Urban Defender

Urban Defender

Friday, June 17, 2005

Changing the development process from the industry side: Small Steps – Bold Steps

Formalizing the ad hoc success stories that do exist may require new personnel and skill sets. By engaging consultants who understand community dynamics through direct experience and participation, who posses facilitation and outreach skills and who are not seen as potential adversaries (as developers’ lawyers all too often are) developers might initiate a consultation and outreach processes that would more successfully engage local communities, stakeholders and local decision-makers.

Utilizing the toolkit perhaps more frequently used by municipalities or NGOs might serve not only to build bridges, but also strengthen public understanding of the benefits of intensification done well. Developers might also stand to reap some gains from non-traditional research inputs—from “listening” to the positive desires of communities—inputs that might positively inform decisions relating to built form, marketing approaches, etc.

Methods such as facilitated advance opportunities to discuss and review projects (or potential projects), modified focus group style workshops, modified survey techniques, and local events, are more likely to be produce desired outcomes than traditional community meetings or one-on-one meetings with non-vetted community “leaders.”

As well, by sponsoring, or engaging consultants to organize, non-standard forms of ongoing outreach (marketing), such as walking tours (of previous projects with architect), speaking sessions (at market-appropriate venues), workshops (on approaches to successful intensification), social events (with buyers, prospective buyers, stakeholders), developers could contribute to building an enhanced knowledge base and a positive perception among stakeholders, opinion leaders, as well as exiting and potential buyers, benefiting their firm in particular and the industry as a whole. The development firm that takes this approach and wins with it may well be seen as an industry leader.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

More Advice: Addressing the Developer Perception Challenge

The development industry, while made up of many disparate people, is by and large made up of people who not only care about making a living and providing value for investors and customers, but people who believe in City building and are inherently optimistic about the future.

In recent years, before any of the justly celebrated arts building projects got off the ground, developers largely, but not exclusively, focused in the central core of Toronto were already leading the beginnings of an “architectural renaissance” and proving that this was also something that “sold.”

Leading architects, heritage experts, planners and urban designers work with the development industry. And yet among the politically active middle class in many established neighbourhoods there remains a vocal opposition to or suspicion of the development industry. One can put this down to prejudice and the already noted NIMBY-AMNE syndrome or one can seek to address it—to see it as an opportunity for an important industry to seek a PR victory and a grassroots victory by providing more opportunities for public education, engagement and consultation. Through its practice, its approach to consultation and the opportunities it provides for value-added experiences that it is more than industry but also a valued and integral part of the City’s socio-economic-cultural fabric.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Advice to Developers in addressing the NIMBY challenge

One of the problems that developers face when seeking to engage a community is the voluntary nature of ratepayer or neighbourhood groups when they exist, and the general level of disorganization in cases where they do not but where there may be significant voices that can have an impact on the successful realization of a development project.

When there are ratepayer or neighbourhood groups these are generally all volunteer organizations, which may or may not be incorporated, and no matter how broad based they may be they usually cannot be said to represent the whole community. As well there are often overlapping interest groups, and there may be rival ratepayer groups, and “people of influence” who may have unequal access to the Ward Councillor or possess special expertise.

The complexity of navigating these waters can seem like a costly waste of time, especially if previously experiences have caused a developer to feel that there is no one to make a deal with. And in a sense such a thought has some accuracy. If, for instance, the leader/representative of a given neighbourhood organization or condominium, etc., wants to shake hands on something, it often may be something for which they have insufficient mandate. Hence their support may not hold out through an elongated process or if the Councillor is in opposition to the project or if it comes to an OMB hearing.

Navigating these complexities can be made safer and more cost-effective by understanding the function and nature of ratepayer and neighbourhood groups, by doing due diligence in regard to any undertakings they or their representatives may make.

It is also critical that residents, business leaders and stakeholders beyond the communities “usual suspects” be consulted or made aware of a given project, as allies and supporters for regeneration and development may be found in recent arrivals, local business taxpayers, and in the generally interested but unaligned segments of a given community.

Knowing the community and its politics, understanding the way the local community groups interact and how they make decisions, along with providing opportunities for stakeholders (who may well include prospective buyers or renters, heritage experts, design experts, local community agency staff, et al), can only strengthen the position and positive reception of a developer.

Although this will entail some real costs, and some time, it is reasonable to assume that a modest investment in upfront outreach and consultation will have the potential to save money in downstream legal costs and project delays.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A moment of opportunity in Toronto's Urban Planning Process

The City of Toronto has just launched, in June 2005, a consultation process with its citizenry on changing the development application process. City Planning staff are recommending a voluntary pre-application, review, and consultation process for projects requiring an Official Plan amendment or re-zoning application.

They are currently seeking input from citizens in a series of Town Hall meetings and workshops across the City. This presents an opportunity to developers to show leadership by seeking to comply, where it makes sense, in advance of the fact. It also provides a sense of where such leadership could make itself felt. Public education and outreach work successfully in many industries.

To-date the development industry has most often relied on the municipalities, elected officials or academic or professional associations to provide this service. Where resident and business leaders and their constituencies have an enhanced knowledge base of the development industry, the options intensification presents for City building, such as economic growth, neighbourhood development and enhanced environmental outcomes, it should be possible to move the discourse away from NIMBY shibboleths.

In seeking to address, to the extent that a given projects economics permit, hot button issues such as height or density, too often issues of urban design, architectural excellence, heritage preservation or interpretation, and spin off community benefits are given shorter shrift. When this happens no one benefits. Intensification is only going to increase and development pressure on available land will accelerate, despite the prospect of building in such areas as the West Don Lands, East Bayfront, and eventually the Port Lands.

There are already many more economically obvious sites along major arterials, “parking lot” sites, and scattered brownfields across the City. In each case there will likely be sets of NIMBY and AMNE arguments against the very sort of development that can make a reasonable rate of return for developers, accomplish the City’s needs to provide new housing, and revitalize neighbourhoods.

By seeking to take a proactive lead in providing opportunities for public education, engagement and advance consultation with the public at large and appropriate stakeholders, the development industry can set a new standard of good corporate citizenship and more importantly build a greater support base, and ultimately reduce the instances where OMB appeals are required.

Another consideration for considering a more consistent and proactive consultative approach is the impending City of Toronto act, which includes the real possibility that Toronto may be given broad new powers in respect to planning, including the possibility of a partial exemption from the jurisdiction of the OMB. It is likely that the City’s move to discus a new pre-application review process is emboldened by the sense that the rules of the game are about to change.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The “NIMBY – Developer” Challenge

The challenge for developers and local communities in Toronto has been well documented over the past few years. The sense of there being an irrevocable conflict between neighbourhoods and the development industry has heightened as the City’s continuing growth, the relative absence of greenfield development sites, the recent Greenbelt legislation at the Provincial level, and both the need for and direction to pursue (in the City’s contested but “ideologically” directional Official Plan) intensification, combine to create the proverbial “Perfect Storm.” As the Toronto Star recently noted: “If there is one thing people don’t like more than sprawl it’s intensification.”

In many cases Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) or perhaps more precisely After Me No One (AMNE), attitudes on the part of individual residents or ratepayer and neighbourhood groups square off against the all too frequent caricature of the uncaring, greedy developer. This reductionism masks important realities and arguably causes energy and resources to be misallocated. Developers and the development industry form a cornerstone of Toronto’s economic well being: and certainly developers should enjoy a right to conduct their business in a sustainable manner.

In many cases developers represent one of the key forward thinking and optimistic elements of our dynamic and growing City; and the alternative to urban intensification is sprawl or stasis. Residents and business owners, especially in well-established urban neighbourhoods, can feel legitimate concern about the impact of a given development or re-development in what they perceive as “their neighbourhood.” Some of this is may be expressions of classic NIMBY or AMNE phenomena but in many cases concerns about urban design, height, massing, use and public amenities are not only legitimate but can provide a resource for developers seeking to effectively build on, as well as within, a given neighborhood’s characteristics and qualities.

Yet while positive examples do exist, these generally serve to reinforce the “NIMBY vs. Developer” rule. One can blame the adversarial culture of the tribunal based appeal system we have under the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), the lack of clear direction from City Council, the limited resources of the City Planning staff, unenlightened residents or a zealous development industry. However, assigning blame will not calm the “Storm,” nor address the fact that resources are used up in an adversarial process that often does not provide a win for anyone.

There are the exceptional examples that indicate that local communities and developers have much to gain from constructive engagement and dialogue. One example, is the ongoing restoration and redevelopment of The Distillery District, where open lines of communication between the Developers/Site Owners and the local residents has lead to positive agreements and support for the introduction of well-designed, tall apartment buildings in the context of a valued and significant heritage site: both the needs of the residents and the developers were addressed in this dialogue.

Too often the already noted caricatures and prejudices block such positive dialogue. This can of course add costs, in one obvious example: appeals to the OMB do not come cheap for anyone. As well the there are the perhaps the harder to quantify costs of delayed development, less incentive to pursue architectural excellence, and provide leading edge urban living environments to the “forgotten constituency:” those waiting to buy or rent a new home in an urban neighbourhood.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Creating a democratic wireless community

A new grassroots initiative in Toronto has just recently launched wireless toronto. Inspired by the Montréal group Ile Sans Fil this group seeks to provide free WiFi hotspots in public or publicly accessible spaces all over Toronto. No advertising and no cost to users are the key points to their program. Modest access and set up costs are born by the hosts and the labour and maintenance are taken care of by the wireless toronto.

The group also has a commitment to fostering community by providing community information pages and through its own volunteer organization and community outreach practice.

What is both ironic and encouraging is that though this idea was born in the Queen Street West, Spadina, Kensington Market zone of urban bohemia, some of the first host sponsor sites are on the suburban fringes.

While chains like the Second Cup chain themselves to the big bad boys of telecom and cable to provide expensive WiFi access at their shops, and the City of Toronto is going through its ponderous preparation of a Request For Proposal for a six month (and it appears private sector) trial of WiFi access at Nathan Phillips Square, this loose gang of social innovators and community minded techies is making free WiFi access a reality on volunteer sweat, will and imagination.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Mayor pushes for tax share to ease funding gap

City's budget gap tabbed at $1.1B
Economic group's study says city's situation unsustainable

Toronto Star

Well Mayor Miller should be congratulated once again on commissioning a study, done by the Conference Board of Canada, that lays out just how bad things are for the City that underwrites the Province of Ontario, and gives a significant helping hand to Canada but cannot finance its own infrastructure, schools, housing and transit. But is pitching for a cut of the sales tax, the income tax or asking for uploading (giving the Province back our bills for housing and welfare, for example) the answer? Miller states in the Toronto Star article that he does not want to add to the tax burden of his citizens, just reorganize the way the pie is shared. And that is not necessarily a bad thing at all but if there are real costs that are going unmet and there are, is a slice (that is by the way no where on offer) of the sales or income tax pie going to meet it?

At the very least Toronto needs to change the argument and expand the range of ideas for fairly generating revenue, including reason debt financing for infrastructure programs. And as observed here before is a tax committed to the City that its own politicians are not directly responsible for a good idea? So if we are to get a slice of the sales tax or the income tax would it not be better for if it was a Toronto tax controlled by Toronto’s elected officials?

And why are we afraid of road tolls! By themselves they will not solve the fiscal mess but a small and dedicated road toll for transit would be a good idea to implement as soon as the (when is it coming exactly) the new City of Toronto Act permits it. Why not chare drives $2.00 every time they take the Gardiner Expressway or the Don Valley Parkway? At least a rush hour for a start. There would be creaming and predictions of doom but people will pay and the City will reap the rewards.

And as far as funding the City’s needs let’s task our leaders and the Mayor with coming up with ways to get a fair deal and accountable deal for Toronto that matches revenue generation with real costs and gives the political level responsible for those costs both the power to levy the revenues and the ensures they are accountable for it. So yes if the Province sees the wisdom (and there is wisdom in it) of giving Toronto a piece of the sales tax and the income tax, let’s make sure the City Council has the wherewithal and responsibility to set the rate for their portion of such a tax.

And as far as uploading costs back to the Province, do we really want to give up power for decision-making on some files, which would be the price of such a move, or do we accept that downloading had some upsides (such as local control of public housing that permitted the Regent Park Revitalization to move forward) as long as it is (at long last) accompanied by the appropriate power to raise the revenues need to support the programs that are now in the City’s domain.