Ontario municipalities are beginning to explore and utilize the full potential of community improvement planning. While Community Improvement Plans have traditionally focused on incenting private property improvements in downtown areas, a variety of specialized Community Improvement Plans have emerged across the province.
Section 28 of the Planning Act broadly outlines the types of activities that may be implemented for a Community Improvement Plan. This includes a broad range of incentives to property owners and tenants, as well as the acquisition or improvement of land by the municipality. The broad language of the Planning Act is considered to enable a wide variety of potential improvements to be outlined in a Community Improvement Plan, provided that Official Plan policies are in place.
In particular, consider the potential for Community Improvement Plans to:
facilitate the evolution of existing neighbourhoods into healthier communities that provide for alternative modes of transportation (walking and cycling)
strengthen rural economies
support intensification and higher-order transit
promote heritage conservation, including complementing or serving as an alternative to a Heritage Conservation District Plan
improve the accessibility or age-friendly design of a community.
MMM Group’s work on the Caledon East Community Improvement Plan with the Town of Caledon and the Region of Peel is one example of a non-traditional and specialized community improvement plan. While the Caledon East Community Improvement Plan contains a framework for traditional beautification improvements, including façade improvements and redevelopment incentives, the Plan is also focused on implementing the principles of healthy community planning. This includes incenting improvements that directly impact healthy living, such as providing for bicycle parking and making improvements to streetscape amenities. The policies of the Plan also ensure that traditional property improvements are undertaken in a manner that is consistent with healthy community planning principles. For example, façade improvements must be consistent with the principles of healthy community planning, such as ensuring accessibility and pedestrian-oriented design, and giving consideration to associated streetscape improvements. The success of the Caledon East Community Improvement Plan in addressing these aspects resulted in its receiving both a 2014 OPPI Award of Excellence and the 2014 Healthy Communities Award from OPPI and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario (click here for more information on this Plan).
Municipalities are also beginning to explore the potential for Community Improvement Plans to strengthen rural areas. A few community improvement plans have very recently been implemented to incent rural area improvements, through such incentives as new or improved agricultural processing facilities, and supportive, value-added agricultural uses (e.g., farm gate sales or bed and breakfasts). For example, Haldimand County implemented the Rural Business and Tourism Community Improvement Plan (click here for more information). The long-term success and effectiveness of these plans will need to be monitored, since many of these rural-focused Community Improvement Plans are relatively new.
Community Improvement Plans are also being introduced to support planning objectives for neighbourhood transformation, intensification, and higher-order transit. The incentive programs can prove useful to plan for the transition of an existing low-rise community into the planned mixed-use, high-density community of the future that supports a higher-order transit service. In particular, the incentives under a Community Improvement Plan can assist in ensuring that development is consistent with the long-term vision for the community. Eligibility or policies guiding the use of incentives can encourage developers to achieve a high standard of design and green design, as well as to implement ground floor commercial uses. The incentives can also be phased, first providing for desirable redevelopment at key nodes (such as around transit stations), and then along transit-oriented corridors. In addition, under a Community Improvement Plan, a municipality can acquire and improve land and buildings. This creates an opportunity for the municipality to address fragmented property ownership, which is often a significant barrier to intensification. However, this approach might be considered risky for the municipality. Further, this very direct level of intervention in development may not be supported by the public. An example of a Community Improvement Plan that supports neighbourhood transformation and intensification is the Northdale Community Improvement Plan in Waterloo (click here for more information)
Community Improvement Plans may also complement a Heritage Conservation District Plan, or may even function as an alternative to a Heritage Conservation District Plan. For some communities, a Heritage Conservation District Plan, which introduces a new regulatory process, may be difficult to digest. A Community Improvement Plan, while not regulatory, can still be used to promote historic property conservation and improvement. The Plan can rely on policies or guidelines to ensure that applications for financial incentives are focused on improving historic property attributes, and that building additions are compatible with historic character. A Community Improvement Plan can also complement a regulatory Heritage Conservation District Plan, helping to assist owners with the potentially greater costs associated with improving historic properties to a high standard, which may be required by the Heritage Conservation District Plan. An example is the Cookstown Community Improvement Plan in Innisfil, which was prepared in conjunction with the Heritage Conservation District Plan (click here for more information).
There is also potential for a Community Improvement Plan to be dedicated to community accessibility and age-friendly community design. The 2014 Provincial Policy Statement introduced the idea that Ontario’s economic prosperity and social well-being depends, in part, on planning communities for people of all ages. The Province also recently implemented grant programs to support accessible community planning initiatives (click here to see MMM’s article on this topic). The principles of accessible and age-friendly community planning could be integrated into the Community Improvement Plan’s eligibility criteria. This would mean that proposed private property improvements would need to be consistent with the accessibility and age-friendly design principles and design requirements outlined in the Community Improvement Plan’s policies. To date, a few Community Improvement Plans implement accessibility-related incentives, and many other Community Improvement Plans adopt the principles of accessibility; however, there appears to be no existing dedicated Age-Friendly or Accessibility-focused Community Improvement Plan.
In some ways, the broad community improvement powers enabled under the Planning Act is what enables municipalities to prepare Community Improvement Plans that are so responsive to emerging planning issues. Their flexibility and proactive nature makes them unlike any other statutory planning tool. Municipalities are increasingly finding specialized applications for Community Improvement Plans, enabling them to address very local planning issues. Moving forward, Community Improvement Plans may very well take a growing importance in the community planning toolkit as municipalities continue to manage emerging planning issues such as community intensification or transformation, healthy community planning, historic property conservation, and responding to the needs of aging demographics.