Toward a positive consultation approach.

The “NIMBY – Developer” Challenge

The challenge for developers and local communities in Toronto has been well documented over the past few years. The sense of there being an irrevocable conflict between neighbourhoods and the development industry has heightened as the City’s continuing growth, the relative absence of greenfield development sites, the recent Greenbelt legislation at the Provincial level, and both the need for and direction to pursue (in the City’s contested but “ideologically” directional Official Plan) intensification, combine to create the proverbial “Perfect Storm.” As the Toronto Star recently noted: “If there is one thing people don’t like more than sprawl it’s intensification.”

In many cases Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) or perhaps more precisely After Me No One (AMNO), attitudes on the part of individual residents or ratepayer and neighbourhood groups square off against the all too frequent caricature of the uncaring, greedy developer. This reductionist view masks important realities and arguably causes energy and resources to be wasted without achieving positive results.

Developers and the development industry form a cornerstone of Toronto’s economic well being: and certainly developers should enjoy a right to conduct their business in a sustainable manner. In many cases developers represent one of the key forward thinking and optimistic elements of our dynamic and growing City; and the alternative to urban intensification is sprawl or stasis.

Residents and business owners, especially in well-established urban neighbourhoods, can feel legitimate concern about the impact of a given development or re-development in what they perceive as “their neighbourhood.” Some of this is may be expressions of classic NIMBY or AMNO phenomena but in many cases concerns about urban design, height, massing, use and public amenities are not only legitimate but can provide a resource for developers seeking to effectively build on, as well as within, a given neighbourhood’s characteristics and qualities.

Yet while positive examples do exist, these generally serve to reinforce the “NIMBY vs. Developer” rule. One can blame the adversarial culture of the tribunal based appeal system we have under the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), the lack of clear direction from City Council, the limited resources of the City Planning staff, unenlightened residents or a zealous development industry. However, assigning blame will not calm the “Storm,” nor address the fact that resources are used up in an adversarial process that often does not provide a win for anyone.

There are the exceptional examples that indicate that local communities and developers have much to gain from constructive engagement and dialogue. One example, is the ongoing restoration and redevelopment of The Distillery District, where open lines of communication between the Developers/Site Owners and the local residents has lead to positive agreements and support for the introduction of well-designed, tall apartment buildings in the context of a valued and significant heritage site: both the needs of the residents and the developers were addressed in this dialogue.

Too often the already noted caricatures and prejudices block such positive dialogue. This can of course add costs, in one obvious example: appeals to the OMB do not come cheap for anyone. As well the there are the perhaps the harder to quantify costs of delayed development, less incentive to pursue architectural excellence, and provide leading edge urban living environments to the “forgotten constituency:” those waiting to buy or rent a new home in an urban neighbourhood.

Moments of opportunity

Since June 2005, when the City of Toronto launched a consultation process with its citizenry on changing the development application process, there have been several ‘moments of opportunity’ to redefine the way we go about engaging stakeholders in the development process. Many of them not seized. While at the time City Planning staff recommended a voluntary pre-application, review, and consultation process for projects requiring an Official Plan amendment or re-zoning application, it was left to individual developers and individual Ward Councillors to voluntarily engage.

However, there continue to be many opportunities for developers to show leadership by seeking to engage, where it makes sense, in advance of the any formal development application. In Toronto’s downtown wards, most developers now take this approach but it remains ad hoc and unevenly supported by the City of Toronto’s Planning Department. Given the constraints of the Planning Act of the Province of Ontario and given the City of Toronto’s slow embrace of the additional planning powers it was granted by the City of Toronto Act, the role and weight of pre-application consultation remains ambiguous at best.

Still where resident and business leaders and their constituencies have an enhanced knowledge base of the development industry, the options intensification presents for City building, such as economic growth, neighbourhood development and enhanced environmental outcomes, it should be possible to move the discourse away from NIMBY shibboleths. In seeking to address, to the extent that a given projects economics permit, hot button issues such as height or density, too often issues of urban design, architectural excellence, heritage preservation or interpretation, and spin off community benefits are given shorter shrift. When this happens no one benefits.

Intensification is only going to increase and development pressure on available land will accelerate, despite the prospect of building in such areas as the West Don Lands, East Bayfront, and eventually the Port Lands. There are already many more economically obvious sites along major arterials, “parking lot” sites, and scattered brownfields across the City. In each case there will likely be sets of NIMBY and AMNO arguments against the very sort of development that can make a reasonable rate of return for developers, accomplish the City’s needs to provide new housing, and revitalize neighbourhoods.

By seeking to take a proactive lead in providing opportunities for public education, engagement and advance consultation with the public at large and appropriate stakeholders, the development industry can set a new standard of good corporate citizenship and more importantly build a greater support base, and ultimately reduce the instances where OMB appeals are required.

Addressing the NIMBY challenge

One of the problems that developers face when seeking to engage a community is the voluntary nature of ratepayer or neighbourhood groups when they exist, and the general level of disorganization in cases where they do not but where there may be significant voices that can have an impact on the successful realization of a development project.

When there are ratepayer or neighbourhood groups these are generally all volunteer organizations, which may or may not be incorporated, and no matter how broad based they may be they usually cannot be said to represent the whole community. As well there are often overlapping interest groups, and there may be rival ratepayer groups, and “people of influence” who may have unequal access to the Ward Councillor or possess special expertise.

The complexity of navigating these waters can seem like a costly waste of time, especially if previously experiences have caused a developer to feel that there is no one to make a deal with. And in a sense such a thought has some accuracy. If, for instance, the leader/representative of a given neighbourhood organization or condominium, etc., wants to shake hands on something, it often may be something for which they have insufficient mandate. Hence their support may not hold out through an elongated process or if the Councillor is in opposition to the project or if it comes to an OMB hearing.

Navigating these complexities can be made safer and more cost-effective by understanding the function and nature of ratepayer and neighbourhood groups, by doing due diligence in regard to any undertakings they or their representatives may make. It is also critical that residents, business leaders and stakeholders beyond the communities “usual suspects” be consulted or made aware of a given project, as allies and supporters for regeneration and development may be found in recent arrivals, local business taxpayers, and in the generally interested but unaligned segments of a given community.

Knowing the community and its politics, understanding the way the local community groups interact and how they make decisions, along with providing opportunities for stakeholders (who may well include prospective buyers or renters, heritage experts, design experts, local community agency staff, et al), can only strengthen the position and positive reception of a developer. Although this will entail some real costs, and some time, it is reasonable to assume that a modest investment in upfront outreach and consultation will have the potential to save money in downstream legal costs and project delays.

Addressing the Developer Perception Challenge

The development industry, while made up of many disparate people, is by and large made up of people who not only care about making a living and providing value for investors and customers, but people who believe in City building and are inherently optimistic about the future. In recent years, before any of the justly celebrated arts building projects got off the ground, developers largely, but not exclusively, focused in the central core of Toronto were already leading the beginnings of an “architectural renaissance” and proving that this was also something that “sold.”

Leading architects, heritage experts, planners and urban designers work with the development industry. And yet among the politically active middle class in many established neighbourhoods there remains a vocal opposition to or suspicion of the development industry. One can put this down to prejudice and the already noted NIMBY-AMNO syndrome or one can seek to address it—to see it as an opportunity for an important industry to seek a PR victory and a grassroots victory by providing more opportunities for public education, engagement and consultation. Through its practice, its approach to consultation and the opportunities it provides for value-added experiences that it is more than industry but also a valued and integral part of the City’s socio-economic-cultural fabric.

Small Steps – Bold Steps

Formalizing the ad hoc success stories that do exist may require new personnel and skill sets. By engaging consultants who understand community dynamics through direct experience and participation, who posses facilitation and outreach skills and who are not seen as potential adversaries (as developers’ lawyers all too often are) a development firm could initiate a consultation and outreach processes that would more successfully engage local communities, stakeholders and local decision-makers.

Such a consultant could assist a firm in identifying community allies, assessing the solidity of support, and advising on tactics to work effectively with local stakeholders, including those who may have an interest in buying into the project.

Utilizing the toolkit perhaps more frequently used by municipalities or NGOs would not only build bridges, strengthen local support, the firm would also gain important inputs early on that might positively inform decisions relating to built form, marketing approaches etc. Methods such as facilitated advance opportunities to discuss and review projects (or potential projects), modified focus group style workshops, modified survey techniques, and local events, are more likely to be produce desired outcomes than traditional community meetings or one-on-one meetings with non-vetted community “leaders.”

As well, by sponsoring, or engaging consultants to organize, non-standard forms of ongoing outreach (marketing), such as walking tours (of previous projects with architect), speaking sessions (at market-appropriate venues), workshops (on approaches to successful intensification), social events (with buyers, prospective buyers, stakeholders), a development firm could contribute to building an enhanced knowledge base and a positive perception among stakeholders, opinion leaders, as well as exiting and potential buyers, benefiting their firm in particular and the industry as a whole. The development firm that takes this approach and wins with it may well be seen as an industry leader.

Putting it into practice

Engaging a third-party consultant who has hands-on knowledge of community organizations, experience coordinating and facilitating public meetings, workshops and focus groups, for a suitable project is the key recommendation of this paper. In a project situation where there are significant community concerns, impacts or these are anticipated, a strategic, facilitated consultation approach can be devised to attempt to address these concerns, create an atmosphere where support can emerge, and issues can be delineated and solutions identified.

While results cannot be guaranteed, and consensus will remain an unattainable goal, it is not unreasonable to seek and expect to find support, solutions and a cost-effective win for the development firm, the community and the City. It is clear that the status quo is neither stable nor effective and the industry can lead the way to a new and successful approach to development in the City of Toronto, with vision and the application of a different set of approaches and tools.