The emphasis in the Growth Plan is on creating complete communities, which accommodate both residents and jobs. Policy 188.8.131.52 articulates that "Population and employment growth will be accommodated by...encouraging cities and towns to develop as complete communities with a diverse mix of land uses, a range and mix of employment and housing types, high quality public open space and easy access to local stores and services" (MPIR, 2006, 13).
The Plan also calls for compact communities. Compact urban form (MPIR, 2006, 41) is defined as: "A land-use pattern that encourages efficient use of land, walkable neighbourhoods, mixed land uses (residential, retail, workplace and institutional all within one neighbourhood), proximity to transit and reduced need for infrastructure. Compact urban form can include detached and semi-detached houses on small lots as well as townhouses and walk-up apartments, multi-storey commercial developments, and apartments or offices above retail." (MPIR, 2006, 41).
Taken as a package, the policies of the Growth Plan are intended to promote such complete and compact developments. However, the plan is much more detailed in its targets and intentions for residential development and for employment in the form of offices and manufacturing than it is for retail and services. There is no definition of "major retail" as there is for "major office," nor a policy for its location--by comparison, "major office and major institutional development" is clearly directed towards Urban Growth Centres. Furthermore, the definition of "employment area" mentions only "clusters of business and economic activities including, but not limited to, manufacturing, warehousing, offices, and associated retail and ancillary facilities [emphasis added]." This definition is taken from the 2005 Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) and it is worth noting that it is the only place in the entire PPS where retail or shopping is mentioned.
The main policy in the Growth Plan that is relevant to large-format retail concerns the conversion of lands designated for employment uses to non-employment uses (184.108.40.206). Under the Growth Plan, proposed conversions now require a comprehensive review. The plan stipulates that for the purposes of this policy, "major retail uses are considered non-employment uses" (MPIR, 2006, 18). In other words, redesignating employment lands to allow the creation of power retail would require a municipal comprehensive review to ensure that the conversion is compatible with a municipality's efforts to meet the other requirements of the Growth Plan, including employment forecasts.17
There are, however, a number of situations in which this policy does not apply. Conversions of employment lands in "downtown and regeneration areas" (these terms are not precisely defined in the Plan, but appear to include central urban areas and brownfields) are required only to meet the much less stringent requirements of the Provincial Policy Statement, section 1.3.2--that is, it must be "demonstrated that the land is not required for employment purposes over the long term and that there is a need for the conversion."
Furthermore, neither of these policies would apply to a municipality that has already included a provision for retail uses within its designated employment areas. In this sense, the Province has not yet established a level playing field for retail; big-box developers may gravitate to those municipalities where retail is treated as an employment use and allowed as-of-right in employment areas.
To be sure, the Growth Plan sets requirements for the density of greenfield and urban centre development and contains policies to encourage mixed-use developments, but it does not close off all possible avenues for further big-box development, nor does it apply to developments that were already in the pipeline when the Growth Plan was introduced in 2006.
In an effort to resolve questions relating to employment lands, including the conversion of lands in employment areas to large-format retail, in May 2008 the Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal issued a paper titled "Planning for Employment in the Greater Golden Horseshoe." This discussion document invited comment from stakeholders on how to develop "guidelines to support better planning for retail activities... Some of the areas that these guidelines may examine include proactively planning for the appropriate location and design of major format retail, including large-format retail" (MPIR, 2008, 22). Stakeholders were asked to submit comments by July 2008 and the Ministry committed to "work with all parties to elaborate the potential strategies" (p. 40). As of spring 2009, no strategies had been announced, and since municipalities are still largely focused on bringing their official plans into conformity with the existing policies of the Growth Plan, the Ministry has not set a timeline for releasing more detailed retail policies.
When policies are developed, it is hoped that they will establish clear definitions of retail uses, settle the question of whether retail is a permitted use for employment lands (which will require a shared understanding of the value-added proposition of retail land use and the increasing role of the retail trade and services sector in employing Canadians), and create a region-wide retail policy that will apply uniformly to large-format retail in all municipalities, since power retail is a region-wide concern that affects traffic flows well beyond the borders of any individual municipality.
Only time will tell if the combination of political will and a better understanding of retailing processes can more closely align the consumer economy with the Growth Plan's vision.