Rigid zoning rules reducing need for community buy-in, developers say

Several local developers say the city’s increasing inflexibility over zoning changes is reducing the value of community input on planned projects.

By Jacob Serebrin

Last fall, city council approved a new official plan, which sets out long-term land use policies. One of its goals was to provide more “certainty and clarity” for residents and builders by, for example, including building height limits in different areas of the city.

The intention was to eliminate site-specific rezonings, but a side effect may be that developers have less incentive to consult with the community before filing plans with the city.

“Community opinion becomes irrelevant if there’s going to be certainty,” says Neil Malhotra,  vice-president of Claridge Homes. “That will be the downside of certainty.”

Consultations have long been a key piece of the development process. While meetings between builders and community representatives don’t always overcome disagreements over height and density, consultations can prompt developers to revise their plans to be more amiable to neighbouring residents.

“We try to do what’s correct planning,” says Mr. Malhotra. “You like to have community buy-in.”

One recent example suggests that consultations and community support don’t count for much at city hall.

In mid-May, the city’s planning committee rejected a rezoning application from Toronto-based Mizrahi Developments to increase the maximum permitted building height on a Wellington West property, despite an extensive outreach effort that won over many members of the local community.

“Mizrahi had 27 or 28 delegations in support and lost,” says Michael Polowin, a partner at law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson who specializes in municipal and planning law as well as commercial real estate.

He says there will no longer be an incentive to secure community support if it doesn’t produce results.

Community design plans, which are being developed to guide development in specific neighbourhoods, should serve as guiding documents, rather than inflexible rules, argues Mr. Polowin.

“The problem is that it does not always reflect the interest of property owners in full,” he says.

Although developers and community associations can provide input when the plan is being drafted, if a property changes hands, the views of the new owners may not be represented, Mr. Polowin says.

“The CDP is based on a snapshot,” he says. “It’s based on the views of the property owners at that time.”

He says other cities have used zoning variances as a way to extract concessions from developers, but Ottawa, with its strict high limits – especially in the heart of downtown where they’ve been imposed by the National Capital Commission – has led to “worse architecture and a stunted economy.”

But Mr. Malhotra acknowledges there’s a flip side. The certainty afforded by city planning policies removes the risk of arbitrary decisions by city council.

“If we all know what the rules are, we know what the rules are,” he says, arguing it was too easy for previous administrations to reject proposals, even on properties ripe for intensification.

“That kind of uncertainty creates a lot of risk in our business.”

Other local developers, however, say community consultations will remain an important part of their business model.

“It’s incredibly important to get community support,” says Dennis Dornan, a San Francisco-based project manager with Perkins+Will, the prime planning and design contractor on the redevelopment of the former Domtar lands. Plus, he says, it’s great PR.

“We’re seen in the community as the good guys,” says Rodney Wilts, a partner at Windmill Developments, the real estate company behind the Domtar redevelopment.