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Flip flop or not? Aurora mayor scrutinized over shelter rejection

Mayor votes again region's shelter proposal, but some question whether position shifted during years-long process
Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas voted to reject a shelter proposal Feb. 14.

Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas is facing questions from some residents about shifting positions after he voted against a York Region men's shelter proposal.

Mrakas came out against the emergency shelter and transitional housing facility at 14452 Yonge St., which was rejected by a 4-3 vote at a public planning meeting Feb. 14. He cited concerns about the proposed density of the 55-unit facility in the residential area, plus the lack of a detailed comparison of alternative sites to choose from.

However, some residents and Councillor Rachel Gilliland questioned whether the mayor’s position on the shelter shifted as it faced more public scrutiny. During the meeting, Mrakas said there was never a direct vote about it at the regional level. When questioned by NewmarketToday, he said that he urged York Region to redirect its efforts to alternative sites. 

“I have repeatedly highlighted these concerns, along with various planning obstacles, to the region,” Mrakas told NewmarketToday. “I have urged them to redirect their efforts and resources toward identifying more suitable locations that align with the goals outlined in our official plan, through a site selection matrix and provide multiple potential sites in Aurora, rather than a sole site selection. Regrettably, the region proceeded with the application for a facility that can only be described as a ‘less than ideal’ location.”

The proposal divided many in the community of Aurora, with hundreds attending two public planning meetings about it in January 2023 and February 2024. While York Region and many advocates pushed for the shelter as a way to address an urgent need to combat homelessness, other members of the public challenged the planning rationale for it. Some nearby residents also brought up concerns that a municipality cannot use to reject such a proposal, such as a fear of increased crime or declining property values. 

Mrakas himself came out against the proposal in a video posted to social media a few days before the meeting, which he later deleted, in which he also questioned the presence of the site near train tracks and said the region could find a better site.

He also cited Aurora’s Yonge Street Secondary Plan, known as OPA 34. That plan mandates density at two units per acre, meaning the 14452 Yonge St. site could only have eight units at max, far less than the 55 units proposed by the region.

However, the proposal had been in the works for several years. Gilliland noted that it came before council in 2021 and questioned why Mrakas did not flag some of the issues sooner if they made the site untenable.

In May 2021, York Region presented to the general committee of Aurora council, outlining the concept. The presentation discussed its proximity to the sewage pumping station, why the region wanted to find a new site versus reworking the existing men's shelter Porter Place, and expressed a hope that construction could begin in 2023.

Nobody raised an issue with the site’s location at the train tracks or sewage pumping station at the time. Councillor Michael Thompson, who voted to reject the proposal Feb. 14, commented during the May 2021 meeting. 

“I look forward to continuing with the region, hearing the feedback from the residents,” Thompson said. “I think this is a good opportunity for Aurora to play a role in helping to support those who need it.”

At the May 2021 meeting, Mrakas said Thompson summed it up.

“This has been a long time coming, and lots of discussion about this,” Mrakas said, adding that he knows regional staff had been working on this for some time. “Looking at all different locations. Looking forward to seeing where we end up with this.” 

In an online open house event held by Housing York March 21, 2022, Mrakas also addressed the project in an introductory speech.

To accomplish growth, “we need to build a broad range of housing, including affordable housing and emergency and transitional housing,” Mrakas said. “The proposed new emergency and transitional housing will offer a diverse range of supports and services … Now, more than ever, residents in our community need access to safe, secure and supportive housing.

“The Town of Aurora looks forward to continued collaboration with York Region,” he added. 

Housing York chair and Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said he was very disappointed in the decision of Aurora council.

Regarding Mrakas’ call for a site selection matrix, he said he wished someone had spoken up about the importance of that sooner.

“We looked deeply at the current inadequate site (of Porter Place in East Gwillimbury) and ways to make it work and the financial implications of trying to make it work,” Taylor said. “Then we looked at the Howard Johnson (Hotel, another possible location for the shelter), in-depth, spent a lot of time to advance that. At the end of the day, as I said, these sites are very difficult to find.”

The old Howard Johnson Hotel in Aurora could have been the site for the shelter. But Taylor said it likely would have also have garnered strong public opposition as the Yonge Street site did. He added that the region was surprised when bidding closed with a private bidder taking over the location, and it was not a case of the region walking away due to cost.

As for density, Taylor noted that municipal councils make changes to zoning every year to allow for different uses or more density on a given site.

As Housing York chair, Taylor said he had not heard of any major concerns from the Town of Aurora before the public planning meeting held January 2023.

“I had not heard any concerns related to site selection, pumping station planning from any member of Aurora council for the first two-plus years this was going through the process,” Taylor said. "We had heard several positive comments.” 

In his comments at the January 2023 planning meeting, in which many residents in Aruroa came out against the project, Mrakas said he saw the need for housing but began to question the location.

“What other locations in Aurora have been considered or could be considered for this facility that better address the security, accessibility, transit and other issues raised this evening? I think, bottom line, the question is – Is this the best location? Or is it the most expedient option?” he said at the time.

However, those comments did not explicitly mention the need for a comparative analysis report, they request answers to questions and concerns raised at the meeting.

NewmarketToday asked Mrakas directly regarding the comments made at those prior meetings. He responded that he has consistently supported the need for transitional housing, but that he had repeatedly highlighted planning concerns to the region.

“Moving forward, I am eager to collaborate with the region and all relevant stakeholders to identify an appropriate site for the facility,” he said. “It is my hope that all municipalities will join in this endeavour to ensure the successful establishment of transitional housing in all our communities.”

York Region commissioner of community and health services Katherine Chislett said many reports and presentations were made regarding the proposal leading into the last two public planning meetings.

“York Region’s goal is to always work with the local municipality to align development with local planning policies; York Region follows a thorough, consistent and transparent approach to developing new housing and engages both regional and municipal council approval to advance these types of projects,” she said. 

Is an appeal possible?

But as with any development a municipality outright rejects, there is the option that a developer has to appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal to try to get a project approved. 

In May 2023, this option was headed off. After a closed session, York Regional council voted not to do any appeals to the Ontario Land Tribunal regarding the 14452 Yonge St. development.

Taylor voted against that. 

“My position is that the region should go to the land tribunal,” Taylor said. “If it were in the Ontario Land Tribunal, I think it’s extremely likely to be approved.”

Despite the vote,  Taylor said technically, any decision could be revisited. 

But he is not sure whether regional council has the appetite for that. Still, he said there is a need to act quickly.

“We are going to see a surge of homelessness in our communities, and I think we’re going to hear from our communities that they’re frustrated,” he said. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have to meet demand.” 

NewmarketToday asked York Region chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson about his thoughts on a possible appeal and whether he would be permissive of regional council revisiting that. 

In response, Emmerson said: "In May 2023, York Regional Council passed a motion that Council does not support any action before the Ontario Land Tribunal regarding the region’s zoning bylaw amendment application for the proposed men’s emergency and transitional housing building at 14452 Yonge Street in the Town of Aurora."

Chislett said the region will be considering the next steps after the rejection. 

“While this application was not approved, we did hear a lot of support for this type of housing in Aurora,” she said. “York Region appreciates the comments we heard through the process and will consider them as we determine next steps in addressing the need for emergency and transitional housing.”