Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Developers contributing to municipal candidates … so what?

A common complaint from Londoners about the city's falling fortunes and political mismanagement, and one dutifully repeated to me lately by an urban studies professor, is that the proceedings or agenda of city council is dominated by developers who variously control, drive, manipulate or undermine local democratic or governmental processes. As one commenter put it recently, councillors are "[g]utless […] in the face of developers."

Like George Clark, "I am at a loss to figure when the term developer became a pejorative one," or when developers became such a handy scapegoat for the city's woes. If the developers are masterminding an agenda counter to the interests of citizens, they appear to be getting a poor return on their investment in malfeasance. After all, the assertions of detractors above are difficult to reconcile with much of what transpires at city hall; for example,

  • smoking bans on private property,
  • increased program spending,
  • increased business and residential property taxes,
  • increased development charges for commercial development,
  • resistance to contracting out city services,
  • zoning bylaws,
  • bureaucratic red tape and legal costs incurred in building permit and zoning change applications,
  • or heritage laws.
In fact, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that developers would want to have anything to do with London, especially after something like this. According to the London Free Press, the city is planning to take advantage of the Ontario government's recent overhaul of the Ontario Heritage Act to appropriate the legal implementation of a London developer's property rights.
London is poised to test the power of new heritage legislation to protect one of its oldest surviving homes. Locust Mount, a 147-year-old home under threat of the wrecker's ball since a fire nearly five years ago, may be designated a heritage site. The landmark at 661 Talbot St. was built by former London mayor Elijah Leonard.

City staff are recommending city council designate Locust Mount without the consent of its owner, Drewlo Holdings Inc., to stop deterioration of the building. The home hasn't been heated for nearly five years and holes in the roof and open windows allow the weather and animals inside.
It's not hard to see who the dog is and who the tail, nor which party is doing the wagging. In fact, in response Drewlo is prostituting its status as the owner of the property for the hope that political favours may temporarily permit some semblance of its entitlement to do with the property it legally paid for as it sees fit,
At Drewlo's request, the planning commmittee agreed to defer its decision on designation for 30 days while an architect evaluates the foundation. […] Drewlo [had] applied for a demolition permit in December 2003, but later agreed to defer the application and discuss ways to preserve the building. Those talks, which ended this year, focused on incorporating Locust Mount into a new development. In return, Drewlo would receive bonus zoning or extra density for a residential or office project.
It's also clear from the apologetic and pandering natures of Drewlo's actions that its prostitution is meant to buy itself a little public relations as well. But appeasing the heritage proponents has only emboldened them.
"We've seen too many significant properties fall because we didn't have the power to act and now that we do, we should act," [Ward 2 councillor Joni] Baechler said.

Likewise, Ward 1 Coun. Judy Bryant, a heritage enthusiast and supporter of the Creative Cities task force report, said preserving Locust Mount is crucial. "If we don't protect the unique features we have, like these heritage buildings, we will not be a unique city and we won't retain or attract people to live here," said Bryant, a member of the planning committee.
Locus Mount is so unique that, having lived in London all my life, I had rarely even heard of the place and had no idea where it was until this article was published. A google image search of "locus mount" results in precisely one picture of the building, burning above. What in fact makes Locus Mount significant is that the building's age and relative less-than-completely-unheard-ofness of its long-deceased proprietor provide just enough propaganda fodder to transform the subjective ovine bleatings of Baechler and Bryant into rigid and unassailable authoritarian dicates. I can tell Judy Bryant that the "protection" of a building I'd rarely heard of will make no difference at all to whether or not I will be "retained" — however, the reelection of people like her will make a substantial difference!

How does this kind of fuzzy, sentimental and arbitrary thinking become the basis for policy and rule decision-making? Developers may have the wherewithal to contribute to electoral campaigns, but the voters who actually capacitate the sitting of our local potentates in council chairs have a touching and irrational faith in their entitlement to other people's possessions and herd accordingly at the polling booths. From the same day in the London Free Press, Drewlo figures again:
The grass in Capulet Park had grown rather long, so Eric Blunt — whose apartment overlooks the small park — called the city to find out when it would be cut. That's when he learned the northwest London property didn't belong to the city anymore — and that new owner Drewlo Holdings planned to convert it to a highrise.

He's dismayed the oasis will soon be gone. "Before we could look out the window and see a little park . . . and now it will be a brick wall." He said residents of the apartment buildings surrounding the park weren't given a chance to express their views about the plans.

[…] A land swap took place in April 2004 between the city and Drewlo, giving the developers ownership of Capulet Park in exchange for an equivalent parcel of land on Capulet Lane, Macpherson said. "I can't explain why Capulet Park was set aside as a park in the first place," he said, adding the development took place about 20 years ago. "It's circled by apartment buildings . . . It can only service people in those buildings." Macpherson said the policy on park planning is that all parks must have street frontage for visibility, safety and accessibility purposes.

Capulet Park is rezoned for residential use and the Drewlo property — which Macpherson said has street frontage on Capulet Lane and is more accessible to area residents — is rezoned as parkland. […] Drewlo [will] be responsible for initial work on the new city park, such as grading and seeding the land and installing a walkway from the park to the Wonderland Road apartments.

Blunt insists apartment residents had a right to be directly informed about what was happening in their backyard. […] Some people in the area recently signed long-term leases, he added. But they did it without knowing about the pending construction plans.
I would suggest resurrecting an old pejorative, "renter." It is hard to understand why Blunt expects that he has a "right" to be informed about the development when he does not own the property, except that years of trivializing property rights has conditioned him to accept this kind of entitlement. Losing a view may not be the most pleasant news to receive, but even if Blunt had owned his own property, it would be hard to construct a logical and unsentimental argument that he also has a right to its perceived aesthetic or even monetary value but only that right to do with it as he pleases himself. Nor does Drewlo have a right to the evaluation of its property at Locus Mount, but it does have a right not to be interfered with in its attempt to enhance that value without interfering with other people's property.

Complaints about developers in London apparently stem from two ideas: first, that developers contribute to campaigns and thus influence the decisions of politicians who then concern themselves with the developers' private interests rather than the public good; and, second, that developers… well, they develop.

In the first case, it is hard to see that developers should not have be able to contribute to campaigns as do individuals, community groups, other governmental levels and unions. The difference, I can only imagine, is that the influence purchased by developers will presumably bias decision-making in the direction of capitalism, as if regulations and exemptions distributed on the basis of politics could be called capitalism, all the same while that other groups trying to influence campaigns and politicians are disposed to stemming capitalism as though heroically defending everyone's interests instead of their own. On the subject of bias, George Clark asks,
I've always wondered if someone refuses to take a donation from a developer, does that mean that they are biased and will vote against development no matter what the cause?
But in the assertion that the developers' interests are being purchased from council at the expense of others, I have already cited examples of how their political investment has met poor returns.

I'm not trying to defend council here, as protestations against campaign finance influence has previously been met with unseemly and likely indefensible overdefensiveness, and it is true that quite a number of councillors have accepted campaign contributions from developers. But if the developers have something to buy, should it not be questioned who has something to sell and why? How is it that city council has the power to dispose of property that does not even belong to them, whether through zoning or heritage bylaws or through taxes? Should we be surprised that someone whose ability to plan for, invest in, or otherwise use his own property as he sees fit has been stripped from him by arbitrary authority would try to buy back that function for himself from that authority? This is what is meant by a "developer's agenda" — that he must bribe officials to return to him what ought to have been his in the first place, in opposition to others trying to bribe council against him. That developers often conspire with and bend the hazards of arbitrary regulations and bylaws to place their competitors at a disadvantage is less an indictment of developers than of the ridiculous market in political and financial favours that local government has sponsored and which ultimately are designed to serve its own corrupt interests by exerting control over what is not rightfully its own.

Not quite yet…

But to be more charitable to council and more constructive, I would observe that one problem with our present system of elected representatives is not so much that they are bound to observe the interests of some group or another — that is the nature of representation. If it were possible to represent everyone in a riding or ward, we probably wouldn't even need elections because everybody's interests would be the same. The real problem is that various levels of government exceed the authority that is given to them. Is it not reasonable for the taxpayer to know whether it is the municipal, provincial or federal level that is responsible for issues of, say, social housing — even before minding the debate about whether that is the proper or desirable function of government in the first place.

In the case of property taxes, I think that the name itself suggests its proper function. If property owners are paying tax on the basis of the value of their property, it is fair and reasonable, and I suspect the original purpose, for these taxes to pay for services to property; ie., sewer and road maintenance, and the like. Funding social housing, grandiose capital projects, cultural services — what amounts to bread and circuses — is far beyond the purview of municipal government, never minding the "economic spin-off" arguments that the pyramid-builders like to use to rationalize their pet schemes. To cite a London councillor of all people:
Our city government cannot do this kind of collective economic decision-making, efficiently, with any kind of competence, or on the right things. City hall bureaucrats and politicians cannot know the individual intentions and interests of 300,000 plus citizens. So the next time a city councillor, controller, or city bureaucrat says he/she can make these decisions for you, just know they are uttering falsehoods or simply don’t know what they are talking about.
[— Paul Van Meerbergen, Councillor, Ward 7, London City Council]
If property taxes served only those functions that relate to the service of property, then the special interests served by council would in fact be those of the typical property owner. In fact, if road and sewer maintenance are to be considered the function of local government, it would probably not be a bad idea to divide that responsibility into wards, so that the populations of individual wards could consider the costs and benefits to themselves of local projects — I would certainly not argue that all municipal projects benefit all Londoners equally, even if they must all contribute.

It is likely true that some council members serve the interests of developers who are able to contribute more. The question I have is whether or not the interests of those supporting those councillors and presumably assisting their agendas are more equitable in terms of the proper function of government. In one instance in which I was criticized for suggesting that zoning bylaws be done away with, the instance of the widening and service of Fanshawe Park Road near the new retail developments at Hyde Park was cited as an example of no planning, erroneously I think for planning was made at the bequest of developers rather than other special interests was more the case as the city and not private interests did budget for the widening — the author intended that by no planning he meant the city's planners' recommendations were ignored, which is not the same thing. Of course, this widening could not unreasonably be considered a targeted benefit to a particular special interest — the retail developers. However, it could also be argued that these municipal projects serve the interests of a much larger and representative group of consumers and drivers. I used to live up in the north end of town, and I remember the congestion and hazards of Fanshawe Park Road before it was widened up to the Masonville retail developments. Developers have no right to expect that taxpayers will fund the convenience of travel to their locations; however, they are not completely responsible for the demand for retail or housing by the "public" once these developments are in place. Nobody is forcing people to try to shop at their stores or live in their houses and apartments. As far as capital projects that the city funds, I consider these sorts of activities to be one of the least egregious in terms of "public interest" as there is something in the nature of a demand for services that benefit the property of not just the developers but also their consumers.

If we would like to end the debate about special interests, developers or otherwise, buying favours from or being favoured by city council, perhaps it is not unreasonable to consider that municipal government should get out of the business of regulation and development altogether. Let developers buy and service the property on which roads to their developments lead. The costs would be passed on to the leasers of these developments and then on to only the consumers who actually use those services. Much fairer, I think. Back in the nineteenth century, many suburbs and transportation projects were created privately and the costs were not distributed to the population but only to those people who benefited from them. Same should go for things like arenas, theatres, orchestras, convention centres, etc. If Londoners were obliged to support the institutions and projects of their choice through their own voluntary efforts and finances without recourse to draining the pockets of those who do not enjoy or benefit from these institutions or projects, there would be a lot less "special interest" control over city hall. But that's my opinion.


command economy said...

Hats off to you, Sir.

MapMaster said...

Thanks, Mike. Nobody can beat me when it comes to wordiness.

Bob said...

I've alwyas thought that developers, through contributions to campaigns are in fact showing their support for the hard work of some Couniclors. I mean, what difference is $500 going to make in any intelligent persons decision-making. Only the samll-minded special interest advocate could twist that scenario into one of political domination by developers.

More importantly, in my mind, is the notion of Councilors (like Baechler, Bryant et al) selling themselves for VOTES. They make their decisions based on getting the vote next time - pure and simple. If Special Interest Group 'A' is willing to come out in force and vote for me in the next campaign, I will, in return, support their cause. "I like this job and I want to keep it and I will do anything to achieve that aim." Isn't that a case of CAMPAIGN VOTE CONTRIBUTION? Ridicule me now!

Anonymous said...

Re. Capulet park etc.
If the land swap took place in April 2004, how come the Parks department continued upkeep on the park until 2005 ?