Public Works: Raising the Bar for Development Projects
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Public Works: Raising the Bar for Development Projects

Portland has told its city planners to scrutinize development proposals for neighbourhood compatibility, nature preservation, and other factors. Here's why Toronto can't be that firm.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Hoping for better planning results, Portland city commissioner Amanda Fritz has ordered municipal staff to take a closer look at development proposals before approving them.

The order applies to “discretionary land use reviews”—projects in which developers are asking to do something beyond the limits of Portland building codes. These instances require a judgment call from municipal staff.

“The bar should be higher than where it’s been in the past,” wrote Fritz in a February 5 memo, “to better protect what makes Portland such a special place to live, work and play.”

In particular, Fritz wants more attention paid to proposals’ conservation of natural surroundings (trees, streams, etc.), as well as “good design and quality development,” compatibility with local neighbourhoods, and the capacity of the lot proposed for changes. “Are they trying to squeeze too much onto the site?” Fritz wrote.

Compatibility and lot capacity are hot issues in Portland, where developers have been slicing residential lots into two or three strips and building “skinny houses” that sell at lower prices than existing homes in the same areas. Some neighbourhood representatives (including Fritz, before she was commissioner) have opposed skinny homes, and last year city council quashed one developer’s lot-splitting plans.

Lot-splitting sounds like rather a good idea, though—one that would accommodate Portland’s growing number of young professionals without succumbing to urban sprawl. It seems a shame to ditch it just to preserve the aesthetics of neighbourhoods that have influential residents’ associations and properties big enough to split (i.e., affluent ones).

Fritz says planners are not being instructed to turn planners down outright, however. Rather, she wants them to work with planners to improve proposals and get them to a point that they better fit the City’s standards.

And aside from the neighbourhood compatibility and lot-squeezing crackdown that may or may not be attributable to NIMBYism, the demand that developments preserve nature and not be allowed to so easily bend the limits of municipal code seems responsible and reasonable.

Here in Toronto, we have an extensive set of district or area-specific guidelines for development in dozens of neighbourhoods around the city. Among the considerations is neighbourhood compatibility.

In the Queen Street West/Baldwin Village/Grange area, for instance, new buildings must be at least two storeys tall, and, if it is an infill in a row of similar buildings, it has to be approximately the same height as those on either side of it when seen from the street.

O’Connor Drive, from Victoria Park to St. Clair, for instance, has a much denser set of standards, including that buildings be attractive and well proportioned in order to create “a comfortable and interesting environment for pedestrians”—all positive guidelines for a busy mixed-use suburban thoroughfare.

The special challenge in Toronto is that city officials do not get final say on development proposals. That honour goes to the Ontario Municipal Board, an independent body that hears appeals of municipal land use decisions.

Back in 2012, city council approved a motion by councillors Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) and Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) to ask the Province to let Toronto opt out of the OMB system. “Developers simply have a better chance at the OMB because they have the financial resources, the ability to get planners and lawyers, anything they need to be able to argue their case,” Matlow told the Toronto Star in 2012.

Queen’s Park never responded to the City’s request, but Matlow, Wong-Tam, and others have continued to advocate for an opt-out, urging citizens to write their MPPs.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has periodically spoken about OMB reforms for the past couple of years. And reforms may someday come. But until then, Toronto’s planning decisions are subject solely to developer appeals and the OMB’s will.