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.