Developers and Development Charges

City council made a bad decision this week…well, they made three bad decisions, but I’m only going to focus on one. Last year, the city increased development charges (DCs). This was a fine move. New builds are taxing on our city services and our city finances. New development isn’t inherently bad, but it is costly, and shouldn’t be subsidized by the rest of us.

Well, nothing is permanent, it seems. Homebuilder associations threatened to take the city to the Ontario Municipal Baord, so the city caved, slashing the increases and promising to never ever do anything to make these perfect, sainted, benevolent developers even slightly inconvenienced ever again (essentially).

I’m not going to get deep into it right now…mainly because Rideau-Rockliffe councillor Tobi Nussbaum’s statement is pretty perfect. (And I’m stealing it in its entirety and I hope Team Tobi doesn’t mind.)

At City Council today, I voted against a settlement agreement to resolve an appeal to the City’s updated development charges bylaw. Ottawa updated its development charges in 2014 and the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association (GOHBA) and other developers subsequently appealed the decision at the Ontario Municipal Board.

The Province of Ontario requires municipalities to review and update their development charges every five years. The City collects development charges from homebuilders to pay for the increased capital costs of services such as new roads, water and sewer pipes and transit to accommodate residential growth. As a result of the settlement, the City will have to reimburse $7.4 million in collected development charges to builders and can expect to forego tens of millions of dollars in future revenue.

I voted against this proposed settlement agreement for two main reasons:

ACCOUNTABILITY

The settlement agreement goes far beyond the 2014 changes to the development charges. It includes a clause that would prohibit Council from introducing any new projects to its development charge system prior to January 1, 2019, unless the appellants agree. By approving this settlement, the City is giving the appellants a veto power over what City Council can do in relation to development charges for more than three years, eliminating the opportunity to include new projects as part of the next development charges review, expected in 2017. To use a concrete example, although Council had the right to impose a development charge to help offset capital costs for childcare, Council will be forbidden to do so by this settlement agreement unless the appealing developers agree.

TRANSPARENCY

The 2014 Development Charges By-law amendment was the subject of considerable consultation, both with the industry and with the broader public. City staff recommended approval of it to Council in June 2014 without any suggestion of legal risk. Given that city staff is now recommending drastic alterations to the recently adopted development charges, either Council was not properly informed of any legal risks at the time the changes were passed, or the city should not agree to settle and instead proceed to a hearing at the Ontario Municipal Board on the basis of the rigorous research, transparency and consultation that underlined the 2014 review.  Either possibility raises significant process issues.

For a public regulator to grant veto power over its future decisions to the very bodies it regulates raises serious concerns. Considering that the settlement agreement was passed at the same meeting that Council considered directions for its 2016 budget, which includes a $36 million-gap that needs to be filled, such a voluntary ceding of Council authority is both legally and financially problematic.

The city is obligated to demonstrate the highest level of openness and transparency, particularly when dealing with the development industry. A settlement agreement, negotiated and debated behind closed doors, that alters a publicly-consulted set of rules and provides veto power to developers over City decisions, does not meet that test. The result of that failure is a loss of public trust.

Nussbaum and Somerset councillor Catherine McKenney were the only two to vote against this horrendous motion. Good for them.

I get council’s desire to settle. The OMB is a monster, and has consistently sided with developers and against democracy. The provincial government is severely hurting the city by giving the OMB such expansive powers. It seems not a significant debate about urban development goes by that someone doesn’t express concern that the OMB will punish the city for a decision we might (and, usually, should) make.

But that doesn’t mean we turn over the keys to government to developers. It already seems like city council is in the pocket of corporations. Now, we’re just that much closer to codifying it.

Signs of failure

slow down for usRecently, the city launched a new campaign to help make our streets safer. I’m not sure what you’d call it. It’s not really a safety campaign, and it’s not really an awareness campaign. Truly, it’s just an admission of guilt. The city has built horribly dangerous roads, but are willing to make nothing but the most facile gestures towards fixing them.

The project is called Slow down for us! It appears to consist of putting up lawn signs that read “Slow down for us!” and show kids playing. It’s a worthwhile message: let’s not kill children.

First, the good news; councillors are getting behind this project. Many councillors have been out putting up these signs, distributing them to residents and advertising the initiative. It’s good to see councillors getting on board with safety initiatives (however, any councillor who is willing to hand out these signs, but isn’t willing to do anything to actually curb traffic speed and volumes is a hypocrite).

That’s it. There’s nothing else good about this project. The only reason we resort to asking residents to put up signs exhorting motorists to slow the fuck down and stop running over kids is because we over-build our roads, rely on car-centric neighbourhood design and do next to nothing to stop or punish dangerous drivers.

Above, you see a picture of Rideau-Rockliffe’s councillor Tobi Nussbaum helping launch this initiative. It so happens that I bike through his ward every day. On Queen Mary Street between Quill and Edith there are five Slow Down signs on one side of the street. The other side of the is a park, and there is another sign posted. Between Quill and Vera, there are twelve of these signs.

This isn’t an awareness campaign; it’s desperation. Queen Mary is a residential street. But it’s a wide residential street with, mostly, long sight lines. It is a street designed for speed at the expense of safety. The popularity of these signs on Queen Mary isn’t and indication of a successful safety campaign. It’s an indictment of a city that doesn’t care about safety.

Now, I believe that Nussbaum is a councillor who actually cares about street safety, but not every councillor does…not really. And so I would implore any councillor who has backed the Slow down for us! campaign to also back measures that will make our streets substantively safer.

Here’s what needs to be done: road diets, narrower lanes, wider sidewalks, raised crosswalks or intersections, bike lanes, speed bumps, bulb outs, tree cover, lower speed limits, traffic lights programmed to favour walking and bicycling…the list goes on.

However, if you value three minutes of commuting time over the safety children, handing out these signs is little more than a lie.

Lunch Out Loud Election Preview

The guys from Lunch Out Loud Ottawa invited me onto their podcast yesterday to chat about the upcoming election. We focused on a handful of wards (and I think I talked way too much), and they even got me to give some predictions.

You can listen:

[Author’s note: Crap, I can’t get the embed to work. Just click on the link above.]

Since I made predictions there, I’ll list them here. If I get 3/10 correct, I’ll be happy:

  1. Somerset: Martin Canning or Jeff Morrison (yeah, I wussed out and picked two)
  2. Rideau-Rockliffe: Tobi Nussbaum
  3. Rideau-Vanier: Marc Aubin
  4. Kitchissippi: Jeff Leiper
  5. River: Riley Brockington
  6. Osgoode: George Darouze (I’m really guessing here, but this is a really interesting race with lots of good candidates)
  7. Gloucester-South Nepean: Susan Sherring
  8. Alta Vista: Jean Cloutier
  9. Bay: Mark Taylor
  10. Innes: Jody Mitic

By the way, these aren’t endorsements, just predictions. Though I think most of these people would make solid councillors

 

A very polite Rideau-Rockliffe debate

Rideau-Rockliffe is in an interesting position this election season. There’s an incumbent with high name recognition, but the ward looks prepared for a change. Voters appear ready to move on from Peter Clark, who has served as a community leader for many many years. So it is (or should be) a wide open race. Here are some observations, mostly from the televised debate:

  • All six registered candidates attended the debate, and none seem to be fringe candidates. It was nice to see a full slate of candidates discuss the issues rationally.
  • Going into the debate, I felt Tobi Nussbaum and Cam Holmstrom were the strongest contenders. I would suggest they’re still the top candidates, but the separation between them and the rest of the field is much smaller than I ‘d thought.
  • This wasn’t really a debate. It was more like sequential statements. The candidates didn’t really engage each other that much. With each topic, they basically took turns answering. It was very orderly.
  • The only real engagement came when Jevone Nicholas suggested moving OC Transpo to a Hub-and-Spoke system. Holmstrom came out swinging against that system, calling it garbage (he used it when living in Peterborough).
  • I am not convinced a Hub-and-Spoke system would be a positive change. Nicholas’s reasoning was that most people don’t work in the downtown core, so we need to get them from suburban hub to suburban hub. Although many people may be commuting from the suburbs to a job in Kanata, I don’t think we need to spend a lot of money shuttling commuters from Orleans to Barrhaven. I think Nicholas misunderstood the implications of Ottawa’s commuting patterns.
  • It may seem like a small thing, but that suggestion from Nicholas is, to me, a pretty big blow against him. If you have a number of good candidates bunched together, even a small error in judgement can make for a clear difference.
  • The discussion of an east end bridge to Quebec brought out the worst NIMBYism in all the candidates. First, many were either ignorant or dishonest about the state of the last proposed bridge project. The Kettle Island bridge should be under construction. The project was actually approved by all governments before the province cynically cancelled it for naked political opportunism.
  • Nicholas proposed a ring road to get trucks out of downtown. Now, Ottawa may need a ring road, but what we need in order to get trucks out of downtown is a bridge. In fact, if you build a ring road all the way around the city, eventually you’ll hit water.
  • Many of the candidates conveniently suggested a new bridge either just to the east or just to the west of the ward.
  • Cam Holmstrom was willfully obtuse when discussing a toll for a possible truck tunnel under King Edward. The possible tunnel, which is already being studied, would be created as an alternative for trucks driving through our downtown core. It would b expensive, so the natural inclination is to make it a toll road. These trucks are using our city as a cut through from Quebec to Quebec, so it makes sense for them to pay for the convenience. Holmstrom argued no trucker would use the tunnel if there was a toll; they’d just keep using King Edward.
  • Nussbaum helpfully noted that if we build the tunnel, we would ban trucks from King Edward. (As everyone involved in the planning process already understands.)
  • Nussbaum was the only one in the debate who noted that the lack of an east end bridge has adverse effects on the ward, as the vehicles have to go through the ward to get to King Edward. He’s also the only one who showed any concern for Lowertown. Councillors have to focus on city-wide problems and they have to work together with other councillors to get things done. Having a vision and having empathy for others is a big benefit. Nussbaum wins on those counts.
  • Going into this debate, I was most interested in the candidacies of Nussbaum and Homstrom. Nothing dissuaded from the notion that they are likely the strongest candidates. However, I was struck by the strengths of all the challengers. It looks like the ward should be well-represented.

If I were in Rideau-Rockliffe, I am quite sure I would vote for Tobi Nussbaum. He has the vision and the understanding of municipal governance to be a responsible candidate. I have a few worries about Cam Holmstrom. I’m a little worried that he’s too much into the political side of things rather than the governance side (he’s a Parliament Hill staffer). There were a few moments during the debate that underscored this concern. It doesn’t mean he would be a poor representative; it just makes me a little worried about his perspective. Nonetheless, I think he would make a viable councillor. I won’t be sad if we see him on council.

Vote Tobi?

There’s a new candidate for Rideau-Rockcliffe ward, Tobi Nussbaum, who has offered intriguing view into his outlook regarding municipal affairs. A former diplomat, Nussbaum recently published an op-ed at iPolitics about democracy and the continued trend of urbanization:

Here in Canada, however, cities have not taken sufficient advantage of their growing clout and capacity to collectively solve problems. Although the mayors of the two dozen or so largest Canadian cities meet regularly under the umbrella of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, their stated objective — “to discuss shared issues and to reinforce Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ policy and advocacy agenda set by the National Board of Directors” — does not inspire.

The Big City Mayors’ Caucus should initiate a pan-Canada municipal challenge to establish and meet goals to solve shared urban problems. The choice of problems could be crowd-sourced by Canada’s city dwellers. The challenge should engage the public and result in friendly competition to achieve the objectives. The goals should be clear and easily communicated — bold but realistic.

I’m not prepared to endorse Nussbaum, necessarily, but it is interesting to hear his voice enter the municipal debate. Whether or not his particular policy proposals would benefit the city, his arguments can certainly help us set a beneficial course. He does not seem to be your run-of-the-mill candidate.