Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Buck Stops Here: Reigning in the OMB's Fettering in Municipal Planning

This month, the Town of Richmond Hill won an important court case involving planning and the OMB. It is also a step forward for many Ontario municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

In 2013, the Town created a park dedication bylaw permitted under section 42 of the Planning Act, which requires developers and builders to either set aside land or pay cash-in-lieu for parks (this is known as . The maximum amount permitted in the Act is up to either 5% of the land value, or 1 hectare for every 300 units. The Town opted for the latter in their bylaw, and added a provision for a lesser amount: 1 hectare for every 730 new residents.

The development industry sees these amounts as unreasonable, arguing that it makes high-rise project uneconomic. The Town was taken to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) by a condo developer based on this argument in 2015. The OMB sided with the developer and capped the park dedication rate at 25%. Richmond Hill appealed this decision in an Ontario court and won, with the Divisional Court finding that the OMB exceeded its mandate.

This is a significant victory in a local, regional, and provincial context.

The planned vision for Richmond Hill Centre.
First, the obvious provincial context. The parkland dedication rate was set by the Town as a planning direction. A parkland rate was one component set to meet the planned vision that the municipality wanted to achieve in this certain area. When the OMB set aside the park dedication rate established by Richmond Hill and set its own, the court found that this was an exceedance of the OMB's mandate. Municipalities were given "broad enable the municipality to govern its affairs as it considers appropriate" under section 8 of the Municipal Act. That section also emphasizes that authority applies under the Municipal Act or any other act. The court's ruling reaffirms that municipal authority, which is a sigh of relief and perhaps foundational case law for other municipalities that feel that OMB decisions have unjustly fettered in their planning authority.

Second, the regional context. It also found that the OMB's decision was made without citing any evidence for its cap. While there had been past decisions by Richmond Hill to cap park dedication rates at 25%, the court spelled out the problem with this: "the reasons [for the OMB decision] also do not address whether the Town’s past practice was the appropriate practice for the future." Basically, relying on a municipality's status quo and previous practice under different development pressures is a garbage rationale. Again, as stated by the court, there is "no dispute that development issues for the Town have changed significantly in the last twenty-five years."

This is very applicable to any municipality within the Greenbelt, and it applies to matters beyond parkland. The Greenbelt and other provincial policies aimed at intensification, coupled with significant population and economic growth, has significantly changed the development landscape in the GTA. With these intensified pressures, relying on past planning practices is absurd and inadequate, and municipalities need unfettered bold action to address the future challenges ahead of them.

Richmond Hill Centre is one of a number of urban growth
centres designated under the provincial growth plan.
Third, the local context. Yonge Street and Highway 7 in Richmond Hill have seen significant interest for high-rise development as of late, which is inevitably driven by planned higher-order transit and provincial intensification policy. Also, the increasing saturation of land suited for high-rises in Toronto has developers looking elsewhere, and Richmond Hill is right on the doorstep with convenient GO and TTC access. This makes Richmond Hill a significant target, and steps need to be taken to protect for parkland amidst significant high-rise development. If this OMB decision continues to stand, this will tie the Town's hands, and force it to come up with costly solutions to achieve the original desired amount of parkland.

For an example of what I'm talking about, take a look at downtown Toronto. There are significant parkland-deficient areas in the downtown, and while Toronto has been banking section 42 funds for some time, this approach has few appropriate areas to establish new parkland. Now an ambitious proposal has been put forward: the Rail Deck Park, a park established on top of a structure spanning the rail corridor west of Union Station.

The proposed Rail Deck Park.
Very initial estimates peg this park at $1 billion, or $117.65 million per hectare. A steep price considering that MCAP estimates market value for residential high-rise development in the downtown west area is about $53-60 per square foot. You apply that to a nearby proposed condo development at 15-35 Mercer Street, with a gross residential floor area of 36,370 square metres (391,483 square feet) on a 0.2371 hectare plot, and you're looking at land that conservatively costs somewhere around $87.5 to $99 million per hectare (maths). It seems like it is in the same ballpark, but again, this is a per hectare price; the difference adds up to $157-256 million in savings for the same amount of land (8.5 hectares) at market value. That is just capital cost, and does not include staff and consultant fees, unanticipated cost overruns and compensations, or maintenance of the structure. It also does not valuate the social impacts of construction on the community or commuters, nor the amount of time and effort required to land these deals, or the impacts of living in a park-deficient ward until this point.

If the Town of Richmond Hill (and other GTA municipalities) can avoid some of these problems and extra cost merely by exercising their planning authority now, and establishing land as they go, it can avoid the trials downtown Toronto is experiencing now. And that results in significant budgetary savings, along with the ultimate goal: well planned communities with the amenities that residents require.

How the OMB thinks it can fetter and mess all that up? I have no idea.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Accidential Download: How John Tory Is Aiding and Abetting Queen's Park, and Costing Toronto Millions For It

On June 22, 2016, Ward 30 Councillor Paula Fletcher introduced Mayor John Tory at a press conference located on top a the building at the old Unilever site. She did so by calling him our "transit mayor."

Oof. Out of anyone, I thought Fletcher would have some more respect. She has been councillor since 2003, when David Miller was elected to office. You know, one of the primary people (another being TTC Chair Adam Giambrone) behind a Toronto transit plan called TRANSIT CITY. But she is only one person who has committed contempt and doublespeak on the Toronto transit file, and giving calling Tory a 'transit mayor' is a relatively mild offence.

18 months into his mayoralty, I am obligated to write this post today to remind everyone that John Tory is the furthest thing from a transit mayor, and it starts with one simple fact: he hasn't built anything yet. Of five major transit projects currently on the books, John Tory has not come up with, finalized or fully funded any of them.

Despite that, John Tory could still manage to unnecessarily cost the City of Toronto millions of dollars on three of them: Crosstown East, Crosstown West, and SmartTrack. Let the dissection begin.

Crosstown East: Nuking the Peace Plan (Tory Rebranding Part I)

The 3-stop SSE was estimated to cost $3.56 billion. So now I will give Tory some credit for an idea: cutting the SSE to 1 stop, and using the rest of the funding to extend the Eglinton Crosstown easterly to University of Toronto in Scarborough and the Pan Am Sports Centre. He touted it as 'buying peace in the land.'

This is credit for a shuffling of money only. It is NOT giving Tory credit for the SSE, as outlined above. It is NOT giving Tory credit for Crosstown East, which is just a truncated version of the Scarborough-Malvern LRT, another LRT proposed under Transit City and rolled into The Big Move. And while the money shuffle had funded it, the escalating costs of SSE has now rendered this funding basket incomplete. Therefore, John Tory has not come up with it, finalized it, or found the money for it.

Based on the demonstrated priorities of John Tory and city council, are all the necessary funds for Crosstown East really going to be taken from that $3.56 billion allocation? If we are going to get both the SSE and the Crosstown East built, there will need to be additional funding found, and with looming financial pressures, it will not be easy.

Crosstown West: A Bait and Switch (Tory Rebranding Part II)

Crosstown West was part of the original version of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, which again was proposed under Transit City, and rolled into The Big Move. While the Crosstown is currently funded and being constructed between Weston Road and Kennedy subway station, it was assumed that Crosstown West was going to be constructed as part of a second phase.

Enter John Tory, a mayoral candidate in Toronto's 2014 general election. He proposed SmartTrack, which included replacing the LRT portion of the Eglinton Crosstown west of Weston Road with heavy rail; think GO trains. I was questioning the wisdom of this back in May 2014, and seriously doubting it would come within his $8 billion estimate. Furthermore, the proposal only went to the Airport Corporate Centre (Eglinton Avenue at Orbitor Drive), and not across the 401 to Pearson Airport itself.

Sure enough, a feasibility report found that it came with significant capital costs ranging from $3.6 billion to $7.7 billion, versus $1.3 billion for the LRT plan. Based on this and comparatively lower ridership, John did the sensible thing and backed the original LRT plan from Crosstown West. But he has nonetheless re-branded (and continues to claim ownership for) an LRT proposed under Transit City and rolled into The Big Move. Therefore, John Tory has not come up with it or finished it.

SmartTrack: Concept Over Reality (Tory Rebranding Part III)

When it was originally proposed, SmartTrack was billed as being a separate service for the price of a TTC fare, having 22 stops (11 new stops + 11 already existing or planned), and being a "London-style surface rail subway".

Over the past 2 years, it has become clear that it will be nothing more than existing provincial plans for GO Regional Express Rail (RER): it is GO trains, having 6 new GO Train stops, running every 15 minutes. When pressed about it, Tory defended it as being a service concept built upon GO RER. However, it has been clear that the new GO stations were part of independent GO RER evaluations being conducted by Metrolinx.

SmartTrack is GO RER, wrapped in a mayoral election banner. And despite being GO RER, these stations are contingent on funding from the city of Toronto. Therefore, John Tory has not come up with it, finalized it, or found the money for it.


To recap:
  • The Crosstown East LRT is a rebranding of the Scarborough-Malvern LRT.
  • SmartTrack is a rebranding of:
    • A western extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT; and
    • GO Transit Regional Express Rail.

Looking at these rapid transit projects for what they are, these were expansions of Toronto's rapid transit network that were to be paid in full by the Government of Ontario. These and other transit projects listed under The Big Move were to be funded by an Investment Strategy that generated $2 billion annually, the primary source being an increase in the HST. After promising an 'adult conversation' on funding transit, it ended with Wynne rejecting tax increases altogether, and also ended any prospect of stable and predictable funding sources for transit in Greater Toronto. Since then, we have seen Toronto transit projects suddenly "requiring new partner funding."

Now that John Tory has attempted to rebrand some transit projects as his own, he has also managed to let the province wiggle out of the original commitment to pay for them, and require the City of Toronto to front some of the money.

John Tory is breaking his election promises and/or plagiarizing transit plans by other people. That's one thing. But when these transit plans were to be paid in full by a provincial government and you are not calling them out on it? That is a whole other level of contempt for the City of Toronto. He is not our 'transit mayor,' but merely an accomplice of the province's broken promises, on delivering transit that may or may not even be built.

Image Credits
1CC-BY Rokashi
2: City of Toronto
3: City of Toronto
4: CC-BY-SA Danielle Scott
5: CC-BY-ND Alex Guibord

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

How Scarborough Transit Shenanigans May Go On

The final alignment under consideration for the $2-billion, single-stop Scarborough Subway Extension has been released. It's a step forward in the process, but there's nothing stopping us from going back to square one. It's Scarborough transit planning after all.

Along with it, we have a revised ridership forecast: 7,300 passengers per hour in peak direction (pphpd; the standard ridership measurement unit). This is about HALF the forecasted 14,000 pphpd that city councillors cited in their 2013 vote to build a 3-stop subway, instead of an LRT replacement and extension fully funded by the province.

Now I have previously outlined why I have concerns about the current RT route, and why I am sympathetic to a subway proposal. But now Toronto has managed to take this proposal, remove 2/3 stations to save 28% of the capital cost, and halved the ridership. An already rotten project has become festered with mould. Pulling off such a feat deserves of national award.

On top of all this, there are now residents upset that the subway may require their homes. Once rallying his constituents for the subway, local Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker now faces a potential backlash from it all. Angry and vocal Scarborough subway supporters now have an equal and opposite companion, calling for the cancellation of the project.

The Scarborough LRT was first proposed as part of Transit City in 2007. After nine years of back-and-forth and tons of studies and work, could we really see the subway cancelled? Absolutely, and my main reason for saying so is because I do not believe all the chickens have come home to roost.

When City Council voted on a major transit item on March 31 of this year, there was a motion from Councillor Josh Matlow that subsequently carried:

1. City Council amend Executive Committee Recommendation 3d by adding the words "that includes an update, in consultation with Metrolinx, of Item CC39.5 Scarborough Rapid Transit Options: Reporting on Council Terms and Conditions presented to the October 8, 9, 10 and 11, 2013 meeting of City Council, to determine whether all or portions of the Scarborough Subway Extension could be built at-grade along with the" after the word "alignment", and deleting the words "and" and "for the Scarborough Subway Extension" the so that it now reads as follows:
d. report to the June 28, 2016 Executive Committee on Part c above, along with a recommended preferred corridor and alignment that includes an update, in consultation with Metrolinx, of Item CC39.5 Scarborough Rapid Transit Options: Reporting on Council Terms and Conditions presented to the October 8, 9, 10 and 11, 2013 meeting of City Council, to determine whether all or portions of the Scarborough Subway Extension could be built at-grade along with the number and location of stations.

With this motion, growing backlash from residents, and worsening ridership forecasts, I can see a few different scenarios playing out at city council:

  1. It plugs its nose, building the subway in its current form;
  2. It votes to re-instate the original 3-stop subway, jeopardizing the Crosstown East extension to UTSC.
  3. It changes its mind again to build the LRT as originally set out, wasting years of time and millions of dollars in studies and accumulated congestion;
  4. It votes to build some or all of it at-grade, potentially requiring even more expropriation of homes and riling up more people; or
  5. Studying some other alternative and kicking the can even further down the (very long) road.
As any transit watcher in this city knows, it's a toss-up.

    Friday, 15 January 2016

    How SmartTrack will Never Do Toronto Justice

    Courtesy of Oliver Moore, we are learning that SmartTrack is finally going in a direction that many observers  here in Toronto have longed for: resembling plans already proposed by the province. But the people of Toronto should hold back any feelings of satisfaction.

    From Kennedy to Mount Dennis, SmartTrack will have fewer stations. Potential conflicts with a Scarborough Subway Extension north of Kennedy (or whatever the hell gets built) are being pushed back, and Eglinton will see light rail instead of heavy rail. In summary, SmartTrack is starting to become what the province has proposed all along: Regional Express Rail on GO Transit's existing corridors, and the completion of the Eglinton Crosstown to the airport.

    This is good. The cost is going down, and it is starting to heed to some common sense. I mean, how did a heavy rail corridor along Eglinton ever make any sense? At any time? But I will never be satisfied, nor should anyone else be, for a very important reason: the constant focus on SmartTrack has never done and will never do Toronto any justice for its long outstanding transit needs.

    For all the time and resources that have gone into it, there is a long list of planned transit projects that have long been on the books, been desparately needed to reduce travel times and relieve congestion, but not afforded any attention by the Mayor's office.

    For starters, the Relief Line. This is a project that Toronto has literally had on the books for over 50 years. And it is arguably the most redundant with what John Tory has stated as his goal in proposing SmartTrack: reducing congestion. Even recent numbers from Metrolinx have supported extending the Relief Line north of Bloor, to Sheppard at Don Mills. It also mimiced the cost of SmartTrack, estimated to require $7.8 billion. How John Tory couldn't will himself to rally behind a brand new sexy subway line that would provide such effective relief for the TTC is beyond me.

    Then there's the original set of forgotten Transit City LRT lines: Jane, Scarborough-Malvern, Sheppard East, and Waterfront West. Jane was never completed by the time Rob Ford killed Transit City. Scarborough-Malvern was approved by city and the province, and had the green light to go in 2008. The environmental assessment for Waterfront West was done in 1993, but has never been acted upon. Sheppard East has been pushed back by the province to the 2020s. After Eglinton and Finch West were revived (in part) by Toronto city council in November 2012, these projects seemed to be forgotten. And that's a shame given the density and need of the areas they would serve: Liberty Villiage, Etobicoke South, Mt Dennis, Jane & Finch, York U, Scarborough Village, West Hill, UTS, Agincourt and Malvern are examples.

    And then there's others in Metrolinx's The Big Move: the Yonge line extension to Richmond Hill, the Don Mills LRT to Highway 7, as well as BRT on Highway 427. Metrolinx drafted The Big Move in 2006, with the objective of completing all of the above transit projects within 15 years (except Scarborough-Malvern, which is in the 25 year plan). That means in order to start reducing the billions of dollars Toronto and the region lose in congestion costs, we need to complete these projects in 5 years. I don't think we're going to make it guys.

    For being Canada's largest city, in the centre of Canada's largest metropolitan area, and connected to so many large urban centres, its sad to see such a lack of progress. WrongTrack, Ontario, an incubator of ongoing planning and replanning with little built to show for it. Where some of us have the privilege to sardine onto an aging rapid transit system, while the less fortunate are left  in a wilderness of inequality. That is the amalgamated City of Toronto leadership void that John Tory and our collective municipal representation have failed to fill. And that's why SmartTrack or any other crayon-to-paper transit plan will never do this city justice.