I was at Development Committee some time back when they voted on the Our Lady of the Condos development on Richmond Road. Then-councillor Leadman could count heads as well as anyone, and no doubt knew the vote was going against her. The audience was chock full of angry neighbours/voters.
At the last minute, she changed tactics from opposing the project to one of “if you’re going to approve it, at least get some community benefits”. The charge in the air was electric. The audience was aghast. Betrayal! Selling out!
No matter the logic of the move, the optics were terrible, my sinking stomach knew Leadman had just blown her re-election chances.
I see similar emotions at work in Westboro today surrounding the Roosevelt Avenue intensification by Uniform Developments. Hobbs can see as well as anyone that Committee would most likely (guaranteed??) to approve the change from 200 mid-rise to 200 high-rise condos. And if they didn’t, the appeal to OMB would succeed, simply because intensification is in accord with provincial and city policies and plans. And because planning practice today favours “tall and thin” over “short and squat” ( I know, I know, such pejorative terms, is there a better alternative for short and squat?).
So Hobbs opted to get some offsetting benefits while she could, at the pre-approval stage (you can’t negotiate them afterwards in the current environment, but down below I will suggest how one could…). She got $200,000 from the developer for streetscaping and traffic calming. She got the cash-in-lieu of parkland money committed within a block of the building. (see previous post) And she got a sizeable chunk of the condo private property opened up to public use as parkspace, including one or two ponds. The developer pic, of course, make this landscaping look very attractive.
The opposition to these benefits is predictable. “She didn’t ask ME”; those are the “wrong things to spend money on”; the benefits “will make things worse” for cyclists, or pedestrians, or residents, or children, or all of the above. “They’re just benefits for the developer”; “the developer isn’t paying enough”. And so on. Stronger still are the insinuations that the councillor betrayed the residents, she sold out, she catered to her financial supporters (she had a lot of campaign contributions from the real estate industry).
Would residents have preferred she voted straight against the project, lost the vote, and then had no parkette, no benefits? (Rhetorical question, no reply required).
And the situation is going to get worse, much more acrimonious, when Sec 37 is implemented in Ottawa. That procedure formalizes the harvesting of “benefits” from upzoning.
I have written here before why I think this course of action is bad. Each benefit must be negotiated, there cannot be a formula applied to similar projects, as that would make the benefits a “tax”, so it adds uncertainty to every development proposal. And uncertainty means higher costs. The Sec 37 benefits are a levy imposed solely on new condo buyers.
Picture the lucky couple starting out, struggling to get on the housing ladder, who now have to pay thousands of extra dollars (if they can still qualify for the higher mortgage) so established residents sitting on windfall-profits on existing houses worth three to five times the condo values, can enjoy some freebies. Talk about the 1%…
Residents who suspect nefarious actions by a Councilor over a $200,000 benefit … what are they do think when they realize the city is salivating over a $1,000,000+ payout from a developer? This is big money, and local politicians are always eager for OPM (Other People’s Money) to spread in their ward. So did the City approve that rezoning on its objective planning merits or did it just want the big bucks? Was my councillor really respecting my interests or did (s)he just want the moola?
The picture ain’t much brighter for the developer, who faces demands for ever more overhead spending. I suspect they will find it akin to extortion. Currently we expect Danegeld from big developers, but soon it will be expected from single infill builders. And I fully expect residents will soon want money to grease approvals that fit within the existing zoning too.
The current process, whereby an alert councilor might “cajole” some money out of a developer (which is really a tax on new buyers) is capricious and subject to bad optics.
It’s proposed replacement, Sec 37, is equally subject to charges of the City being in a conflict of interest as it financially benefits from changing its own zoning laws. At least election contributions were voluntary …
I think there is a better alternative. . A project of any size, whether a single, a duplex, a small townhouse group, or a high rise condo, should all be subject to the same rules. The City collects development charges to cover the costs to the city of new development. If they aren’t enough, raise them.
For the local neighbourhood benefit, consider the long term tax revenue stream of a new infill project. A 100 unit condo will generate at least $3000 of taxes per unit, or $300,000 for the whole building. Larger buildings will generate more tax revenue, smaller projects less. The city could simply adopt a policy that it will keep 98 years of the next century’s tax stream for itself. It would commit to spending the first two years of the tax revenue (or its equivalent, if it is not permissible to earmark tax revenue) on local improvements.
So, that 100 unit condo would prompt the city to provide $300,000 (per year, times two years) in local funds for playground improvements, streetscaping, bulb outs, benches, underground wiring, or whatever. Payable as soon as the building generates tax revenue. A single infill house would prompt local spending of $5000 x 2 years = $10,000. In today’s political model, that spending would be negotiated among the developer, the councillor, the community associations, and city staff.
Local residents “suffer” from the city’s intensification policy; in this scheme there would be some local offsetting benefits that residents could see and enjoy, regardless of their councillors negotiating ability or interest, and free of another tax on new home buyers. Free of charges of corruption, selling out, and other moral hazards. Spending public tax dollars on public works.
A small policy change like this could go a long way towards restoring faith in the planning process. It still retains a bias towards development over no development, but it is at least predictable and transparent.
For those whose eyes are tired of reading here, I will be yakking on and on, on CBC Morning on Monday after the 7.30am local news. Topic: short and squat vs tall and thin; Does height matter?