By Councillors McKenney, Leiper, Menard, King, and Fleury
Ottawa’s core neighbourhoods are changing fast under the city’s intensification policies. Infill is transforming many of our streets, and new apartment towers are changing the skyline. Amidst all this growth, residents are legitimately concerned that the liveability of our neighbourhoods is beingdiminished: less sun, fewer trees, more pavement and a real strain on parks, recreation facilities, libraries and the other amenities that provide a break from the concrete jungle.
New developer-friendly planning law changes proposed by the Doug Ford government in Bill 108, however, will see high-intensity growth continue while absolving builders from their financial responsibility for community improvement.
Councillors of the five urban wards count on several funding sources to make improvements in the community to mitigate the worst effects of intensification. A cash-in-lieu of parkland mechanism helps fund improvements to existing parks and to save up for new ones, and a provision of the Planning Act (section 37) provides for community benefits when buildings are approved with greater density and height than zoning allows. Development charges fund the soft and hard infrastructure that growing cities need.
Bill 108 will see high-intensity growth continue while absolving builders from their financial responsibility for community improvement.
Cash-in-lieu and section 37 benefits have funded new field houses in which to host city and community recreational and other programming. New park facilities, such as installing water to flood new winter rinks, have been made possible. Benefits money earmarked for affordable housing has ensured a place for the city’s most vulnerable in gentrifying neighbourhoods. New public squares have been carved out of busy urban streetscapes as places to pause and relax.
A key advantage to the current system is that much of the decision-making affecting local neighourhoods vis-à-vis these charges is in the hands of councillors working directly with residents. While efforts have been made in the past to centralize the real decision-making in the hands of city staffs, in practice those agreements have resulted in targeted improvements decided upon by the people who know their communities best.
Under a sweeping set of proposals that would remove many community protections in order to help developers, the provincial government is seeking to eliminate these parks and public benefits charges, rolling them into a new yet-to-be explained community benefits charge. This new charge will replace development charges for parks development, rec facilities, libraries and affordable housing. Development charges will also no longer be collected for “soft” infrastructure, but rolled into the new community benefits charge with a yet-to-be specified cap. It’s not clear how this new charge will be calculated or how it will be able to be used.
What is clear is that, ostensibly to spur the creation of affordable housing, the Ford government is seeking to reduce regulation and red tape that stands in the way of developer profits. Bill 108 rolls back key community wins on Ontario Municipal Board reforms and takes decision-making on heritage designations out of the hands of locally elected councils.
Cause for significant concern, Bill 108 reduces the time frame councils have in which to render a decision on complicated development applications: by two months in the case of Official Plan amendments and by a month (120 to 90 days) for re-zoning applications. Those are precious weeks during which city councillors can press for changes to controversial developments and consult properly with residents.
Taken together, Bill 108 will remove the deference to locally elected councils that the previous government and communities fought for, seriously compress the time given to councils to make complicated development decisions that will affect neighbourhoods for decades, and seems poised to eliminate needed investments in making intensifying neighbourhoods liveable.
The Conservative government has couched these changes in the language of providing more affordable housing and of taking away “slush funds” for “vanity projects.” These are baldly false assertions.
Affordable housing is critical, but we have never been able to rely solely on market forces to build it. Market interventions and parks and development charges are critical if municipalities are to properly plan clean, green, safe, prosperous neighbourhoods. The charges that get passed to homebuyers ensure that they move into neighbourhoods that have the appropriate amenities to enjoy a quality of life as intensification marches forward.
Bill 108 won’t accomplish more affordable housing, but it will move city planning away from building complete communities to ones in which profit trumps sustainability.