Urban Defender

Urban Defender: The “NIMBY – Developer” Challenge

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.

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