Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Obstruction for obstruction's sake

According to the London Free Press, planning staff at City Hall are proposing scaling back a planned five-storey development to three storeys after reviewing Sifton Properties' application to re-zone a privately owned parcel of land at the southwest corner of Wonderland and Riverside Roads from "open space" to commercial.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that the proposal is driven by political direction of the city's bureaucracy in an attempt to accommodate the competing interests of one of London's largest developers and the local Oakridge Riverside Community Association which opposes any development at the corner, given the mostly specious reasons cited in the report. "Overuse," "excessive loss of vegetation" and "loss of expansive surface parking areas" are subjective considerations which, to be fair, characterize any planning decision but which, in this case, come across as entirely contrived when describing a fairly low density development in a relatively small plot of land surrounded entirely in two directions and almost entirely in the other directions by open parkland and trees, and with eight city-owned parks within 800 metres. The one unprejudiced concern, that the development "may contribute to traffic congestion," is diminished by the fact that the corner is greatly underdeveloped compared to most other major thoroughfare intersections in the city.

In spirit at least, this line-up of rationales resembles the ragtag and ever-changing objections invented by opponents of the development. Protests were initially raised over flooding concerns of building near a waterway — a concern of Sifton's insurers, if anyone at all — but these have notably been dropped for lack of traction and plausibility. A similarly off-point objection, that there is already an over-abundance of commercial property, is also only the concern of commercial property owners rather than the public.

Simply put, it's hard to find any overriding city-wide public interest in blocking Sifton's application apart from a very small contingent of local residents who would find their view of the Thames River blocked. Much ado is being made of pretty much nothing at City Hall at the bequest of a very small but vocal minority of political opportunists who are able to unendingly raise any and all protests at no cost or scrutiny to themselves. Unsurprisingly, the suggested political fiddling with the arbitrary restrictions and prohibitions of zoning bylaws ends up dissatisfying not only Sifton, whose ability to profit from the use of its property is threatened by these political considerations, but also the political community leaders who actually benefit from the repeated media coverage of their continual dissatisfaction. Monica Jarabek, the head of the Oakridge Riverside Community Association and a failed candidate in the last municipal election, has been quoted extensively in every media report on the story and receives two(!) photographs in the print edition of the article. Must be nice if she's planning on running again next time around.

Oddly, Jarabek and other like-minded civic activists tend to gravitate to NIMBY-style anti-infilling development causes at the very same time that they oppose urban sprawl. One would wonder where they should suppose growth and development can occur, except when one remembers that political opportunism depends precisely on irresolution.


Jake said...

Monica Jarabek and her activist friends are hypocritical and talk out of both sides of their mouths.

Of course, what the Freeps doesn't tell you about Jarabek is that she lives the same kind of suburban style, cookie-cutter development that these morons keep opposing. Jarabek keeps bashing Sifton and easily forgets that her Oakridge neighborhood was entirely built by this developer. If they are so bad and evil, then why did they purchase a house that they built?

Jarabek is no different than Joni Baechler and Susan Eagle, who both live in "evil sprawl" neighborhoods in the suburbs--the same ones that they continue to oppose. These are people who bitch about development as a method of getting their names strewn across the media for self-promotion. Monica lost (thank God) to get elected as a councilor and this is just a way for people to remember her come the next civic election.

These activists keep forgetting that this proposed office building is located on PRIVATE PROPERTY and that just because it is adjacent to a park does not make it public property.

If the city wanted to buy the land and use it as a park, the city had many opportunities to purchase it before Sifton did.

Anonymous said...

You've obviously missed the point here. What is at issue is not infill vs. sprawl, but the unsustainable and outdated notion that building anything - let alone a several story office building - on the flood plain of the river.

Building in a flood plain is foolhardy and unsafe, period.
You do realize that if anything happens the city ultimately bears the financial responsibility, which is something that developers and their cheerleaders on council will ensure.

When you take a look at the horrendous planning that has characterized this city for years I don't understand how you can criticize citizens for attempting to have input on how planning decisions proceed. Perhaps for a change in this city we could take interests other than profits-first into account, as they far outweigh one bloated corporation's greed in the short and long-term.

In essence, Sifton knew all along that they should not be building on that particular piece of land and this was their sneaky way of using the community against city council in hopes of brokering a big, fat, juicy deal to placate their greed and appease the masses. Why else would they decide at the 11th hour that a land-swap or aquisition is not such a bad idea after all?

MapMaster said...

I won't disagree with your contention that Sifton or its insurers will find some way to foot taxpayers with the bill should the site be flooded — or, to be more precise, that council will find some way to assume the responsibility — but the river would have to rise to pretty catastrophic levels for that particular piece of property to be inundated. Much more at risk are countless residential developments — both historic but more conspicuously some recently approved subdivisions, especially in the north end. If the Fanshawe Dam were to fail, damages to this particular development would be almost negligible in the large scheme of things.

Anonymous said...

I agree, all the more reason building on the flood plain and flood fringe should have been prohibited a long time ago in the interest of safety and good planning. Better late than never.

MapMaster said...

Going back to your previous comment for a moment, I'd like to reiterate that the local citizens are not so much concerned about floodplain development in general — or, for that matter, the overabundance of commercial property in the city — as they are with the inherent as well as planned benefits of their own properties. That's why those arguments have been pretty much summary in nature. But fair enough, it might not be something I'd be too happy with either. But as far as their vistas are concerned, they don't own those at all. Forgetting for the moment the general taxpayer subsidies to developers (no more of a concern to local residents than to any other London citizen), Sifton is not trying to make a profit on its own property at the expense of the people of Oakridge, whereas the people of Oakridge are trying to wrest a profitable opportunity from Sifton on a piece of land that they don't own. Is this fair? The one legitimate concern of residents is that traffic will increase to congested levels, but in comparison to other major thoroughfare intersections, I think that this complaint is rather weak. As far as Monica Jarabek goes, her interest is entirely in political opportunity.

Perhaps for a change in this city we could take interests other than profits-first into account, as they far outweigh one bloated corporation's greed in the short and long-term.

I think the greed you refer to is really the city government's for expansion of the tax base and, for some, political donations. The ball is in their courts, and developers are only playing their game (they don't really have much choice).

In any case, the matter is complicated by Sifton's purchase of the property with the understanding from city staff that zoning could be, or would be, changed to suit the development's purpose. Well, if there is a target for anyone's ire, it ought to be the city then. It would be unreasonable as well as short-sighted to expect the developer not to go after profit — after all, most people in London live where they do because someone else was trying to make a profit.

As far as your idea that building on floodplains or flood fringes should be prohibited, well, I'd rather let people decide the risks for themselves so long as taxpayers weren't underwriting those risks. But that's not the case, so your proposal is reasonable except that Sifton and other builders are engaging in good planning given the information and circumstances provided by the city. The city assumes the responsibility for flood management through the Fanshawe Dam — if it is incapable or unconfident in the task, then few people are going to build anything permanent in those areas. And, if that is true, I don't think there's any reason to expect that they are any more capable or confident in deciding prohibitions or zoning. Let's just say that I think it's a rather large mess of the city's own making, and I have a hard time looking to them for redress.