“Vision without Execution is Hallucination”

In my opinion, the above quote by Thomas Edison is a very fitting description of the state of affairs at London City Hall and a primary reason as to why I am giving any consideration to running for London’s City Council.

Whether it is Council’s unnecessary and costly pushback over the Police budget last year, the City’s divisive debate over Bus Rapid Transit this year, or the Planning Committee’s painful deliberations over two re-zoning applications last week, it is clear that City Hall is really struggling to effectively execute Council’s plans and deliver on the City’s vision.

Worse still, these prolonged, often emotionally and financially ‘taxing’ debates, when coupled with Council’s frequent pre-occupation with low priority agenda items; all collectively contribute to a less-focused management, inappropriate resource allocation, a perpetual breakdown in communications and above all ineffective execution.

The result is a tired Council, a demoralized City Staff, a frustrated constituency and above all, a continued disconnect between objective and outcome.

Where have I seen this before?

This breakdown between Council vision, City Staff’s execution and the community’s expectations was once again on full display at last Tuesday’s Planning and Environment Committee Meeting.

Now before I get too deep into this synopsis, I must apologize in advance.  This first issue-based post is going to be a bit dry, and considerably longer than I would like.  However, I hope that you can hang in with me.  There is a lot of ‘meat on this bone’ and anything less would short-change the analysis.

And as I walk you through my perspective on the evening’s events, it will not be a coincidence if you end up drawing some obvious parallels between the public debate over transit and this localized dispute that is now impacting three neighbourhoods.

Briefly, and for those who could not grind through the entire 7-hour meeting, City Staff presented, among other agenda items, two re-zoning applications that garnered considerable attention and apprehension from a number of citizens who were concerned enough with the apps to endure the evening’s malaise.

The Abattoir v. Lambeth/Sharon Creek

The first re-zoning application recommended by the Planning Staff sought the Committee’s approval for a landowner to establish a Halal Meat Abattoir (a.k.a. slaughterhouse) on a small parcel of farmland on Longwoods Rd. bordering neighbourhoods in Lambeth and Sharon Creek.  The property is located within the City’s boundary in an area zoned for agriculture.  Planning, to its credit and in a well-written report, recommended approval of the Abattoir for a number of seemingly legitimate reasons, including:  the land’s limited agricultural options beyond the potential raising and culling of livestock, an anecdotal market assessment that suggested a need for more locally produced Halal meats, and most notably, rationale outlined in the London Plan expressing the City’s desire to stimulate business and agriculture development inside the City’s boundaries.

Unfortunately, and much to the chagrin of the Applicant’s neighbours, Planning’s report did little to address the potential consequences associated with the Abattoir’s approval, including a perceptible rise in odours, insects and potential predators.  The report also contained limited information about potential environmental impacts and offered no insight into the Applicant himself, including; his business background, current practices on the property, past processing experience, past business dealings and financial wherewithal.  Finally, the Report provided no clear summary of the risks, potential consequences and/or remedies for the City should the situation go awry.  In essence, Planning’s commitment to goals contained in the London Plan, while laudable, seems to be trumping some serious concerns by those most impacted by the Plan’s implications.  Sound familiar?

Fortunately, Committee members referred the application back to Planning for further refinement and assurances of greater oversight, and one Councillor did wisely ask Planning to consider the implications of this recommendation decades out, when ownership might change and/or this particular property could conceivably become surrounded by other uses and zoning requirements.  It is also worth noting that two years ago, the City of Toronto, Canada’s Hogtown, decommissioned the last of its Abattoirs inside its City limits, recognizing that over time urban renewal and industrial/agricultural processing do not mix.    Despite the local market’s expressed desire for more local Halal meat options and our Planning team’s desire to realize the London Plan’s stated goal, in this case, it is my hope that common sense, and respect for this city-bound neighbourhood ultimately prevails.

Medium Density (or is it Higher Density?)  v. Stoneybrook

The second re-zoning app was an even more glaring example of where we need to improve.

In this latter case, Planning recommended the re-zoning of a mature parcel of land from low-density to medium/high density, to accommodate the Applicant’s intent to construct a 4-storey, 142-unit multi-family dwelling in the heart of a north London neighbourhood known as Stoneybrook Heights.  Once again, Planning, to its credit, recommended the re-zoning, despite the valiant objections of the property’s neighbours because the proposed development was completely consistent with the Council-approved objectives and development stipulations outlined in the London Plan.  In fact, I have to give considerable credit to the Applicant and their attorneys who presented a very compelling argument in support of their application.  It was an impressive presentation, and left the majority of Committee members with little choice but to recommend approval to Council because the app so closely matched this Council’s unanimous commitment to the planning principles contained in the London Plan.

Unfortunately, some two hundred Stoneybrook neighbours attended the meeting and watched helplessly as resident after resident objected to the proposal, all to no avail.  I should also note and applaud those representatives of the Stoneybrook Heights Uplands Ratepayers Association, who in my opinion, collectively gave one of the most comprehensive and powerful dissenting presentations that I have ever seen albeit, once again, to no avail.

 What do I take away from this process?

As evident in both situations, the problem now for Planning and Council is that in their zeal to approve the London Plan two years ago, they have approved a plan that, in my opinion, is incomplete.

And just to restate it, I believe that the London Plan is incomplete.

Now, how can a 465-page document possibly be considered incomplete?  Well, much like the BRT Business Case, the London Plan, in my opinion, lacks sufficient granular detail, especially on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis to avoid the exhaustive, expensive and totally reactionary planning committee process that we witnessed this past week.   And much like the debate that engulfed the BRT plan, once neighbours in Lambeth, Sharon Creek and Stoneybrook learned of the detailed implications after-the-fact, their reaction was appropriately swift, angry and divisive.

Currently, the London Plan has 42 Appellants seeking clarification and/or revisions to the Plan and its 1,700+ stipulations.   I suspect that the number of objectors to Plan, particularly in Lambeth, Sharon Creek and Stoneybrook, has just increased by a few hundred.  And I suspect that most of these objectors would agree that the London Plan needs more work.

So why does any of this matter?

While the Lambeth, Sharon Creek and Stoneybrook objections are currently isolated to those neighbourhoods, they signal a much bigger problem that is likely to be repeated time and time again as the broad provisions of the London Plan increasingly come into conflict with citizens’ expectations in other neighbourhoods.   In my mind, the consequence is that London’s Planning Staff, Council and the impacted constituents will routinely be drawn into prolonged, difficult, often adversarial debates that consume resources and do little to bring the community together.

As important, these disputes, when coupled with the similar confusion and frustrations our community experienced throughout the BRT debate, demonstrate a systemic problem that portions of London City Hall lack the sufficient business acumen necessary to prepare and properly execute a plan.  This includes an ability to:

  • Identify and pursue initiatives that fit with all stakeholder objectives,
  • Continually evaluate the environment, anticipate short and long term implications, and develop proactive measurable strategies to address them,
  • Examine initiatives with a critical eye and some common sense to determine its fit with stakeholder goals,
  • Clearly communicate the details, and be prepared to address objections,
  • Manage expectations and adjust where alternative arguments prevail,
  • Realize outcomes, re-evaluate strategies and amend the plan as needed.

What would I do?

Over the course of my business career, I worked with and for some truly amazing leaders.  One of the key lessons that they shared with me is to never bring up a problem unless you were also prepared to offer a solution.

For example, while I strongly support the goals and strategic direction outlined in the first 27 pages of the London Plan, I have some issues with the remaining 438 pages and still believe that the plan is incomplete.  However, I shall post my specific areas of agreement and objection with the Plan at some point in the future.  For purposes of this post, I wish to focus my comments on these two applications and then City Hall’s implementation process as a whole.

First, to be clear, the primary litmus test that I would apply to any planning application beyond specific stipulations as outlined in an official plan; is determine if the application adds quantifiable value to the adjoining area, detracts from the value of the adjoining area, or is neutral.  If the app adds value or is deemed to have no impact, I would likely be favourably disposed towards its approval.  Conversely, if the app detracts value for the adjoining area, it would an up-hill battle for the Applicant to secure my support.

As such, I recommend that Council vote against any application that calls for the establishment of an Abattoir anywhere within the City limits.  The potential risks and ancillary consequences associated with this type of processing both in the short and long term are simply too high.  In this case, I would instead seek to work with the local community to try and find regional market alternatives for Halal products and/or consider the establishment of some sort of buying co-op to help improve local purchasing power.

Similarly, I would recommend that Council refer the Stoneybrook development back to Planning and ask them to work with the Applicant to amend the application on the basis of three objections:

  1. The proposed Fanshawe entrance/exit and vehicle routing is a problem. The resulting impact on traffic flow and future use of this right-of-way could potentially impact the City’s future transportation requirements and immediately impact residents’ safety.
  2. The proposed number of units is simply too large to be comfortably accommodated on that sized property without negatively impacting the value of adjoining properties, especially given its isolation from similar-sized properties and major intersections. This application simply does not fit within the current or future context of this massive low density neighbourhood.
  3. I am not satisfied that the parking needs of the proposed facility will be sufficiently accommodated within an underground parking garage in the middle of a high water table.

It would be my hope that the brief window that now exists between the current Official Plan and the pending adoption of the London Plan as the Official Plan would provide Planning with enough leverage to seek further amendments to the benefits of the Stoneybrook residents.

However, both I and the neighbours of Stoneybrook, must be realistic.   The application is very compelling, and the Applicant would have considerable strength on appeal because of Council’s unanimous approval of the existing planning principles contained in the London Plan.

The Wrap

Which leads me to my most important point, namely the dire need for the City to materially improve upon its ability to execute the London Plan, the BRT Business Case, the Strategic Plan and any other plan for that matter.  To this end, I would suggest, at minimum, the following:

  1. Identify and secure a proven senior management team, ideally with some business experience, who know how to develop and deliver a complete plan. (Steps have recently been taken in this area in the CAO’s office, but more work needs to be done).
  2. Vet plans and applications through a team of independent business advisors to test assumptions, validate conclusions and even proactively propose zoning amendments, prior to undertaking the tedious, expensive and reactionary process of public debate and case-by-case Council approval.
  3. Create and communicate in simplified form and at a much more granular level the plan and its impacts. In the case of the London Plan, clearly articulate a complete plan so that London’s 42 neighbourhoods understand the plan’s implications on them. (The subject of my next post).
  4. Actually deliver on the communication objectives of the London Strengthening Neighbourhood Strategy to each of London’s 42 identified neighbourhoods. (Also, the subject of my next post).

In summary, City Hall can and must dramatically improve upon its ability to execute by developing and deploying practices and processes more typical of the private sector; ones that continually seek to be as proactive as possible and drive positive community outcomes in a respectful, cost effective, resource efficient manner.

While I would never advocate that government be run like a business, I do believe that the application of some sound business practices can certainly help run government.  Otherwise, from my perspective and I imagine  the viewpoint of BRT opponents and proponents, and now residents in Lambeth, Sharon Creek and Stoneybrook …

… we are not executing, we are simply hallucinating.