Might be time for tough love for developers

When we were in high school, and I had a car, my little sister would sometimes go out without planning how she’d get home. Then I’d get a late-night call from her saying she needed a ride, and I’d drop whatever I was doing and go pick her up. No matter how many times I told her it wasn’t fair, the next time she called, I’d do it again and she knew it. Because it’s not like I was going to leave my teenage sister stranded somewhere.

It seems that, unfortunately, the same basic tactic works for London’s developers, who purchase land, make plans, and then show up to ask for rezoning while basically sputtering, “but . . . but . . . I bought this property and put all this money into it.” How many applications have we seen lately that are justified not by need, but by virtue of the fact that a person or company happens to own that land?

“So next time,” I hear my 19-year-old self saying in my most motherly voice over the toddleresque temper tantrum, “maybe you should check for zoning and heritage designations before you buy a property.”

Some people, including a number of our city’s councillors, believe in “letting the market decide” what kinds of development goes where. I think that most people mean we ought to let consumer needs and desires dictate where various retail goes, that potential home-buyers and renters should decide where residential properties go, and so on.

The unfortunate reality is that almost all of those decisions are made according to one market: the real estate market. Land that’s not zoned for high-density uses, like 562 Wellington St. for example, is cheaper than land that is zoned for it. Properties that have heritage buildings on them, like 183 King St., are cheaper than similar properties that have fewer barriers attached.

These properties aren’t being purchased in response to a felt need in our communities for just that type of development in just that type of place. They’re purchased because it’s a good business decision. And it’s a good business decision because — like me showing up time after time to get my little sister out of the spot she intentionally got herself into — we keep letting it work for them.

Building a city is by its nature a game of prospecting, and as a long game, buying properties on the hope of their future value isn’t inherently a bad thing. The city benefits from, and even relies on that. But the shortcut version means we allow the properties best suited for intensification to sit under-developed — sometimes as parking lots whose existence is also decided solely by the real estate market — while high rises and major commercial developments go up in less desirable spots.

Developers take out a big stake in London’s future and the best ones are important partners in building our growing city. Not all developers play the backed-into-a-corner game. But the ones who do are not stranded teenagers, so maybe it’s time we showed a little tough love instead of giving them unlimited free rides.

Originally published in Our London on June 22, 2017.