LORINC: What should be on the new chief planner’s to-do list

Progressive Toronto was feeling pretty darn good about its collective self last week when the City revealed it would be hiring the poised planning consultant Jennifer Keesmaat to take over as chief planner. In a round of media interviews (including one with Spacing editor Matt Blackett), she made all the right noises, stressing her interest in pedestrian life, bike lanes, and transit.

With all due respect to her outlook, it’s difficult to imagine a new chief planner speaking any other language: her comments echo consensus views in the profession, expressed in cities from Calgary to Los Angeles to New York and beyond. No one ever expected the City to hire someone cast in Mayor Rob Ford’s mold.

But Keesmaat will be dropped through a ring of fire when she starts the job in September, given that council in October will be considering what to do with a suite of far-reaching staff reports on a long-term transit expansion and financing plan. She’ll have to stand up to the likes of James Pasternak and Giorgio Mammoliti and resist the temptation to equivocate in response to their queries about subways. (I’m not even going to speculate about how brother Doug intends to conduct himself.)

No one, I should add, should delude themselves about the length of Keesmaat’s leash: the City’s de facto chief planner is deputy city manager John Livey, a tough-minded veteran planner who holds the keys to the waterfront file and much else that goes on in the murky corners of the bureaucracy.

Acknowledging Keesmaat’s official role, however, I’d suggest she faces two other major priorities that are every bit as important as the mobility issues she foregrounded in the media last week.

Start with defending the Employment Lands. The City has a lot of the land zoned for industrial or commercial uses, much of which is either sitting fallow or at risk of being gobbled up by voracious condo developers.

In my view, job one for the City, broadly, and Keesmaat, as chief planner, is developing a novel and imaginative strategy to bring employment back to the 416, and not just the office/institutional districts downtown.

Here’s a shocking little statistic from the City’s  2011 employment survey [PDF]. Last year, Toronto’s absolute employment level — 1.3 million jobs — remained below what it was a generation ago, just before the big manufacturing collapse of the early 1990s, and this despite the arrival of about 300,000 new residents since amalgamation. True, the number of jobs has climbed back over the intervening two decades, but the changes have been fairly marginal in the past few years.

More problematically, most of the new job growth, according to the survey, takes place either downtown or in the city’s other office clusters (North York City Centre, Yonge/Eglinton, Consumer’s Road, etc.). Almost all the industrial zones in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York have seen declines, some of them (e.g., Steeles/Victoria Park, Rexdale) quite steep. Drill a bit further down and you can see that the largest employment gains from 2001-2011 came from part-time jobs.

That’s not a pretty picture. The chief planner, of course, is limited in his/her ability to alter global or even regional investment patterns. Yet the GTA Greenbelt/Places to Grow regulations should, in theory, draw commercial/industrial investment back towards the city, just as these growth management policies have prompted subdivision developers to build downtown.

But Invest Toronto seems to have had extremely limited success attracting business to the city. In 2011, according to its annual report [PDF], the agency persuaded just 19 companies to settle here, adding between 549 to 1,221 jobs. (For you kids keeping score at home, that’s a .4% increase in the number of new establishments in the city and a rounding error in terms of Toronto’s overall employment base.)

Meanwhile, Build Toronto officials, having been given firm marching orders by brother Doug to rapidly monetize the city’s land holdings, appear to have shifted their development priorities to the residential market, which is to say merrily transferring land to the aforementioned voracious condo builders.

Keesmaat, who professes an interest in doing things differently, should take it upon herself to spearhead a multi-department effort to figure out how the city can turn this particular page, and do so without transforming all those parcels of land into shopping malls.

Her other major challenge is breathing sanity back into the condo sector. Two generations from now, Torontonians will look at one another and wonder what the hell we were thinking, building so many shabbily constructed glass towers filled to the brim with veal fattening pens masquerading as starter investments.

Yet while the City has gone to genuinely absurd lengths to make life simple and profitable for the tower builders, it continues to throw regulatory obstacles in the way of mid-rise developers, and this despite years and years of official and secondary plan visions that wax on endlessly about…midrise. The recent fight over the mid-rise proposal for the Licks land, on Queen East in the Beaches, is just the latest manifestation of our political and institutional muddle-headness on this topic.

Mid-rise buildings will age well, allow homeowners to retire in their own communities, and hold out the possibility of family-sized units — all goals that support the official plan. Yet the planning department has been unable to figure out how to restrain the high-rise sector and encourage the mid-rise sector. Keesmaat’s predecessors have died on this hill, and there’s good reason to think she will, too.

But with Mark Carney mercifully busting up the condo party, she has a choice opportunity to push the planning bureaucracy, and council, to figure out how to better align the City’s Kakfaesque approval machinery with the Big Urban Goal of creating arterials lined with mid-rise mixed use buildings that create precisely the kind of transit- and pedestrian-friendly development Keesmaat espouses.

And if all else fails, she can always phone up David Crombie and ask him how that he pulled off that 45-foot height limit rule way back when.

photo by Samuel Bietenholz

 

 

18 comments

  1. More jobs would be generated if it were more profitable for builders to build upward, which is more (local) labour-intensive, rather than outward, which is more (imported) material- and energy-intensive, through elimination of height and minimum setback restrictions, require infill buildings to have the ground floor(s) used for retail and office space and impose maximum automobile parking of 0, decreasing development charges to 0 for infill and increased for low-density land use, eliminate the municipal land transfer tax, and base property taxes on the value of land alone rather than both land and building.

    Imposing border tolls to make TTC free would increase demand for housing in Toronto compared to the 905, while generating more local jobs. Property values would increase throughout Toronto, permitting the property tax rate to decrease, making it even more competitive compared to the 905, making it even more desirable to live and invest in Toronto.

    The city should sell all of its parkland and require buildings constructed have green roofs (to effective act as parkland), which would further reduce the average journey distance, cost of utilities (due to insulating effect) and increase the life expectancy of the roof and property values.

  2. The city should sell its parkland? are you out of your bloody mind?!  That parkland is there for a reason as Parkland you know dirt, grass, trees on the ground. I can see it now, “Toronto the city where every park is an elevator ride away.” not to mention thats our parkland not to be sold to private interests. 

  3. “And if all else fails, she can always phone up David Crombie and ask him how that he pulled off that 45-foot height limit rule way back when.”

    David Crombie was one heck of a politician, but even he, I think, would have trouble pushing through a mid-rise agenda again.

    We are not the City of Toronto of then, but the Metro of today. A 2.5 million person size, suburban-agenda driven, City. Not the agenda of a reasonably compact 600,000 person city within a region (within a region). 

    Welcome to post-amalgamation Toronto.

    The answer (other than a time machine) is to work within out existing system, and not to look too wistfully back at the days (and situations) of yore.

  4. “City council will vote on the development application in early June, but generally follows the wishes of community council.” And, the community council follows the wishes of the local councillor. So, when a local councillor thinks they know best, planning errors are made that become precedent and good argument at the OMB. Compound that with a distinct lack of resources in the TO Planning Department and you get City Place, a Regent Park in the making.

    Let’s call a spade, a spade here.

    Good planning in TO has been missing since the New Development Party on Council started trashing the New Official Plan immediately after it was born in 2006. That’s nothing new since the old Official Plan was ruined in much the same way by elected officials (ex School Trustees, community activists, administrative clerks, etc.,) who figured they had acquired a professional designation as soon as the vote count was in.

    Nothing will change until the culture of Ward Politics is isolated from good planning decisions. A good Chief Planner is a step in the right direction. This new one looks like she could find work anywhere if she gets fired for speaking up about what few have been willing to do, for so long.

  5. Tell us more about Livey? Will he be the one actually making the planning decisions?

  6. @Danny Handelman

    “More jobs would be generated if it were more profitable for builders to build upward, which is more (local) labour-intensive, rather than outward, which is more (imported) material- and energy-intensive, through elimination of height and minimum setback restrictions, require infill buildings to have the ground floor(s) used for retail and office space and impose maximum automobile parking of 0, decreasing development charges to 0 for infill and increased for low-density land use, eliminate the municipal land transfer tax, and base property taxes on the value of land alone rather than both land and building. ”

    I don’t think this is true. Jobs are created when companies hire more people in response to increased demand for their services or products. Artificially creating a building boom by dropping the land transfer tax (which seems a seperate issue altogether) and dropping development charges on certain land will have consequences, but they will not create jobs. In general, I am against getting rid of taxes in the GTA as they are too hard to impose in the first place. The discussion over the 2010 and 2011 Toronto budgets reveal that we do need the taxes we have. Eliminate one (vehicle registration), and you need to either raise another, or cut services. We won’t always be able to rely on windfalls from the land transfer tax to save school breakfast programs.

    The other suggestions are quite radical, and I don’t think they would either work or be accepted in Toronto.

  7. I’m open to compelling arguments for preserving employment lands (like CUI’s case for protecting downtown sites for new office towers) but I really haven’t heard much of anything about the vast inner-suburban employment lands. Some of them are or will soon be very desirable for mixed-use redevelopment like Eglinton East after 2020. What else can we do with all that half-used space? I’m not asking rhetorically. It would be really great to have a civic conversation about employment lands.

  8. John, would you prefer a one-acre park in downtown be utilized to house 200 households, with active transportation as the primary mode of transportation, or a 5-acre farm or forest on the suburban fringe be converted into 200 households, using the automobile as the primary mode of transportation?

    Lee, the bulk of the jobs would be generated by the fact that residential ground and second floors would become retail and office space, which would be commercially viable due to the considerable increase in the number of people within walking distance while reducing transportation costs incurred by the municipality. I wouldn’t consider it to be an artificial housing boom, as there is considerable demand for housing in the 905 region (increasing by about 65,000 per year compared to 25,000 in Toronto per year) plus public housing plus 85,000 households in Toronto on the waiting list for public housing.
    The municipal land transfer tax and development charges for infill effectively shifts (long-term) property taxes toward one-time payments (largely to subsidize detached housing, where the cost to provide services per dwelling unit is greater than property taxes collected, largely a reflection of the size of the land). (Approximately 80% of development charges are directed toward roads, public transit, water and sewer) Based on my knowledge, there is still lots of “gravy” Mr Ford has yet to find in the municipal budet, including the ~2000 police officers, knowing that crime rates haven’t been this low since 1972. However, the city of Toronto should not have eliminated the vehicle registration tax, considering the external costs of the use of the automobile. Imposing development charges for infill effectively make it more attractive for builders to build on the suburban fringe rather than where it should be encouraged. Reducing housing and transportation costs would eventually result in certain services no longer being necessary including school breakfast programs.

    I am not expecting all of my changes to be adopted overnight. However, incremental improvements are possible.

  9. “Two generations from now, Torontonians will look at one another and wonder what the hell we were thinking, building so many shabbily constructed glass towers filled to the brim with veal fattening pens masquerading as starter investments.”

    Love it!

    What Toronto needs more of is non-commercial public space. For a city of this size and density, we’re woefully lacking as compared to Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago or New York. Vancouver has a good rule that requires the developer to set aside a certain percentage of the property as public use green space. Why can’t we do something like that here?

  10. Two things:

    @AN

    Toronto does have the ability to require the developer to set aside a certain percentage of their property as a park (this power stems from the s 42 of the Planning Act and is operationalized via the Official Plan).

    However, on many smaller infill development sites, rather than providing parkland, the developer is required to provide the equivalent cash-in-lieu of parkland (again stemming from s 42 of the Planning Act). This money is put in a fund that is meant to be used to buy parkland and make capital improvements (new landscaping, equipment, benches, etc.) to existing parks.

    @Brent

    Toronto is currently reviewing its Official Plan. Part of this involves something called a “Municipal Comprehensive Review” which is required by the Province when a municipality is considering changes to employment land designations.

    The City is currently starting up stage two of the public consultation on the Official Plan and Municipal Comprehensive Review – where draft policies on employment lands (amongst other portions of the Official Plan) will be tested with Council, the public, and stakeholders.

    I would keep my eyes peeled for a staff report on the draft policies on employment lands stemming from the Municipal Comprehensive Review. You can check out the City’s dedicated website for more info and to sign up for news blasts: http://www.toronto.ca/opreview/

  11. Putting aside a specific fraction of property for public green space isn’t necessarily in the public interest: squat buildings occupying most of a property are more energy efficient, green roofs have a greater (potential) benefit of moderating temperatures and pollution, food generation and reduction of cost of utilities). Tall, slender buildings are more costly to construct (due to requiring more money invested in structural support), greater cost premium attached to the higher units, reducing the amount of units available to those of lower economic status. In my perspective, a greater amount of public space can be obtained by reducing the amount of space devoted toward transportation, especially automobiles.

  12. Danny, you seem to be oblivious to the difference between capital and operating expenses.  Furthermore you grossly overestimate the cost savings,and even the incidence, of municipal expenses.

  13. John, Keesmaat does not need any novel or imaginative ideas to solve the problem. The solution is as straightforward as the problem itself. Lower the taxes!  The city cannot make persuavsive arguments at the OMB to save employment lands when they have been derilect for twenty years.

  14. There is a strong correlation between capital and operating expenses: the greater the capital investment in municipal infrastructure, the greater the operating expenses. Glen, what is your evidence that I am grossly overestimating the cost savings? I believe you are assuming that current municipal expenditure is optimal, but is in fact based on what politicians perceive will maximize the probability of being re-elected.

    The Halifax tax reform seems to be based on what politicians perceive will maximize the probability of being re-elected, not land value taxation (and would still be affected by zoning and development charges depressing property values of low-density land use and inflate higher density land uses). The article seems to compare changes to property taxes of detached housing and ignore the other types of non-apartment/condo dwelling units (semi-detached, rowhouse, townhouse). I assume Upper Hammonds is an outlier amongst suburbs (being primarily urban originally but increasingly labelled as suburban with little or no change to land use). The urban commercial properties, in general, will be subsidizing the suburban commercial properties, as commercial property values tend to be based more on revenue-streams (at least in Ontario) than the cost to provide services, a reflection of size of the property and extent that it is segregated from residential uses of the land. So, the suburban commercial properties, which tend to have oversize parking lots (underutilized land) should be paying more in property taxes than a commercial property housing the same size of improvement with no parking lot. Capping assessments are stupid, in general: a valuable property reflects high demand to reside there, so the market pressure (in this case, property taxes) to use the land more efficiently should be greater than a low-value property.

    Apartment owners will pass on the lower property taxes on apartments if competition increases from new apartments being constructed (which would occur if zoning, development charges and property taxes made it more profitable for builders to build upward rather than outward). In Ontario, there is provincial legislation which requires apartment owners to reduce rent if property taxes decrease by more than 2.5%. Under equitable land value taxation, the assessment system would become simpler (removal of “improvements” variable in assessments) and not distinguish between different property classes (although the property tax rate might still vary between property classes). The “tax reform” does not seem to have a single residential property category, which would be necessary under equitable land value taxation.

  15. “The Halifax tax reform seems to be based on what politicians perceive will maximize the probability of being re-elected”

    Like I said, nothing will change unless the culture on Council changes first. Like, the $50million Cllr Vaughan has amassed for use at “the right time” and not as S 37 monies are intended to be spent. Same with the S 42 monies collected. They are wasted dispensing political favors secured to re-election favors.

  16. Danny, operating costs as a percentage of capital costs are typically low. With the exception of public transit. 

    You might want to look at the municipal performance and benchmarking figures.  Toronto,despite its higher density, does not achieve any cost savings for comparable service levels. Your posts seem to imply that density is the largest factor in determining costs. It is not.

    Regarding the Halifax study, what you said is correct. Politicians will skew things to gain political currency. That is no different than the current system though.  As the study showed all the residential class is subsidised by the commercial class.

  17. John, back to my point regarding Keesmaat’s ability to do anything constructive to protect employment lands. Other than stressing to council that it needs to act on the tax issue, she really cannot do much. The problem is not a planning one, nor is the solution. As iterated by the OMB in decision 2919 (Menkes Lakeshore) “Planning is not simply about a community
    vision of what would be nice, nor is it simply an ambition identified by a particular
    property owner. To be effective, planning needs to weave together both vision and
    ambition, and leaven them both with a hard dose of what is realistically achievable.”

    In this case the city tried to stop the conversion of employment lands (office) to mixed use, which in Toronto typically means empty ground floor retail with condo’s on top, arguing that the city needed to protect the employment lands. The OMB ruled, based on expert testimony and undisputed by the city, that office development would not occur under the current tax regime.

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