Op-ed: Why Ottawa needs a ‘job policy’

In part two of Bruce Firestone’s interview with Steve Willis, the new city planning boss says playing to neighbourhoods’ individual strengths is a key to growing Ottawa’s economy
Steve Willis
Steve Willis, Ottawa’s new head of planning, says the city has to be careful about over-regulating development. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

The city’s new head of planning and economic development knows that a one-size-fits-all approach to planning and infrastructure makes no sense.

As part of his mission to make the city more responsive to the needs of residents and businesses, Steve Willis promises that the next official plan review – slated to be completed in 2022 – will take a more nuanced, fine-grained approach whereby individual neighbourhoods will be the basic planning “unit.”

“Look at Toronto,” he says. “What makes that city’s economy and brand stand out is that there is a lot of diversity in its neighbourhoods. We have to build on the strengths and differences in ours as well.”

I ask him if he would ever consider a Rotterdam-type development here. Rotterdam, threatened by rising waters, was a failing port city in the Netherlands that reinvented itself as an experimental city, a testbed where residents could try far-out, sustainable architecture ideas.

“It’s on my bucket list to visit,” Mr. Willis says. “Look, if any Ottawa community comes forward, one where there is a widespread consensus that they would like to try something like that, I’d like to hear from them.”

The sharing economy, and Airbnb is particular, is another key issue facing the city. I believe the fastest-growing trend in real estate over the next 25 years will be “civil disobedience,” as people simply reject burdensome and needless government regulation over what they can do with their property – including renting out rooms in their homes.

People will do whatever they need to do to support themselves and their families, even to the point of disobeying municipal bylaws and ordinances. Last year, the average Canada Pension Plan payout was $550 a month and Ontario’s minimum wage was $11.40 an hour, so an extra, say, 650 bucks each month from a room rental looks decent, especially if you are a young person just starting out or an elder on a fixed income.

Asked if the city plans to regulate Airbnb, Mr. Willis says it’s not his job to make that call.

“It’s up to council to make that decision, so we will have to wait and see, but I can say that we have to be very careful about turning our backs on the sharing economy,” he replies.

I point out that Vancouver council banned Uber but was forced to back down within months after a public backlash.

“Exactly,” Mr. Willis says. “We have to be cautious about overextending our desire to regulate everything. Having said this, we don’t want situations where there is rapid turnover of bad tenants because of Airbnb.”

Mr. Willis also says he disavows the idea of “industrial policy.”

“We need a jobs policy instead,” he says.

Unlike provincial policies that place a high priority on “employment lands,” he believes that real, sustainable jobs growth will come from mixed-use, walkable communities.

The Ontario government believes that employment lands-based jobs are qualitatively different than McJobs, even though experience proves otherwise. For example, a warehouse such as the one at the corner of Carp and Reis roads, the Lee Valley Distribution Centre, is highly automated and not a big job generator – unless you are designing floor robots in Germany to bring and take things from one part of a fulfillment centre to another.

But if you are building a huge new training facility in a suburban neighbourhood, like a client of mine is doing for Tumblers Gymnastics in Orleans, the jobs created there are permanent and not easily outsourced to Asia and other overseas countries.

Mr. Willis understands that. He points out that Ottawa’s official plan and even Ontario’s own provincial policies have internal inconsistencies, and it’s his goal to sort these out and set new priorities in 2022.

Internet's impact

Mr. Willis is also one of the few planners I’ve ever met who understands the impact the internet has had on virtually every facet of business.

He brings up the repercussions, for example, of online spending in the retail sector. He recalls how it took four and a half years to get zoning and site plan approvals and building permits for the new Playvalue Toys facility near Hazeldean Road in Carp, a facility built at huge cost by the City of Ottawa and the province.

When PVT founders Doug and Janet Jones, together with their son Reid, first approached the city about building a new headquarters for their flourishing toy biz, they explained that most of their growth was coming from online orders. They ship up to 24,000-pound loads of high-end play structures, trampolines and other large, bulky products via semi-trailer to all parts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. As such, they needed a combination showroom, store, warehouse, shipping and receiving area, light assembly area, outdoor showroom (basically, a park to showcase their play structures) and offices, and they also wanted an accessory residential use so that if they ever decided to live and work in the same place as many mom-and-pop proprietors do, they could.

Planning 50 years ahead is moronic anyway; even a 20-year plan is stupid. In fact, with all due respect to urban planners, any plan they create is outdated the day it’s published. They aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing, nor, for that matter, is anybody else.

The planner they met with said no such designation exists in the city’s zoning bylaws and the rezoning couldn’t be done.

He had no clue what business owners like the Joneses do to survive or what it’s like today to compete with e-commerce behemoths such as Amazon. And he was a very poor listener. He bitterly opposed the rezoning, which the agricultural and rural affairs committee and city council eventually approved.

The Jones family needed 4.5 acres of land near a highway with the right zoning so they would not have to continue to be rent slaves for another generation. The city maintains that there is up to a 50-year supply of suitable lands for this kind of adventure, but there isn’t. Most of these employment lands are either owned by a handful of large developers or the NCC, which don’t like to sell their property to entrepreneurs, or they are in the wrong location. And none of them have the right zoning. Hence the call for a more neighbourhood-based approach to economic development.

Planning 50 years ahead is moronic anyway; even a 20-year plan is stupid. In fact, with all due respect to urban planners, any plan they create is outdated the day it’s published. They aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing, nor, for that matter, is anybody else.

So Mr. Willis’s mission to introduce more flexibility and more delegated authority to the planning process is crucial to Ottawa’s future, and not just for businesses like Playvalue Toys. Technology, services, education, entertainment, shopping, leisure, transportation – every one of these industries is changing quickly, and they all need a gentle, guiding, helping hand from their city rather than rigid dictatorship.

Again, it’s my view that no one single person will have more influence over the direction Ottawa takes in the next decade than Mr. Willis. No one.

Bruce M. Firestone is a founder of the Ottawa Senators, a Century 21 Explorer Realty broker, real estate investor and business coach. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce or email him at bruce.firestone@century21.ca.

Steve Willis's road to City Hall

August 2016-February 2017:

Senior principal, community development, Stantec

May 2014-July 2016:

Executive director, capital planning branch, National Capital Commission

January 2014-May 2014:

Ottawa regional manager; VP planning, landscape architecture and urban design, Western Canada, MMM Group

August 1999-December 2013:

VP planning, landscape architecture and urban design, MMM Group

1997-1999:

Principal planner, City of Toronto Economic Development Corp.