Does Leslieville need more low-waged suburban-style retail?
Practical. Workable. Achievable.
Say that a few times. Roll the words on your tongue. Then say them faster. Practical workable achievable. Ram the words together, like a freight train stopping without warning. Practicalworkableachievable.
Turn on fluorescent lights. Arrange for paper to be rustled, coughs to be stifled. A headache would be helpful but not necessary.
Keep repeating these words. Congratulations - you have completed your first class in planning law for the new Dark Age. Saints preserve you.
Two years ago, new property owner and compulsive Wal-Mart developer SmartCentres was asked by the city to draw up plans for something besides a "power centre," the planning pseudo-term for a big box store, for Toronto Film Studios' soon-to-be-vacant "employment lands" in Leslieville.
But partway through a 17-week Ontario Municipal Board hearing on the matter, which convened for closing arguments on October 13, Dennis Wood of big box law firm Wood Bull was asking city lawyers to prove that zoning favouring industrial and commercial uses rather than retail uses can pass the Practical, Workable And Achievable test.
The words are synonyms. They mean the same thing - specifically, nothing. But in making them a pillar of his case, Wood gussied up some claptrap from the marketing folks and passed it off as realistic planning, sort of how his clients gussy up cement boxes with whatever the locals seem to like - in this case, brickwork and hanging plants - and try to pass it off as more than a giant box designed for cheap wages and shit plastic.
The hearing ended October 18, and OMB member James McKenzie's decision is expected in the new year. One victory is sure: practicalworkableachieveable became a concept.
So while city lawyers had boxes of brimming binders on the problem of tens of thousands of daily car trips and disposable jobs if SmartCentres is successful, all Wood really needed to do was stand up and ask whether zoning for anything but retail is Profitable, Profitable and Profitable (my translation).
"There is no onus on any municipality that I know of to prove there will definitely be construction," said city litigator Brendan O'Callaghan on October 14. "‘Practical, workable and achievable' is an invention of SmartCentres.'"
Wood argued October 17 that his client's development is needed because the city has too little land zoned for retail spaces. Well, hands up, everyone who's had trouble finding things to buy in Toronto.
Of course, what he really meant was a certain kind of retail space needed for a certain kind of low-wage, high-output profit model. Yes, you may be able to buy things, but not enough, and from too many people. Inconsequential people. Locals.
As soon as SmartCentres started arguing that a giant box store was the only thing that could possibly be built, the developer should have been laughed out of the chamber.
But what's really being argued is more important than the size of the building or even municipal sovereignty. What's at issue is an insoluble disagreement on the essential nature of work and the meaning of geography.
A massive precedent will be set by McKenzie's decision; he will inadvertently define whether municipalities in Ontario will be allowed, through their planning apparatuses, to distinguish between meaningful employment and simple exploitation.
The hearing is a mini-referendum on our economic system. One has to feel sorry for the city, not only for having to fight SmartCentres, but also for having to continually throw arguments in front of the unstoppable force of neo-liberal globalization.
As labour becomes cheaper, factories more far flung, and inexpensive goods more ubiquitous, who still bothers to care about the proximity of industry to retail, or the integrity of neighbourhood economies?
Fools, ecologists and city councils, that's who. As economic activity is further and further distanced from social, political and physical responsibility, it's municipalities that suffer the most, but it's become almost anachronistic to give a damn.
City lawyers and planners simply argue that industrial uses are necessary for "a diverse economic base," without defining what "industrial'' means. Councillor Paula Fletcher tells me that keeping lands zoned industrial keeps them cheap, which makes it easier to entice companies to bring in jobs. The other half of the puzzle, sought by the city through this process, is the ability to say those jobs have to be high-paying ones.
I ask Fletcher if it's getting hard to attract industry. She says no, citing construction firm Urbacon's decision to build offices adjacent to the land in question. Wait, that's not industrial. "No," she says. "But they're ‘value-added' jobs. Retail definitely isn't."
"Employment lands" used to mean industrial. But today's office temps fill the niche of 1950s factory workers, demonstrating that the boundaries of a labouring underclass are expanding - and that the ideal of a secure professional class is still losing ground to the brave new corporate employee: the icon for which Wood, knowingly or not, is really arguing.
Agreeable. Disposable. In a word, Employable.