project.

“We are already on a tight timeline to try to meet expectations in the community and expectations in the development community and, quite frankly, the market situation. Any further delay in our processes at this point in time could significantly impact the viability of the overall project. You have to be cognizant of that,” he said.

There was some debate at this week’s meeting about involving all of council at each decision point. For two years, a working group, chaired by Tim Lauer and including the mayor and two other councillors, has been intimately involved in the process.

After some discussion, it was decided to allow the working group to continue on its path. However, the members of the working group have vowed to keep the other members of council better informed along the way.

If the zoning changes get the green light in January, an RFQ will be issued. Once that group is whittled down to “a handful of qualified developers”, it’s expected proposals could come to council in September for consideration.

The hope, said Bertolo, is that a decision on a developer and a proposal will be endorsed by council by the end of 2019.

Lauer said the process will not be sped up.

“If there is a slowdown (of the economy), we’re not going to dodge that bullet,” said Lauer, noting it’s important to get “this right. Panicking, due to market pressures, would be folly.”