Development Charges and the Failure of City Council

City council has made a terrible mistake. Tomorrow is their last day to fix it, but they won’t.

Last month, council made a rather bad decision. I don’t know if it was cowardly, opportunistic, jaded or cynical, but whatever the motivation of all but two council members, the decision to settle with developers and homebuilders–“cave to” might be more accurate–and lower development charges will hurt the city this year and for the rest of this council’s duration. It will hurt our finances; it will encourage sprawl; and it will do nothing to help the success of light rail, a rather important project the city currently has on the go.

Not only will it encourage sprawl, but it will degrade our suburbs. The homebuilders have conned the city into accepting the idea that our new communities deserve sub-par roads and parks. These people are looking to build new neighbourhoods on the cheap and still have the city subsidize their developments.

If you’re buying a new home in the coming years, it is likely that the company building your home has worked hard to ensure to lower your quality of life.

There are layers of problems here, some well-articulated by councillor Tobi Nussbaum who voted against capitulation (McKenney was the other).

First, this is a massive financial screw-up. We have development charges for a reason. It costs the city money to have new homes built, either in established neighbourhoods or new communities. There’s infrastructure, a lot of it: roads, transit, water, sewers, parks. You can’t just flatten a plot of land and plunk a house down.

We already know that sprawl costs the city a lot of money. Suburbs contribute a disproportionately small share of tax revenue for the services they demand. Now, the rest of the city has to foot part of maintaining them and for building them. It’s a gift to the homebuilders industry that you and I get to pay for.

Already this year we’re going to have give back more than $7M plus interest. It’s going to cost us tens of millions more over the next few years. We have a deficit and council is just pissing away millions for the sake of developers

It’s not as if development charges are chosen willy-nilly. There is an extensive and exhaustive process. The results are clearly documented. We really staff and consultants, specialists who understand the potential costs to Ottawa for new developments. We spend time and money on this report only to have council rip it up behind closed doors.

And there’s the next problem, there is no accountability on this. Council went in camera to discuss the matter, then came out with a rubber stamp for the proposed settlement. There’s no justification, no explanation. There’s no talk of how we’re going to recoup all the lost millions of dollars. We just get a press release that blatantly glosses over the issue. It’s contemptuous of citizens and staff, alike.

The press release is another problem. It gives us no real information. It talks about the settlement and the new and old amounts for the development charges, but it doesn’t ever talk about the percentage of the increase that was cut, which was about 25%. There’s no explanation how we could go through a long, careful process and supposedly have such a major screw-up in our calculations.

The city will talk compromise and how it worked with the homebuilders to come to a “fair” resolution…but we had a fair resolution last year. When the new development charges were proposed, we were told that they were defensible, that there was no major vulnerability from a legal challenge. They were fully substantiated.

Now we’re left with the impression that it was all a lie…except the people giving us that impression don’t even have the guts to come out and say so. Confidentiality and industry rule over democracy and prudent government. Thanks, guys. Bang up job you’re doing over at City Hall.

You might think that another troubling layer to this resolution is the precedent that it sets. The city no longer has control over our finances because homebuilders can threaten to take us to the OMB and we’ll just roll over. Sure, yeah, that’s a bad precedent. Worse, though, is that we have codified this neutering of government. According to the resolution, we can’t really make any changes to development charges without the okay from the development industry.

City council has willfully signed over it’s rightful power–it’s responsibility that is owed to us–to big corporations. Once again, thanks guys.

So this is all bad, really bad, for the city. The city has given up millions upon millions of dollars, authority over development charges and any precedent-setting backbone for future OMB challenges. You’d think we’d get something out of it, right?

You’d think that the biggest most vulnerable issue–LRT–would get settled and the city would have a bit of security when it came to this massive, massive project we’ve undertaken. C’mon, you really would think that. For all the cowardly rolling-over to industry this council does, you’d think that they’d insulate LRT from any further challenges relating to development charges.

You’d be wrong.

According to the resolution, “[t]here are however certain appeals that are not disposed of by this settlement and at this point are continuing”, including Development in the Vicinity of Transit Stations.

As you may or may not be aware, the city (notionally) wants LRT to succeed. To help that along, the plan is to increase density around LRT stations. It’s pretty basic logic: get more people living right close to transit hubs and you’ll get more people using transit. This is achieved in a few ways: allowing bigger, higher, denser developments is one way. Encouraging development is another.

As part of this encouragement, the city is lowering development charges around LRT stations. It might seem a little backwards (these potential residents will get more value form LRT than people moving to the exurbs), but the success of the LRT is key to the economic, environmental and personal health of the city. We’ll cut a bit of a deal because we’ll reap significant benefits.

Developers, apparently, don’t like that. They want to sprawl and they want people driving on cheaply-financed roads, apparently:

Several developers have appealed the elimination of the 50 per cent reduction in the roads component of the development charge for the construction of apartments, subject to limitations on provided parking, in the vicinity of transit stations. This hearing is also scheduled for January, 2016.

You have to be fucking kidding me. We’ve given away so much in this resolution–money, responsibility, authority, credibility, transparency–and it doesn’t even defend the biggest damned point in this whole issue.

This resolution is a massive, massive failure by city council. It’ll be approved, one would assume, by the OMB on Friday. Council sits tomorrow, but don’t expect any leadership or mettle. They’ve washed their hands, letting the development industry further erode our city.

Cowardice and cynicism rule at 101 Laurier Avenue West again.

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Mayoral Speculation

I have a confession to make. I didn’t think there was any chance that Catherine McKenna would beat Paul Dewar. I knew it was getting close, but I just couldn’t see Dewar losing. About a month or so before the election, I made a decision: shortly after the federal election, I was going to approach McKenna to see if she would be angling for a mayoral run. I thought she’d be a great challenge to Jim Watson.

Well, things didn’t quite happen that way.

Jim Watson has seemed like the perfect mayoral candidate the past few years. He understands the municipal game, as a former councillor and mayor, and he then moved on to provincial politics, so he appears like the heavyweight coming down middleweight class to dominate the undersized and under-prepared competitors.

But the bloom is off the rose. He’s led our city into deficit. Our roads are crumbling, and he hasn’t properly budgeted for snow removal…rather important in Ottawa.

Let’s not forget that Watson is no dragon slayer. He came in as mayor, originally, in the final days of the old (pre-amalgamation) days of the city. With amalgamation and the elimination of regional council, Watson didn’t persist. Regional Chair Bob Chiarelli (an even more career-y career politician than Watson) wanted the job, and Watson kind of just left.

Those who didn’t want to vote for Chiarelli were left to vote for Claudette Cain.

Eventually, Larry O’Brien stumbled into the role of mayor, and totally cocked it up. There was no chance he’d have a second term. So, with a mayoral vacuum, and Bob Chiarelli looking for a provincial job, Watson came back City Hall, beating a rather weak field.

In 2014, he beat the weakest of fields to hold onto his job.

I don’t know if he’ll run again, but if he does, he deserves a real challenge. And there are people in the city who are ready to takeover. I’m going to list a few here. They may not fancy a run in 2018, or they may wait until Watson isn’t running, but these are the people I could see running in the future.

This list is no real order. It’s just off the top of my head.

Tobi Nussbaum

He clearly has the chops to run for mayor. A former diplomat, he knows how to engage the public and work the people behind the scenes. He comes off as both likeable and knowledgeable. He’d not only make a strong candidate, he’d probably make a very good mayor.

Catherine McKenney

The councillor, not the Cabinet Minister. She knows City Hall. She knows the political game (having walked away with Somerset Ward). And, like Nussbaum, she’s knowledgeable and likeable. But, she doesn’t come off quite as personable as Nussbaum (in public)…but she does seem to get stuff done. Nussbaum has a higher profile resume, but McKenney might have the better resume for municipal leadership.

(By the way, it seems like Nussbaum might be the more likely candidate because of sexism. He’s loaded in privilege, McKenney isn’t. That could be the difference between the two.)

Jan Harder

You can’t miss Harder at City Hall. She’s been there for…oh man, I’m not even sure. I think she first ran back when I lived in Barrhaven, back during university or high school. She makes her presence felt on any issue she decides. She maintains a lot of support in her ward, and would probably carry a lot of the ‘burbs, if she ran.

She’s also an angry, hateful person, who has been known to break traffic laws. She might not be diplomatic enough to pull off the being mayor. She might stir up enough suburban entitlement to win, but she’d probably turn into an Ottawa version (ie, watered down and less criminal version) of Rob Ford.

(I would have said Mel Lastman, but that title was taken by Larry O’Brien.)

Stephen Blais

I know Blais has had health issues, and I could see that playing into any decision he’d make, but aside from that, he seems like a solid contender. He’s bright and he’s detail-oriented. And despite his tone-deaf response to widening the 174, he’s responsive to his community (his 174 response probably isn’t really tone-deaf…he just knows which constituents he needs to listen to).

That being said, I’m not sure he has a big enough profile, city-wide, to make a run in 2018.

Tim Tierney

I’ll admit it; I can’t quite figure Tierney out. I’ve never met Tierney, but I’ve had a number of interactions with him through social media. I most certainly do not always agree with him, but he seems like a decent guy…with bouts of free-thinking, which doesn’t happen enough on this council.

He doesn’t have a big enough profile, nor a clearly defined vision for a run…yet. I don’t know what his long-game is, but I could easily see him try to make the jump from councillor to mayor.

Mark Taylor

I’m going to say it right now. Mark Taylor does not have the chops to be mayor. But I totally think he would run for mayor, if he doesn’t jump to an MP or MPP run, first. I think he has definite ambition, and fancies himself a real political contender. He needs to do more work, first. We don’t need another milquetoast mayor from Bay Ward.

Alex Cullen

Okay, this is a bit of a joke, but he’s run for everything else, it seems, so why not mayor? Also, a Cullen-Taylor mayoral battle would a helluva a good time to watch…until we had to live with one of the as mayor.

Paul Dewar

He says he’s done with politics, and maybe that’s true. But he has the pedigree, the political experience and the likeability to be a legitimate challenger. We’d just need to know what his vision would be.

Well…that’s about it for now. There are always other people to consider. Alex Munter is still out there; he might want to make a run. Or we might have another pillar of industry who’ll run, a Hunt or a McGarry, but I’d kind of hope that we’d be really wary of that sort of thing again.

There is one name that I have conspicuously left off this list:

Scott Moffatt

I don’t think Moffatt is looking to be mayor. I think he’s looking to be MP or MPP. It’s jsut a hunch. Nonetheless, there is no doubt in my mind that he has greater aspirations that Rideau-Goulbourn councillor.

He’s young. Younger than me. He has a young family, and somehow he’s been able to run successfully twice. He’s driven and he serves the community. He’s engaging. He’s bright. And he works. However, is Ottawa going to elect a rural mayor? Is a rural politician going to think that mayor is the ultimate goal? I don’t really think so. This is a bit of a hunch, but I expect Moffatt to leave municipal politics in the next ten years, or so.

Mark Taylor, Deputy Mayor of Awesomeness

Years ago, I had a colleague who wore many hats. He was a marketing specialist, but he was also a writer and occasionally a trainer. Consequently, he had a number of different email signatures. Just for fun, he had one email signature that read “Vice President of Awesome”. He wanted to see if anyone would ever notice (no one ever did).

I thought about my buddy when I read this story about Mark Taylor and his fondness for the Deputy Mayor title:

Mark Taylor has used taxpayers’ money to buy embroidered jackets, pewter lapel pins and a special seal for embossing certificates in order to brand himself as Ottawa’s deputy mayor — a largely ceremonial post that requires him to attend events Jim Watson can’t.

The second-term city councillor for Bay ward has spent more than $3,500 since being appointed to the job last year — almost four times what the other deputy mayor, Orléans Coun. Bob Monette, has spent on letterhead, business cards and magnets, according to documents obtained by the Citizen through a freedom-of-information request.

Now, I’m not going to say that Deputy Mayor is a fake title…but it is made up. Watson has basically designated two mini-mes to show up at breakfasts and church bazaars when Watson decides to break a pelvis. It’s a useful enough job (Watson can’t be everywhere, though he really does try), but it’s pretty meaningless.

So it’s really gross that he has spent so much money stroking his ego. It’s like he made us all buy him jackets that read, “Jim Watson is my BFF”, because that’s about the gist of it (except for the existence of Bob Monette).

It’s wasteful, it’s narcissistic and it’s contemptuous of the public.

Worse, still, is Taylor seems to think this is an actual leadership position, all the while showing zero leadership.

Pay attention to council and the goings-on of the city. Who are the councillors who are out in front of city and ward issues? Catherine McKenney, Tobi Nussbaum, Mathieu Fleury, Jeff Leiper, Diane Deans, Riley Brockington…hell, even Jan Harder (with whom I tend to disagree) shows much more leadership than Mark Taylor.

In fact, there are few councillors who are less present than Mark Taylor. If I was to list the councillors who seem to have the lowest profile, I would actually list both Deputy Mayors, Monette and Taylor.

There was some chatter that Taylor was chosen for the role because Watson was grooming him. Taylor has a lot of political experience, so it was reasonable to think he might be eyeing bigger things (at the local level, or at the provincial or federal level). But, more and more, I’m thinking Watson has chosen dutiful lieutenants who will never outshine him.

Very shrewd.

Bus-Fest

Budget drafts and funding schemes were rolled out at City Hall this week (well, sort of, details weren’t always included), and as we already knew, OC Transpo needs to find new ways to increase revenue. Naturally, they’re going with some fare increases (praying they don’t kill off too much of their customer base), but they’ve also got a new plan. They’re looking for $200,000 from Bluesfest.

The rationale is pretty simple. Fares only cover about half of OC Transpo’s costs. OC Transpo provides extra buses for Bluesfest. Bluesfest (and/or their customers) should help cover the tab.

Kitchississippi councillor Jef Leiper does not like this plan. In a thorough blog post, he notes that Bluesfest is a big part of our music and festival scene; that OC Transpo customers expect and deserve a certain level of service; that Bluesfest, in conjunction with the city, does a lot to help out the music scene and kids who want to get into music; and that Bluesfest contributes a lot to our economy.

(To the last point, I’m not persuaded. This sounds like the same rationale for supporting major league sports teams, but study after study shows the economic benefits are never what they are touted to be.)

There are varying degrees of merit to these arguments, however, he puts forward one argument that’s a bit weaker:

The benefits of providing great transit to music events and venues isn’t just economic. It’s critical to ensuring a safe way home for music fans after a night out, greatly reduces the carbon footprint of major events, mitigates residential neighbourhood parking and associated enforcement problems, and reduces congestion.

 

We’re not necessarily talking about cutting service. We’re talking about adding responsibility to pay for the cost of the service to Bluesfest and, most likely, their fans, as it seems reasonable to assume that the bulk of any extra charges will be passed on through ticket prices. This won’t lead to a drop in service, or a drop in ridership (unless some fans eschew the bus out of spite). It will just be shifting the cost onto the event that is necessitating the additional service.

…Except we don’t know if that’s what is happening.

Roughly speaking, we can say that half of all bus rides are paid for by the city…but not all bus trips are created equal. That crammed 95 that can’t fit anyone else on is bringing in a lot more cash than that final run of the 148 that has about five people on it. There must be (again, roughly speaking) a point where bus routes become profitable, but we don’t know when that is.

So here’s the calculus we need: how much more does it cost OC Transpo to run those extra buses to Bluesfest? How much additional revenue are Bluesfest attendees bringing to OC Transpo? How much of that additional revenue is realized because of the additional service? What is the desired service level (in terms of not-crammed-buses) that we should be targeting for buses (regular and additional) to and from Bluesfest?

If Bluesfest service is a net drain on OC Transpo’s coffers, then the festival needs to be charged. Bluesfest might be great, but it’s not so great that it deserves special funding from OC Transpo.

But if the additional buses are paying for themselves, without making the regular buses less profitable (or even bigger costs), then this gambit by OC Transpo is just a cash grab…they’re seeing something successful and trying to find a way to suck some extra cash out of it. They’ll be a leach providing no commensurate value.

OC Tranpso shouldn’t be allowed to charge Bluesfest $200,000 until they can provide an economic case for it. Until then, it’s just extortion.

The Anti-Glebe Cycling Plan

The other day, I was at a public consultation that was purportedly about the Glebe Cycling Plan (though it was mainly about driving, kind of about pedestrians and hardly about bicycling at all…but I digress). I won’t get into the details (it wouldn’t make a particularly interesting post), but they did display the following diagram. Do you see a problem with it?

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 7.59.23 PM

This is an image of the “Glebe Cycling Plan”. Bank Street is the Glebe’s main street. The “Glebe Cycling Plan” seems designed to keep you away from Bank Street…and the numbered streets…and Central Park.

This plan is designed to get you through and out of the Glebe without enjoying any part of it. It’s a giant middle finger from the city. I’d love to see my councillor do something about it.

Jan Harder says something silly

(This is me being polite.)

There’s been a bit of crime happening in Half Moon Bay Park in Barrhaven. Two children were beaten up in the park last week, purportedly by a group of teenagers. I think we can all agree that if a park is conducive to consequence-free violence, it won’t be fulfilling its mandate.

In response to resident complaints, the local councillor, Jan Harder, said something rather…er…silly:

Well-lit areas create very dark areas elsewhere and actually contribute to more criminal activity.

Light, it would seem, nurtures violence.

I wish to commend the people who attempted to parse some sensibility into what Harder said, and if you squint hard enough, you might just see their point…but it requires completely ignoring the words Harder actually said.

Another in the twitter-verse was able to find the city policy that completely contradicts what Harder said:

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 1.07.29 PMThe city, you see, sees proper lighting as a safety measure, not necessarily a sufficient safety measure on its own, but a safety measure, nonetheless.

Harder and her defenders do, sort of, have a point…again if you squint really hard and ignore what Harder actually said. Criminal activity doesn’t want to be seen. It wants to recede into the shadows. It exists where there are no eyes to see. Lighting is a safety measure if and only if there are people around to see what’s going on.

This isn’t some new phenomenon or radical insight on my part, dear readers. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote about the street gangs in major American cities. Half a century ago, she noted that these weren’t really street gangs. Looking at some of the most notorious examples of gang violence, it all tended to happen in parks.

The streets were safe. The streets were lit. The streets were alive. People were about, there were buses and traffic. There were shoppers and residents. There were people coming and going from bars and restaurants. This kind of violence wouldn’t occur on streets because there was just too much going on. Someone would have seen it and someone would have called the cops.

But the parks were tucked away. There was little activity at night. There weren’t houses or apartments or bars or restaurants emptying into the parks. Light is only part of the solution. Without any eyes, the light is near useless.

So this isn’t an issue of night vision or light magically creating crime. This is the very nature of areas like Barrhaven. They are quiet. There is little activity on the streets. There are no eyes naturally trained on the park.

Maybe we need lights in Half Moon Bay Park, maybe we don’t. I see a bigger issue, though. We can’t keep building these communities that are so naturally conducive to this kind of crime.

There is another lesson in this little story, and that is the poor behaviour of councillor Harder. Here is how I would define her existence as a councillor:

  • Say something silly. Ignore evidence, data, reason, logic and research. Ignore the expertise of city staff.
  • When someone points out the silliness of a particular stance, get defensive and pissy. Lash out at the residents of the city. Eschew reflection and introspection, and just get hostile.
  • Cheap out on development. Starve the city budget and don’t properly develop parks and public space.
  • Defend Suburbia uber alles. Ignore any flaws. And demand, through wishful thinking, that everything be perfect.
  • When residents seek improvements, attack them for not paying proper respect to the suburban utopia you built. (Unless you’re asking for more roads.)

You never know what councillors are doing behind the scenes, so it can be hard to judge their effectiveness and abilities, but this is a basic pattern we’ve seen from Harder. She demonstrates no respect for the city. She seeks to actively damage other neighbourhoods for the benefit of her ward. And she is nasty and mean towards residents who don’t acquiesce to every dumb statement that comes tumbling out of her mouth.