Thursday, September 27, 2012

109Oz: City-Building Ain't Easy

Proposed image of 109Oz, from

The Ossington Community Association (OCA) has been pressing ahead with trying to prevent the construction of a six-story building (known as "109Oz") in their neighbourhood, which they feel is of inappropriate scale (i.e. height and density). I wrote about their plight before, but was looking at it from the perspective of a developer; today, I thought I would try to look at it from an urban planning perspective.

The OCA has made their position quite clear (and if I might say, has certainly done their homework, even if there is an obviously biased perspective to the case they're making) regarding the "109Oz". The case fundamentally comes down to this: is the site an appropriate location to place a 6 story building? Certainly, the issue is more complex than that! Their planning position can be broken down into the following arguments:

  1. Ossington is not officially designated as an avenue
  2. A mid-rise building is not in character for the neighbourhood
  3. Toronto's Official Plan calls for the protection of stable residential areas

There are also have a handful of social issues they're worried about with the new development. I can't get to all of these in one blog post, and I need some more information about them myself to make a future judgment, so perhaps these can be explored in the future:
  1. The size of units being offered support a transient population
  2. Safety concern as new vehicles interact with school traffic
  3. The retail space being offered will be only affordable to a chain store

I will not pretend to be some sort of expert on the area (I've only visited it once), but I'll give my opinion on each of these points where I am able to. A lot of my second-hand information does come from the OCA website, which pretty clearly tries to paint 109Oz in a bad light. Still, one can't fault them for their passion in this project.

Argument 1: Ossington is not officially designated as an avenue.

This is true. Toronto's Official Plan (OP) designates particular areas of the city to direct "growth" towards. In essence, the city wants to build in the former city cores (e.g. downtown Toronto, downtown North York, downtown Scarborough) and along the main streets of the city where one will generally expect mixed-use development (e.g. the Danforth, St Clair West). These areas are outlined on this OP map:

Image from Map 2 of the Toronto Official Plan. The red circle indicates the contentious area in question.

 Without getting into too much detail, the "brown" areas are areas that the OP designates as "avenues". The "light grey" areas are not specifically designated by the OP, but generally represent low-rise neighbourhoods. Therefore, this area is not an appropriate place to direct "growth" to.

I disagree with the thrust of this argument, as it appears to be saying that intensification should be limited to particular areas of the city. While the OP may direct "growth" to particular areas, there is no expectation that growth can't (or perhaps, should not) occur in areas outside of avenues and the downtown cores. The OCA understands this I think, but object to adding a mid-rise building (6+ stories) here. However, there are certainly buildings much taller than 6 stories is other parts of the city that are under the same OP designation (of lack thereof) as Ossington. Heck, I myself live in a 15 story building, similarly lacking an OP designation (with a new building of similar size being built nearby).

While the OP might direct growth to particular areas, it cannot concentrate growth to the exclusion of all other spaces in the city; like it or not, we're all in this together. The basis  of intensification should not rest solely on some arbitrary colours on a map in the OP. Thus, the issue becomes judging what is (or is not) appropriate for a site. Even if the developer wants to characterize the area as being "avenue-like", it's the wrong battle for the OCA to be fighting. The issue is whether a six story building has some merit being built in this location. Unfortunately for the OCA, I think there is some.

Argument 2: A mid-rise building is not in character for the neighbourhood.

This section of Ossington is zoned (and largely built) as mixed-use. Most of the buildings are about three stories, and feature very small, independent stores. The area has a much more intimate feel to it than either Dundas or Queen, thanks in part because it has a lot less traffic than either street, and with numerous cafes and pubs.

Dundas has a much busier feel, thanks in part to the presence of several nearby banks. It feels like a place you go to to get work done, not necessarily to relax, although in fairness, the area is quite different in scale from the Dundas I'm used to (the one near Yonge St). Queen Street at Ossington is not generally considered to be an attractive part of the city; the nearby Centre for Addiction and Mental Health naturally brings a lot of people with addiction and mental health problems to the area. North of College, meanwhile, features much more Victorian-style housing, along with a public school. It feels much more like a residential area than the mixed-use area it's technically designated as. Thus, I get the feeling that this piece of Ossington ends up being this kind of oasis between the three conflicting realities.

Still, this area (like all areas) must eventually change; the question is therefore how. The developer seems to want to frame the area "as being" like an avenue, and thus should feature greater intensification, like what is found (now or in the future) at College and Queen, much like how the OP views its "official" streets that are designated as avenues.

The OCA has a few complaints on this line of thinking. The first is that the "strip" in question is not of "significant enough" size to be called an avenue. Secondly, they have an issue with designating the street's "right-of-way" (ROW; the distance from buildings on one side of the street to the other, which include sidewalks) as 20m like the proposal does (they claim the street does not have a 20m ROW, which is true). Unfortunately, neither is in an of itself a convincing claim.

The space between Dundas and Queen is a little under 600m. When you pick off the corners (i.e. the space that a corner lot would take up) you lose probably another 80m, putting you in the ballpark of half a kilometre. While I certainly wouldn't consider 500m to be a "significant" size when talking about an area of the city, what is damaging is that the bounds aren't two little-travelled streets in Toronto! Dundas and Queen both have a street car that connect into the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line, while there is 24 hour bus service on Ossington that connects to the Bloor-Danforth subway line.

Avenues are meant to take advantage of abundant transit opportunities to spur intensification, and I think it's difficult to argue that this Ossington strip is not well connected to transit. In other words, the small length of the strip in question is perhaps a hindrance to preventing mid-rise development, on the basis of it being so close to either end of an officially designated avenue.

The planning context that designates Ossington as having a 20m "ROW" is, again, the Official Plan (Map 3). How this "works" with the current ~18m ROW is that as Ossington redevelops, the city would take a metre from each side of the road for the purposes of road widening at some future date. The OCA finds this designation contentious for two reasons. First, there was a property (2 Ossington) which did not appear to "give up" a metre to increase the ROW. Secondly, the local councillor, Mike Layton, told the group that it would operate as an 18m ROW rather than 20m.

Section of Map 3 of the Toronto Official Plan. The black arrow indicates the strip that 1090z is on.

 I can't comment properly on what happened with 2 Ossington, but I can think of two possibilities. First, what was built at that location is roughly 4 stories; I believe the developer might have used the as-of-right zoning (i.e. what is written in the ZBL for the area). Certainly, had they wanted I think they could have had a good case for getting six stories. Getting the "extra metre" for future road widening would generally be one of the tools that the city would use negotiate a higher density. If the developer did not ask for a minor variance or ZBL amendment, then they have little reason to give up that extra metre of their property. The other possibility is that the city planner simply missed it. Keeping in mind that Queen St would have been the main concern, it's possible that no one flagged that the city was looking to widen the road in the distant future (planners are human too). Regardless, "2 Ossington didn't give up a metre for a bigger ROW, so why should we?", is a lacklustre defense as long as the OP still classifies the road as having a 20m ROW.

The second defense, that Councillor Layton told them that an 18m ROW will be the context that planning decisions will be made under, is noble, but has no legal status. The OP is looking ahead into the future (a future which may be several decades away) to a time when Ossington does have a 20m ROW, and that is the context that the OP (and therefore, planning staff and the developer) will operate on. For that to change, the OP itself must be amended, and it is far too late to amend it at this point. Politicians cannot simply claim it to be otherwise.

Argument 3: Toronto's Official Plan calls for the protection of stable residential areas. 

Is the mid-rise building being proposed is appropriate to the neighbourhood? Would something like this ruin the character? Would it harm the nearby residential buildings? The issue that the OCA has here seems to be the proposed height and massing of 109Oz. What will be built will still be mixed-use like the rest of the strip, so there is no potential for a "local undesirable land use". While I don't care for the design, the OCA seems to be alright with it. The question is therefore whether six stories would clash and cause issues with the rest of the neighbourhood, such as blocking sunlight, or encroaching on near-by low-rise residential.

A portion of the Toronto Official Plan's Map 18. The Ossington strip in question is labelled as a "Mixed Use" area.
The rationale for this argument is that this development would harm nearby residential uses (i.e. that blob of yellow to the right of that red strip that runs up that section of Ossington). Ignoring the social implications (which, as I stated at the beginning of the post, I hope to examine at a future date), this essentially means that new development in a mixed-use area (which is expected to be of a higher density than the nearby residential) should provide an appropriate "transition" between the two uses.

Toronto has guidelines, outlined in their Avenues and Mid-Rise Study, about how to create a building that does not lead to excessive problems in the neighbourhood, creating building "envelopes" that can inform a developer as to what sort of shape of building they could "make" on a particular property. These guidelines don't actually apply (given that Ossington isn't designated as an avenue) but there is still some general value in using them to determine what is or is not appropriate in a location.

This ends up being a technical exercise, but for the area in question, it would work something like this (note: I'm going to have to estimate some of these numbers, but it should give a pretty decent picture of what could be "built"). I will note however, that these calculations and numbers are being pulled off the internet; I have not seen the actual proposed building, and there might be some circumstances I'm not aware of or accounting for.

109Oz, once consolidated, will be about 40m deep (thanks to losing 1m to the city for the future road widening). Using the OP numbers, the ROW for Ossington will (eventually) be 20m. Behind the property is a lane about 6.5m wide, and beyond that are garages for low-rise residential. With these numbers, we can get a fairly rough idea of how the envelope will look. I will just do the envelope as seen from the "side", as the envelope facing from Ossington would be a lot more complicated, and not entirely relevant as it's the depth that determines the height.

I did this in MS Paint, so that's why it looks so great. The setback at the rear is approximate.

The maximum height of the building (not including a mechanical area) is considered be equal to the ROW, which is therefore 20m in this case. Instead of allowing a uniform "block", the guidelines create "angular planes" towards the front and back, preventing the building from blocking all sunlight to its front and back. The height at street level is to be 80% of the ROW; as the ROW is 20m, this means that the height allowed facing the street is 16m. From the back, there must be 7.5m between the mid-rise building, and the lot behind it. This is to preserve the "45°" angular plane, while still allowing for one retail and one residential floor. As there is a laneway at the back of the property that is  about 6.5m, it can be included in the calculation. A 45 degree angular plane is then "drawn" from each end until it hits the maximum height allowed; the building should fall in between the envelop, although a mechanical/penthouse of up to 5m is allowed on top, as long as it falls within the angular planes. Above is an example of what could be possible at 109Oz.

(I didn't label it, but the building would be ~39m from back to front.)

Theoretically, as long as the building falls within these guides, it will cause minimal to no impact on properties across the street or behind it, at least in terms of sunlight. Naturally, a building would be unlikely to look as strange as that; you would usually see a stepback at or before 16m (probably at the 4th floor, or around 14m up), rather than a strange, slanted roof on either side. 
Me writing over a blurry proposed image in purple, green, and dark grey. Ignore the red, and the fact I mirrored the image.

 Of course, judging by the blurry scan that the OCA has thrown up, the building rises at least a few more metres higher than 7.5m. After talking with the city planner briefly, what appears to be happening is that the developer is arguing that a "higher" angular plane of 10.5m should be allowed on the basis that -- under the current ZBL -- a height of 14m is allowed as of right. In other words, if the issue is preventing sunlight or having a massive building encroach on the properties to the rear, then a building that is essentially a 14m "box" would cause more issues with sunlight and scale than one that rises 10.5 metres at the back, before starting the 45° angular plane to the maximum height. It's a pretty interesting technical argument, and one that I think an OMB judge would find convincing.

From the image the OCA posted, there look to be only two spots that the building "breaks" out of this "modified" building envelope. The rear one is likely not a deal-breaker, as the resulting shadow would fall upon backyard sheds (rather than backyards). The front one might be of issue, although given that the building breaks up along the front facade, the actually area of the building that is in violation will not run the full length of the building, although judging by the mock-up image (seen at the start of this blog post), it still runs a significant amount.*** Shadow studies will likely determine how much of an impact it will have on the west sidewalk.

I want to make one extra comment, that the OCA appears to believe there is a big difference between a residential lot that runs parallel or perpendicular to the "mid-rise" property in question,*** although I'm scratching my head as to their reasoning. The Mid-Rise guidelines don't distinguish because there isn't much point to doing so (there should be a step down to the residential property, regardless of its alignment to mid-rise property). Regardless, there are only three properties in question (33, 35, and 37 Argyle St) that run perpendicular to the mid-rise property, and of those, only 37 Argyle is likely to be impacted by this development without care being taken. This is not enough justification to jettison the proposal outright in my mind.

There is no question about whether  a six-story building can sit on this property according to the guidelines. There will be some push and pull over the envelope between City Planning and the developer, but it can fit. It will still be up to City Planning to determine whether the encroachments are acceptable or not, but they are relatively minor aspects of a much larger building.

In conclusion...

... I think arguing that a six-story building isn't appropriate for that section of Ossington Avenue is a tough sell. I'm not saying there is zero merit in the OCAs arguments, just that their ones against having a mid-rise building here are weak; some mock-up images of how the building would actually look from street level would be nice to obtain, but in their absence I must concede that the mid-rise guidelines can work to fit a building here, and the design will "break up" the building, making it look less looming than I think the OCA gives it credit for.

I think the OCA's arguments that are more "social" in nature (i.e. the increased traffic and affect on businesses) are stronger overall, although it is unknown at this point whether those arguments would be enough to sway an OMB member if it came down to it. I hope to attend a meeting on Oct 3 that the OCA is running, and maybe even talk to some of the residents about the proposal.

In the meantime, the application is still under review with the city. They've flagged several issues that could cause the proposal to be modified, although at this point I doubt they'll outright reject a six-story building (modify perhaps, but not reject). Given that the OMB approved a six-story building just down the street from this one back in March, chances are that mid-rise will be the future of this strip; we'll have to wait and see how quickly it does develop.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Private-Public Problems

Eglinton Crosstown Station rendering, copyright 2012 Metrolinx

It was recently decided that the upcoming Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be not only built by a private partner, but also operated by one. This has raised many concerns about how the "private" LRT will mesh with the publicly owned TTC.

Many experts and government officials will answer those questions (although perhaps not allay fears) in the coming years. I have my concerns about public-private partnerships (PPPs, or P3s) in regards to the operation of a public service such as transportation, because there are often competing goals between each camp. The "public" part will want to get the best "value" for their tax dollars. The private partner will have one goal: turning a profit.

I certainly don't condemn anyone (private sector or otherwise) for wishing to make money, and any government organization should be concerned about delivering its service at a reasonable cost, but it's dangerous to assume that "saving money" and "making money" are synonymous goals. There are several considerations that any government organization (like Metrolinx) must be aware of when penning a contract such as this one:

1) Public Transit rarely makes money. Indeed, it probably shouldn't; the loss at the fare box is usually more than made up when one factors in the various physical, economic, and environmental benefits that public transit provides. Still, this raises an important question about how much of a subsidy the private operator should receive. To give an idea of what's at stake, the TTC right now recoups about 2/3rd of its cost from the fare box. That missing 1/3rd is paid for by City of Toronto tax dollars. If fare is harmonized, the question is where exactly the private partner will make money. The answer is usually to squint the eyes at those "fat" union salaries, but I wonder if the gap between union and non-union salaries is enough to satisfy the private goal.

2) Public Transit cannot "go out of business". What contractual terms would be set between Metrolinx and the private entity? If we can agree that the reason Metrolinx wishes to have the line privately operated is to pass the "risk" of running a line to a different organization, then we must accept that the private organization is going to want a contract that reduces their risk. After all, if they can't see making a profit off the line, then they aren't going to want to run it. Period. Consider the fiasco with the London Tube as an example.

3) PPPs are complicated entities. I'm reminded of an article I once read about when the U.S. Military got a private organization to make fruitcake for their soldiers. Rather than the typical page you would expect the recipe to be, the recipe was instead over a dozen pages long. The government had to be extremely specific about what they were requesting, so that the private partner wouldn't cut corners, or deliver an "inferior" fruitcake to their men and women. Now, if it takes over a dozen pages for both parties to agree on how to make fruitcake, how complicated do you think a contract for operating a transit line must be?

And let's urge caution from the actual "public" viewpoint as well; when we pay for the privilege of a service (such as public transit), part of the deal is that we get to keep an eye on the books. Private companies, on the other hand, would retain complete privacy over their own finances and operations. It's one thing to criticize the TTC, as they have few corners to hide from public inquiry. It's another thing to cross one's fingers and hope that the public subsidy a private organization is getting is being put to good use.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rethinking Poverty

"A homeless man sleeps on Queens avenue in downtown Toronto" (sic)

 Recently in the news, it was reported that a homeless man died owing more than $30,000 in fines, due to the Safe Streets Act, legislation from the Mike Harris days. The Safe Streets Act aims to "curb" panhandling by imposing fines on those caught doing so in an "aggressive manner", starting with a $500 fine, and then leading to either a fine of up to $1000, and/or a jail term of up the six months. Aggressive panhandlers can certainly make one uncomfortable within a public space; lord knows, in my short life I've seen panhandlers walking down a subway car asking for money, fights between two men for the "privilege" of opening a door to a Tim Hortons, and have even personally been accused of being racist for refusing to give change (although in fairness to Toronto, that happened in Halifax).

That said, hopefully we can agree that asking an individual to pay a $500 fine for panhandling is a ridiculous proposition; if they had $500 they could spend on such a fine, do you honestly think they would be panhandling  -- especially aggressively so -- in the first place?

In fact, pretty much all of our laws aimed to "stop" panhandling and homeless behaviour are absolute jokes. Fines and jail time are poor solutions because they do little to curb the behaviour. Designating places "illegal" to loiter/sleep in are just as ineffective, at best pushing a street person to a different part of the city, where it's someone else's problem to "deal" with. At worst, it's completely ineffective at "stopping" the behaviour.

The root causes of poverty (which lead to aggressive panhandling) are too complicated to be solved with temporary solutions (such as homeless shelters and food kitchens). Too often, society blames the individual for the state they're in, as if they're homeless because they want to be. As if they could just quit an addiction, cure their mental illness, or prevent the racism or prejudice that placed them on the street in the first place.

The biggest problem in my eyes with many of our solutions to dealing with poverty, is that we try and approach it from a traditional "market orientated" direction, believing that the problem with many people living in poverty is that they don't have enough incentive to lift themselves out of it. It's essentially the same argument that many would use against people they argue are abusing "welfare" programs: if we provide a base standard of living at little cost, then that will disincentivise a welfare recipient from going out into the market and getting a job or inventing iPhones and Snuggies or whatever.

Fair enough, it is certainly the case that some people abuse the system (and probably also the case that better "policing" of the system would cost more than simply accepting that abuse occurs). The problem, however, that the hardcore homeless face (that a normal welfare recipient would not) is that their behaviour can often be leagues more costly. Putting aside the $30k that the homeless man from the intro "owed", there are real costs to keeping homeless people "afloat".

We live in a society that dislikes the idea of giving someone something "for nothing", but also one that refuses to let a person die, even if the reason for poor health is a lack of the basic essentials in life (food, clothing, and shelter). Consider the following costs to the taxpayer incurred with someone who is "full-time" homeless that someone who is on welfare "full-time" will not:
  1. Policing costs (e.g. jail time)
  2. Medical costs (e.g emergency room visits)
  3. "Temporary" costs (e.g. temporary shelter use)
Do the math, and the costs are potentially staggering. That's the genius behind a program like "Streets to Homes", in that it approaches the problem from the opposite direction, asking "what does someone who is homeless need to break out of the cycle of living on the street?" rather than "what's the minimum we, as a society, are willing to pay for to keep someone alive?" Indeed, for most participants, having a stable place to live reduces the three costs above dramatically, which themselves can help be paid for by "welfare" money they would be entitled to anyway.

Even if you disagree with the principle of giving people "housing with few strings attached", if you agree with the principle that "taxpayers shouldn't pay more for a service than they have to", a program like Streets to Homes is a gold mine of savings. But (and this is important!) Streets to Homes alone is not a "one-sized fits all" solution, and some people misunderstand it as such.

So we get garbage like this column with its author wondering about homeless sleeping near City Hall:

Here I thought the city was dishing out $14-million a year — as part of its Streets to Homes program — and had an army of 71 social workers dedicated strictly to getting the homeless and panhandlers off the street and into homes.

"We're paying good money to get rid of them! Why are they still around!?"

Because if there was a one-sized fits all approach to curing poverty, we wouldn't have the degree of homelessness we have in Canada, let alone people sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square!

For starters, the quality of affordable housing and "donated" market housing in the "Streets to Homes" program is rarely going to be top-quality; as one of the quotes in the above says, not all the units have air conditioning. We're not Vancouver; Toronto can get pretty damn humid at its worst.

Secondly, regardless of their have/have not status, many homeless individuals are just as attached to particular areas of the city as any "tax-paying" citizen is; just because you're homeless doesn't mean you don't have friends, support, or favorite places to be in the city. A place to live might be great, but maybe not ideal if it's halfway across the city from your usual haunt.

Thirdly, just because someone has nothing doesn't mean they'll accept anything. Some might honestly view (perhaps even correctly) that housing will inhibit their freedom. A handful of social programs, no matter how well-funded and how well-intentioned they are will not help everyone.

Rather than kicking individuals out of Nathan Phillips Square for "breaking" some bullshit law, we need to figure out why those individuals are choosing to sleep there in the first place. What attracts them to the area? Why here, but not somewhere else? What does a program like Streets to Homes lack that would "solve" this behaviour?

Kicking them out at 2am won't solve anyone's problem.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: The Suicide Shop

Animation Still from The Suicide Shop (Le Magasin des suicides), 2012

I was lucky enough to attend the premier of "The Suicide Shop" (Le Magasin des suicides) at the TIFF yesterday. My girlfriend had friends who offered to get us some free tickets to a show of our choice. Consulting Movie Man Extraordinaire Brad Fox, we narrowed the way too many movies we could see at TIFF down to a handful, based on a few criteria, the most important of which was the likelihood that we wouldn't be able see the movie in theatres in the future. The Suicide Shop, a french animated dark comedy/musical, won. 

We were both surprised that we were handed glasses as we went into the theatre; neither of us were under the impression that this was going to be a 3-D film. Regardless, we ended up with pretty good seats (thanks, waiting in line an hour before the show!) and while I was bothered by how dirty the 3-D glasses were, I tried not to let my distaste for 3-D sour my opinion of the movie. The director, Patrice Leconte, was on hand for the movie, and the crowd was pretty excited.

To be as spoiler-free as possible, The Suicide Shop is a movie about a family (the Tuvaches) that runs a shop in a nondescript urban city (likely a rough stand-in  for Paris). Their trade is in giving you the right tool you need to commit suicide. As the movie explains, the world sucks, and what with all the economic and environmental collapse (and general misery), more people than ever are thinking about ending their lives. The Tuvache family is kind of like an entrepreneurial take on the Adams Family, making their products attractive to their clientelle, despite the grim nature of what they're selling (the patriarch of the family Monsieur Tuvache, proudly declares that their razor blades are sharpened in store, and they have rusty ones if you want to increase your odds of getting tetanus).

As per any good movie, the birth of their third child, a perpetually happy twerp named Alan, throws things into disarray. Despite the enthusiasm they project to their customers, their business is a dark one, and Alan's cheerful personality (if he's not laughing, he's whistling) makes it hard to sell ceremonial Japanese swords, deadly insects, and pre-noosed rope to their customers.

The Suicide Shop manages to straddle the uncomfortable line that innately comes when talking about suicide. The movie doesn't attempt to pass judgement on the shop's "customers". People from all walks of life are seen shopping for the method of death that's "right for them"; we aren't often told the stories about why they want to commit suicide. And perhaps this is for the best; the Tuvaches aren't trying to put the gun to your head, they're merely selling you the bullets. Entrepreneurs of death, in their own strange way. Once you have the means, the rest is your decision. But, in case their product fails, they offer a money back guarantee.

The animation itself is quite good, presenting the Tuvaches and their customers in thick outlines and various greys that stiffly move through the frames, whereas the jubilant son, Alan, bounces with colour and energy. There is a lot of detail packed into most of the backgrounds, making it a pleasure to watch. I wasn't huge on the 3-D (like many movies, it's hardly noticeable) but it's rarely a distraction, and the director even made the decision to make the movie brighter overall to help combat the unpleasant dimming effect from the glasses. Given the "flat" style of the animation, the 3-D works, in its own fashion. If possible, I think I would still recommend viewing it in 2-D however.

This is a musical, where characters can spontaneously break out in song, but don't expect any toe-tapping numbers here. The songs are generally competent, but they're not overall exciting. The lone exception is a scene where Monsieur Tuvache visits a psychiatrist, who proceeds to burst into energetic motions as he sings about his job. There are some interesting visuals that accompany some of the music, but the the musical numbers are quite forgettable.

The biggest flaw of this movie is its uneven plot. The relationships between the characters remind me in a lot of ways of The Simpsons, particularly the strained relationship between Monsieur Tuvache and his son Alan. The movie is supposed to be of Alan's desire to bring some cheer and happiness into the lives of his family, but that's not particularly an interesting narrative thread. The elder Tuvache meanwhile, is a man who is both charming and good at selling death to customers, but is troubled by his line of work (after all, if he's successful, he never sees his customers again). The movie spends too little time exploring Monsieur's contradictions, and instead includes a few farcical scenes where he and his son clash. The most puzzling is one where the elder Tuvache convinces young Alan to take up smoking, with head-scratching reasoning and no pay-off. Like the relationship between Homer and Bart, it's a perfectly acceptable idea in the film that a father might want to seriously harm his son out of anger, as long as no one is seriously hurt in the end.

The conclusion of the film is equally nonsensical, but certainly The Suicide Shop is not the first film to have its characters do a 180 when the plucky youth shows the adults the error of their ways.

Overall, The Suicide Shop is a fun little movie (it clocks in at a mere 79 minutes), but the whimsical animation is hampered by a fairly mediocre script. But it's still worth seeing if you like dark comedies, or quirky animated films. As a parental note, this movie probably isn't for kids. There is a moderate amount of swearing, and some brief nudity, although the violence is generally tasteful. This (I'm told) is pretty typical of European films, but still. I give this film a non-scientific 3/5.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In (small) defense of Rob Ford

2011 Photograph by Tara Walton, for the Toronto Star.

The big news from City Hall last week was Rob Ford's "conflict of interest" hearing, where "star" lawyer Clayton Ruby grilled him on the stand, trying to convince the judge that Toronto's mayor had violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. If the judge finds Mayor Ford "guilty", the minimum penalty is his removal from office.

Now, I'm not a lawyer. Additionally, I will tell you that Rob Ford was not my choice for mayor. However, in my opinion, I feel that the potential punishment against Ford does not match the "crime" he committed. I certainly think he should be punished, but that removing him from office would be extreme. Let me lay out what I know to be true about this case:
  1. While a councillor, the defendant solicited donations to a charity being run by the Toronto Community Foundation (the "foundation" bears the defendant's name, but he does not run it), from lobbyists and corporate donors. The defendant used city letterheads to do so.
  2. The integrity commissioner for the city warned the defendant that such activity was improper, and that the defendant should repay the donors. The defendant didn't repay the donors, arguing that the money went to charity (note: by this point, the defendant had become the mayor of the city).
  3. The issue was brought forward to city council, and in February of 2012, he spoke to and then voted to overturn the "order" from council to repay the money (the vote was passed, 22 to 12). A few points: a) the motion didn't require his vote to pass (and he probably didn't need to speak to it either); b) he did not declare a "conflict of interest" on this vote; and c) this is the action that the defendant is on trial for.

I think that last point is key here. We're not debating whether Rob Ford improperly solicited donations from lobbyists. We're not debating whether Rob Ford's vision for Toronto is bad for cyclists and pedestrians. We're not, as much as many of his enemies want to, debating whether Rob Ford is a bad mayor. Certainly, the "solicitation of donations" is the "conflict of interest", but in my opinion, there needs to be some nuance to the punishment.

There's been some impulse if you read the comments section of any major paper here in Toronto, that "finally, we can kick this horrible person out of office". That we can punish him for reading while driving, punish him for the Port Lands fiasco, and punish him for "ending" the war on the car by removing the "Vehicle Registration Tax", no matter how effective it may have been.

Was what Ford did, wrong? Yes. unquestionably so. Does Ford realize that (even if he didn't, at the time)? Yes. But is "removal from office" fair punishment?

Even if we have an issue with the election process (or perhaps more accurately, who was elected), we still have to respect the process. One of the main reasons we have elections is to give legitimacy to the individuals who win. To remove someone from office, the reasons (in my opinion) need to be severe enough to break that legitimacy. We're not talking about having to leave office for reasons of illness or death; rather, it's felt the politician has abused their power for personal gain, so much so that the only removal from office is considered an appropriate punishment.

As any critic of mandatory minimum sentencing knows, not all crimes are worth putting a blanket sentence over. Mandatory sentences remove the ability of a judge to use the nuances of the case to punish an individual as the actual offense might entail. I feel the same way about the punishment dictated by the Municipal Conflict Act; there's just too big a gap between the "minimum" punishment, and no punishment at all.

As I said before, I'm not against punishing Rob Ford for what he did; I just disagree that his "crime" (voting on a matter he had an interest in that was going to pass in his favour anyway, in regards to his soliciting donations from lobbyists for an arms-length charity) is worth kicking him out of office. If the Municipal Conflict Act had an option to fine (such as by forcing him to pay the $3150 he was told to pay back) or otherwise punish Mayor Ford -- short of removing him from office -- I would be cool with that.

A few people I've talked to have worried that not punishing him will create a precedence. I don't see it; a precedence for what? Soliciting donations to an arms-length charity (and again: not really even what he did "wrong")? Ford is taking a pounding from both sides of the media over this (remember: all he had to do was not vote on a matter he was going to "win" anyway to avoid all of this). Coupled with the headache that Hurricane Hazel is dealing with over in Mississauga, any future "loose cannon" on council is going to take the "councillors handbook" to heart when to declare a conflict of interest to heart.

The only way Ford comes out "on top" in this is, ironically, if the judge decides that what the mayor did was worth kicking him out of office. If that happens, expect him to start campaigning early for the next election, backed by the same wave of sympathy (over such things as his weight and minor criminal matters in the United States) that helped elect him in the first place.

Let's respect the democratic process, and "punish" the man for what he's on trial for, not the culmination of offenses (perceived or otherwise). It might be irritating to let Mayor Ford "off" for this offense, but if the choices are between "not punishing him" and "kicking him out of office", then I can't in good conscious recommend the latter. If you want Rob Ford to lose his job as mayor, then do it the democratic way: vote him out in the next election.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

A Few Words on Electoral Reform

2011 photo by John Woods, Canadian Press. From the CBC article, "Can internet voting boost turnout without risk?"

No urban planning today! Well, at least not directly. The combination of the US Presidential Election, the recent Quebec election, and especially the recent proposal to switch Toronto to a ranked ballot system for 2018 has got me thinking about electoral reform. There is obviously some connection between who we elect and what we build, but that's politics. And politics shouldn't be confused as being synonymous with elections (although certainly, elections are influenced by politics). Er, wait, let me start over here.

Since the time that Stephen Harper was elected back in 2006, I've heard a relatively steady chorus of complaints against the "first-past-the-post" system that is the dominant electoral system in North America. The complaints are thus: many times, a politican (or their party) will be elected to their respective position(s) with a seat count that is inflated/deflated (compared to their percentage of the popular vote) because only a plurality of votes (not a majority) is the requirement to "win". It's too easy for your vote to be "wasted". This combination is said to be making people disengage from elections.

There are several options that stand out as solutions, at least in the Canadian context:

First-past-the-post: What we have now. As the name suggests, it's about reaching the "finish line" first, not necessarily about doing it gracefully. If you gain a plurality of votes, you win.

Proportional Representation (PR): Generally in a PR system, voters elect parties, not individuals. Seats are divided up based on the percentage of the popular vote, filled from a party "list". This system ensures that your vote counts, but it also makes it nearly impossible to determine who represents you/your "riding".

Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP): Seats are divided into two categories, with voters picking both an individual in their riding, and a party. The first category of seats are filled through plurality votes for a candidate in the riding, as normal. The second are filled based on the percentage of the popular vote that a party gets. It's more complicated than that, but the end result is that you end up with a direct representative for your riding, and each party gets a percentage of the seats in government roughly equal to the percentage of voters who picked their party on the ballot.

Single Transferable Vote (STV): Voters "rank" candidates in order of preference, with multiple people able to represent a particular area. A "quota" of votes is established based on the number of votes and the number of seats to fill. Whoever "meets" the quota gets elected to the area, and any "extra" votes for a candidate (the ones that weren't needed for that candidate to "win") are distributed to the remaining candidates according to second choices. If this allows other candidates to reach the quota, they're elected, and the process continues until the seats are filled. Otherwise, the person with the fewest votes is dropped, and the "second" choice votes are added to the remaining candidates. Repeat until you fill all the seats for a riding. Potentially confusing to figure out who represents you.

Instant-runoff Voting (IRV): Voters "rank" candidates in order of preference. First picks are tallied, and if no candidate ends up with 50% of the vote, the person who ended up "last" in :first picks" is removed from the ballot, and anyone who voted for the last-place candidate has their votes "changed" to their second pick. This continues into one candidate receives 50% +1 of the popular vote, at which point they are the winner. Can allow for "compromise" candidates who are not really the voter's "first choice", but potentially their "second".

There are dozens of other methods, many of which are even more convoluted to explain. The point to take out is that each has advantages and disadvantages. Did you read one of my descriptions above, and still not understand how the method worked? That's a disadvantage! But while most usually create new problems, each tries to solve at least one problem with first-past-the-post.

Stephen Harper was not the first politician to be criticized because his party did not manage to grab more than 50% of the popular vote (fun fact: he and his mentor, Tom Flanagan, published a piece called "Our Benign Dictatorship" that argued for electoral reform back in the Chr├ętien era). The cries for electoral reform resurfaced when Rodney MacDonald was elected as Premier of Nova Scotia in 2006 (the Liberals got 23.5% of the vote, but only 17.3% of the seats), and when Harper was reelected in 2011 (claiming 39.6% of the vote, but gaining 53.9% of the seats).

The criticism can get even more extreme, such as when Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford garnered 47.1% of the popular vote to win the mayoral race, but because only 53.2% of eligible voters turned out, technically he became the mayor of the entire City of Toronto despite only about 1 in 4 of Toronto's citizens actually putting an "X" next to his name on the ballot. I hang around mostly left-leaning social circles, so the fact that all of these politicians are conservative should come as no surprise (but I'm sure the right complain to each other about how broken the system is when their guys lose too).

Let's not mince words: the "first-past-the-post" system absolutely benefits a government like Stephen Harper's (just as it did for Jean Chr├ętien's Liberals in 1993, 1997, and 2000), so politically there is little reason for him to "reform" the system. Additionally, it's also true that many elections are held when university students (an NDP leaning bunch in general) are away from their electoral districts (putting an additional barrier up that may cause them not to vote). Heck, I'm sure you could find evidence of voter suppression and fraud too, and yes, the electoral turnout decay is an issue, as are the benefits for incumbent candidates. But when most people talk about electoral reform, they're usually saying "The person I don't like was elected, we should reform the system so my person has a better chance."

That's fair! What is electoral reform other than hoping to make your vote count? But electoral reform is more than just politics. It's about fundamentally altering the way citizens elect their representatives, in a way that usually entails making voting a more difficult and time consuming choice (and the results, often more complicated, and potentially problematic).

Yes, electoral reform is often championed by proponents who believe it will help fix voter turnout (short answer: it would likely have a small effect; studies of a proportional representation system found about a 3-7% increase in voter turnout).

Yes, electoral reform could result in your vote "counting", creating a system where "majority" of voters elect a particular candidate rather than a plurality (although the chances of the electoral population as a whole actually voting in a candidate with a majority would still be slim; and depending on the system used, your vote still has a chance at being "wasted" in the current sense).

And yes, electoral reform could break the "two-party systems" that are seen in the United States and many riding in Canada, but they could also cause immense fragmentation, and the election of fringe parties with more political extreme views than we normally see elected (do you want the Christian Heritage Party or the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) to have a chance at seats in the House of Commons?).

Just to be clear: I would love electoral reform. I'm personally in favour of some sort of PR system, particularly a Mixed-Member Proportional system (perhaps surprisingly, I love the idea of minority governments). But we can't deny that there are benefits to first-past-the-post. It's easy to understand, it's fast to tabulate, and as a voter, it's clear who you're voting for. Most systems can't make those claims. It isn't too surprising therefore that referendums to switch to a different systems such as MMP in Ontario, and STV in British Columbia) were defeated.

And we also can't forget that there are other solutions than electoral reform to solving some of first-past-the-post's problems. Fixed election dates, new and easier voting methods (e.g. internet voting) , and even rethinking voter engagement (particularly the youth vote)  can bring tangible results without the need for a referendum on how we vote.

That said, first-past-the-post has had a good run here in Canada. I think getting some exposure to new voting systems, particularly at a municipal level, would be a good exercise. The proposal to switch to an "IRV" system here in Toronto is being reviewed, and I hope it's well received.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A Place Downtown for Little Ginny?

A chart showing the average floor space of a new apartment in the GTA. Graph from "Toronto's Condo Blog"

I had a small twitter conversation with Brent Toderian, the former Director of Planning in Vancouver, about building spaces downtown for families. The conversation was in regards to a recent article about downtown housing in Ottawa. Toderian's contention was that a condominium that was "1300 sq ft" (the number listed in the article as being a "comfortable" size for a family) was "suburban" thinking. His point, as I gather, is that declaring a space to be too large/too small to raise a family within is a silly way of measuring the "livability" of a space. As he tweeted to me, "Its more about the layout/bedrooms than sf, & affected by quality/amenities of neighbourhood. Not a math exercise." Toderian is (if I might be presumptuous, judging by another tweet he made) trying to
 argue that the formula should be "value for your money" rather than "space for your money".

This is an undeniable truth to such a statement; if you have a grocery store nearby, you can probably forgo a giant freezer for bulk purchases. Creative use of space can allow you to do a lot in a relatively small area. Thinking of "space" as nothing more than a raw footprint can be very misleading. Still, even if we can imagine a family using a relatively small space (and it's certainly a fun exercise to think how you could accommodate a three bedroom place in say, 1000 sq ft), that is generally a concern for someone other than the developer. After all, they absolutely have to deal with the "math"; most zoning by-laws are going to be quite explicit about things such as height, density, and the number of units they want to build.

The problem that Ottawa (and many other places, such as downtown Toronto, and I assume downtown Vancouver) is that "family" sized units -- however you wish to define them, but let's just be very broad and say "three bedroom" -- are not a hot commodity. As a recent CBC article discusses, the market is demanding one bedroom (and one bedroom + den) places that are barely cracking 800 sq ft of space (and often, not at all). The long term implications of this market demand is a very transient population, that often must move to find space that can handle a burgeoning family. Couple that with the high cost of living downtown (and the subsidization of the suburbs... another topic I'll try and address in the future) and it's no wonder that some think that downtown is no place to raise a family.

It is therefore not surprising that the answer from most cities is to force developers to include affordable "family sized" units via a ZBL (or a ZBL amendment). Letting the developers decide what should be built (which subsequently will determine who will live there) isn't going to diversify the housing stock, at least not until the market shifts.

But that still begs the question: if the problem from the developer perspective is a math problem, how do you, as a city planner, influence the equation to produce the "answer" you're looking for? Even if the result you're trying to deliver is "value for your buck", without a strong ZBL, you're going to have to "convince" a developer that it's worth their time to build units made for a family, rather than young professionals.

I ended up asking Brent Toderian whether he had any specific examples he'd point to as spaces where families can live in "less than" 1300 sq ft. His answer was that there are thousands of kids living in downtown Vancouver, because "families pick neighbourhoods". That may be true, but what are the developers picking?