Planners from hell -Rules are rules — or are they?

Cecily Ross and Sasha Chapman
The Next City
September 21, 1996


Rules are rules — or are they?

MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENTS HAVE GIVEN the world more than their fair share of procedures, bylaws and regulations. So you would think they’d be the first to play by their own rules. Well, think again. When one Toronto resident, Barry Glaspell, objected to his neighbors’ intention to build a front-yard parking pad for their cars, he stumbled into a bureaucratic comedy of errors that demonstrates the arbitrariness of the elaborate rules set out by the city to supposedly protect and accommodate property owners.

Glaspell lives with his wife and two young children on a tree-lined street in Toronto’s Annex district. Last spring he noticed a sign in front of a neighboring redbrick semi-detached house. The sign served notice that the owners of the two units — in one case, a renovator who was fixing it up for resale and in the other, existing neighbors — had applied for a parking pad permit. Area residents had until May 23 to register any opposition.

Glaspell, like many of his neighbors, doesn’t like front-yard parking pads because they turn attractive downtown neighborhoods into eyesores. He also worried that traffic across the sidewalk poses a risk to his children. But his good relations with the neighbors who were co-applying for the parking made his decision to join 11 other neighbors in objecting all the more difficult. Despite everyone’s objection, the application was approved by the May 23 deadline. On May 24, the renovator’s house, which had been purchased eight months earlier, was sold.

Even though the parking pad seemed a fait accompli, Glaspell, who is a lawyer, decided not to give up hope. He checked the bylaw and learned that the city was too casual by half with its own rules. For example, the bylaw requires the applicant to be the owner of the premise, but in this case the applicant/renovator was long gone and wouldn’t build the parking pad himself. He likely applied for the permit just to add value to what was a development project.

Glaspell also found out that if more than 25 per cent of “residential unit residents within the public notice posting area object in writing to the application within the public posting period, the application shall be refused.” Residents of numbers 161 to 207 on the street were eligible to file written complaints. The city works department did tell Glaspell that it received 12 complaints (a 13th was deemed late) from a possible 49 “dwelling units” — or just under 25 per cent.

But when Glaspell examined the language of the bylaw, nowhere was the term “residential unit” defined or “dwelling units” referred to. And anyway, shouldn’t they actually be counting residents, not units? At no point did anyone actually go out to the neighborhood and count the residents or residential units. Nevertheless, city hall insisted they were sticking to their guns at 49.

Still determined, Glaspell drafted a detailed letter to city works which he intended to present at a public meeting on the issue scheduled for August 14. His research unearthed the anomalies and contradictions present in the application process in head-spinning detail pointing out vagueness, confusion and errors over such things as:

  • the extent of the public posting area;
  • whether residents or residential units should be counted;
  • the ownership of the residence;
  • whether there was actually enough space to park a car; and
  • who was really eligible to be polled.Finally, Glaspell pointed out that the applicant’s house, a duplex, was included in the 49 residential units polled. And he persuaded the city that the property applying for the parking pad should not be included in the public notice posting area since its owners would be unlikely to object to the application. This brought the number of units in the posting area down to 47, which, with 12 complaints, now meant that just a shade more than 25 per cent of those eligible to complain did so. On that basis, city works reversed the approval, denying the parking pad.

    This reversal at city works is also good news for other opponents to front-yard parking pads in Toronto who may now be able to appeal some of the pavement that has been overtaking their neighborhoods in recent years. City hall, prior to this event, decided it didn’t like parking pads after all. On May 22, the City of Toronto announced a moratorium on front-yard parking pad permits. On July 2, the ban went into effect.

    Cecily Ross

    Japan’s national railway runs off the rails

    NEXT TO TOKYO’S EXCLUSIVE GINZA shopping district lies an unused former rail yard the size of 70 football fields. In a city where prime office space costs three times that of New York City’s, this vast empty lot, known as Shiodome, is a yawning monument to government bungling and economic ineptitude.

    Shiodome is one of many unused properties owned by Japan National Railway Settlement Corp. (JNR SC) which was formed in 1987 to bail out the country’s bloated national railway system. Under the plan, the government gave JNR SC 10 years to pay off two-thirds of the railway’s US$240-billion debt by selling off its assets — approximately 30 square miles of Japanese real estate. Since land values were sky rocketing at the time, the plan seemed solid. Nine years later, it has failed miserably. With only one year left to the loans coming due, half the land remains unsold and the railway land’s value has plummeted. The Shiodome property, for instance, valued at US$28 billion in 1990, is now worth US$6 billion. The JNR SC’s debt has risen to US$258 billion, growing at an annual rate of five per cent. The bailout itself needs bailing out.

    Getting into this fix wasn’t easy. Instead of simply allowing the JNR SC to sell off its assets and pay off its debt, the Japanese government began imposing bizarre conditions on the company. Subscribing to a reverse theory of supply and demand, the government concluded that auctioning off properties would push up land prices and with them, property taxes and housing. So, the cabinet passed a ban preventing the JNR SC from auctioning its best parcels of land. Then, to appease taxpayers, government-hired estimators set land prices about 30 per cent below market value. Secret deals were made, with much of the land sold to local governments. A prime 3.7-acre-lot in central Tokyo became the site of a municipal museum. Other plots were turned into bicycle paths and parking lots.

    While the politicians squabbled and dickered, a valuable opportunity was missed. Real estate values peaked in 1991 and have been dropping ever since. In 1994, with the JNR SC’s debt growing apace, the government finally relented and allowed the lands to be auctioned. But it was too little too late. Scared off by falling real estate prices and draconian development restrictions, buyers stayed away in droves.

    Bailing out the JNR bailout could cost Japanese taxpayers as much as US$1,500 per person. The government must choose the least of three evils: pay the debt by issuing more bonds, a move that would trigger inflation by pushing up interest rates; raise taxes, and risk cutting economic growth in half; or delay the inevitable by passing a law extending the debt elimination deadline.

    Or it could create the JNR SC-SC, a new settlement corporation to take on the JNR SC’s debt.

    Sasha Chapman

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