“It’s the Economy, Stupid”

The above phrase, one first coined by former U.S. President Clinton’s Campaign Manager to constantly reinforce what was most important to the candidate and campaign team in the 1992 Presidential Election, should still serve as a stark reminder to all of us of how vital our economy is to realizing the wants and needs of our community.  It also conveys a message that I hope is not lost on City Hall while London enjoys its recent uptick in prosperity.

I raise this point because of some questions and concerns that arose in my mind while watching yet another marathon Planning and Environment Committee meeting.

Let me begin by stating that I am an unapologetic supporter of our development community, the builders of our City.  Collectively, they invest millions in new projects that employ hundreds of trade workers, provide homes to thousands of Londoners, and generate millions of dollars in development charges that help pay for the city we want without burdening the existing tax base.  They also create commercial, recreational and entertainment spaces, operate sports teams, invest in culture communities and contribute millions to local charities.

Finally, it is important to recognize that their capital, as with all capital, is fluid.  Investors, builders, developers and employers can, and often will, take their capital to other communities where their investments are most welcome.

Having said that, I believe that the goals and aspirations outlined in The London Plan are laudable.  I also believe that as much development as possible should conform to these goals.   My concern with our ‘Plan’ centres on our processes, and those concerns were once again magnified during last week’s Planning Committee meeting, in three reports in particular.

First, I am having an incredibly difficult time reconciling the quantitative information regarding application approval times as detailed in Planning Services’ 18-24 Month Work Program. Specifically, I cannot understand Planning’s representation that the majority of development applications are being processed within roughly 100 days, while developers claim that these same applications are taking several months if not years to complete.  It could be at which point Planning formally begins to count the days, or it could be attributed to a developer’s incomplete application.  My problem is that the disparity is unacceptable, and the breakdown, wherever it resides, needs to be resolved immediately.

I would recommend that Council engage an independent reviewer to identify where the specific pain points in the application process are, so that they can be resolved fully and finally. I believe that nothing is more important than getting this basic level of customer service rectified.

The second area of concern surrounded an application by a long-standing, reputable, London-based developer to construct an 11-storey, 147-unit apartment building on Southdale Rd. near Byron.  As outlined in Planning’s report, City staff were seeking approval to contest an appeal by the developer that appears to be largely over parking!

What also concerns me is that despite Planning’s objection, no one on the Committee thought to ask why the hard line and what could be done to resolve the matter amicably.  Everyone present at the meeting seemed to defer to legal advice.   And yet, my experience with the City’s legal department during the police budget dispute suggests that simple solutions are often available, but ignored.  In my view, it simply requires someone to step up and talk the problem out.  Perhaps Council can seek further clarification on this matter and in doing so, avoid the costly and time consuming process of contesting an appeal.

My final concern was with the Southwest Area Plan (SWAP) and the debate over whether to retain or remove a cap on retail space along that corridor.   Currently, I do not have a position for or against such a decision because in my view the report does not provide enough empirical data one way or another to make a decision.  Much of the debate was pure conjecture, centred around the implications of additional retail to the area plan and retail elsewhere in the city, versus the current rather predatory situation that is arguably thwarting competition.  The Mayor also took a bit of shot at the previous Council over the decision to create this expanded commercial cap in the first place, characterizing the situation as a ‘mess’.

In response to this particular issue, I might suggest that Council ask staff to undertake a comprehensive review of the city’s entire retail footprint, before deciding anything.  Currently, Councillors and staff are relying on snapshots of retail activity in select parts of the city.  Providing our leaders with a much broader view of London’s retail situation will assist not only with this planning decision, but capacity decisions throughout the city.  It will also greatly assist staff with any appeal process that might arise from this rather difficult circumstance.

The Bigger Takeaways

I might suggest that our Mayor and frankly anyone on Council, past, present and future, refrain from dissing the planning decisions of any other Council, and/or the planning approaches of any of our long-standing developers.  In the case of SWAP, the job market in London was very different five years ago, and the Council majority that supported the commercial cap’s expansion did so in an effort to stimulate investment and jobs in our community at a time when our city desperately needed them.

Similarly, in the case of Southdale-Byron development, I am not sure that we as a city should be taking any multi-million dollar project for granted, especially by outright voting against it.  That same developer and that same project may not be there when we need it.

The vast majority of this Council has yet to face lean economic times.   Therefore, it would be wise to remember, appreciate and respect those market players, past and present, that are investing in our city, particularly during our recent economic upturn.   After all, we may soon be desperately looking to these same business leaders to invest in our community when good times yield to downtimes, and once again, we are reminded that it truly is all about the economy.