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As every resident of Toronto has likely been aware of for ages, the city has been riding the wave of booming construction for more than a decade now. City Hall amended Toronto’s zoning bylaws in the mid-90s to facilitate increased private investment in the form of major high rise construction projects. A cornerstone of this plan was to implement a way for the public, represented at City Hall, to negotiate with the private sector — trading building variances for public goods such as parks, infrastructure and other amenities that City Hall could not construct on its own.
These sorts of compromises are sanctioned under Section 37 of the Planning Act, officially adopted by City Hall in 2007. For high-rise developers, amendments like these reduce zoning bylaws to general guidelines. For instance, if a developer wants to build a condominium 12 storeys higher than is permitted under the zoning bylaw for that area, City Hall may allow a variance of 8 storeys and request that a certain number of dwellings be available for rent by low income households. The condo, while being 8 storeys higher than city planners had advised, adds maybe 100 residences onto the same floorplate. That translates to greater density with maybe 200 more people in the community and also breaks up the socio-economic homogeny in what is usually an upper-middle-class residential bubble. Increasing density like this brings many benefits with it, such as increasing the number of public transit users in that area and bringing in more patrons to small businesses nearby.
Still, these benefits come with some rather obvious downsides. Increases in traffic congestion, noise pollution and the chance of living in another building’s shadow for a few hours each day will always compel some homeowners to protest high rise developments in their neighbourhood. This sort of NIMBYism is senseless and impedes sustainable, density-oriented urban growth. Cynics, not unlike myself, might suggest that the obvious solution would be for people who want to live in the suburbs should move to the suburbs and leave the city for us progressives, however Kevin Drum writing for Mother Jones suggests a different approach.
“I’m certainly concerned about those things in my neighborhood, and I’d be unhappy if someone wanted to erect a 50-story skyscraper next door that turned the street outside my door into a seething, 24/7 stream of cars and weekend partiers. And unfortunately for prospective developers, that’s an externality that’s very difficult to mitigate. You can reduce it, maybe by paying for a street widening project or some such, but that’s small beer. And in theory, you could simply pay off local residents. I might not like all the new traffic and noise, but if you paid me $5,000 a year to put up with it, maybe I’d mind it a lot less. But who do you have to pay? And how much?”
Rhetorical though it may sound, I think we should consider Drum’s idea seriously. In Toronto, public-private bargaining is already real — development corporations just deal with City Hall representing the public rather than with the people directly. Moreover, isn’t it the responsibility of the city to provide the sort of public goods (libraries, parks, etc.) that are usually built by developers under Section 37 deals anyway? These are things which we need, so why do we only get them after City Hall has negotiated with the private sector to build them? I think a more equitable and judicious arrangement would be for the city itself to build the parks and libraries it needs — raise property taxes if need be, or negotiate with other levels of government to get a share of our income tax revenue — and if a developer wants to get a zoning variance, then they should be ready to pay us for it.
By Geoff K