John Sewell

Coun­cil­lors have fallen into the habit of not stick­ing their noses in other wards’ busi­ness

Village Post - - Contents - JOHN SEWELL Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist John Sewell is a for­mer mayor of Toronto and the au­thor of a num­ber of ur­ban plan­ning books, in­clud­ing The Shape of Sub­urbs.

Toronto City Coun­cil seems to ap­prove al­most ev­ery re­zon­ing pre­sented to it no mat­ter how lu­di­crous.

In the good old days re­zon­ings were con­tentious and sub­ject to much de­bate, but not to­day. In the three-day coun­cil meet­ing in early July, 24 re­zon­ing ap­pli­ca­tions were con­sid­ered and only one re­ceived se­ri­ous de­bate be­fore be­ing ap­proved, that be­ing David Mirvish’s pro­posal around his the­atres on King Street West to build two condo tow­ers de­signed by ar­chi­tec­tural star Frank Gehry. The other 23 re­zon­ings didn’t en­gen­der any de­bate.

And that si­lence is what usu­ally hap­pens. Coun­cil­lors don’t de­bate the re­zon­ings tak­ing place in some­one else’s ward. They sim­ply de­fer to what­ever the lo­cal coun­cil­lor wants. There’s an un­spo­ken rule that you don’t stick your nose into some­one else’s ward and they won’t stick their noses into yours. It’s as though land use plan­ning is some­thing coun­cil should not talk about.

The lo­cal coun­cil­lor gets a free hand on de­vel­op­ment in his or her ward. One key de­tail about vir­tu­ally ev­ery re­zon­ing is how much money the de­vel­oper will have to pay. City pol­icy is to de­mand pay­ment un­der Sec­tion 37 of the Plan­ning Act in re­turn for the re­zon­ing that other­wise would not con­form to city pol­icy. It’s ba­si­cally a quid pro quo: we’ll change the rules for you if you pay us to do it.

The amount to be paid un­der Sec­tion 37 is not de­ter­mined by any for­mula, but is a mat­ter that is ne­go­ti­ated in se­cret by the lo­cal coun­cil­lor and the de­vel­oper, and the coun­cil­lor de­cides on his or her own how that money will be spent.

Maybe the de­vel­oper will be re­quired to fix up a lo­cal park, plant some trees, help a lo­cal li­brary, pro­vide some af­ford­able hous­ing or make a grant for a re­cre­ation pro­gram. Ex­am­ples of all these uses of Sec­tion 37 money can be found. The sums ne­go­ti­ated start at the low hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars and go up to a mil­lion dol­lars or more.

In­ter­fer­ing with a re­zon­ing by say­ing it is un­war­ranted or will pro­duce a build­ing that is in­ap­pro­pri­ate means you would be in­ter­fer­ing with the ar­range­ments the lo­cal coun­cil­lor has made with the de­vel­oper, so it is hardly ever done.

Re­zon­ings are rarely chal­lenged even if they pro­duce some­thing that is ques­tion­able. That hap­pened at the July coun­cil meet­ing when a re­zon­ing was ap­proved on Col­lege Street per­mit­ting a build­ing with re­tail at grade and 77 apart­ments on the other eight floors. Al­most all of those units — 70 to be ex­act — have bed­rooms with­out win­dows to the out­side.

That’s cor­rect. City coun­cil gave ap­proval to a re­zon­ing where al­most all of the apart­ment units have bed­rooms with­out win­dows. Ar­chi­tect As­tra Burka had raised this is­sue at the com­mu­nity coun­cil meet­ing ask­ing for re­con­sid­er­a­tion, but the com­mu­nity coun­cil sim­ply ap­proved the staff re­port say­ing this re­zon­ing should be rec­om­mended to city coun­cil. Burka then learned that city staff adopted a pol­icy a decade ago to per­mit bed­rooms with­out win­dows and that many of the re­cently ap­proved large con­do­minium build­ings have a goodly share of such units.

It’s as though city hall is try­ing to repli­cate the crowded ten­e­ment build­ings from the 19th century.

Af­ter the lo­cal coun­cil­lor said he wouldn’t step in, Burka wrote to the half-dozen coun­cil­lors who are on the lo­cal board of health and asked them to in­ter­vene. All of them fol­lowed the rule of not in­ter­ven­ing and kept their si­lence. The re­zon­ing for these units with win­dow­less bed­rooms was ap­proved. I can’t be­lieve any self-re­spect­ing coun­cil­lor would stand up at a pub­lic meet­ing and say, “I be­lieve the city needs more bed­rooms with­out win­dows,” but that’s what city coun­cil has just done, with­out any de­bate and with­out any dis­sent­ing vote.

Maybe these are im­por­tant is­sues for can­di­dates in the com­ing elec­tion: Do you think new bed­rooms in Toronto should have win­dows? Do you think coun­cil should award re­zon­ings ac­cord­ing to how much money is paid by the de­vel­oper un­der Sec­tion 37? Will you work to change both poli­cies?

L-R: David Mirvish and Frank Gehry over­look their orig­i­nal model that had three tow­ers in­stead of the cur­rent two

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