Are Ottawa’s planning department, planning committee and city council corrupt?
With the recent spate of city planning decisions that flout the official, secondary and community development plans, Joe Spence, a now-retired Ottawa journalist, posed that question.
Is this a systemic failure? In a very simplistic way, databases can become corrupted when the software is no longer storing the actual data. The data inputs are correct, but the software that houses that data no longer functions as designed, and as a consequence the reports from the database cannot be relied on to make decisions.
The three aforementioned bodies have all made the decision to ignore the existing official, secondary and community development plans. Planning general manager Stephen Willis tried to explain this decision recently by stating that every plan is out of date and none of them are synchronized with each other (my summary of his long-winded monologue). So, the people in charge have acknowledged that the “operating system” is broken. Senior management has declared that since the plans no longer reflect the current thinking, no one needs to pay any attention to the plans. Sounds like Exhibit A in support of the hypothesis that the planning system has been corrupted.
One element of the various plans that the city has otherwise chosen to ignore is the requirement for public space. With the forest of high rises destined for LeBreton, for example, will come a population equivalent to a large suburban subdivision. Out in Barrhaven, Kanata, Stittsville and Orleans, developers are required to set aside a meaningful amount of space for parks and schools as part of their plan for a new subdivision. Is there enough room in LeBreton for the same amount of public space?
Will city council insist on the appropriate amount of land to be set aside, or will it accept cash in lieu?After all, every square foot of land that doesn’t have a high rise on it will cost the city a fortune in development fees and property taxes. If council is prepared to ignore the height and density elements of the official, secondary and community development plans, will it ignore other, inconvenient-to-the-development-industry elements as well? Based on what we have seen on 900 Albert Street, where the city accepted less than $1 million in lieu of additional public space, notwithstanding an expected 2,000 plus increase in local residents, we have Exhibit B in support of the hypothesis that the system has been corrupted.
Councillors are elected to represent the residents of their wards. The mayor is elected to represent the needs of the residents of the city as a whole. In this context the meaning of residents should include businesses, organizations, and their employees, not just individuals. Some of those businesses are property developers and the businesses that supply the materials and labour to that industry. The needs and wants of the residents are often at odds with each other. Some people want more roads, some want fewer. Some people want more bicycle lanes, others want fewer. The point is that councillors need to understand the various wants and needs of the residents of their wards, and of the city as a whole, and find a balance between competing demands.
The development industry wants to be allowed to build new higher, more-densely-populated structures. The more it can build, the more profitit can generate. The city runs a very lean budget. Let’s put aside the issue of whether two-per-cent is an appropriate amount for annual property-tax increases. The point is the city needs the one-time development fees and a never-ending subscription of property-tax revenue that come from new property developments. This is called an alignment of interests. At issue is whether that alignment is beneficial for everyone, or for a limited set of self-interest groups. Exhibit C to support the hypothesis that the planning system has been corrupted is now tabled.
Will existing residents will see the value of their homes, measured in enjoyment and selling price, eroded? In addition, will the existing infrastructure be sufficient to meet the incremental demands from the new residents? It isn’t limited to the incremental traffic load. Is the capacity of the water mains more than sufficient? What about the sewer mains, both sanitary and storm? Are the existing parks large enough to accommodate a larger population? What about the local schools? Are the development fees sufficient to fund the necessary expansion of the capacity of these various infrastructure elements? I have been told by Councillors Keith Egli and Rick Chiarelli that per-unit development fees must remain relatively low to keep the price of new housing units low. That is a concern of the property-development industry. Should that be a concern of council? Fewer per-unit development fees mean that more units have to be built in order to achieve the same funding requirement. Looks like another unhealthy alignment of interests. Exhibit D is now tabled.
In summary, we have an acknowledgement from the the planning GM that the most fundamental elements of his department are flawed and should no longer to be referred to as it relates to height and density limitations. We have an explicit decision to not require additional public space to be set aside by the developer of 900 Albert Street. We have an alignment of interests between a development industry’s voracious demand for higher and denser and a city equally voracious need for any source of funds it can lay its hands on. We have a council that has accepted without further question the position of the development industry that per-unit development fees must be kept low, which results in approvals for more units to generate the same volume of fees.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Bulldog jury, the prosecution submits that the Ottawa’s planning processes have been corrupted. Just as managers cannot rely on the reports that come out of a corrupted database to make decisions, the residents of Ottawa cannot rely on the decisions of the planning department to represent their needs.
The prosecution rests.
Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.
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