A common theme of reflexive fear, heavy-handed bureaucracy and lack of vision runs through several of today's civic governance stories.
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 05, 2012
Today's Spectator will be a dispiriting read to anyone who is passionate about urban revitalization and good civic governance.
First, the planning committee dismissed a proposal to establish a pilot project in wards 1 and 2 to licence urban chickens. Instead of a reasoned discussion based on evidence, the committee discussion was punctuated by sarcasm, hyperbole and fear-mongering.
Yes, once again a gaggle of suburban councillors has reflexively shut down a proposal that would only apply to urban wards and has a strong weight of evidence to support it from other jurisdictions. The pilot would not even apply in their wards, and it would give the city a chance to discover first-hand whether it makes sense to allow backyard chickens.
Councillor Maria Pearson claimed the pilot will trigger waves of complaints, even though other southern Ontario cities with existing chicken bylaws hardly get any complaints.
Councillor Terry Whitehead suggested that if chickens were allowed, people would soon be asking for cows and goats - you know, just like gay marriage in Canada has led to people wanting to marry their pets.
Councillor Councillor Lloyd Ferguson didn't want to discuss the matter at all, and Whitehead said he would like to "kill this as soon as possible."
Public Health noted that there are some potential health issues related to backyard chickens, but that they can be mitigated with reasonable terms in the bylaw. Indeed, Public Health maintains that chickens are no more harmful than other pets, like dogs and cats.
There is simply no good reason whatsoever not to allow responsible people to keep small numbers of chickens in their backyards. There are only bad reasons, which the planning committee provided in spades.
The decision to kill the backyard chicken pilot still needs to be ratified by Council, so you should contact all city councillors and let them know why you support this pilot.
Next up, the public meeting in Ward 3 over the fate of Sanford School, the beautiful 1932 building the Board wants to demolish to make room for some green space and a recreation centre that has not yet been approved or funded.
Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Tim Simmons threw cold water on a last-ditch effort to save the building from demolition, noting that the Board of Trustees would have to change their minds about demolishing it, and "I know there is not a lot of will on the board to change the direction at this point."
Simmons insists that a years-long process was followed before the decision to demolish and that there were lots of opportunities to save the school, but in a recent phone interview with Chris Healey, Simmons acknowledged that the school has not even been for sale for the past ten years, after a call for interest was put out back in 2002.
Any developers who wanted to buy the school were told it was not for sale and they had no way to express interest. Michael Clarke, a Hamilton lawyer who has led this push to save the building, points out that he knows developers right now who have a track record of restoring and adaptively reusing old institutional buildings and want to buy Sanford School.
Once again, we have a delinquent Board of Trustees hiding behind a broken process to close ranks around a narrow, short-sighted decision.
A special December 11, 2012 General Issues Committee meeting will consider an information report [PDF] and a licencing model for apartment rental buildings with between one and six units.
The Spectator reports that the licencing system could eliminate a third of the city's in-house rental units: 4,000 out of 13,000 rental units in houses.
This is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences of public policy. The problem is that a huge number of houses have been illegally converted into apartments, mainly because the City's Zoning By-Law makes it all but impossible to convert a house into apartments legally - even in areas that are zoned for high density residential.
Property owners who want to convert their houses to apartments are faced with the prospect of tens of thousands of dollars in fees, parking requirements and cash in lieu of parklands levies if they try to obey the law. The last item - cash in lieu of parklands - is particularly egregious, since the money must be spent on parks in new suburban developments and cannot be used to invest in existing parks.
The proposed licencing system would shut down a huge number of apartment units and disperse thousands of residents in a city that desperately needs affordable housing and claims to favour intensification of its land use.
As Larry Huibers of the Hamilton Housing Help Centre points out, "zoning violations aren't going to kill people, unlike fire and electrical violations." Yet by driving apartment conversions underground through punitive zoning rules, the City ensures that real dangers are driven underground as well.
The zoning by-law is the real culprit. Adding another layer of bureaucracy on top of it is not going to fix the underlying issue that this city subsidizes and incentivizes neglect, demolition and destruction of value, while punishing and disincentivizing the creation of value through reinvestment and redevelopment.
I want to end this rant on a hopeful note, and today's op-ed by David Premi and Paul Shaker is there to assist. They write about two secondary plans in Toronto that have spurred impressive revitalizations in depressed old industrial neighourhoods: King-Spadina and King-Parliament.
I've been writing glowingly about King-Spadina for years - e.g. here, here, and way back here - and it is heartening to learn that a similar plan in the King-Parliament area has also produced impressive results.
Perhaps the more famous preservation outcome is in the King-Parliament area, which has seen the development of the Distillery District. This is a unique mix of shops, services, galleries and breweries all housed in a restored industrial complex complete with cobblestone streets. A Hamilton comparison might be the Cannon Knitting Mills or the 270 Sherman Avenue Centre.
In a detailed report issued by the City of Toronto in 2002, six short years after the changes were initiated, the remarkable results are recorded, including 86 new development projects totalling more than $400 million. This included 7,040 housing units built or in the pipeline, more than 321,000 square metres of new commercial space, an 18 per cent increase in employment, and an increase in tax assessments of more than 18 per cent. Since 2002, 16 years after implementation, some of these statistics have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled.
The model is simple and elegant:
the city should reward development it wants by giving developers more of what they want. In Toronto, this meant, in part, historic preservation in exchange for more density, or the ability for developers to build higher than they would normally be allowed under the old zoning rules.
Imagine if we took this approach to our zoning by-law and the twisted mess of stagnation and clandestine intensification it has produced. Imagine if we took this approach to Sanford School and the community in which it could be a thriving anchor development.
Heck, imagine if we took this approach to backyard chickens: instead of micro-managing what people can do with their property, set performance standards and give Hamiltonians the chance to innovate and grow the city.
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