Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Evils of Central Planning --
as performed by local London clowns

What if we had no zoning laws? Well, at the least, taxpayers would save a fortune on legal fees and Gloria McGinn-McTeer (past unelected heritage-strongarming busybody chairperson of the Urban League of London) wouldn't be interviewed by the Free Press so often.

Better still, people might actually have a better chance at receiving the services that they want and are willing to pay for. Even better, it would prevent land developers (RioCan) from prostituting themselves for legal favours. Sorry Riocan -- you can't have it both ways. Do you want a free market where you are able to compete and build what you want, or do you want everything frozen in place? I hope you're not going to sing this song next time you see an opportunity to make some money.

What would happen if we had no zoning bylaws? Well-trained members of society throw up their hands and say "chaos!" I smile and reply "mmm . . . chaos." Homes, offices, stores, factories and farms where people actually want them according to their free market value. Efficiency and prosperity. Property that you are free to develop or not develop as you wish, whether to increase its monetary or aesthetic value or just leave alone, whatever the interest of the one person who can actually have a say -- the owner who is not cowtied and muzzled by ridiculous and arbitrary regulations that serve noone but the current masters. Which is why RioCan doesn't want anyone else to compete with its land holdings.

I condemn the whole notion of urban planning. It carries with it the same stench of arbitrary dictatorship and entrenchment of elites that every central government planning agenda has.

Land battle heats up

Council will have to hire outside experts to defend itself in an OMB hearing after ignoring staff.

JOE BELANGER, Free Press City Hall Reporter
A land battle that could redefine how London grows has erupted over a proposed northwest big-box complex that rivals the size of Masonville area's massive commercial block. At stake -- depending on who you talk to -- is either the survival of London's existing retail malls and plazas or the city's willingness and ability to grow.

RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust, owner and revitalizer of several of the city's older retail outlets, is challenging, through the Ontario Municipal Board, London council's go-ahead for two developers to build more than one million square feet of retail space at Fanshawe Park and Hyde Park roads.

Critics, including RioCan, say city council will be the architect of retail "blight and decay" by rejecting its own planning principles and the advice of its planners.

Planners feared it would hurt older retail areas still struggling to survive and wanted the projects scaled back about 25 per cent.

They also say council's bad decision-making will cost taxpayers more money.

But defenders insist competition "is the name of the game" in retail, even though one million square feet of store space already sits empty around the city.

In brief, the plan is to let First London North and Stanton Brothers develop stores of a total size bigger than the entire four-corners mall and big-box retailers encircling Richmond Street and Fanshawe Park Road.

Council is holding fast to the plan and will have to hire outside experts to defend itself in the OMB hearing because it ignored staff.

London commercial space includes 15 million square feet already developed and five million square feet designated but not developed.

Fully one million square feet of retail space is vacant.

Rio Can owns 1.167 million square feet of commercial space in London. It is developing some of it, such as Oakridge Mall. Its other holdings include Adelaide Centre, Hamilton-Highbury Plaza, Highbury Shopping Plaza, London Plaza, RioCan Centre London South and Sherwood Forest Mall.

RioCan says council's decision is "without any proper planning rationale" and will lead to "decay and blight" for older retail space.

"Good planning requires that the city continue to support its existing retail facilities so that redevelopment and infilling will continue to be a feasible option," the appeal states.

London's umbrella group of neighbourhood organizations is equally miffed.

"There are lots of reasons why that development shouldn't proceed and council simply chose to ignore a solid planning recommendation," said Gloria McGinn-McTeer, past chairperson of the Urban League of London.

"At the end of the day, I'm pleased someone is taking (council) to task for it."

McGinn-McTeer also said some of the rezoning -- to commercial from medium density residential -- will mean fewer tax dollars. As well, air quality will suffer from the increased traffic to get to the area and the city will spend millions upgrading Fanshawe Park Road years in advance of its plans.

But others, including the London Chamber of Commerce and the majority of council, defend the development.

Coun. Bernie MacDonald, who recently chastised council for spending too much money on outside lawyers, defended his support of the development. He said the city has spent too many years discouraging growth.

"This is not a one-horse town anymore. It's a growing city. Competition is the name of the game and without it you can't grow," MacDonald said.

WHAT WAS APPROVED

Council approves:

- First London North to build 605,000 square feet of retail space and 75,000 square feet of office space on the southeast corner of Fanshawe Park and Hyde Park roads adjacent to the new Wal-Mart and about 323,000 square feet on the northeast corner, which includes footage for Sam's Club.

- At the same time, council approved a rezoning for Stanton Brothers to develop a property east of Sam's Club into about 260,000 square feet of commercial space, including a Home Depot, instead of originally planned medium density housing.

City staff recommendation (rejected):

- Approval for about 900,000 square feet of commercial space, 100,000 less than requested, and rejection of Stanton's proposal outright.

The appeal:

- RioCan Real Estate says the plan harms existing retail space and challenges First London North's plan. RioCan is not appealing Stanton Brothers' plan. No date set for the appeal to be heard.

HOW THEY VOTED

How council members voted in June on the issue of allowing additional commercial space to be developed at Hyde Park and Fanshawe Park roads:

In favour

Controllers Russ Monteith, Bud Polhill and Gord Hume; Couns. Bernie MacDonald, Cheryl Miller, Paul Van Meerbergen, Rob Alder, Fred Tranquilli and Roger Caranci.

Opposed

Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco; Councillors Sandy White, Bill Armstrong, David Winninger, Judy Bryant, Joni Baechler and Susan Eagle.

Conflict of interest

Controller Tom Gosnell, consultant to First London North.

Absent

Couns. Ab Chahbar and Harold Usher.

Copyright © The London Free Press 2004

3 comments:

Dick said...

As a practicing Urban Planner in the SWO, I found this post particularly interesting. It's not that I'm an elitist central bureaucratic type... it's more the fact that as a fat ass bureaucrat I'd be out of a job.

The reason London and environs are such a toilet is the fact that there is no planning. Have you ever tried driving west down Fanshawe during rush hour... ever notice how the traffic magically clears up after Hyde Park? Quit pissing and moaning and take Transit you say? Too bad development is so sporadic and sparse to support it...

Who pays for all this extra development on the periphery of town??? Who runs the pipes? Who widens the highways to this isolated 'free-market' mecca? And you wonder why the city is in this budget crunch. Check out the capital budget sometime. How much is it going to cost to widen Fanshawe for Sam's Club?

You want to know what your libertarian dream would be like?

You live it.

MapMaster said...

Dick;

One of the perils of publishing my opinion as a libertarian is that I run the risk of offending people when I make blanket comments like "I condemn urban planning." And that is my fault -- I should be a little more careful about how I write.

I do NOT actually condemn planners or planning -- much the contrary in fact -- but I do have a problem with what is contemporarily refered to as urban planning because it has statist connotations. Whether we live in a capitalist system or a statist one, people usually plan their spatial decisions to maximize a desired outcome, and in a complex specialized society it is of great benefit to have people who are specifically trained to analyze those spatial problems and make those spatial decisions.

However, I don't think those planners need to be hired by the government. Businesses or groups of freely associated people also benefit from doing their own planning -- and in fact they do. Spatial allocation of resources and activities is already something that they concern themselves with and hire planners for. They do this to maximize profit usually, or to minimize impacts to their surrounding environment, or a number of other reasons. These reasons are not always sound ones, but considering the fact that their own benefit is the desired outcome, they can usually be trusted to come up with the best possible solution to their spatial problems given the expertise of their planners (and if they want to maximize their benefit, they will look for the best planners). When the government is in charge of planning, many other purposes for planning may creep into the decision making process and these criteria may be of an arbitrary nature as far as the idea of "best" allocation -- these other purposes are political, such as a ward councillor who has a pet project or who wants to court the vote of activists who want to minimize the rights to property that they DON'T EVEN OWN to advance their own agenda.

That said, I don't think that planning in London is all that terrible when it comes down to roads and sewers. It could be better, I suppose, but it seems that the problem is often one of allocating budget resources. It is not a high priority of mine to get government out of the business of making roads and sewers, but maybe it should be because I think businesses or people who need improvements to maximize their profits would find ways to make those improvements when they are needed or would face the consequences of reduced viability. And that would not cost the taxpayer, who may or may not benefit themselves from those improvements.

Why is the city in a budget crunch? I can't really imagine that it is the cost of running roads and sewers -- if that was all the city concerned itself with, I imagine we could have the most amazing road network AND lower taxes AND no deficits. But the city spends tax dollars freely on megaprojects and cultural subsidies and public expenditures. (That is why we at the London Fog so frequently wail about the John Labatt Centre.) Big projects, culture, etc., are not inherently bad themselves, but they do not need to provided by the municipal government -- in fact they should not be because central planning by the government has no means to ascertain the economic reasons for doing so but only political ones. Private businesses can feel free to take risks to provide these services if they feel they can make a profit doing so. And they will make a profit if they do it well AND people freely choose to avail themselves of these services -- supply and demand. If we must subsidize Orchestra London every year, then maybe most Londoners do not really support it -- and if they do, then the venture can be paid for by those people who do support it. I myself have not been to the Orchestra since I was a little kid, yet I must support it whether I like it or not. Nor have I ever been to the JLC. And we subsidize the Convention Centre every year, the Grand Theatre, the Library, the University and Fanshawe College, and many more things I am probably unaware of. These are not essential services for the entire population, and should be paid for by those people who want it.

Thank you for writing. This problem is very interesting to me as I study spatial allocation problems and decision making (with GIS and remote sensing) at the department of Geography at the University. If the city did not engage in this kind of planning, I am sure that individuals would because they want and need these services -- it might be chaotic, but there is nothing wrong with chaos because there is an underlying order of individuals making decisions to maximize their benefit and these decisions are always made in the context of other people's planning in this complex urban environment.

Best regards,
MapMaster

MapMaster said...

Dick;

Sorry, I forgot to address one point in my last comment -- which I think I made indirectly in the original post -- "The reason London and environs are such a toilet is the fact that there is no planning." Individuals and businesses do not practice planning when it comes to roads and services BECAUSE they can get the taxpayers to do it for them. If that wasn't the case, don't you think that Sam's Club and other businesses in the area would do something to maximize accessibility to their sites for the customers without whom they would not make a profit?