Planners from hell – New Jersey chokes on auto emissions regulations

The Next City
December 21, 1996

TO MEET THE NATIONAL 1990 CLEAN AIR ACT, New Jersey’s legislature has passed an auto emissions law that is not only inefficient and costly, but also could lead to the state seizure of vehicles from privately owned driveways.

To become registered, a New Jersey vehicle must pass a yearly Enhanced Inspection and Maintenance chassis dynamometer test — a statewide examination that charges motorists an annual $45.5 million to put their cars on a treadmill and measure their emissions. If an owner fails to make necessary repairs (typically costing $100 to $700), the state will not renew the vehicle’s registration. Since parking an unregistered vehicle in a driveway, even if it is privately owned, is illegal in most New Jersey counties, the state police can ticket, impound and ultimately confiscate any car that does not pass the emissions test, all without compensation. And under New Jersey law, the offending owner could even spend time in jail.

Critics of the New Jersey regulation worry that poor people, without the cash to fix up their cars, wouldn’t be able to keep them in their own driveway until they save up for the repair bill. They also complain that the emissions law virtually criminalizes collecting older cars. Although it exempts cars over 25 years old that are “a restricted issue make or model [manufactured] in sufficiently limited quantity . . . [or one] that is generally recognized” as such, the law lets Division of Motor Vehicles bureaucrats define what is a classic car. Vintage Mustangs and Camaros, which were produced in the unrestricted millions, may be ineligible for exemption and liable to confiscation and scrappage.

Quite apart from the daunting possibility of having their cars confiscated, residents of numerous jurisdictions throughout the United States requiring emissions tests also face the hassle and waste involved in inspecting every single car’s emissions. A team of atmospheric researchers who tested 60,000 cars in California in the summer of 1991 found that programs like New Jersey’s that treat all vehicles alike are costly compared to ones that target gross offenders. The scientists found that only seven per cent of vehicles produced 50 per cent of the on-road carbon monoxide emissions while 10 per cent of the vehicles accounted for 50 per cent of the hydrocarbon emissions. In their study, the cleanest 30,000 vehicles contributed less than 10 per cent of the carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. The scientists also found that a vehicle’s age is not a good predictor of the level of emissions because emissions vary more within a model year (due to tampering or poor maintenance) than among the averages of various model years. The most efficient and cost-effective way of reducing vehicle exhaust, they concluded, is through a program, such as on-road remote sensing, which identifies the few cars that are creating the most emissions.

New Jersey knows about the more cost-effective remote sensing devices — it has even experimented with their use. But its Department of Environmental Protection insists they are no substitute for testing every vehicle.

Amy Buskirk

Toronto wants to make its downtown safe for multinationals

AFTER DECADES OF HELTER-SKELTER development policies that helped transform downtown Yonge Street, one of Canada’s most valuable commercial areas, into a low-rent strip complete with sex shops, fast-food joints and dollar stores, Toronto’s planners and politicians have come up with a new set of policies designed to clean up the street and make it suitable for chichi establishments and American superstores alike. Yonge Street in the downtown core seems poised for a revival, and city hall doesn’t want its undesirable retailers to ruin it.

Deeming sidewalk displays unseemly on that particular stretch of street — a lively pedestrian area of mostly downscale establishments — the city designated it a “community improvement area” and outlawed the merchants’ zealous use of the sidewalks outside their stores, knowing it would undermine their business prospects. But another plan — the Commercial Facade Improvement Grant/Loan Program — may do as much to put struggling businesses out of their misery by financing their more profitable competitors. Under this plan, the city can provide up to $50,000 to some of the better-off merchants in the area to help them give their buildings a face-lift.

Sam the Record Man, a chain of music and video stores, will pocket some of the city’s cash to refurbish the twin neon discs at its flagship Yonge Street store, long a Toronto landmark, while the Superior Restaurant, a swanky new eatery praised for being a badly needed break from Yonge Street’s tackiness, received help in completing its renovation.

But to those determined to rid the area of run-down retailers, the beauty behind the city’s façade plan is in shutting out the neediest merchants: unless a retailer can match the city’s contribution, it is doomed to remain dowdy while its spruced-up rivals steal its business. So as Sam the Record Man and Superior Restaurant prosper, small record stores and restaurants caught in the district’s recession may bite the dust and be replaced by retailers — particularly prestigious foreign showcases that the city has been wooing, such as Planet Hollywood and Universal Studios — that will do the city proud.

In case undesirable merchants somehow manage to hang on despite the nudges designed to send them over the edge, the city has acquired another weapon for its arsenal: the power of expropriation. In courting large U.S. retailers, the city has been promising them locations now occupied by others. Because Yonge Street properties have less frontage — often just 20 feet —than U.S.-style retailing requires, the city has decided to seize the lands of any property owners who don’t cooperate with the foreigners’ plans.

“That’s the problem with Yonge Street. The land ownership is so fragmented,” city councillor Kyle Rae told the Globe and Mail after returning from Los Angeles with dreams of creating a Santa Monica Boulevard North. “The new kind of development is impossible here. The fragmentation of tenure is so severe, we have to intervene.”

AT THE SAME TIME THAT THE PLANNERS promote the area as a California clone, they have become intent on protecting the district’s historic façades and distinctive character. Ironically, the planners weren’t prodded into action by conservation authorities or historical boards, but by the Eaton Centre, the city’s best known urban mall, which, to make room for itself two decades ago, demolished several historic city blocks in the heart of what’s become the improvement area. The Eaton Centre’s new-found concern for the area’s architecture — and the merchants tending it —led it to locate a consulting group, and to ask the city to share the cost of a study that would “demonstrate to the various property owners . . . the potential face-lifts that could be achieved.” The city then signed onto the project. And through this process, the Eaton Centre was able to help set architectural standards for the area.

The consulting firm hired for the task, CORE Architects, decided to “introduce order to the presently overpowering hodgepodge of signage” by prescribing in great detail what merchants should and should not be permitted to do. “Backlit fluorescent acrylic box signs of any type or vinyl awning signage” are out, it determined, while “sign fascia [that terminates] at least 0.45 metres below the underside of windows on any floor above retail level” are in. Some merchants, CORE felt, had exercised poor judgement in the color they chose for their buildings and signs. The Great Canadian Leather Company is but one of the shops that seemed to have it all wrong. CORE suggested that its large-scale façade sign be removed in favor of a small “copper sign band terminating at demising columns with combination stamped out and stainless steel pin mounted copy with indirect lighting from above.” Spandrel windows with stained wood surrounds would be nice, too, CORE felt, also recommending that the store should build up its wood header and sill with a new application of exterior stucco finish. Identifying a detail in which merchants had been remiss, CORE advised them to carefully consider the color that they choose for their signs.

In the middle of the community improvement area — itself all of five blocks long — lies tiny Dundas Square. For the merchants south of Dundas Square, like Great Canadian Leather, the consultants determined that the community’s improvement required “sign reduction.” North of Dundas Square, the community’s improvement, according to CORE, required bigger and better signs, to “encourage the existing trend of large visually interesting signs similar to Pizza Pizza, Sam the Record Man and Future Shop.” Had it been located two blocks south, Pizza Pizza’s gargantuan sign, with its one-story high telephone number, would have been a mistake. As it is, the consultants praise Pizza Pizza for forming part of the city’s urban fabric.

But big signs are out everywhere for the planners where historical buildings are concerned. CORE’s guidelines prohibit covering up any interesting historical details, hamstringing merchants with sign rules that will limit their ability to compete with merchants in non-historical buildings. The result: merchants required to conform to CORE-type regulations will avoid historical buildings, making them less valuable retail space, leading them to fetch lower rents. The area’s historical buildings will then become likelier to fall into disrepair and be expropriated down the road by a future city council with a new generation of development policies, perhaps designed to protect the area’s then-unique California character.

Lawrence Solomon

Plumbing rules prime the pump for American toilet makers

WATER CONSERVATION REGULATIONS that require toilets in new homes to use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush have helped Americans recognize what they’ve been missing until now: diversity in toilet bowls.

Flush with success, toilet makers like Eljer now boast 50 styles in prices ranging from $105 to $1,100 and up.

Saving water need not be costly, but often is. Extra pressure can compensate for the water the bowl needs to do its dirty work, although some consumers complain of noise. So commode companies often rely more on gravity to do the job, manufacturing taller, narrower tanks. Consumers will be relieved to know that low-profile models — using rim jets to spray waste away — are also available.

Low-flow toilets can seem to take forever to get the job done. For a quick yet quiet flush, Kohler Co. suggests a $950 model that uses a 0.2 horsepower electric motor.

The new world of toilets is a boon to industry and upscale buyers, but represents a costly course of action in protecting society’s water supplies in areas where they’re scarce. Where water and sewage services have been priced high to reflect shortages, consumers had voluntarily switched to low-volume systems. And where water is cheap and plentiful, consumers now pay the price of complying with needless regulation.

Lawrence Solomon

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