The reason that we have official plans, area plans, site plans, urban design review, heritage designation, and zoning is that markets alone do not necessarily drive smart development. Removing all of this planning, sometimes simplistically labeled as ‘red tape’, could prove disastrous. Making money and keeping people working is not sufficient to build great cities. The maximization of profits, which is a reflection of good business practices, can lead to decisions that are good in one context, but bad in another. For example, height is an important issue in planning, and high rises should be buffered by medium rise or medium density. A developer who applies for a change from a 4 storey to an 8 storey building might be maximizing profits, but throwing off the plan for the best feel of a neighbourhood. Community opposition to keep the height at 4 storeys isn’t anti-development, it is pro-development in a form that they consider fits best. Similarly, a new subdivision in the far reaches of a city might be very well designed, but can have traffic implications for the neighbourhoods between it and downtown, or it and the highway. The Official Plan and area plans help hold the big picture. Although I would suggest that the best developers will, there is no requirement for businesses to care about the needs and wishes of their neighbours.
The idea of the big picture is where both commercial and residential development can go poorly; if city level planning is too vague then the impact of new development on existing spaces can be missed. The Southwest Area Plan and the call to create new, more vague, land use designations allowing up to nearly 3 million square feet of commercial where 800,000 was recommended by a consultant study is a perfect example of this. Developers of new commercial or office may inadvertently beggar their neighbour, as we have seen already with the decline of Westmount Mall in parallel with the growth of outdoor box store malls just down the road. There is no denying that the market demand is for big box outdoor malls, but will the loss of the WhiteRose Plaza (pictured above) and Westmount lead to the redevelopment of something greater, or the loss of walkability for an area with many seniors? Sometimes a series of good business decisions can have negative impacts on the community as a whole, including walkability, traffic, and land utilization.
On a small scale, development can go wrong through the site planning process. A good example of this is the Wortley Rd properties (pictured below). Although there was much collaboration between the community and the developer, square footage and siting on the lot were threatened to be contested at the Ontario Municipal Board. Ultimately, I think these two developments are great for the community, will intensify residential and provide more retail, and add some nice flavour to the village. However, in my opinion we could have done better with the set-back. Two feet further back from the curb on the west/front side, with a lesser setback from the east/rear property line, would have made for a better flow with adjacent buildings when approaching from the north or south. These relatively minor details can have a big impact on how the final product fits with what is existing.
A final example of the complexities for development is the recent building of garage-fronted houses in the Old South neighbourhood. In one instance it involved the severing of one property into two, and building two single-detached houses. This is a form of intensification, and therefore fits one of the goals of planning. However, with the thin lots, the builder then had to fit the demand for parking and a garage, but had no space to run driveways down the sides of the houses like every other house on the street. This led to the building of garage-fronted houses that although they are the most valuable on the block, don’t fit at all with the neighbourhood, such as on Emery just east of Wharncliffe (pictured below). Again, this is a series of logical business decisions that might ultimately not be the best for the community. The developer was not malicious, the intensification is good, but the era streetscape has been altered.
In my next post I will look at the Reservoir Hill development as a particular case of good business with a bad outcome.