It's not often that classical philosophy is relevant to zoning. It's Plato and his allegory of the cave to which my mind flits during a discussion of city planning with Councillor Adam Vaughan.
In the yarn, prisoners in a cave are chained so they cannot turn their heads and can only watch the play of shadows on the wall. Plato supposed that if men were set free they would retreat from dazzling sunlit reality back to the darkness of this cave.
All right, maybe not the best analogy. But does council have the courage to face the light when it comes to opposing Ontario Municipal Board decisions? That's one question raised by councillor Adam Vaughan's proposal to use dollars from Section 37 settlements (part of the Planning Act that allows the city to negotiate cash deals with developers when granting greater density or height than the Official Plan permits) to fund research identifying heritage districts.
"I understand the pressures and legislative shortcomings," says Vaughan. "But Toronto, faced with a wall of financial horror, has scared itself into the status quo. And when you have a crack of light in the wall a way of resourcing a really powerful planning tool to protect the beauty of this city instead of saying, "Great, we can do it,' everyone says, "Let's refer it to staff. '"
Officially, Section 37 is intended to make things easier on neighbourhoods by funding capital community projects like parks when increased density is deemed desirable.
Unofficially, it's used to prevent developers from hauling city planners into the OMB's court. Developers like it because instead of spending $50,000 on an appeal, they can spend $25,000 on a park. Politicians like it because developers tend to win appeals, irrespective of merit.
In the wake of the West Queen West decision, I asked chief planner Ted Tyndorf how communities could help. He said that when residents are involved through avenue studies and secondary plans detailed, consultative studies of neighbourhoods the city is more successful in beating back vexatious appeals.
Strange, then, that the planning department got no new money in this year's operating budget for such work. There will be no new avenue studies or secondary plans. When I ask Tyndorf why, he says no one showed up at budget committee deliberations to support a budget bump.
Enter Vaughan's proposal to use Section 37 settlements to fund Heritage Conservation District planning, which essentially identifies areas with long-standing architectural assets and amends the zoning to ensure that development doesn't threaten them or, as Vaughan puts it, doesn't "knock down Victorian row houses and put up a concrete box." It would also give city decisions on development applications greater clarity and transparency.
The proposal won approval from the planning committee, but there's an understandable fear that any move to fund neighbourhood studies through settlements would chip away at the resolve to fund planning through the budget. Tyndorf believes Section 37 should fund only tangible, growth-related benefits.
Still, I wonder, can't heritage studies be growth-related if unplanned development threatens heritage? He doesn't agree.
Currently councillors often push bad planning in return for parks funding. "I've had to negotiate Section 37 agreements," says Vaughan. "You feel like taking a shower afterwards."
Ceta Ramkalawansingh, a community activist in the Grange neighbourhood, agrees. She and other residents were able to meet with the developers of the new Canada Life building at Queen and University and, jointly with planners, negotiated nearly a $1 million for community benefits.
But she says, "there's no accounting mechanism for all this money."
Of course, she also says Section 37 shouldn't even come up. "There needs to be a secondary plan," she stresses. "A lot of neighbourhoods are accepting [Section 37 funds] because there's not enough money for services."
Vaughan believes that if the money is diverted toward establishing heritage districts when applicable, there will be more transparency because such a designation requires substantial public consultation.
"Neighbourhoods are better at designing themselves than we are," he says.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Rookie Councillor and former news anchor Adam Vaughan riffs on theneed for neighbourhood power, the responsibility of a past provincialgovernment for the gutting of city planning, and the responsibility ofthe current city government to face up to it.