City Planners from hell – Quebec’s tongue troopers lash out at business

The Next City
June 21, 1997


QUEBEC’S L’OFFICE DE LA LANGUE française may claim to be making the province’s job market safe for non-English speakers, but in the process it is stifling small businesses and driving capital away from an already floundering economy suffering from 12 per cent unemployment.

Under Sections 135 to 154 of the Charter of the French language, businesses with more than 50 employees must function in French. The arduous process of complying with this regulation begins by registering with l’Office de la langue française within six months of hiring the 51st employee. In the next year, the firm must submit an analysis of its “linguistic situation.” From this report, one of the office’s 200 employees determines if the use of French is sufficiently generalized at all levels: among managers and board members; in internal communication, manuals, and catalogues; in communications with clients, suppliers, shareholders, and the public; in public signs and advertising; in hiring; and in information technologies. If the office is satisfied, it issues a “francization certificate.” If not, the company must adopt a “francization program” to bring it into compliance within a year. But the work doesn’t end there; even after complying, the company must report on its “progression of the use of French” every three years. Firms with 100 or more employees require a francization committee of six or more persons who meet no less than once every six months.

While in theory this law promotes the use of French in business, in reality, it creates almost insurmountable barriers to a successful business. One Montreal software company, a fast-paced business whose main clients are IBM and Hewlett Packard, faced translating every client’s queries, specifications, and comments into French and retranslating every bit of work done for English-speaking clients or face fines of up to $1,400 for an initial infraction and $7,000 for subsequent violations. The time and expense of translation is prohibitive. Although this expanding company has been getting around the legislation by hiring contract workers to keep its payroll under 50, it prefers permanent employees who tend to be more loyal and require less training.

It’s not as if the software company, whose president would divulge his problems with Quebec’s “extremely capricious” government only on condition of anonymity, willfully discriminates against non-English speakers. Three-quarters of its employees are French speakers, and three-quarters of the conversations in the business are held in French. Because of the inferior state of technological education in Quebec, the French-speaking president imports English speakers with graduate degrees from Stanford University and MIT. He wonders why the government is wasting time and almost $17 million annually (the office’s budget) harassing job-creating companies instead of trying to bring the province’s schools to the cutting edge.

The Parti Québécois’s threats to increase the language fines and reduce the cut-off point for its French requirements to 10 employees compounds the company’s insecurity. The president is nearing his breaking point. Despite growing demand for their product software, the company cannot expand its staff. In his fear of government interference and prohibitive costs, he has begun seed companies outside of Quebec — in other provinces and in the United States — where he can move if the province becomes any more inhospitable.

Amy Buskirk

Architects hit a Berlin Wall

I. M. PEI, PHILIP JOHNSON, Norman Foster, Max Dudler, Jean Nouvel, Helmut Jahn, Frank Gehry, Oswald Mathias Ungers, Christoph Mäckler, Dominique Perrault. These and most other architects of international renown have projects underway in Berlin, participating in one of the most breathtaking transformations of an important city this century, one rivalling the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. Some 900 projects are now underway.

But add Hans Stimmann to the list, for he’s the most important influence of all — the man and the mind who will shape Berlin at the start of the new millennium. Stimmann is the city’s building director, and he chafes at the thought of losing the city’s architectural traditions due to the whims of property owners.

“A city is not an art collection,” he says of the proposed architectural showcases. “It is an expression of the local identity.”

To prevent the likes of Pei from ruining his city after the fall of the Berlin Wall opened it up to badly needed development, Stimmann and his crack corps have erected a wall of their own, this one comprised of planning ordinances and building codes. Granite and concrete are better than steel and glass, believe the new official guardians of state decor, and why should the new capital of the fatherland be burdened with buildings higher than five or six storeys?

All this, concludes Pei, has turned an unprecedented opportunity for architectural excellence into something “completely uninteresting.” The US$15 billion per year now being spent rebuilding Berlin is resurrecting the grim, low-slung look that prevailed prior to the Second World War. “The huge building site here was unique,” agrees dismayed Los Angeles architect Daniel Libeskind.

Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, an ultramodern zigzagging wonder in West Berlin’s bohemian Kreuzberg district, is now an anomaly — it was approved just before the Wall fell and the rules changed. So ended the creative rebuilding of West Berlin, where 18 months of Allied bombing reduced tens of thousands of buildings to rubble during the Second World War. West Berlin’s postwar renaissance had made it one of the world’s liveliest architectural scenes.

“Postwar Berlin is quite impressive,” says Gehry, who designed a $150-million bank building by the Brandenburg Gate. “Post-Wall Berlin is not too impressive.”

The official at the planning controls, Stimmann, does not oppose all modern buildings. A few here and there can enrich an old city like Berlin, he believes. And innovations do flourish, just not the visible kind: Berlin’s many new sites boast novel techniques in construction site logistics, underwater concrete, and the use of air cushions to move the Kaisersaal — once a grand wing of the famous Hotel Esplanade — 70 metres to its new home in Sony’s European headquarters. How will they keep the tourists away?

Lawrence Solomon

Kobe still quaking under property laws

IN STARK CONTRAST TO THE COUNTRY’S streamlined and highly productive factories, Japan’s real estate laws are a tangled mass of inefficiency. Over two years after Kobe’s devastating earthquake — which registered 7.2 on the Richter scale and took 6,336 lives — 51,000 people live in shelters, and 7 out of every 10 buildings remain damaged or reduced to rubble.

An influx of $30 billion in rebuilding money has helped: Kobe’s port, formerly Japan’s biggest, will return to capacity this year, serviced by a new elevated expressway. But this success is unmatched elsewhere in this city of 1.5 million.

The tangle dates back to the Second World War when legislators enacted tenant-protection laws to save soldiers’ widows from devious landlords threatening eviction. Not only do the laws make eviction almost impossible, they also provide tenants with kamikaze-like rebuilding rights that can be lethal for landlords. When a fire, earthquake, or some other disaster destroys a structure, a tenant can order the landlord to rebuild an identical building. If the landlord doesn’t have the money to rebuild, the tenant can stymie a sale or any other arrangement.

What started as a noble sentiment for the disadvantaged has resulted in a snarl of overlapping and often conflicting rights for tenants, subtenants, landowners, and landlords. In one block of Nagata, Kobe’s worst-hit district, 303 renters, lessees, landowners, and subletters have conflicting claims. Nearby, 30 people jointly own one 200-square-foot plot. In all of Kobe, stakeholders in thousands of garage-size parcels of land vie for control.

Japan’s real estate laws allow just one obstinate stakeholder to halt the reconstruction of an entire building. A Kobe landowner, with a shop on the ground floor of a structurally unsound 31-storey tower, blocked the demolition of the building for six months, claiming his part of the property was still usable — never mind the other owners’ reconstruction plans for their destroyed property. In another part of Kobe, a paper lantern maker, whose small wooden stall escaped the earthquake unscathed, is vetoing his less-fortunate neighbors’ adoption of a city- and resident-financed plan to tear down any remaining shacks to make room for highrise residences with two storeys of retail space.

In keeping with Japan’s cultural codes, city planners are determined to gain consensus before going ahead with any rebuilding. To unravel the mess, they are examining titles and deeds as far back as a century and drawing up color-coded maps outlining the complex property rights. On the parti-colored maps, red represents a building with several landlords; green denotes a resident-owned building on land owned by another party; yellow is for sites with differing tenants, building owners, and landlords; orange represents inherited property; and other colors of the rainbow designate some combination of these relationships. Shortly after the earthquake, the city hired 1,000 arbitrators and created a property rights hot line. Of the 100 construction teams made up of city officials, claimants, and consultants who attempted to satisfy the opposing interests in Kobe’s devastated neighborhoods, only four have actually succeeded in starting the rebuilding process.

Such conflict has stunted the regrowth of retail businesses — one in five hadn’t reopened two years after the quake. The funnelling of public money to large proj-ects like Kobe’s new expressway rather than to small-business owners has contributed to the problem, but the time-consuming and difficult requirement of getting approval from every owner, landlord, and renter of a property before rebuilding is the main culprit.

Although most apparent in Kobe, the inefficiencies of Japan’s real estate laws affect the entire nation. The country’s strong tenants laws, including squatters and debtors rights, have exacerbated Japan’s bad-loan crisis and slowed its clean up.

Legislators are aware of the myriad problems but aren’t about to change any laws. As a Kobe property lawyer put it, “When it comes to tenants rights, Japan is still mobilized for war.” But the real victims are the little people, the ones the original laws were meant to protect. One Kobe beautician, who had her own shop before the quake, now lives and works out of a corrugated-aluminum shack. She’d love to open another salon but worries that with the current property laws and squabbling, her dream may remain just that.

A. B

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