Knowledge essential when looking to fight development

[attach]6304[/attach]There are a host of reasons why most homeowners and residents avoid participating in planning and development issues affecting their neighbourhoods: disinterest, no time to spare, and a feeling others will become involved on their behalf.

That last excuse is most often met through local residents associations whose volunteer leaders are, in fact, interested in local development issues, who find the time to get involved, and who don’t leave it to others to do the legwork on behalf of the larger community.

There may be one other reason: the world of planning and development is more often than not performed inside a Byzantine arena of incomprehensible rules, regulations and bylaws and where the only spectators are urban planners and high-powered developers backed by their battalion of high-priced lawyers and well-schooled consultants.

In other words, a development issue that pits residents against developer is more akin to David vs. Goliath where the big guy frequently kicks sand in the mug of a 98-pound weakling.

Ward 13 councillor Sarah Doucette, then, deserves credit for recently organizing a town hall meeting which she dubbed Development 101. As the title suggests it was a too-rare opportunity where the unwashed masses sat down with officials from Toronto’s planning and urban design departments and have these folks explain some of the do’s, don’ts and wherefores of how development projects actually come to be.

And to the best of their ability, it was all explained in plain English. Which is why, when it comes to development (and other neighbourhood planning and building issues) most residents dread the arrival in their mailbox of a letter from the Clerk’s Office. Most people are eerily familiar with these diktats from city hall. They’re the ones that invite you to attend a meeting at community council and which explain, in jargon-laden prose, how you can become involved in local decision-making.

In the interest of democracy, these missives are welcome — if only someone could somehow explain in simple language what the issue is all about. Is it any surprise most end up in a blue box?

Doucette’s Big Tent approach to ease residents into the who, what, where, when and why of planning and development — especially as it applies to major avenues like Bloor Street West — was an effort to level the playing field between well-meaning but dazed residents and the development industry which has honed its techniques and skills through decades of holding all the high cards (plus a few extras tucked up their sleeve only to be played when required).

Which is not to say the development industry is deliberately evasive when it comes to playing by the rules. Heck, for too many years, the industry pretty much drafted those rules in the face of an acquiescent public. This helps explain why the well-meaning folks north of High Park, west of Keele Street, find themselves objecting to the exterior materials a developer plans to use for a new condo development.

Guess what, people? You don’t have any meaningful or legal voice in what the exterior of a commercial or residential building looks like. Provided it isn’t brightly painted cardboard, those sorts of finishing touches are entirely within the purview of the developer. Love it or loathe it.

Doucette’s Development 101 didn’t even begin to address these aesthetic shortcomings. But it was an overdue first step. These sorts of neighbourhood courses should continue to the graduate level — and beyond.