Running The Numbers On Ashcroft Convent

What does Ottawa lose if Ashcroft develops the Westboro convent location? Half a dozen acres of parkland. That's not something to be taken lightly, but through mismanagement, miscommunication, and any number of other misfires, it was lost - the land is no longer owned by the city. It wasn't stolen, it was sold - and those concerned about property tax hikes can take some small comfort in knowing that the budget could've been short by significantly more. Would people living in Westboro rather have paid slightly higher taxes to keep the land? Probably. Would people living in any other part of the city? Probably not. A bad call for local residents can be the economically right call for everyone else in the city.

So, when local residents floated the idea of banding together to buy the land (or at least some of it) to protect it from development... I thought that was great. There's a saying that you don't own the view - but here was a group of people willing to buy the view. I wasn't sure how they planned to get the money together, but I hoped they'd figure something out.

I happened to come across their proposals today, and they're not exactly stellar. In fact, I'd argue they represent a bunch of people grasping at anything they can to make other people pick up the tab for their indulgences. And let's be clear - this is an indulgence. Parkland is not an essential service.

Idea 1 - Divert money from a community center planned near the Civic Hospital. If you believe that an acre and a half of grass and trees provides more value than a community center, you're wrong. If you don't require the services those centers provide, I can see how you might think that's the case, but you're wrong. I'm happy that you're as well-off as you are, but many people aren't, and given the choice I'm going to say that a community center might do more for them than a park will for you.

Idea 2 - Dedicate future funds to this specific project. It's great until the next project that everyone wants to get behind comes up. Borrowing on future earnings to pay for what you want today isn't smart. It's popular (hence our nation's extraordinary amount of consumer debt), but it's not smart.

Idea 3 - Use development charges to buy back land. Hampton Iona Community Group asserts that "It will not cost the city anywhere near $3 mln to provide the needed infrastructure to service the site." I'd love to see anything that backs that up. Between sewer, water, costs to increase transit capacity and added road maintenance... is there wiggle room between what the city charges and what it needs? Maybe. I seldom ride the 2, so if people are happy with the current service levels, then maybe this can work. If not, then it's just another case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Idea 4 - Tax-Incremental Financing. Without getting into the Lansdowne debate, if the only way something gets built is if the City borrows to make it happen, and that something delivers significant economic and social benefits to the city above and beyond just increased tax revenue, then it can be worth it for the city to forego the tax revenue that property generates by borrowing to fund construction. Taxes will still be collected, but they all go towards paying down the debt incurred by construction. It's an investment in the future. In the case of the convent, I'm not entirely certain what the ROI on 1.5 acres of parkland works out to.

Idea 5 - Community Levy. You don't own the view unless you buy the view. Projections start at the land costing 3 million and go considerably higher. The people affected have to decide what it's worth to them and make the call. Have they been sold out by a city hall trying to appease tax-raging suburbanites? Probably. Should the city introduce lower building height limits? Probably not - but that's a topic for next post. Would this have been such a contentious issue if the city never amalgamated? I'm not sure - share your thoughts in the comments.

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  • Oh, goodness gravy. This is going to be a long one. And I apologize in advance if it comes off as patronizing. But it will…

    I’m writing this because you’re an intelligent guy who obviously cares about smart growth issues, but like many intelligent people who comment on this and other urban development issues, you make a lot of very wrong assumptions about how the process – and the city, and community groups – work. And the biggest way to fix this? Get involved yourself!

    Over the last 5 years I’ve had a very painful trial by fire on this stuff as I volunteered hundreds of hours to sit on a number of City committees including the Wellington West Community Design Plan group, the Hintonburg Neighbourhood Planning Initiative, and spearheaded the Wellington West Business Improvement Area working group that led to the Wellington West BIA.

    1) The land was never owned by the city so it was never “lost” to the city. It was owned by the Catholic order “les soeurs de la visitation” – a group of nuns whose numbers had shrunk to less than 10 individuals by the time the property went up for sale in 2009. We can quibble whether the city should have purchased the property long before it went on the market, or whether at least the land and building should have been designated heritage long ago, but when the property did go on the market, the city did its best to make it clear to prospective bidders what the limits were on development. Ashcroft ignored those limits, offering 12 million dollars on the bet that they could safely ignore the limits. Sadly, they were right.

    2) This statement is just dead wrong: “local residents floated the idea of banding together to buy the land”. The proposal to protect a small corner of the land was brought forward by councillor Peter Hume, the chair of the Planning Committee, and approved by the committee and full council as an ugly but effective political compromise after three long days of presentation and debate to a. limit density on the site, b. ensure that the existing Byron Park would be protected, c. ensure that the developer didn’t use the old “cash in lieu of parkland” trick to DODGE ITS RESPONSIBILITY TO BUILD PARKS, and d. in the process allow a small park be carved out in a booming residential area that is woefully lacking in park space relative to newer suburban areas.
    The ward-wide levy was only one part of the financial equation. A large pool of “Cash-in-lieu” money from other developers was to be applied as well – a fact that Katherine Hobbs seems to have ignored in her alarmist ramblings in the Citizen yesterday. That was, and is, the default funding formula on the table. Unfortunately, it has to be ratified by council before March 31st, and the local councillor – who should be the one sponsoring the effort – is playing a political stalling game.

    3) The ideas from the Hampton Iona Community Association were from a long list presented to our councillor in December, and are meant to augment and provide options to the default funding formula – so that the levy can be kept down for all local taxpayers. Granted, some are better than others, but with all due respect, you don’t really have a leg to stand on in critiquing the feasibility of the ideas. Nor do I; many of the people who brought these ideas forward have been working with – and fighting – city hall for longer than I’ve been out of diapers (and I’m pretty old). They know they aren’t perfect, but they also know what’s realistic and have a keen sense of the political tradeoffs involved.

    4) In a previous post, you said: “If the people of Ottawa are so adamantly opposed to the idea of 12-storey condos on Richmond Road, why weren’t tighter restrictions put in the city’s official plan? It’s common knowledge that residents who live close by feel that way. Perhaps city hall took the Community Design Plan into account, but felt the city needed higher density in that area than the community would’ve liked and made a compromise?” The biggest point is this: the Community Design Plan IS the law – developed by city planning staff with volunteers from the community, but voted into LAW by the city council. It, along with the city’s Official Plan (both of which are supposed to be given equal weight) DOES LIMIT HEIGHT SPECIFICALLY ON THIS SITE AND ALL OTHER PROPERTIES IN THE CITY!!!!

    In this case the “tighter restriction” you are asking for is there in black and white at 4-6 stories. Not 8. Not 10. Not 12. The developer can – and in this developer’s case, always does – ask for special permission to go much higher. But the city has every right to say no under the letter of the law. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that with interference from the Ontario Municipal Board, “community benefit” trade-offs, to say nothing of the political leanings and developer connections among politicians, but there are limits. And those, not a developer’s shoot-the-moon schemes, are SUPPOSED to be the starting point for discussion about intensification.

    • Dennis "DenVan" VanStaalduinen
  • So to sum up my huge rant: the biggest problem is that there is a disconnect between the way development is supposed to work on paper, the messy, adversarial way it is handled in real life, and the cynical way some (but definitely not all) developers and their lawyers game the system to break the rules.

    This effort to secure parkland is like fighting over seats in a badly leaky lifeboat after the ship has sunk. There's no point in telling us we're pathetic and it's all probably futile. We know.

    Here's a bucket. You can either bail or try to sail. But only one is gonna work.

    • Dennis "DenVan" VanStaalduinen
  • I don't really have a vested interest one way or the other, but it sounds like some people want to decide what someone else should do with their property without making the investment to buy the property themselves and are using the mask of municipal law and regulation to achieve their ends. Rather than developers gaming the system I think councillors and community activists are abusing the force of municipal law to hinder the free enjoyment of property rights. In a way they are expropriating others property without compensation.

    • Brian