Toronto Star: How to Fight the Development NIMBYs
June 19, 2009
TORONTO – How do you solve a problem like Toronto? Patrick Devine thinks he has the answer. A real estate lawyer with 31 years in the business, he has spent decades trying to understand why it is that the city handles development so badly. Nothing the city does is more fundamental than planning, but the process, says Devine, is “dysfunctional.”
“The key issue,” he argues, “is governance. The only person looking out for the whole city is the mayor. Each councillor is the king or queen of their own ward.”
The problem lies with these same councillors, most of whom are willing to sacrifice the city to give local voters what they want. Many municipal politicians will tell you privately that such-and-such a development deserves their support, Devine explains, but they vote against at council to appease the NIMBY electorate.
“If you have the good fortune to have a good councillor,” Devine says, “then your projects get treated better than in a ward that doesn’t. Then the only way to get a proper hearing is at the OMB.”
That would be the Ontario Municipal Board, the quasi-judicial body that has final say over development across the province, Toronto included.
No surprise, then, that the widely disliked agency is seen by many as a developer stooge, which to be fair, it isn’t. But as Devine points out, the OMB provides cover for councillors who prefer to duck hard choices. Knowing that so many proposals end up before the OMB allows reluctant municipal politicians to tell ratepayers what they want to hear, even if it’s untrue. “No city councillor gets rewarded for taking a bold stand,” Devine notes, “or having a larger vision. Basically, the OMB protects councillors, and does their dirty work for them.”
A solution, Devine says, would be a new system in which half the members of council continue to represent a ward, but the other half are elected at large, or at least from within one of Toronto’s four planning zones. The wards would become larger geographically, but on the other hand, each would benefit from having the attention of several councillors-at-large.
“Unlike Vancouver,” he says, “Toronto doesn’t have a culture of non-political development. Councillors here genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing. That’s all very well when you have an enlightened politician, but not when you’re in a ward with a councillor who doesn’t believe in growth. You have to prove to them that, at the very least, a development is politically neutral.”
Devine also raises the issue of Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act, which allows developers to gain, say, extra density in return for cash, property, more affordable units or whatever. For councillors, it is a source of funds that can be used for pet projects of various sorts. When Olivia Chow represented Trinity-Spadina, she was famous for using Section 37 money to build daycare centres.
And as for Toronto’s much-maligned planning department, Devine calls it “pretty good.” Its problem, he says, is that it’s vulnerable to political pressure, and overworked and understaffed.
But Devine makes clear: “The OMB puts greater stock in a positive planning report than strong political support.”
Even though there’s general agreement Toronto’s planning process is failing, there’s little discussion about how to fix it. According to Devine, the debate stopped about the time Queen’s Park passed the City of Toronto Act in 2006. It gives council more power, yet it still leads to a situation where the people who have the greatest interest in maintaining the system – councillors – are the ones in control of changing the system.
Christopher Hume can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org