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Bridge Beat

Jun 16, 2015

Land and Development Conference 2015. What Toronto Can Learn from International Developments.

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the recent Land and Development Conference with 4 distinguished industry executives - Dustin Jones, a municipal and planning lawyer in New York City and also the Director of graduate studies at Cornell University for real estate, Peter Halsall, President and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute and the founder of Halsall Associates, Richard Witt, Principal of Quadrangle Architects, a firm which has handled international developments in the Middle East and China, and Johann Schumacher, Vice President, Development, Oxford Properties Group who is currently responsible for the redevelopment of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. He has been involved in major developments in Dubai, Melbourne and the U.S.

There was a great deal of discussion over topics such as transit, planning, political governance and 6-storey developments. Comparisons were made with the Toronto local ward system as against the Vancouver councillor-at-large model, certain American cities with strong municipal and federal government interaction, the democratic process in Sweden, the dictatorial but effective processes in Dubai and China, and the regional and federal control of many of the planning and transit facilities in Melbourne. 

For instance, Johann Schumacher talked about the 20 year plan for transit and development in Melbourne now going to 50 years. Toronto can't get beyond a 5 year plan. All of the planning for the amazing Melbourne transit came from the state authorities in Victoria, not the local authorities in Melbourne. In Toronto, we are currently having numerous townhall discussions with citizens to reach a consensus on a few relief lines.

Richard Witt commented on the construction of over 500 kilometers of subway in Shanghai in less than 15 years. Toronto has built a fraction of that amount in 60 years.

Peter Halsall talked about major innovative developments in Malmo, Sweden, highlighting green building, 10-storey wood buildings and innovative district heating projects. These were accomplished through clear allocations of responsibility between local, regional and federal governments for these aspects. 

In the U.S., Dustin Jones referred to the very detailed and structured core space index and planning rules that have allowed New York to develop and construct point tower high-rises in an organized fashion with the rules of the game being very clearly laid out. This is not totally dissimilar to the structure in Vancouver with a very strong planning commissioner who dictates an in-depth development plan. In neither of these jurisdictions is an OMB-type of body available for appeals.

One of the key lessons for change in Toronto included:

  1. Major government initiates to create a catalyst to spur development such as the Millennium Park in Chicago are needed. A major initiative on the waterfront or elsewhere would jumpstart development. Provincial or federal money is needed.

    Something like the current Metro Toronto Convention Centre revitalization by Oxford, if it was handled in Australia, would have been a clear public/private initiative because it would spur tremendous development around it, even if it would not make money in the short-term.

  2. Taking transit out of local hands entirely and putting it to regional and federal control. This would remove the local, myopic politics from making far-reaching decisions on GTA and GTH integrated systems. Metrolinx is supposed to be that vehicle but given its unwieldly bureaucratic process, it remains to be seen whether this will be the vehicle to rescue the GTA and GTH from transit and traffic gridlock.

  3. Engaging and finding local, regional and federal leaders with a vision who are prepared to make hard decisions that go beyond local political interests. Mayor Bloomberg of New York and Mayor Daley of Chicago are examples. Even the left leaning Mayor Ken Livingstone in London, U.K., was able to assist in the breaking of the logjam of development in the City of London which never had any high-rises. There have been a number of major high-rise developments in the City of unique and spectacular architecture (with unique names to boot) over the last 10 years like the Shard and the Gurkin.

  4. Clearly delineating responsibilities between local, regional and federal levels and allowing each one to have significant planning and decision making authority as was done in Malmo, Sweden.

A lot of food for thought. Revamping the local ward system in Toronto would be the first step to eliminate the need to get the total consensus of many groups for every major initiative. Having impartial levels of government and bodies making decisions without local politics and nimbyism would be a major step forward for Ontario.

 

 

 

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