Many Canadian cities have made densification, or intensification, a priority to reduce sprawl and the costs of extending city services to far-flung suburbs. Empty nesters and seniors are also driving demand for new multiple housing units in city centres across Canada as they make lifestyle choices that emphasizes convenience, low maintenance and reduced commute times.
But intensification can spark NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), where local residents actively rally against new development or redevelopment. We see this most often with the growing pains of small and mid-sized cities (NIMBY movement sweeps Ottawa and Halifax developers want to aim high). But regardless of the city and the circumstances, NIMBYism run wild can become a costly and acrimonious irritant to any development. The onus is on municipal government to implement clear and consistent guidelines to govern the approvals process that will respect existing streetscapes, prevent creation in the absence of taste and provide residents with an active voice in the decision-making process.
It is naive to expect that any infill project in an established neighbourhood can achieve full community support. But it is empty vessels that make the most noise; there will always be that five per cent of residents who raise the most fuss and oppose anything except the status quo, but have no substantive ideas of their own to add to the discussion.
The role of government, however, is to work toward satisfying the goals of the majority. It is city hall which carries the obligation to set clear and rigorous criteria, which must then be consistently enforced, to determine what is appropriate and keep NIMBYism in check.
Planning policies need to have the flexibility to deal with changing circumstances. Too often there seems to be a policy void with unclear Official Plans and reactive rather than proactive zoning processes. Municipal government should be encouraged to develop more definitive planning policies which would not be subject to ad hoc amendments.
Definitive planning policies would help to preclude appeals to one off planning decisions, such as the recent OMB decision in the Westboro neighbourhood of Ottawa that overturned a city approved development. Provincial legislation and planning policies need to be established that result in more vigorous Official and Neighbourhood Plans so that when market demand creates the circumstances for change, the development environment has already been settled. Zoning, which is site-specific as opposed to the overarching character of an Official Plan, needs to be flexible but at the same time, zoning changes should be constrained by any neighbourhood plans that have been previously completed.
Unfortunately, many infill projects are created in the absence of taste. Taste is defined by more than just a building’s height. It is, admittedly, a subjective determination that must take into account a variety of factors, not the least of which is the architectural style of the current streetscape. Public policy that supports the replacement of obsolete buildings often encourages the intensification of development, but the private developers who carry out such infill projects must respect the public to which public policy is responsible.
Changing a uniform streetscape with a new development dominated by eight-foot square garage doors is contrary to the public interest. Large square garage doors are like having an elephant sitting backwards in your neighbour’s yard. The same can be said of towers which are designed to plant commercial store fronts with plate glass on the edge of the sidewalk, when the rest of the street features Georgian-style architecture and five-metre setbacks.
Public policy needs to encourage development and redevelopment, while at the same time protecting the public interest. Public policy is one of the drivers of real estate values, but on occasion these policies can produce perverse results, contrary to the public interest, and have the unintended consequences of disproportionately driving up values, changing land uses and disappointing the public.
Some of our peers in the development industry would have us think that restricting design, height or placement of some features will negatively impact market value and the margin for profit. On the contrary, complimentary development in desirable neighbourhoods should show strong market demand, and the market will react to policies and create projects that are both attractive and meet market demands. One of the net benefits is reduced opposition from residents and local politicians, which will pre-empt costly legal battles before third-party arbiters such as the Ontario Municipal Board.
Taste is personal, and while municipal bureaucrats should not be expected to enforce esthetics, respecting the nature of established neighbourhoods is a first, crucial step in reducing NIMBYism. Planners, designers and architects should look at the community where a new project is planned. If they fire up their imaginations, they might see a way to create something complimentary, and for which there is market demand. Isn’t that what they went to school for?
About John Clark: With over 30 years of experience in the national real estate appraisal and valuation industry, John Clark (BA, AACI, P.App., FRICS, Chartered Valuation Surveyor) is a leading expert on real estate matters that impact the value of commercial, institutional, residential and other special use properties. He joined The Regional Group of Companies Inc. in 1988 and has served as Vice-President of Valuation and Consulting since 1990. He is a Fellow of the Appraisal Institute of Canada and served as its National President, 2001-2002.