Over the past few years I watched as (former) chief planner and mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat pushed Toronto city planning department to expand its authority. Under her leadership the department developed an attitude of arrogance and entitlement. No longer are planners providing commentary on development projects and ensuring they meet mandates set out in the official plan, but they have taken control of all aspects of development from architecture to design. These aspects that belong in the private sector are now being micro-managed by bureaucrats with little education and huge egos. City planners armed with a two-year college degree in urban planning force educated and experienced architects to do their bidding. And the results often amount to very expensive mistakes.
Having urban planners make architectural and design decisions creates three major issues: They dumb down architecture across the city; they add a huge cost to tax payers who have to pay these planners for design work that doesn’t belong in the public sector; and the development fees they charge often add a huge cost to the price the home buyer has to pay.
Dumbing down of architecture
Toronto residents would be shocked to learn that most city planners have just a two-year college degree in urban planning, yet they have the authority to force highly educated architects and designers to completely redesign and modify their structures. Take the Mirvish Ghery development planned for King Street – what promised to be a unique and beautiful design for the downtown core, with a cloud-like wrap around the towers, was compromised to the point where the towers now look like just about every other building going up in the city. Where Toronto could have had a truly significant piece of architecture we now have just another condo building.
The original Ghery design was unique and inspiring – both it’s shape and design didn’t mimic the box-like buildings along King Street West, and for that reason alone planning forced the architect to completely compromise the design to produce a building that “fits in with the other buildings.” Planners lack design sensibility, vision and the education needed to know that diversity in architecture is essential for a world class city. You wouldn’t hire a carpenter to fill a cavity in your teeth, and yet we have urban planners deciding shade of beige the wall of a building should be, or what material it should be made of. Toronto’s city planning department has, without a doubt, expanded their power and dumbed down architecture across Toronto, but even worse they have slowed down the development application process from the regulated 9 month window to a shocking 5 to 6 year process.
The timeline for development approval has grown from 9 months to 6 years
The real problem is that city planners usually have a 2-year college degree in urban planning, and lack the required architectural education to make fundamental design changes. Despite this they are making these changes and nobody can stop them. In the case of Jennifer Keesmaat, her 2-year urban planning certificate was complimented by a B.A. in Philosophy. Armed with nothing but a misguided understanding of Socrates, she thought herself brilliant enough to question the design sensibility of award winning architects like Frank Ghery. This sense of arrogance and entitlement has taken over the planning department to the point where urban planners no longer focus on their core mandate – ensuring developments conform to the Official Plan – but spend most of their time pretending to understand all aspects of architecture and design. They micro manage every design application and force ridiculous and boring design choices on educated and experienced archItects. And instead of doing their job in the 9 month window allotted them, they waste five to six years messing around with a project. Add to this the fact that all this time wasted by city planners (doing design work that should be left to the private sector) is paid for by the tax payers!
Shrinking supply increases demand and prices
While planners and politicians might want you to believe that big greedy developers are to blame for the dramatic rise in housing prices, the actual facts tell a much different story.
Under Jennifer Keesmaat as chief planner, the cost of development in Toronto increased dramatically. Not only did fees that developers pay the city increase but so too did the risk. With city planners having control of designs huge mistakes are to be expected. Banks don’t like risk, this means that developers pay higher rates because city planners add more risk to development projects.
As the window of time a project takes to make its way through planning has increased significantly it causes the supply of new housing to shrink which in turn pushes up the price of land.
All these additional fees and costs are passed on to the home buyer. Housing prices have soared because the planning department has created so much red tape that the costs of development has risen significantly.
City planning has become a bloated bureaucratic bubble of ineptitude
Jennifer Keesmaat stretched the authority of the planning department far beyond anything city residents and councillors could have fathomed. She did it quietly and few at city council noticed anything was amiss until housing prices started rise. Toronto will continue to see housing prices increase dramatically if smart stable leadership does not step in to fix the bureaucratic mess that Keesmaat created at Toronto city planning. Her decision to run for Mayor of Toronto after making such a calamitous mess can only suggest that her desire for power and status, blinds her to the fact that she lacks the experience, ability and vision to see the long-term economic damage that large powerful bureaucracies can have on our communities.