Book Club XI

There are times while reading Alan Redway’s Governing Toronto where it’s difficult to dismiss that niggling voice chirping away in your head. Alright already, Mr. Crankypants! governingtorontoMr. Back In My Day Everything Was Better! We need to get back to the garden of Metro Council.

Yes, our current form of government in Toronto is not functioning properly. Yes, we need an overhaul. Yes, amalgamation, as implemented, has failed us by almost every measure. Yes, yes, yes.

But simply turning back the clock is rarely the solution to circumstances going forward. So called Golden Ages seldom shone as brightly as supporters remember. The idea that returning to an earlier form of government – Metro council, perhaps not directly elected, as part of a wider set of separate municipalities – would restore our lost luster strikes me as hopeful rather than practical. It suggests that many of the intractable problems the city faces now, affordable housing and transit to name two, came packaged up with amalgamation. They didn’t. A restoration of a form of pre-amalgamated governance in Toronto alone ignores the other variables at play the city’s faced since the mid-90s or so. The sharp decrease in funding by both the provincial and federal governments for many of the services we provide for one, funding which was integral to our earlier Golden Age.

This is not to dismiss Governing Toronto. It is a good read for at least 3 reasons. One is the history it provides especially for a non-native Torontonian like myself, toting around all my ignorance. fredgardinerAlan Redway served for 6 years as mayor of the pre-amalgamated borough of East York, which put him also as a member of the Executive Committee on Metro Council. He later became Member of Parliament as part of the Mulroney Progressive Conservative government.

So the city’s politics run deep with Mr. Redway. He tells the history of Toronto governance with the passion of someone who lived it. Governing Toronto is full of the personal partiality you would expect from a participant in the proceedings. Rather than off-putting, it brings the story to life.

The book serves up two other very important points that are definitely worth exploring.

The Ontario government used to study and tinker with governance models of Toronto and the region on a very regular and, quite possibly, intrusive basis. “When the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto was established on January 1, 1954,” Redway writes, “the provincial government of then Premier Leslie Frost promised to review its experience within five years.” lesliefrostIn fact, it was back at it 3 years later. And then again 5 years after that. And again in 1975. And in 1986. 1995 brought us the Greater Toronto Area Task Force. In 1996, Mike Harris commissioned his own report plus a study, ‘Who Does What’ with David Crombie at the helm.

Since amalagamation? Nada, unless you count the reduction of councillor numbers from 56 to 44 in 2000. So this unwieldy and, at times, dysfunctional form of government gets imposed on Toronto in 1997, and there’s not so much as an official follow-up to see what’s working, what’s not, how we might iron out the kinks?

Just simple neglect or is there something more at work here?

The cynic in me looks askance and says, Of course there’s something at work here. A divided, squabbling Toronto is like a circular firing squad. Too busy shooting itself rather than aiming their fire at Queen’s Park. Whether or not we’re talking just 416 or on a wider, GTA regional level, the idea of a united Toronto area, “an emergent political jurisdiction” as the 1995 Golden report called it, has to be an uncomfortable scenario for a provincial government. johnrobartsAs far back as the mid-60s, when the exploration of establishing a borough system for Toronto was entertained, it was sent back for further study because it “would stir up too much opposition to the government which would not be desirable at this time.”

Bringing us to Redway’s third and (arguably) most important point. Regional governance. Hey, Queen’s Park! You’re not the boss of me!

Well, yes they are. Creatures of the province and all that. In the absence of any other organized body, as it stands right now the provincial government represents is the GTA regional government. And there’s lots to be concerned with about that. This, from the Golden Report in 1996:

The Task Force believes that, regardless of how the government of Ontario is structured, it is inherently unable to meet Greater Toronto’s co-ordination needs effectively. The region must develop its own identity and focus as a city-region if it is to compete with other city-regions internationally. The provincial government, by definition, cannot achieve this focus because it defines its constituency Ontario-wide. It also lacks the capacity to advocate freely and effectively on behalf of the city-region, a function that is essential to the GTA’s ability to influence federal and provincial policies affecting the region.

You might even argue that the province as a regional government has a fundamental conflict at its core. Whether or not it’s playing off the 905 against the 416 or meddling with the plans of its own regional transit body – Metrolinx — like it did with the Scarborough subway for its naked political interests, there is a perception of not being an honest broker. nathanphillipsWhat’s more, regardless of party stripe, any government at Queen’s Park has to maintain a credible anti-Toronto bias to keep some semblance of support in other parts of the province. That’s an unhealthy dynamic to have as a governance model.

If you want to see that funky relationship in all its fraught action, just follow along with the proceedings of the Ontario Municipal Board [OMB] in the politics of Toronto. It is very much a can’t-live-with-it-can’t-live-without-it state of affairs. Imagine this city without any sort of OMB oversight. You came up with a quick, pleasing picture? You probably weren’t looking closely enough.

Aaron A. Moore’s Planning Politics in Toronto examines the influence the provincial body plays on urban planning in very, very dry, academic detail. It is a policy wonk’s book, for sure, but accessible enough for the likes of me to establish some thought-provoking ideas. Covering a handful of cases between 2000-2006, Moore lays out how the presence of the OMB affects developers, city politicians and staff, residents’ associations positioning around development.

Some of the conclusions he draws may surprise a few of you.

Moore’s research suggests that the OMB is not the land of Mordor ruled by developer Saurons (I hope I have that right. I really don’t now Tolkien at all.) planningpoliticsinTO“The OMB significantly contributes to a politics in the city that simultaneously pushes actors towards compromise while fanning conflict,” he writes. Often times, the mere threat of an OMB appeal will compel those involved in a development process toward an acceptable compromise.

Undoubtedly, this will favour those with the deepest pockets. OMB appeals don’t come cheap. Yet, Moore suggests that isn’t the usual outcome in. Conflict looms. Peaceable resolutions tend to prevail.

One of the reasons Moore suggests this may happen is that the OMB seems inclined to favour expert opinion in making its decisions. Advice, a thumbs-up or thumbs down from city planning staff is crucial in building an appealable case for or against a development in front of the OMB. Which is why it’s ludicrous for a city, any city, but especially a city like Toronto under extreme development pressure, to leave a planning department understaffed. Any developer or city councillor worth their salt will do the utmost to figure out how to bring city planning staff on board. A city can really strengthen its hand when it comes to development by having a top-notch, non-desiccated planning department.

The emphasis on expert opinion at the OMB also takes away what could be the petty power of a local politician which is both bad and good, I guess. Should planning a city be left exclusively in unpredictable, political hands? stopspadinaWe can’t build sensible, proper public transit because of that. Can you imagine trying to build an entire city that way? Moore points out that Ontario municipalities have a greater freedom than many jurisdictions to regularly change and amend official plans and zoning bylaws. The OMB’s presence helps to insure there’s some “rhyme or reason to planning decisions…beyond municipal councillors’ political calculations.”

So our local politicians will tend to use the OMB as either a shield to protect themselves from their constituents when unpopular developments arise, punt blame over onto the OMB, or a gentle cudgel to tap away at their residents’ resistance to said development. Let’s take what we can now or we might get nothing at an OMB hearing. If you aren’t given ultimate authority over planning and development decisions, why assume the responsibility when they get made?

Still, beware the city councillor decrying the undemocratic nature of the OMB and demanding its abolition. mordorIf you think developers have undue influence over city council now, imagine if final decisions lay in their hands? On the other side, we all know about the density creeps and the village atmosphere maintainers amongst us. City councillors bound to the demands of their local residents and neighbourhood associations – “agents against change” in Moore’s words — in terms of city planning are not city builders.

“The neighbourhoods most involved with City Council [on planning and development issues] are those with the most to protect; that is those in areas with higher median incomes… higher home values… and higher proportions of professionals,” Moore writes. This winds up “enforcing a conservative stance towards neighbourhood change.” NIMBYs, in other words, attempting to keep the future at bay.

Ridding cities of the OMB would leave city planning to the tug of war between developers and the more affluent residents and neighbourhoods, attempting to keep their communities exactly as they found them. That would make for an uneven future, let’s call it, an unhealthy check and balance between unfettered greed and reactionary time stoppers. nimbyNo city could prosper under those conditions.

Reform the OMB? Sure. Moore questions the “vagueness and ambiguity of [its] powers.” That might be a place to start but, like Alan Redway’s demand to de-amalgamate in his book Governing Toronto, a call to get rid of the OMB is an easy and annoyingly populist reaction that ignores the complexity of how Toronto really functions. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater and all that. Let’s sit down and figure out how to make it better, how to govern ourselves better. That’s a conversation we need to have.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr

Marvelling At The Committee Of Adjustment

For City Hall watchers, it’s easy to get caught up in the big show. Our larger than life mayor (no, put down your complaint pens, people, that wasn’t a reference to Mayor Ford’s weight), the ideological schism at council and this kind of stuff. It practically writes itself.

So it’s understandable if indefensible that small but vital matters go largely unnoticed. Like, for example, the regular doings at the Committee of Adjustment meetings. Until this week, I’d never attended one and only did so because a development application in my neck of the woods. You might’ve heard about it? A proposed RioCan retail proposal incorporating the Kromer electronics store on Bathurst between College and Dundas streets.

As these things go, this one was a biggie with much community opposition to the 8 ‘minor’ variances RioCan was requesting. But many of the other 14 items before the committee in the same block where unopposed applicants wanting to build a deck or extend basement foundations. Routine matters to everyone but those involved. Yet, the very building blocks of how our city grows and evolves.

The Committee of Adjustment is made up of civilian members, and Toronto has 4 panels, representing 4 areas of the city, Etobicoke-York, North York, Toronto-East York and Scarborough. Members sit for 4 year terms and bring varying degrees of expertise to the job: a working knowledge of law, planning, architecture, government, economic development, community development, land development or citizen advocacy. In other words, a background in engaged citizenry.

A couple things struck me as I watched the proceedings on Wednesday. One was the civility in the room despite a dynamic that could pit neighbour against neighbour or corporate black heartedness against residential entitlement. There was none of the barking and sniping that occurs at council or other committee meeting. Before taking contested applications to the committee, interested parties were requested to conduct a meeting outside the room to see if their issues could be resolved. How often this works, I don’t know. The RioCan representative pointed out to committee members that none of the opponents to their plan chose to talk with them beforehand. Still, there was the sense the committee desired an amicable resolution before they were forced to arbitrate on applications.

The other interesting observation for me was just how thoroughly prepared all committee members were on every application. Those who presented items and spoke against them were frequently but gently nudged along by the committee chair, Gillian Burton, assured that the committee was well versed with the particular application and were looking for any new information. Questions from the committee were informed and concise. It didn’t strike me as some trial by fire or inquisition. Of course, I was simply observing from the audience not up pleading my case.

As for the RioCan application?

First, let me say that I wasn’t simply observing that one. I have a vested interested since I live not too far from their proposed development and took part in one of the residents’ meetings that talked strategy in opposing it. While not impacted directly by the plan, I was concerned greatly about the traffic impact of it on the surrounding neighbourhoods. What?! More cars!?! Well, that just won’t do…

The opposition was fantastically organized with just 4 people taking 5 minutes each to explain their positions but covering concerns from the Kensington Market Business Improvement and a couple of resident associations’ perspectives as well as one who questioned the very legitimacy of the development in terms of the city’s own Official Plan. Was it really adhering to the Avenues idea of proper planning? All retail including a massive box store that took little of its surroundings into consideration.

That seemed to be the Committee of Adjustment take on the matter as well. Beginning with member John Tassiopoulos’s questioning of why this application had even come before them. These weren’t ‘minor’ variances RioCan requested, he suggested, wondering if it wasn’t more a matter for zoning to deal with. The consensus was that the variances amounted to a cumulative overdevelopment of the site and the committee rejected the application outright. So adamant was the decision that committee members searched for strong enough language in their motion to bolster their judgment in case of an appeal to the OMB.

Oh yes, the OMB.

But before I go down that road, I want to express my amazement at just how transparent the Committee of Adjustment process is. They actually have to discuss their decisions in public. No hearing an application and any opponents to it and then retreating to privately arrive at a verdict. It’s right there in front of everyone in the room. Undoubtedly, each member must have inclinations going in based on the written proposals but they still have to air out their views publicly and, at times I’m sure, in the face of those who may ultimately be plenty displeased by the outcome.

If only it all ended so openly.

Looming largely over any Committee of Adjustment decision, of course, is the Ontario Municipal Board. Where the democratic process ends and money and attrition begins. That’s for another post and written by somebody much more well versed in the matter than I am. I will only say that I am concerned that our budget chief is submitting a notice of motion to council next week to study the benefits of ‘sending the City Solicitor to the Ontario Municipal Board on appeals of Committee of Adjustment decisions.’ Nothing wrong with wanting to ensure a bang for our buck but coming from where it does, I worry about nickel and diming the city’s ability to defend itself and its residents in what oftentimes turns out to be a costly process. If we signal our unwillingness to go to the mat purely for monetary reasons, why wouldn’t every applicant with deep pockets automatically appeal to the OMB?

That’s for another day, however.

For now we simply take pleasure in the fact that sometimes it’s not about successfully fighting City Hall but working with it in trying to develop Toronto in a fair and judicious manner.

happily submitted by Cityslikr