Bringing Toronto planning into the 21st century - Part 2

Yesterday, we talked collecting all the information on one page, getting on the mailing list, and the information on the planning application signs. Today? 

Widen the net

Sometimes, you get information about a project sent to you without even asking for it. When the community consultation meeting is scheduled, generally everyone within 120 metres of the site receives a notice in the mail (along with everyone who asked to be added to the mailing list). Some of the time — such as when a project is likely to be contentious — the ward councillor will ask to expand the notice area. For example, for the meeting coming up this Thursday for the Postal Station K project, Councillor Stintz expanded the notice area a block further south to Orchard View, half a block further north to Roselawn, and two long blocks further east along Broadway than it would ordinarily have been. 

To be honest, 120 metres feels like it's a relic from a time when most rezoning applications were for people who wanted to add a second story or a back addition to their house. The people who are generally going to care about that are the next-door neighbours, or the busybody a few doors down the street. But many applications these days are in heavily-trafficked areas and 120 metres just isn't enough anymore. Last week, for example, the huge project at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton received approval from Toronto and East York Community Council. When the consultation meeting for that development was announced, 120 metres would have covered almost nothing but a few of the surrounding businesses. But a project of that size, in that location, will affect people living several blocks away — really, pretty much anyone who heads to Eglinton subway station in the morning will feel its impact. 

Since not all ward councillors are going to be consistent about how they engage their constituents, the standard notice area for any development proposal should be expanded. For buildings that meet the city's tall buildings standard, the notice area should be expanded even beyond that.

Leverage existing resources

Another one that's more for the wonks than anyone — it seems logical that there should be one centralized place you could go on the city's website and see all the community consultation meetings that are coming up. A list, or maybe even a calendar… 

Wait, what? There's a "Toronto Public Consultations Calendar", you say? I must be able to find the community consultation meetings on there then. Let's see… Taxi Industry Framework… Making Space for Culture… Richmond Adelaide Cycle Track… lots of interesting stuff, but not a single meeting listed about a development proposal. 

How's it possible that there's an entire calendar devoted to public meetings (even if it doesn't actually appear to be linked anywhere from the city's website), and it doesn't include any of the meetings that are among the most directly-relevant to the average citizen? 

How about Twitter? The TO Civic Engagement account would seem to be the perfect vehicle to get this type of information out. Send out notice of meetings once they're scheduled, as well as a reminder a day or two beforehand and again on the day of. 

Comfort is king

I only know what the consultation meetings are like in my own area, although I'm in somewhat of an unusual situation because there are three separate wards intersecting at my corner. But there are huge differences in the venues being used for meetings in my ward versus the two adjoining ones. 

I know that it's the planning staff who host the meetings and send out the notices, but I don't know whether it's them or the ward councillor's staff who arrange the venue. I live in ward 22 — sometimes the meetings for my area are in the basement of a Catholic school across the street in ward 25 but more often than not lately, they're held in the auditorium at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. The school is relatively new, so the auditorium has comfortable seats and a good sound system — it's really a perfectly fine place to invest a couple of hours in your neighbourhood's future. 

On the other hand, when meetings for area projects in ward 25 or ward 16 have been needed lately, they've been held on the 2nd floor at Northern District Library. The rooms tend to be a bit cramped and, when there's a sound system at all, it's not a good one. 

There is an enormous difference in the tenor of a meeting when people are comfortable in the surroundings. When people can't hear the speakers, they get cranky. When they get cranky, they're more inclined to interrupt people when they're talking, and then everyone gets even crankier. Cranky does not lead to productive discussion. 

I have some experience with renting facilities for community use, so I know that schools and churches are not cheap. But it's worth investing a bit of the city's money in getting a decent facility, or renting decent equipment, to create as smooth of an experience as possible. 

Shift to the night

This is the big one… 

Once the planning department has heard from everyone and issued their final report, the scene shifts to Community Council and City Council. Of the two, Community Council is where the public has the right to come and make a five-minute deputation, and then answer any questions that the councillors might have. 

However, there are a couple of problems with this. First, all four Community Councils meet once a month (or less), on the same day, at the same time, spread across the city at four different locations. So, if there were ever two development projects being discussed that were important to you, it's possible you'd end up having to choose which of the two was more important. Being that my three-ward intersection splits between two Community Councils, I can easily see this situation happening. In fact, come the fall, I'm almost positive it will. 

Second, and more importantly, the meetings are scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. The Etobicoke York, North York, and Scarborough Community Councils each usually have a short enough agenda that they're done by lunchtime. Toronto and East York Community Council, on the other hand, will often go right into the evening. Either way, the agenda items related to development applications tend to come up during the daytime, which is great for the planners, the architects, and the developers' lawyers. It's not so great, though, for members of the public who might be interested in making a deputation. 

If Community Council is the best and last chance for members of the public to get in front of councillors and make themselves heard — whatever the issue — there shouldn't be barriers to that happening. People shouldn't have to take time off work to exercise that right (and shouldn't be demeaned or accused by councillors of not having a job if they do, but that's another story). Key agenda items — and it'll be obvious what those will be — should be scheduled for after regular business hours as much as possible. 

These are just a few modest suggestions for how the development process in Toronto could be improved. Each time I attend a community consultation meeting, both staff and the ward councillor note how important it is for people to take part in the process, and make a point of thanking the members of the community for coming out to share their concerns and ask questions. If they truly mean this, the city ought to be looking to build the best process possible.