A letter produced by the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) in January is causing a bit of a stir in the architectural and planning community. The letter, which was signed by previous OAA President John Stephenson, was addressed to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and includes a proposal to modify the planning process in Ontario in order to speed up development applications and save costs for stakeholders. The OAA recommends removing review of architectural design pertaining to materials, texture, colour, and details of proposed developments from the Site Plan Approval (SPA) process, instead having the SPA review focus solely on the design of the public realm.

OAA, Planning Act, Site Plan Approval, OntarioRendering of the Wynford Green proposal, image courtesy of Diamond Corp, Lifetime, and Context.

Site Plan Approval is the second step in a development application, but is required in order to obtain a Building Permit. SPA involves an assessment of a proposed development by the municipal planning department with regards to the design of the public realm, the relationship of the building within its context, public access to and from the building, and its architectural finishes. Prior to SPA, proponents may need to submit a rezoning application, which assesses the massing, setbacks, height, and overall form of a building; this would remain unchanged. 

According to the OAA, the recommendation in its letter to remove review of architectural design from the SPA is a result of a study conducted by Bousfields and Altus in 2012 which concluded that delays in the SPA process added substantial costs to all parties involved. The study estimated that for a 100-unit condominium, each month of delay added $396,500 to $479,800 per month in total costs to all stakeholders, translating to roughly $443 more per unit per month for prospective condominium buyers. For a 50,000-square-foot office building, the total costs to all stakeholders amounted to $123,400 to $136,800 per month, resulting in more than $7000 more per month for business owners. The study was updated in 2018, and the OAA now estimates that the annual total cost of all SPA delays to the Province exceeds $1 billion per year.

To speed up the SPA process and avoid delays, the OAA is recommending that Section 41 of the Planning Act be revised to include "design exclusions", meaning that review of architectural design elements would be taken out of the SPA requirements. Review of architectural design elements was added to the Planning Act in 2006, which, according to the OAA letter, began "more than a decade of protracted fights between designers and municipalities, causing a significant increase in time required for site plan approval, with no improvement to building safety".

Kathleen Kurtin, current President of the OAA, calls the SPA process "incredibly unpredictable, slow, and problematic". She argues that the materiality, colours, textures, and details of a building that are currently required during SPA have little to no impact on the quality of the public realm, and that "prior to 2006 [when the design exclusions were removed from the Planning Act], we still produced high-quality buildings". She uses the example of the "colour of a church door" being critiqued by a municipality, and how little impact that might have on the quality of the built form. She stressed that the proposal from the OAA is "not about reducing quality of design" but is more about speeding up the process and reducing costs to the public, and that the current SPA process is "doing more harm than good".

OAA, Planning Act, Site Plan Approval, OntarioRendering of the East Harbour proposal, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Not everyone, however, agrees with the OAA's stance on the issue. Many prominent figures in the architecture, landscape architecture, and planning community have expressed displeasure and disbelief at the OAA's recommendation. Though the letter was publicly posted on the OAA's website, many in the design community were not notified and were unaware of it being issued until recently. Both the Toronto and Ottawa Design Review Panels have released responses to the OAA and the Province advocating to maintain architectural design review in the SPA process, and other Design Review Panels (DRP) across Ontario are following suit.

Gordon Stratford, architect and urban designer and current Chair of the Toronto DRP, and David Leinster, Principal at The Planning Partnership and current Chair of the Ottawa DRP, are arguing against the OAA's recommendation and are expressing concern that these changes would be detrimental to the quality of built form and public realm across the province. They also expressed fears that the existence of the DRP would be at risk.

For Stratford, the inclusion of architectural design review in the planning process is very important to having a high-quality public realm. "When something is built in the city, it's supposed to last a long time," he explained. "Something like materials is very important to the design quality of the building, and has a huge impact on what the public realm is like, what the streetscape is like, and on the durability of the building." Stratford stated that the Design Review Panel is about "adding design discourse to the development of the city and is not counter to progress. It is all about design quality, and results in better buildings, better public realm, and more durable and livable cities."

Leinster echoed Stratford's comments, and also highlighted the impact the changes may have on the general public. "The public at large is more engaged in discussions about architecture, urban design, and public realm than they ever have been before, and they have higher expectations of what developments should look like," he explained. He points to the controversial Château Laurier expansion in Ottawa, a project led by a private developer that has caused widespread outcry from the general public, which the Ottawa DRP has reviewed three times. "We're all stuck looking at these buildings and living with them for a very long time," he added. "Without the level of control that the City and DRPs have, the results are going to be disappointing".

OAA, Planning Act, Site Plan Approval, OntarioRendering of the proposed expansion of Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, image courtesy of Larco Investments.

A further consequence of the OAA's recommendation could be to leave local planning authorities in the same situation they were in prior to the Planning Act changes in 2006, where municipal governments had no recourse when value engineering occurred after an SPA review that resulted in significant changes to the building's quality and appearance.  

Our attention was brought to an example of this scenario concerning a condo tower that was submitted to the local planning authority for approval prior to 2006. All documents and renderings from the developer indicated stone cladding was to be used around the base of the building and as accents on street-facing facades. However, after the SPA received approval, the development underwent a value engineering exercise, and the stone cladding was entirely replaced with stucco. Since the building was clear of the approvals process, the City was unaware of the change until the development was finished, and could do nothing despite the significant impact the material swap had on the appearance and durability of the building.

In the current SPA process, allowing municipalities to secure materials on site plan drawings means that applicants must build exactly what is approved, and the City can ensure that the quality promised in the documents matches the quality delivered.

Toronto condo clad in stucco where stone had originally been specified.Toronto condo clad in stucco where stone had originally been specified.

Both Stratford and Leinster emphasized that the review of design aspects in the planning process is very important, and that removing this does not necessarily translate into speed. According to Stratford, there are components of the design review that do not necessarily add time to the process but do work to increase design quality. He added that the review of architectural design and the DRP both ensure that the architectural vision is carried through to construction, and it prevents revisions and value engineering exercises from producing lower-quality buildings that differ from their submitted documents. Leinster added that, "you may be speeding up the process, but you might also be throwing out the baby with the bath water".

Kurtin was adamant, however, that the perceived threat to the DRPs was an "unfortunate misunderstanding", and that "the OAA has always supported DRPs and will continue to do so". She pointed out that the existence of DRPs predates the changes to the Planning Act in 2006, and that the two are mutually exclusive. The OAA strongly encourages the implementation of DRPs and has no intention of removing them from the planning process.

Kurtin also indicated that the letter to the Province is meant to "lay the groundwork for a larger set of revisions to the broken site plan approval". A much longer and more complete list of recommendations from the OAA will be forthcoming over the next few months, aimed at refining the planning process in order to reduce delays and their associated costs. "We all have the same objective at the end of the day, and that is good quality built form," she stated.

At the time of publishing, the Province has not yet responded to the OAA's letter, and it is unknown what impact, if any, this may have on the rumoured changes to the Planning Act that the Ford administration is currently working on. The full text of the letter can be found on the OAA's website, here.

We will continue to follow any recommendations or changes to the Planning Act, but in the meantime, you can tell us what you think by checking out our associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.