NEWS Mar 23, 2017 by Paul Forsyth Niagara This Week – St. Catharines
New homes under construction on Victor Drive in the former Optimist Park off of Dorchester Road in Niagara Falls are shown on Tuesday. New statistics show the population boom that exploded out of Toronto to regions surrounding it may finally be reaching Niagara.
NIAGARA —They’ve had their first nibble of what appears to be the GTA growth phenomenon, and that tasty little morsel has regional politicians and planners hungry for more.
After years of watching competing Ontario regions surrounding the mighty economic machine of Toronto enjoy double-digit growth increases while Niagara languished in near stagnation, new statistics suggest the population boom that exploded out of Toronto and started rumbling across Hamilton may at long last be hitting this region.
“The wave is here,” regional planning and development commissioner Rino Mostacci told reporters on Wednesday, after figures were presented by regional planner Greg Bowie at the region’s planning and development committee showing Niagara’s growth rate soared more than 300 per cent between 2011 and 2016 compared to the previous five-year period.
At the same time, Niagara’s long stagnant housing market is seeing explosive growth in both homes sales and prices, and planning departments at regional headquarters and local town and city halls are being kept hopping with rapidly rising development applications.
New statistics from the 2016 census show the anemic 0.9 per cent growth that Niagara was mired in from 2006 to 2011 more than tripled to 3.83 per cent in the last five years.
That’s 16,542 more people, roughly equal to the entire population of Pelham or Niagara-on-the-Lake.
We actually beat Hamilton, which only saw 3.3 per cent overall growth in the last five years, but we’re still behind much of the pack: growth was 9.3 per cent in Halton Region, 7.5 per cent in York Region, 6.5 per cent in Peel Region, 6.2 per cent in Durham Region and 4.6 per cent in Ontario overall, census figures show.
Jon Whyte, vice-president of the Niagara Homebuilders Association, said opportunity is knocking on the door and Niagara has one shot at getting this right.
“It’s Niagara’s opportunity to capitalize on the growth we’ve so desperately been seeking,” he told Niagara This Week.
“It’s (growth) not showing any signs of letting up.”
Whyte’s industry refers to the phenomenon as the “drive to qualify” effect, in which people simply can’t afford the cost of a down payment for a home in the GTA so they’re forced into ever-longer commutes so they can afford a home.
But both Whyte and Mostacci said it’s crucial that municipal governments in Niagara invest in efficient planning processes and departments to process development applications in a timely manner.
“It can take years to get a project through the regulatory process,” said Whyte. That’s been a main cause for the housing price “crisis” in Toronto, where supply of housing has been far outstripped by red-hot demand, he said.
“That bottleneck of bureaucracy, that red tape, is a huge contributor to the inability for the market to provide the housing for the growth that’s happening,” said Whyte.
Some Niagara homebuilders are already in a holding pattern because they simply don’t have any lots ready to build on, he said.
“People are quite frantic now in Niagara,” said Whyte.
Niagara Falls Coun. Selina Volpatti, chair of the region’s planning and development committee, called the new statistics on growth a good news story.
“It’s amazing increase,” she said of the triple-digit growth numbers. “It means more jobs and more prosperity.”
But she stressed to reporters that red tape could drive the golden goose away in search of greener pastures in competing regions.
“(Developers) will go where it’s easiest,” she said. “There’s lots of opportunities elsewhere.”
With its still affordable housing, uncongested highways, unique communities and cultural amenities, Niagara is well positioned to take advantage of the growth pressures, said Mostacci.
But he said it’s vital to not let that growth steamroll over the authentic character of Niagara’s many communities: newcomers to this region say their top priority is not allowing Niagara to become another faceless Mississauga-type place to live.
It’s also key that local governments proactively work with residents on long-range plans for specific neighbourhoods — such as secondary plans at the town and city level, and the region’s proposed Brock district plan for the area around Brock University and regional headquarters — to avoid the conflict between residents and developers that was common in the past, such as in the epic battle that took place over the doomed Port Dahousie tower project in St. Catharines, said Mostacci.
“Developers want reliability and they want to develop in communities where they’re welcome,” he said.
Town and city planning departments, with often-sparse resources, will be key to making that happen, he said.
“The stars in facilitating growth are the local municipalities,” he said. “That’s where the magic happens.”
Regional Chair Alan Caslin said the “tremendous growth” is a sign that Niagara’s population and economy are both on an upward trend. “There’s a lot of confidence in Niagara,” he told This Week.
Combined with the region’s beauty, from its lush tender fruitland and vineyards to the mighty falls, that’s a powerful draw for people, he said.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places in Canada.
A prime example of how politicians can get residents on-board with development plans is how the region and the Town of Lincoln have engaged residents there to develop a holistic vision for the former Prudhommes water park property in Vineland, said Caslin.
The homebuilders’ Whyte said with the Greater Golden Horseshoe population expected to growth by millions of people in the next 25 years, the opportunities for Niagara are vast.
“Three to four million people have to live somewhere and they can’t afford to live in Toronto,” he said.
Fort Erie Coun. Sandy Annunziati offered “sober reflection” over the fact that Niagara’s growth rate actually averaged 0.77 per cent per year over the last five years.
“Less than one per cent (growth) is nothing we should be celebrating,” he said.
But Marilyn Radman, associate director of development planning and urban design for the region, said development application volumes are an accepted indicator of growth and investment in a community.
“2016 was an exceptional year” for that, she said.
Condo and subdivision applications skyrocketed by more than 53 per cent in 2016 over 2015, and other statistics were also in the double-digit growth range, said Radman. That momentum has carried over into the first two months of 2017, she said.
“It’s a clear indicator and signal of an important change that’s occurred in market confidence,” said Radman.
“In talking to the local area municipalities, developers and consultants, the vast majority say they’ve never been busier.”