City Planning: Growth by Accretion, or Growth by Design?

Call us creative, or call us overly ambitious… but we decided to try putting today’s blog in the form of a Prezi.  Click here for a windy and whimsical journey through what is a very long and loquacious look at the role of city planning in Toronto and Vancouver. For those who might fear motion sickness, we’ve included the full text just below the jump.

There’s a lot I admire about Vancouver that has nothing to do with the seashore or the mountains. The city is environmentally conscious, investing in its economic future, and proud of its social conscience.  It’s only about half the size of the GTA, but it has figured out how to run effective public transit and won and successfully hosted winter Olympic games and a world’s fair while Toronto’s spastic efforts to bid on these events is frankly embarrassing.

The City of Vancouver seems to believe in itself, corporately and culturally.  It plans to do things, and it does them.  The eminent urban economist Edward Gleaser believes Vancouver is a Canadian success story.  Its progress is overseen by a mayor who was an organic farmer before taking office, and whose top priority now is the provision of affordable housing in Canada’s most overheated market.

In contrast Toronto has big problems.  It doesn’t believe in itself.  It’s selling off assets, cutting back services, busting its unions, shrinking its work force, and procrastinating on infrastructure work.  Its regress is overseen by a mayor with a background in label printing.  In Canada’s second most overheated real estate market, Toronto’s community housing corporation has been under attack since the Mayor took office.

Yet there are symptoms of the same ill in these outwardly different cities when it comes to planning and cultural assets.

You can’t speak about planning in Toronto without acknowledging that it’s a thankless and underappreciated function of municipal government.  It’s generally agreed that, regardless who is leading it, it faces systemic challenges from within and without the bureaucracy where it resides.

Planning is a constant activity, working on many levels in response to constantly changing conditions.  But somewhere in the background, the long-term intentions for the city are codified by its official plan, a document that gets updated periodically under the guidance and supervision of the City’s Chief Planner.

Bending, folding, spindling, and mutilating official plans seems to be a popular past time in Toronto.  It happens through the Committee of Adjustment, through special deals between Councillors and developers, through Council’s selective pursuit of specific priorities (densification, for example), and through unmanageable arm’s-length agencies that act as developers of City properties (like the TTC, Exhibition Place, or the former TEDCO).  Then of course, there is the deus ex machina of the Ontario Municipal Board, which often rules in favour of overreaching developers seeking exceptions to the limits entailed by the plan.  Indeed, Council and its committees, developers, and the Provincial OMB, seem to devote an awful lot of time weakening Toronto’s official plan.

But that’s true in both cities to some extent.  Chief planners have to mediate between conflicting demands from opposed forces, and mechanisms are required for making exceptions to their plans.  That’s a given.

Yet Vancouver has “city-builders,” moneyed and influential civic leaders like Toronto’s, who are indifferent to the official plan’s intentions.  Their ideas are typically well meant but arbitrary, not consultative and studied like those of municipal planning staff.  These private plans can affect sensitive city properties, impressing themselves on the public realm in ways not contemplated in the official plan.  If their ideas win media and public support, objections from planning bureaucrats are ignored.  The comprehensive official plan, built carefully on the interleaved priorities of many different agendas, gets torn a little every time this happens.

The whole of the plan is intended to guide decisions about individual cases, but when enough exceptions occur, the parts begin to define the whole.  Deformations of the current plan become fixtures in the next official plan.  Each plan in turn departs further from past intentions.  Planning horizons becomes foreshortened until our vision of the City’s future can lose relevance beyond the next election.

In cultural facility planning, where I am most familiar, we seem to be having one of those moments.  Nineteen years ago, David Mirvish managed to squeeze his 2,000 seat Princess of Wales Theatre into a stretch of old buildings on King Street West.  Like most things Mirvish, it was done well and was indisputably beneficial to the City.  Nevertheless, it stretched the zoning and required some compromise from on issues like parking.

Last month he announced that he wanted to demolish this theatre and replace it with three 80-story condominium towers, including an art gallery and other amenities in their pedestals.  This proposal was made without reference to Toronto’s official plan.  It is uncertain how infrastructure can be built to compensate for this sharp increase in density, yet the plan has gained traction through the media and now must be taken seriously.  Within weeks of Mirvish’s declaration of intent, the penniless City is discussing a $2 million study of potential subway construction under King Street, estimated to cost $3.2 billion if approved.   Three, ultra-modern, 80-story towers, looming over a district of historic brick buildings, will change whatever City planners had in mind for this district until now.

I’m not saying that Mirvish shouldn’t build condos, or that there shouldn’t be a subway to serve them, nor even that the heritage storefronts of King Street West should stand in the way of progress.  All I’m saying is that these possibilities should be provided for by the city’s official plan before they’re promoted publicly.  They shouldn’t arise from the desires of a single citizen, and the planning department shouldn’t be scrambling to respond.  Aren’t planners supposed to be setting the agenda for development and creating opportunities within their plans to encourage people like Mirvish to respond?  Isn’t that how the system is supposed to work?

The system seems to be similarly disrupted in Vancouver in at least one very public case.  The Vancouver Art Gallery has been negotiating with the City of Vancouver for five years about a new location.  As deliberations progressed, the range of options appeared to have narrowed to one, and an agreement seemed imminent.  However, in the background, a second discussion was started by former Gallery board member, respected collector of contemporary art, and prolific condominium developer, Bob Rennie.  Rennie thinks that the Gallery ought to develop a number of smaller facilities around the Vancouver area, and Rennie has the City’s ear.  The media reports that he has created a dilemma where the choice had once seemed clear.

From the City’s point of view, the dilemma has dimensions that make it an appropriate concern of its planners.   The footprint of the proposed $300 million gallery is going to be big relative to the amount of available land in downtown Vancouver.  The three locations under consideration, including the existing gallery site, each present different sets of challenges and opportunities, affecting the look, feel, and function of the city around them.

There is also a question of money, which has been politely downplayed in the press.  A small fraction of the capital requirement is already in hand from the Province.  The City’s contribution will probably come in the form of land and other accommodations such as zoning adjustments, servicing, and infrastructure.  Even if the federal government makes a contribution, somewhere close to $1-200 million would have to come out of corporations, foundations, and private donors.

This is relevant to the cultural element of Vancouver’s plans for a number of reasons.  Artists are vital to a city’s economy and quality of life, however in cities like Vancouver and Toronto they’re always in danger of being priced out of the affordable living and work space they require.  If, as some artists have blogged on this issue, hundreds of millions of dollars are available for visual arts in the Lower Mainland, why spend so much of it on bricks and mortar instead of on the artists and artwork that will adorn the new walls?  This is a question of policy and priority appropriate to the city planner’s work.

Further to this point, the City will be under pressure in the future if the budgeting assumptions about this mega gallery prove to be wrong.  Despite all the optimistic expectations at the outset of these projects, local governments have to deal with the care and feeding of white elephants on city land.  The VAG costs $14 million a year to run in its current location, and despite a big bump in activity during 2010, has fallen back to almost exactly the same level in 2011.  Although there will be some operating efficiencies in a more modern and spacious building, doubling of the space can only increase costs without any guarantee of commensurate increase in earned or contributed revenue.   The risks will be shared by the City, have no doubt.  Think of the former Ford Theatres in both Toronto and Vancouver, and the millions they have cost in the years since Garth Drabinsky and Livent threw in the towel.  A city can indemnify itself against risk contractually but can’t evade responsibility for landmark buildings in prime locations when their operators get into trouble.  Will the new VAG be too big to fail, and will the City need to provide additional subsidy in the future?  This too is a question of policy and priority appropriate to the city planner’s work.

Now toss Bob Rennie’s conviction about multiple VAG locations into the decision matrix and, in the absence of a clear direction from the City, it’s not surprising that no resolution has been possible.  Worse, in the absence of a clear decision framework, lead and accommodated by the City’s planning vision, a growing sense of crisis could lead to a sudden and regrettable outcome.  This is, after all, a 50-year decision, both for the gallery and for the City, and it shouldn’t be made irrationally because of time pressure.

I don’t know how to adequately emphasize my support for Bob Rennie’s idea, and Mirvish’s for that matter (his prescience about the decline of the commercial theatre business, in contrast to foot dragging on the disposal of Toronto’s civic theatres, is a subject for another day).  Nor do I mean to castigate the talented and committed people in city planning departments under the leadership of Toronto’s Jennifer Keesmaat or Vancouver’s Brian Jackson.  Both have been in position less than a year and both are working under conditions that have evolved over decades.

But I can’t ignore the fact that a city, like any other large-scale enterprise, needs an orderly, coherent, comprehensive plan for its future.  The work of planners, and the plans they produce, should be setting the direction for development rather than reacting to directions set by others.  It would create greater certainty for developers, it would streamline and accelerate development, and it would make it more meaningful to talk about a vision for the future if planners and their plans were given more respect.

I may sound naïve or idealistic, but I’m not alone in this.  Look at how the City of Vancouver describes its planning culture and environment:

  • “Vancouverism” is an internationally known term that describes a new kind of city living.
  • Vancouverism combines deep respect for nature with enthusiasm for busy, engaging, active streets and dynamic urban life.
  • Vancouverism means tall slim towers for density, widely separated by low-rise buildings, for light, air, and views.
  • It means many parks, walkable streets, and public spaces, combined with an emphasis on sustainable forms of transit.
  • We achieve this livable, high-quality urban design through creative planning, combined with:
    • Carefully crafted development policies, guidelines, and bylaws
    • Extensive consultation with residents, businesses, and experts
    • Ongoing reevaluation of where we are as a city, and where we would like to go
  • No wonder city planners and urban designers come to Vancouver from around the world to find inspiration for re-imagining their inner cities and look for more sustainable ways to live healthy and sociable lives.

Tell this to Brent Toderian, the highly respected but controversial Chief Planner, who was fired earlier this year.  This effusive language is consistent with the Vancouver I can see, which took its present shape because of sound decisions made years ago.  However, it isn’t consistent with the decision making I’ve observed around the redevelopment of an entire downtown block for the VAG, so it may not be consistent with the Vancouver I see in the future.

The question I’m left with is whether our cities are growing by accretion rather than design, as the work of planners gets derailed by politics and private sector influence.  It reminds me a bit of recent trends in the marketing of patent medicines that bypass the medical community and use media to reach consumers directly.  The advertisements all end with advice to “ask your doctor if this treatment is right for you.”  The strategy is to besiege doctors with self-diagnosing and prescribing patients, each in effect attempting to introduce a challenge to the physician’s overall approach to health and well-being.  Is this not what we do when we encourage privately initiated city-building through the media, launching huge projects, with half-century impacts and massive infrastructure requirements, without explicit reference to a plan for the city as a whole?

I think so.  I want to believe otherwise, and I’ll keep trying to figure this out.  But for the time being, this is my alarmed, semi-informed, layman’s view.  And having spoken to people living through the chaos of development decisions that they can’t comprehend, in the vortex of new downtown residential and commercial construction sites, with waves of new development impending, I am not alone.

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