Good news! After a long few months in which he expressed only a handful of opinions on policy, Mayor Rob Ford is fired up about an issue again.
But it’s not what you’d expect. It’s got nothing to do with next year’s operating budget. It doesn’t really relate to Toronto’s ongoing housing crisis. And it sure doesn’t have anything to do with transit funding, which is probably the most critical issue facing politicians in the GTA right now.
Instead, he’s mad about section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act. On his radio show this past week, the mayor, along with Coun. Doug Ford, spent two segments calling section 37 a “shakedown” and even “extortion.”
There’s not really any reason to use such strong language. At its heart, section 37—along with its cousin, section 45—is a pretty innocuous tool that allows neighbourhoods to receive funds in exchange for local developments that go beyond existing zoning regulations. So a builder who wants to erect a 30-storey condo in a neighbourhood that only permits 20-storey buildings can negotiate with the local councillor and the community to win the rights to build their project in exchange for, say, funds for a new park.
The mayor himself once used funds secured through section 37 to build changing facilities at Don Bosco Secondary School, where he coaches football.
And why not? Toronto’s Official Plan, with its litany of prescriptions for height and density across all the city’s various neighbourhoods, exists for a reason. It’s all a careful tapestry, laying out expected population patterns and recreational uses. If a developer wants to effectively change the plan—build bigger and denser—then there should, by all rights, be a cost to doing so. That’s just good business.
Don’t get me wrong: the way City Hall administrates funds raised through section 37 could stand some reform. I’d like to see a fuller and more accessible accounting of funds raised and where they were spent. I’d also like to see broader consultation that ensures the funds are going to the places neighbourhoods most want them to go. But that’s minor stuff.
The mayor, on the other hand, seemed to oscillate between two preferred outcomes on his radio show. On one hand, he argued that developers shouldn’t really have to pay extra if their project requires a zoning variance. He suggested that instead developers should only be thanked for bringing their money to Toronto and creating jobs.
Section 37 isn’t really needed, Ford insisted, because “good developers will donate money for a park in the area.” Which seems wildly optimistic. And also raises this question: what about bad developers?
But the mayor and his brother also argued that maybe section 37 funds could continue to exist, but that any money raised shouldn’t be used in the local communities. “Pool it all together, and divide it by the 44 councillors,” they said.
If anything, that view, which has been trumpeted by budget chief Mike Del Grande for a couple of years now, feels more like a shakedown than the current arrangement. As it is, funds raised from developers go straight to nearby community interests, where there’s a measurable impact. Under the scheme favoured—maybe—by Del Grande and the Fords, any money raised would presumably just go into general revenues where it’d be lost in the weeds of Toronto’s operating and capital budgets.
And why exactly would local communities continue to support zoning variances for development under that arrangement? Why would a community let a developer throw a big building up on the corner when they get nothing in return?
For the life of me, I can’t understand why the Fords have seized on this issue when there are dozens of more important concerns facing Toronto. Yes, there are reforms worth exploring at the committee level, but this is hardly something worth expending political capital. The idea of pooling revenue is a basic non-starter — it’ll just lead to dwindling revenues.
And even if developers in this city are feeling “extorted” by section 37, it’s hard to muster up much sympathy for them—they’ve made billions throwing up Toronto condos over the last decade. And what did this city ask for in exchange? A few parks. Some greenery. A little bit of recreation money. Nothing that really made a dent in the city’s outsized infrastructure deficit.
Maybe residents are the ones who should feel ripped off.