Monday, February 20, 2006

Heritage 2
London 0

Asserting a vicarious identity or ownership with collective pronouns such as "we" or "our" is harmless enough when it comes to sports teams. It's such a common fallacy that the assertion often goes uncontested and a democratic interest is easily appropriated. But when local activists and politicians arrogate that idle sense of possession for the purpose of making policy, it exacts a great cost both to taxpayers and to individual property rights.

In London, the popular mass of assumed collective proprietorship is often expressed through the vague and arbitrary medium of heritage — "our heritage" — and it far outweighs any consideration of private use of property, as two recent examples demonstrate.

A barrier that for 71 years has stood in some form between Londoners and Wonderland Gardens will be removed this summer…
innocently begins an article in the London Free Press. The "barrier," one would be at pains to discover in the text, was until 2003 nothing more than the private management of the property. Just so that we know which side the Free Press is on…
The removal of a dilapidated chain-link fence will mark the beginning of a new park-like era for the heritage site, whose once proud ballroom burned down last summer.

… In place of the ballroom that once featured big-name acts such as Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, city staff want to build a pavilion that is covered above, open on all sides and designed to pay tribute to the site's heritage. … A long vacated pool will be replaced with trees and neglected walkways restored, creating a path along the Thames River from the gardens to Springbank Park. And the site, for decades privately managed, will be turned into a public park.

… The plans were embraced yesterday by London's board of control, which recommended them to council. "I think it's important we return (the Gardens) to the people," Controller Gord Hume said.

The plans should end speculation that council might turn part of the site over to developers, Controller Bud Polhill said. "People still have it in their minds there will be condos at the top of the hill, but it's going to be a park."

… [T]he city will build the elements of the new park, being mindful of heritage and landscaping, a process it hopes to complete by summer 2007, [city parks manager Andrew] MacPherson said.

While the city can't firm up costs until it sends out a request for proposals, the ballpark estimate is $1.6 million. To fund the work, council last year set aside $100,000 and will receive insurance money from the fire — $500,000 has been given and more is being negotiated. MacPherson expects the total insurance payment will more than cover the total cost of the new park.

… "I believe the community has been waiting quite some time for this," Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco said. "It will be returned as a public space."
The prospect of the area becoming a private space is clearly something the city is anxious to avoid — but why? Whether or not the insurance company proves to be as generous as the city hopes, the attractive location of the site by the river and the existing Springbank Park would entice an excellent price for the property from developers — oops, can't do that, says Bud Polhill — and the sale price as well as the insurance combined would make for a decent property tax reduction for Londoners. But the political benefit of invoking a collective heritage where none had existed — Wonderland Gardens was never a park but home to a bandshell and dance pavilion — is more appealing to politicians than benefits that accrue to individuals.

Interestingly, as cited above, the word "condo" has acquired a pejorative sense in London that other forms of residential property usage have not, even other high-density buildings. By a rhetorical interpretation, condo owners are associated with an unseemly wealth that implies a disengagement from social participation. By a political interpretation, apartment dwellers have at least the affiliate advantage of not exercising a property right at odds with the city's exercise of collective appropriation. But that doesn't give developers a free pass to build apartment dwellings. One such development has been in limbo for a couple of years now because of … you guessed it … heritage. In January 2004, city council met behind closed doors to discuss a hastily contrived bylaw preventing development along Richmond Street between Huron and Grosvenor streets, a four block stretch, in response to RSJ Holdings Inc's plans to build a four-plex rental unit at the corner of Richmond and Cheapside, prompting concerns for the area's heritage streetscape. The development may finally be going ahead, but it has taken a great deal of pandering to heritage sensibilities as well as over $220,000 in taxpayer money. From the Free Press:
A proposed Richmond Street development that sparked accusations of betrayal and secrecy on city council faces a final hurdle today before the Ontario Municipal Board. The board will not sort through the issue of whether council debated a freeze on development in secret. Ontario's top court already quashed the freeze on that basis, a decision council hopes to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Instead, the board will hear evidence about the design of the proposed fourplex at 915 Richmond St., likely the last issue that must be resolved before the building goes up. An earlier design for the building by developer RSJ Holdings Inc. was rejected by the board as too modern for the neighbourhood. City staff say they will support the new design before the OMB, said RSJ lawyer Alan Patton, who believes the board will follow suit.

… But the head of a neighbourhood group doesn't think the developer has done enough to make the design fit into the streetscape. "There's not a discernable style," said Kevin Lang, president of the St. George Grosvenor Neighbourhood Association.

A previous ruling by the board went against the neighbourhood group. If the board approves the design, RSJ immediately will seek permits to demolish the existing homes and build, Patton said, adding work could begin as early as next month. By then, the city may know whether Canada's top court will hear its appeal of a unanimous ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal. The tab to taxpayers, which had topped $220,000 before the city sought permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, is growing at a rate of $545 a billable hour. That's the fee charged by the city's lawyer, George Rust D'Eye, a municipal law expert.
Anyone interested in the incredible history of this arbitrary exercise of authority in the name of heritage and its attendant expenses can find it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here… oh, and here. It's no wonder they keep getting reelected — it's an awful lot of work keeping track of how they've been screwing us.

10 comments:

bonnie abzug said...

"Interestingly, as cited above, the word "condo" has acquired a pejorative sense in London that other forms of residential property usage have not, even other high-density buildings. By a rhetorical interpretation, condo owners are associated with an unseemly wealth that implies a disengagement from social participation."

Well, Mapmaster, that is certainly one point of view, though I suspect that the thousands of condo owners in Whitehills and white Oaks would be surprised to learn that they are living a life of privilege and plenty.

Another point of view might be that the negative connotations around condos, if there are any and I suspect that there isn't, have less to do with condo owners than with the propensity of condo developers to site their projects in controversial locations - like backed up to the Sifton Bog or perched raptor-like on a hill overlooking Springbank Park. And, yes, potentially at least, at Elmo or Wonderland Gardens.

Just my opinion, of course....

MapMaster said...

Indeed, I couched that only as an interpretation. I'll cede to you on your interpretation as well, whether or not I think that negative connotations associated with locations are actually justified. Nevertheless, I do think that there is an undercurrent of economic class distinctions associated with condo owners that informs the pejoration — but like any such degradation of linguistic status, it would be hard to trace exactly. My first inclination had been to set the observation in parantheses as an aside — I certainly need to more carefully consider my instincts.

bonnie abzug said...

"But the political benefit of invoking a collective heritage where none had existed — Wonderland Gardens was never a park but home to a bandshell and dance pavilion — is more appealing to politicians than benefits that accrue to individuals."

Mapmaster, Mapmaster. What are we to do with you? I understand that facts make damed poor yarn when one is trying to spin an argument, and that the broad brush is much easier to wield than anything finer and more precise, but your fetishisation of the notion of private interests and your refusal to even entertain the notion that there might be - even in certain limited cases - a perfectly legitimate conception of the public interest is as good an illustration as we might find that there are lunatic fringes on both sides of the political spectrum. (BTW, that last sentence may very well be the longest one I have ever tried to string together.) If "universalism" is the catchword of the Left, then certainly "private property" is the shibboleth of the Right.


That Wonderland Gardens is not a park is a fact known to most anyone who could manage to find their way to it. That it was managed by a private individual under contract with the City, whose ownership of the site is a matter of public record, is well-known to anyone who reads the local rag. That this private individual was poorly treated by the City in the last round of contract negotiations is not a fact, but certainly could be true.

But Wonderland Gardens (and the park that surrounds it, and would be bisected by your proposal to develop it as private property) is most certainly one of the prime public spaces in the City. Now I understand that the mere inclusion of the word "public" in the term "public space" is certain to infuriate you. To make you see red. To cause your gorge to rise. And this confuses me. Especially when the importance of public spaces as an antidote to the commodification of private ones has been accepted since the birth of what we like to call democracy. Socrates liked to stroll in the famous agora of ancient Athens - merely one of its public spaces but a space that covered some 26 acres. No condos there, and no whining about how it would be better served if converted to a private space.

I'm also confused, on a couple of levels, by your claim (presented as a fact,of course) that City politicians are "invoking a collective heritage where none had existed". On a superficial level, I simply don't know what these words put together in this order actually mean. But if it means, as I suspect it does, that Wonderland Gardens should not be thought of as a piece of the heritage fabric of London, then either we disagree on what the term "heritage" means or you are simply unwilling to accept the memories of thousands of Londoners as having any value. Which is too bad, really. Any way you look at it.

Just my opinion, of course.

Pietr said...

Oh. Alright,then Bonnie.
You seem to have the 'inside track' on 'conceptions' of public interest.
Want to share them?

bonnie abzug said...

Soreheaduk, I no more have the "inside track" on "conceptions" of the public interest than you have a "conception" of Wonderland Gardens. I do suspect, though, that legitimate public interests exist, as do illegitimate private ones, and that, from my point of view at any rate, it is puerile to pretend that they don't. I also suspect that my "list" of public interests will differ markedly from yours, and from Mapmaster's. And that's O.K., of course.

Pietr said...

Wonderland Gardens-a privately owned performance venue in London Ontario that went out of business, and then burned down when somebody left the electrics switched on after or during a test run.
The 'public interest', assuming I am right, was the shibboleth phrase the politicians used to prevent the owners from selling up on their own terms.

Anyway, I'll put my conch down now and listen for somebody to tell me why my facts are incorrect.

MapMaster said...

"What are we to do with you?"

I trust that that is simply a rhetorical "we," not an instance of the "ambiguous public" having designs upon me. In any case, it would seem that the intended deed is to systematically destroy the aura of rational impregnability that surrounds me!

"But the political benefit of invoking a collective heritage where none had existed — Wonderland Gardens was never a park but home to a bandshell and dance pavilion — is more appealing to politicians than benefits that accrue to individuals."

This is simply a declamation founded on reasonable premises — I'm not asserting a fact, just an opinion in the declamatory style required of opinion mongering. I'm just filling out council's thought processes for them.

In any case, I certainly do see a value in having public spaces — I just don't see why they have to be provided by the public. Examples abound of privately owned spaces that are open to the public — including parks and many other facilities that do not require entrance fees. Privately owned public spaces have the advantages of not being the subject of political gamesmanship and of being paid for by either the owners or those who use the facilities. Why should those spaces be funded by those who don't own or use them? What is the inherent advantage of city-owned parks?

(To be precise, Sorehead, Wonderland Gardens was privately managed but not owned, but that makes no difference to the distinction to which I wish to draw attention.)

MapMaster said...

Oh, yes…

I'm also confused, on a couple of levels, by your claim (presented as a fact,of course) that City politicians are "invoking a collective heritage where none had existed". On a superficial level, I simply don't know what these words put together in this order actually mean.

Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one! What do people mean when they speak of our heritage? I don't discount the memories of those Londoners who went to the old Wonderland Gardens at all, but they are not my memories or those of many other people who are expected to pay for their monuments. Moreover, considering that the site was never a public park, how is turning it into a public park honouring heritage by any definition of the word?

Pietr said...

Band-venue->Quiet space=death.
No other excuse needed.
By the way, the Who is going to be Live At Leeds again this year.

basil said...

Condos are usually ugly, often badly built and aesthically poorly placed. They encourage conformity and are frequently suburban ghettos. For rich or poor, they're a means of milking the most money for a given piece of land; they appeal to those who of the herd mentality wish to own property but do not wish to take direct responsibility for its maintenance.

Just my opinion, of course.