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Martin Laplante

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Mon, 08 Jan 2007

Toronto's Road to Future Sprawl is Paved with Good Intentions

A recent Globe and Mail column by John Barber, entitled Never mind the NIMBYs -- this boom is a rare success brings up some interesting issues about how Toronto wants to reduce sprawl. The only flaw is that every single one of its many arguments demontrates the exact opposite of what it claims to prove. Such a wooly-minded rehash of the type of superficial arguments that developers make to not have rules apply to them!

Where to start? Barber actually comes close to the actual state of affairs when he says some of the most attractive U.S. cities -- Boston, Chicago, San Francisco -- are losing population as high housing prices squeeze out middle-class workers, and that they are in danger of becoming what U.S. urbanist Joel Kotkin called "amusement parks for the rich, the nomadic young and tourists ." He tries to prove that things are different in Toronto, but it is clear that this is precisely what is happening.

Here is a gem: "Decrying the anti-development politics that restricts the supply of housing in New York City, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser noted recently that that city permitted only 21,000 new units in the entire decade of the 1990s -- compared to 13,000 units in 1960 alone." What is wrong with that statement? 1960 was the last year of significant population growth that New York has ever had. Population growth stopped dead in its tracks that year and remained at 0% for over 4 decades. What happened in 1961? That was the year of New York City's last major change to its zoning laws, a huge upzoning everywhere in preparation for a population boom that never happened. That has happened in city after city - increase the zoning to allow highrises everywhere and all the families that can afford it will move away en masse. Bye-bye population growth, hello Kotkin amusement park. So what is this anti-development politics that he is talking about? New York City's recent "downzoning uprising" is what he is talking about. Spearheaded in part by Paul Graziano, a planning consultant and Green Party leader, and encouraged by mayor Bloomberg, this movement tries to preserve existing urban communities to be roughtly the current scale or a little higher, with more growth targeted along certain main streets. This, incidentally, is the pattern that has given New York an enviable record for land use and transit ridership. Destroy the pattern and you risk losing its environmental and cost benefits.

Here is the most telling section:

Downtown politicians have traditionally been pro-development: Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone automatically approves of absolutely anything that requires the employment of construction workers, while gay Councillor Kyle Rae thinks everybody should live in a high-rise south of Bloor. Former Mayor Barbara Hall's most successful initiative was to spark downtown development by repealing obsolete regulations.

What's new is how that tradition has expanded to capture the entire amalgamated city: first almost by stealth, in the form of a notably pro-growth official plan -- as fashioned by the downtown planners who first practised radical deregulation under Ms. Hall -- and then by storm, in the form of a bombproof political majority on council.

Anti-development activism in Toronto today is confined almost exclusively to suburban and quasi-suburban enclaves that elect the most conservative politicians.

What better recipe have you ever seen to ensure that the central city has a socio-demographic shift that polarizes it to house the rich and nomadic young, as Kotkin warns, and to fuel a new exodus to sprawl? Laissez-faire highest-and-worst-use in the downtown, by removing any requirement to build or preserve those communities that already achieve the planning objectives and that house the full range of age groups and incomes. This gives density a bad name and causes an entrenchment of sprawl mentality in the suburbs. Good going Toronto, you are practically guaranteeing that the opposite of what you want is what will actually happen.

"Compared to New York's ultra-influential Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Ontario Municipal Board is a model of enlightened governance." Apparently, heritage is the enemy, and good planning requires that heritage experts be ignored and that lawyers make planning decisions.

Here is another one:

It goes without saying that the Miller regime would prefer to spend more money on subsidized housing for the poorest citizens. But with such money in short supply, the relatively unfettered free market is creating what Prof. Glaeser calls "true" affordability in Toronto. "True affordability doesn't mean a small number of artificially cheap units," he wrote, "but a large number of units that reduces prices for everyone."
This is the old trickle-down theory: subsidize luxury condos and somehow housing prices will go down. Toronto tried that and now has the highest housing prices in Canada. Ottawa did the same and nearly caught up. What they did get is cheaper high-end housing, but the low end went up to compensate. Trickle-down works for developers, but in the end any argument that allows zoning to be increased for free works for developers, whether they dress it up as social or as environmental policy. In the long run, ad hoc decisions that allow a concentration of high-rises rather than a real range of housing types aren't good for a city.


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