Category Archives: Policy

Ontario Architects Support Healthy Workplaces

On Wednesday May 24th, 2017, the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) gathered together at their annual general meeting and showed their support for ensuring healthier workplace standards. A motion brought forward by John MacDonald called his fellow architects into action by asking them to stand up to solve issues of equity and fairness within the architectural profession. The motion specifically pertains to exemptions in the Employment Standards Act that exclude architects, among other professions, from certain employment standards such as entitlement to minimum wage, overtime pay, and vacation. The motion was received with resounding support from members of the OAA.

John was inspired to spearhead a grassroots movement among architects in Ontario to prove that architects are willing and able to take the lead to ensure better working conditions. “Not everyone in this profession has enjoyed the support and respect from employers that I have, in my journey from student to Intern to Architect and finally Principal of my practice”, says John. “Architects are leaders in our communities, and we need to lead on this issue as well. Ours is a fast-paced deadline-driven environment that may not always support the work-life balance and opportunity that is key to a healthy 21st Century workplace. We can be better.”

John’s motion has quickly gained traction, receiving an astounding approximate 160 votes in favour and only 7 votes against at the OAA Annual General meeting. When asked about the success of his motion John says, “I feel extremely gratified. This is a huge endorsement of the ability of our profession to lead on these important issues.” The motion has sent a strong message to the OAA and to other professions that those who contribute to our success and the public good must be treated fairly, with proper compensation for overtime and recognition of good work-life balance. JMA invites all like-minded professionals to join us in the effort, regardless of profession. While it’s true that the Province and many professions are studying these issues, the time for study is long past. Self-governing professions need not wait for others to act for them. Now is the time and place to move forward. #architectslead

Listen to John discuss healthy workplace standards with CBC’s Craig Norris: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/the-morning-edition-k-w/episode/12745774

Team Working

JMA office, Kitchener Ontario

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#architectslead

architectslead

Architects lead in so many ways: co-ordinating and leading complex projects on the journey from idea to performing facility, advocating for healthy communities and planet, and caring for the built environment. It seems fitting that our industry should step forward to lead once again, by advocating for ever-healthier workplace and employment standards.

For some months our firm has been looking into issues of equity and fairness in how architecture is practiced. Employment standards, respect for everyone’s efforts and contributions, and healthy workplaces are key to our success. As professionals, we want to lead in these areas, and where better to start than with our own industry? Good can always be better, and less than good should never be acceptable.

Exemptions to Minimum Employment Standards in the Professions

It’s not generally well-known that some professionals are exempt from certain employment standards: entitlement to minimum wage, entitlement to overtime pay, or even vacation. Practitioners of architecture are one of this group, which includes practitioners of law, medicine, engineering, and others.

Why is that? Well, I’d say that’s because the practicing architect owes a duty of care to the public good, and has professional obligation to society and clients. This can’t be inhibited by how hard it is, or how long it takes, to get the job done right. Fair enough. We are a self-regulating profession that must meet the standards of the Architects Act, to preserve and protect the public interest.

That doesn’t mean this exemption should apply to everyone in the office though.

Unfortunately, the interpretation of employment standards in our profession seems to be that all architects, even the Interns, are not deserving of protections regarding hours, pay, and conditions. To my view, this is unfair. While I understand the reasoning that the practicing professional who is responsible for a design is exempt, the intern, the non-practicing architect, and the remainder of the staff, are performing their duties under the direct supervision of that practicing architect. They do not bear the same responsibility, and in our industry they are vulnerable to long hours, poor work-life balance, and sometimes little or no pay for extraordinary hours and efforts.

So we are aiming to change this situation, in the interest of fairness and equity.

#architectslead

I have submitted a motion to the 2017 Annual General Meeting of the Ontario Association of Architects for consideration by the membership, in Ottawa on May 24th. We hope that architects can make a strong statement to our Council and to the public that as a self-governing profession we are capable of higher standards, and do not fear to be measured by them.

We invite all like-minded professionals to join us in the effort, regardless of profession. Ours is a fast-paced, deadline driven environment, but that is true of many other industries and workplaces in the 21st Century. We can all benefit from healthier workplaces and respect for everyone’s contributions.

For many years we’ve carried the following quotation from Jane Jacobs on our website, from her book Canadian Cities and Sovereignty-Association:

“All of us, if we are reasonably comfortable, healthy and safe, owe immense debt to the past. There is no way, of course, to repay the past. We can only pay those debts by making gifts to the future.”

In our own practice we strive to uphold principles of fairness and equity. We reach beyond a carefully contrived minimum duty within or below the law, to a more equitable place for all of us. We don’t believe that all who work in the profession of architecture are so lucky. There are and will continue to be pockets of activity and behaviour in the professions that must be improved. Jane’s message resonates with us as a goal for everyone. So we’ve set our sights on a gift to the future, to build upon the Healthy Workplace initiative that the Ontario Association of Architects is already considering.

The Motion

Click to view Equity and Fairness in Our Profession for specific discussion of the issues and the motion I am bringing forward for the consideration of my colleagues in architecture, and some personal points of view on the Employment Standards Act.

Visit http://www.oaa.on.ca/ and https://www.raic.org/ for more information about what a practicing architect does.

Your comments and discussion are most welcome, about how best to make this gift to the future. It’s a gift that is timely and needed.

– John MacDonald, OAA, MRAIC

#architectslead

 

St. Thomas Community Recycling Centre – PIC

What is a PIC? A Public Information Centre is a communication tool used to share information with the public, as a group in one place, regarding a specific topic.2015-05-06 17.08.58copy On Wednesday, May 6th, 2015, JMA presented and facilitated a PIC for the City of St. Thomas’ Community Recycling Centre held at the City Hall. The purpose of this PIC was to present the community with the proposed project design and to receive comments and concerns regarding the project. To accomplish the task at hand JMA produced the following:

  • 9 presentation boards to be displayed around the room, highlighting the facility design, operations and specific aspects of the project which were deemed important for design decisions;
  • comment sheets with specific questions for the public’s participation;
  • a presentation of the project’s development and proposed design to date.

Welcome The first section of the PIC was an ‘open house’ for the public to browse the presentation boards and converse with the design team one-on-one. The second section was the presentation, projected large on the wall and presented by the design team (John MacDonald, David Smith and Ashley Jardin). The third and last section was a question and answer period where the public had free range to lead the discussion. Site Design The project was well received and the public turn-out and participation was excellent.

Mill Woods Aurora

Recently our firm submitted a design for the Edmonton Park Pavilion Design Competition. Intended to promote design excellence and as part of the City of Edmonton’s commitment to “cutting edge” quality design, and ensuring that such a level of design and innovation is brought to all civic buildings, the competition was a fun way for our firm to work together to generate exciting ideas are outside the scope of our everyday work.

Our Design:

The Mill Woods Aurora Pavilion is a dance of the spirit for the many streams of culture and activity that traverse the Mill Woods community and its major public park. It engages the broadest range of visitors and passersby, as much in snowbound winter evening as warm summer day. It guides accessibility, new uses, casual meeting, and cultural connection, in addition to enhancing the existing park landscape and supporting its organized activities. It will enrich the exploration and celebration of cultural memory, volunteerism, achievement, and future possibilities across diverse heritage traditions. It provides an interactive beacon for Mill Woods’ vibrant and sustainable future.

The Design Addresses the Following Community, Urban, and Architectural Issues

Design Rationale

Rather than concentrating the design of place and shared experience to the building interior or ground plane, in an annualized landscape that is as dark and snow-covered as it is warm and verdant, we wish to offer architectural experiences and possibilities as users move freely through the Community, the Park and the design. The Pavilion will communicate strongly through all seasons, in the night environment, through many media and senses, and to the park as a whole. We believe the role of the Park and Pavilion is to engage the community and passerby as much as the active user, and we have organized the design to support this idea.

We wish to:

  • Create a sense of place that celebrates passage and journey, movement and light;
  • Design for potential ease of construction and use should the Pavilion be phased;
  • Foster a common experience of connection, of wonder, and of possibility;
  • Engage the community’s creativity and the diverse cultural and activity streams of its citizens in architectural experiences that invite exploration, touch, and further contribution to an evolving history for the Pavilion and Park.
Description of the Design and Its Achievement of Edmonton Design Committee Principles
 A Universal Scale
The Aurora Borealis is a special and shared northern experience. Our intention is to interpret and link this experience with community aspirations. Unlike its heavenly counterpart, however, the Pavilion’s Streamers of reflected sun and LED light can be openly approached, touched, used and explored by day as well as night, through its textured materials, web-based technology, lighting, and formal movement. Like the aurora, the Pavilion will be an integral part of the skyline for the Park, its surrounding streets, and adjacent community buildings.
Mill Woods consists of flowing streams of heritage, of connection and of capacity that link with 85% or more of global cultures. Each of these streams shares a common experience: of migration, of settlement, and of aspiration. Such patterns of experience are not new to Alberta’s plain. The Plains Cree, migrants themselves from the woodlands of central Canada, called the Aurora the dance of the spirits.
  • The Aurora’s Streamers            Streamer – any one of the luminous streaks that make up the aurora borealis and the aurora australis

Much like the mysterious and magical Aurora, the Pavilion’s Streamers are designed for movement and possibilities, a Dance of the Mill Woods Spirit. The texture of their stainless steel chains will sparkle in the sunlight and glisten in the rain. They create and support ice sculptures in the spring thaw, provide light shows from near and far, and can even generate waves of bubbles when children paint their surfaces with soapy solution on windy days.

Most importantly, however, the Streamers highlight community engagement, volunteerism, cultural heritage and public-spirited initiative. We strongly encourage their embellishment and decoration with brightly coloured disks engraved with the names and stories of community volunteers, athletes, leaders, and achievers. We invite further additions that acknowledge donors and contributors to the Pavilion’s construction, to further amenities in the Park and community, and to supportive programs and neighbourhood capacity-building initiatives. Informal additions of commemorative locks that carry personal meaning and connection will build tradition and help the Pavilion create a unique sense of centre for citizens of all ages. 

The Love Padlocks tradition may have originated in the Far East, but now includes over 28 countries, Rome’s Ponte Milvio, similar bridges in Paris, and districts of Los Angeles. At each of these famous locations couples place locks to symbolize their commitment. Like these examples of popular tradition, as well as destinations like Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, the Pavilion will become a celebration of Mill Woods’ world of distinct heritages united in community achievement.

Over time, it is our hope that the Streamers of the Mill Woods Aurora will develop into delightful and luminous veils of commemorative story and aspiration. The Pavilion will become a unique, highly visible symbol of a common history, of connections to Mill Woods’ many heritages. It will be a magical addition to the Park year round and in its night environment, using light show compositions and patterns contributed by the public through the Pavilion’s web interface.

In its relationship to the open plain of the Park, the Pavilion is also evocative of a larger morphology of history, passage and movement on the Prairie landscape:

  • of stockade and trading fort;
  • of buffalo pound, and livestock fence;
  • of carved river and streambed.

Mill Woods Community Scale

Most Park visitors use the Pavilion amenities only briefly. They experience the Pavilion from its exterior as they pass through, around, or along the edges of the Park. The Pavilion will enhance the urban experience of these citizens as well as Park users. Interactive lighting controlled through internet access adds to the magic of winter festivals and creates a safe and positive night environment near the Pavilion during evening hours. The stories and commemorative function of the Streamers create connection well beyond the Park boundaries and into the community.

Working with the Park Scale

The location chosen by the City for the Pavilion is central to the Park, providing amenity for all its users. The Pavilion is an entry passage for those arriving from the south, but also a centre of activity and meeting. The orientation of the building complements the goals of the Mill Woods Park Master Plan. The Streamers of aurora extend throughout the site in the form of walkways, connecting the sports fields to the amenities at the Pavilion. The design respects and enhances the path desire lines identified by the Park Master Plan. The Aurora also

provides possible design direction for new elements, pathways, storage buildings, and other amenities that will enrich our experience of the Park.

The Pavilion’s Gathering Space

The two lobes of the Aurora Pavilion are designed to create a vibrant new public outdoor space for Mill Woods and its principal park. Oriented to admit summer breezes, yet protected from prevailing winter winds, this unique and magical space supports many scales of activity and event in all seasons:

  • as summer camp space, race start line, cinema, meeting ground, market, and centre for winter carnivals, seasonal events and cultural celebrations of all kinds;
  • for casual use and event dining that supports concession operations; for kite, chess and games rentals, impromptu croquet games and other amusements;
  • as a venue for temporary exhibitions for the Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton Fringe Festival performances, tournament headquarters, fundraisers and contest sites, and broadcast studio for local talent shows;
  • for community connection, web-based interaction, citizenship ceremonies, fund-raising, acknowledgement and commemoration using the interactive veils that form the space.

Sustainability Principles

Sustainability

The project will attain LEED Silver certification through a variety of building, site, innovation and community sustainability measures that include:

  • Orientation and clerestory to provide natural day lighting and winter solar gain.
  • Recessed glazing and overhangs for protection from summer sun, with automatically operable clerestory and internal transom windows for natural cross-ventilation.
  • Wood structure from sustainably managed forests.
  • Steel elements have the inherently high recycled content of steel, and no maintenance or coating required for its stainless components.
  • Innovative rainscreen straw bale exterior wall construction on rubble trench foundations forms the building’s unique shapes cost-effectively, with durable finishes and high insulation value.
  • Foundations using rubble trench technology to below frost lines significantly reduces new concrete use and the attendant energy of its manufacture, and allows for recycling of local concrete product from demolitions.
  • Collection of all snow melt and rain water runoff, as an integral part of the architectural design. Permeable paving to central court, combined with hard surface finishes to access walkways, patio, and concession area.
  • Stormwater drainage to infiltration trenches with low maintenance, native drought resistant grasses and habitat protection, with potential below grade water collection for re-use in grey water systems.
  • High performance insulation values to roof and wall, with high reflectance-coefficient roof covering to reduce solar gain and heat island effect.
  • High efficiency gas-fired boiler or potential ground source hydronic loops with in-floor radiant heat for thermal mass storage and humidity control, programmable for daily energy savings and seasonal setbacks.
  • LED-based interior and exterior lighting controlled by sensors and web-based interactive software, exploiting colour capabilities and long life expectancy.
  • Water-bottle filling station as a focus of the gathering space, to promote alternatives to commercially-bottled water use by both sport participants and spectators.
  • Development of a landscape aesthetic and path system that allows for areas of the park to return to zero maintenance native grasses.

Technical Aspects of the Design Solution

Material and Construction Principles (with reference to the Typical Wall Detail)

  • Rubble and concrete trench foundations to below frost depth, with foundation drainage.
  • Concrete slabs-on-grade with clear finish.
  • Simple, sustainable load-bearing wood structure and straw bale exterior wall construction finished in textured, durable cement stucco. The exterior plane assembly of the bale wall incorporates a foundation drainage membrane manufactured from recycled HDPE.
  • Independent post foundation, galvanized steel post and bracket support to stainless steel top and bottom tension cable system and link-chain Streamer elements.
  • Flat roofs draining to select water leader locations, joining to the perimeter drainage system, to infiltration planting beds extending throughout and beyond building.
  • LED lighting systems, web-based programmable to exterior lighting. Webcam technology for community interaction and public oversight.

The Pavilion is a deliberately flexible offering that engages Mill Woods and its citizens in an ongoing narrative of emerging tradition, of identity and reflection, and of a community journey in harmony with economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Insurance Anyone?

We’ve all got enough high school biology to appreciate that the big fish eat the little fish and so on down the line, but even simple, straight line interdependence has become a somewhat abstract concept these days. The line from our resources and capacities to our needs is getting very, very long. Salads don’t come from fields anymore. They just come from the store. The effort needed to move the ingredients 3,000 km to our table is buried in the transaction price, and we give it little thought. Over a half century of cheap energy and a “resources without limits” attitude has produced a cornucopia of goods in our neighbourhoods, and a progressively more entrenched idea that the citizen’s role in the ecosystem is as the unquestioning top-of-food-chain consumer. I consume, therefore I am.

The provocative documentary The End of Suburbia sets out much of the issue. One can argue with the timing, but a collision between finite resources and an attitude of infinite consumption seems inevitable.

There are, of course, some major problems with this attitude, not the least of which is using our unrealistic consumption model to judge quality-of-life issues, and public investment. How do we judge the value of public services to which we all have access, and for which we all pay? Can we put a price on having someone answer the phone, and responding with help, when we dial 911?

Well, ….., there are fiscal models that allow us to do exactly that, courtesy of the insurance industry. An example is the fire brigade widely used before the era of publicly funded fire departments. Your purchase of fire insurance, after an insurance appraiser evaluated the risk and potential loss of your premises, meant the insurance company would send their fire brigade to fight the fire, presumably to reduce the amount of its loss payout. The cost of the fire brigade was hidden in the insurance premium.

A comparable idea today might be the auto insurance plan, assessing your car value and your driving habits, and providing potential repairs for an upfront monthly fee.

So, where are your premiums headed? Going up? And the coverage you get? Going down?

Another financial plan for firefighting involves standing in front of your burning house and negotiating a price for assistance, after the fire starts. This second plan is usually more expensive, although involves many fewer customers in the transaction. Victims of this year’s snowstorm on the 401 (at least those without CAA membership) found out the price of a tow truck when it was wanted in two places at once. Highest bidder, anyone? What happens when I can fill up your tank, or his, but not both? Oooh, I’m a rich man!

There are reasons, you see, why we are willing to pay for services that we may never use. We share the burden together, and undertake the risk together. It forms a part of our quality of life, and supports our peace of mind. As a bonus, the public fire department might save you, not just your house. It’s also more efficient and cheaper in the long run to share the fire department than to have your own.

Across our province there are any number of excellent projects that would increase our public storehouse of benefits and capacities for all to enjoy and use. Some of these, like rapid transit initiatives, are physical infrastructure. Others are less tangible, and strengthen our helping hands as neighbours. We struggle to value these public benefits, however, precisely because they can’t be bought and sold in the marketplace. We share them in ways that make fiscal sense, but are beyond market forces. As a citizen I understand the value, but as “taxpayer” I want to see a measurable outcome, within my commoditized and very private point of view. What’s in it for me, right now? Why do I pay for schools if I have no children? [Well, … , how about because someone has to pay into the Canada Pension Plan while you draw out of it, or tend your sick bed, like perhaps that educated child you helped to create!?]

To borrow an old saw, we want to know the price of everything in today’s dollars, but understand the future value of nothing. Since we can’t put a market price on future amenities (the value of inspiring and beautiful streetscapes and landscapes, breathable air, and the water quality of our streams, to name a few), nor restrict their enjoyment to paying customers only, we lack the tools to properly debate and decide questions of public goods. We are less and less committed to the common will necessary to create amenities for the future. Both debate and effort are especially difficult when the path of dependence from polluted air back to its origins in the tailpipe of my car is not understood, or worse still willfully ignored.

A second problem with our present arrangements is that the systems upon which we rely have very little redundancy. No Plan B. What exactly is our backup plan if fossil fuels aren’t limitless and the public purse bottomless? Electric cars? Ah, … , and where will the electricity come from?

Right! … From the outlet in the wall!

Our lack of understanding about the length and fragility of the energy chain, back through the utility grid to the power plant to the fuel source, leaves us vulnerable to bad decisions in good times. Solutions to our problems appear simple, because they seem close at hand (just plug the car in!) when in fact they are very distant (Saudi Arabia, or at the end of a long and energy-intensive industrial process in the Tar Sands).

Real alternatives will take time to build, and we won’t have that time if the need for a Plan B becomes suddenly and blindingly obvious. One way forward is to strengthen and support alternative networks and simple interdependences that are still in place, yet overlooked because they are not valued or sold. Support for local food networks, investment in neighbourhood relationships (with programs such as Kitchener’s Festival of Neighbourhoods, an initiative that our firm supports) and protection for the arable land in our watershed are inexpensive insurance schemes that ensure these pieces of infrastructure are still available when Plan A (the no-peak-oil-don’t-worry plan) springs a few leaks.

One of the most important civic elements in this insurance kit is sustainable rapid transit. In the unlikely event that we cannot discover, refine, package and transport enough things to burn in our cars and electricity plants, environmentally sustainable transit might become a wildly popular option for getting around. Better to have it ready, and in use, rather than wishing for it when it’s too late. No amount of investment in asphalt will be useful if the refinery runs dry.

Taxpayers are busy judging the value of public transit and other public benefits using 2011 accounting and studies that compare these systems to investment in more asphalt for the car.

That’s like judging the value of the fire department on a day when your house isn’t burning down!

Insurance anyone?

 

The Subsidy Cascade

Let’s play a game.

I’ll write about municipal taxes and utility fees, and you try to stay awake. Yes, It’s that season again, in which a tale of two certainties, Death and Taxes, should be revised to Death by Thinking about Taxes, Followed by Taxes. Notwithstanding, we will now add our contribution to the subject by writing about writing about taxes. Insane, I know.

If ever a column risked banishment to the bottom of the bird cage, I think this is it.

So, dear reader, why can’t this architect and designer resist dragging the pond for the putrid evidence of tax rate imbalances, development charge cross-subsidies, and the evils of postage stamp pricing that we will shortly discuss? Well, maybe three reasons.

First and foremost, we’ve somehow got to maintain the communities we’ve built, and to hand them over to our children in a fiscal and physical shape that’s actually affordable and sustainable. The evidence is fairly clear that for decades we’ve not been doing this, and the reckoning is nigh. Understanding how we fund our municipal costs, and the actual price of the services we so take for granted, is critical to the public discussion of decisions we face for the future of our communities.

Second, it seems that planning and environment departments at every level haven’t been paying attention to what the finance departments are doing, and vice versa. In a classic case of silo thinking, the planners and environmentalists have been busy promoting and regulating compact, sustainable communities that we can afford, while our system of revenue and expenditure continues to subsidize urban sprawl that we cannot. This has got to stop. A critical first step is to get the conversation and the evidence out into the open, and out of the hands of the experts.

The last and most important reason to talk about these issues is to link them to our responsibilities as citizens. Not as taxpayers. Citizens. A healthy discussion of the common good involves some fundamental principles that are sorely lacking when we make everyday choices. Where subsidies are hidden from us, or where others foot the bill for lifestyle preferences, we make poorer decisions.

Pamela Blais, an urban planner and principal of Toronto-based Metropole Consulting, has recently published a book detailing the many ways we encourage sprawl through cross-subsidy and the mis-pricing of taxes and services, Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl. Blais’ work is based on a simple truth often overlooked: that our communities are shaped not by policy, but by the repetition of a few key location and density decisions made by developers, builders, homeowners, business owners, employees, families and institutions every day. “These decisions are shaped in no small way by prices – both absolute price levels and the relative prices of different types of development in different locations – and of different modes of transport.” Plans don’t make urban form. Everyday choices do.

When the true costs of our decisions are clearly reflected in the prices we pay for housing, transport, and utilities, we make informed decisions and finance our own preferences. Blais chronicles the many ways that taxes and fees work against this principle, and more seriously the ways that inefficient choices are subsidized by efficient ones.

Chief among the culprits for Ms Blais is the concept of Average Cost Pricing, which might also be called Feet in Oven, Head in Icebox Pricing. For example, public finance departments take large swaths of cost (like the cost of new infrastructure to support community growth) and divide these costs by the number of new residential units and amount of non-residential floor space that is anticipated in this growth. This creates an average development charge of many thousands of dollars that is assessed against each new unit, regardless of where that unit is located and how that unit affects costs! Although the total amount of required funding is thereby collected, this approach means the creation of a unit at the periphery of our communities, in a sprawling suburb, with its heavy cost burden on density-sensitive service networks, is not only given a price break, but actually subsidized by the pricing of units built in compact urban form and central locations. Buyers, unaware of these factors buried in pricing, are given a discount in the first case, and a penalty in the second.

Much is made of “free market choice” by advocates of laisse-faire planning approaches, but with cross-subsidies like the example above the market is anything but free. Blais sides with most economists in arguing for marginal cost, rather than average cost pricing. This determines the public cost of growth and network upgrades as the actual cost of adding more units both at the periphery and also within the existing network, as well as the effect of density on the cost of services. In each case the appropriate price is charged.

Municipalities are starting to tailor development charges to reflect these large differences in development costs imposed by growth, but the little done to date looks more at where growth is located, rather than equally critical factors of density and mix of use.

Once initial housing and business choices are made, using the assistance of cross-subsidies that reinforce inefficiency, the situation gets rapidly worse.

Perverse Cities does an admirable job of setting out the myriad of ways that the initial subsidy is reinforced, through our tax and utility bills. At each step the application of Average Cost Pricing subsidizes the operating and maintenance costs associated with sprawl, using dollars collected from people who have made more sustainable choices. Blais uses a term coined by others to describe this system: “Postage Stamp Pricing”. The postal system is a classic network distribution system, with highly variable costs to deliver letters along a far-flung street of 60 foot wide single family lots rather than by standing in an apartment or office mailroom stuffing slots. The cost of the first is many times that of the second, yet the price of a stamp is equal for letters to both locations and densities. Repeated not once or twice, but millions of times a day across all our service systems, the subsidy for inefficient growth is enormous.

But can we establish efficiency in our low density ex-urbs? A common well, perhaps? In snow plowing? Road repair? Sewers? No. Can we ignore all the vehicle kilometers generated by new subdivisions, retail strip malls and fast-food restaurants, and simply ask downtown condominium owners to pay the average operating cost of these networks through their property tax and utility bills? Yet we do. Each day we pay bills, and each spring we debate property taxes, with little thought to the massive transfer of money from efficient and sustainable areas of our communities to those areas that create very high costs, from areas where the transit system covers its costs through revenue to areas hopelessly subsidized.

The effect of subsidized location, building, and transportation decisions made again and again and again is played out in a cascade of network services, billings and taxes, all reinforcing last-century’s utopian dream: the sprawl that we know is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

For Pamela Blais there are clear solutions to price distortions that require changes in how development charges, property tax, and utility bills are calculated. The solutions involve data that in many cases is already collected. She advocates that subsidies should be identified, debated, and consciously applied, rather than hidden. Only then will our choices begin to tackle the sprawl that is as rampant as ever, and the future civic costs that leave our children in an economic and environmental straightjacket.

A New Year of Tax Fraud

 

Municipalities will be ringing in the New Year by ringing the cash registers, once again collecting their revenue from one slice of citizens, and using it to subsidize another. Their New Year’s resolution should be to stop this fraudulent practice, and bring tax fairness to forms of urban development that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

This practice was highlighted at a recent conference held in Toronto, called “Retrofitting and Planning Sustainable Suburbs”. Although the conference was short on answers, a presentation by Peter Katz (Director of Smart Growth for Sarasota Florida) on long-term fiscal stability for communities was most revealing. In it, Katz compared tax revenue to urban density, with surprising results.

Both our regional and local governments generate their revenue, and incur their expenses, across a specific geography. A local comparison of three different properties in this landscape shows the subsidy from higher density to lower.

The three properties?

1) A 14 storey Downtown Kitchener condo (66 units, .7 acre including its associated street area, located on a street corner used by many of us)

2) a 7 storey historic and well-kept rental property (36 units, .5 acre including its street area, 90 feet of frontage along a street used by many of us)

3) a typical suburban home (1 unit, .12 acre, 45 feet of frontage, along a street used by only its inhabitants)

The typical suburban property is valued at about $200,000, and generates $2,250 of revenue for City and Region (ie., provincial education taxes excluded).The condo property carries $9.9 million of assessment on the municipal rolls, and generates $110,000.The rental building is valued at $2.55 million, but by virtue of its more than double tax rate relative to condo and single family home assessment, that $2.5 million generates $55,000 of revenue for the City and Region.

By comparing the revenue to the area of property and street necessitated by each, we can begin to see the enormous disparity, and the size of the suburban subsidy. The suburban home sends about $14,000 per acre to City Hall. Astonishingly, the condo sends $160,000 per acre even when the corner streets are used in the calculation. That’s more than 10 times the revenue of suburban development. The rental units cough up $115,000 per acre, taken in large part from citizens with little or no savings or net worth.

Multiply these numbers over and over, and you get the picture. Katz, in his presentation of numbers for his community, shows a similar effect on the commercial side. Strip malls and local suburban malls, with their massive parking and wasteful use of adjoining streets, generate about the same tax revenue per acre for Sarasota as suburban residences. No more.

What do our local condo owner or renters get for their tax bill? Garbage and recycling pickup, like the suburban homeowner? No. They pay extra for that, on top of their tax bill. Given that about 50% of municipal expenses are dependent on response times and density (25% of Kitchener’s costs are related to fire coverage alone over its network of streets), the tax bill could be seen as a fraud perpetrated upon sustainable development by suburban voters. Worse, the 36 unit rental property requires snow plowing, police drive-by, asphalt repairs and replacement, for only 90 feet of street. Its equivalent in the suburbs, on a dollar for dollar revenue basis, requires 1200 feet. Worse, that thirteen times length of infrastructure, paid for with utility rates common to all electricity, water and gas users, is maintained by all users equally. In addition to that subsidy, the renters must maintain their private pipes common to the units within the building, through their rent.

We’ve known for a long time that municipal property taxes transfer money from those without the means to pay to suburban voters with net worth, and the Ontario Government has directed municipalities years ago to end this practice. This directive has for the most part been ignored. Now, to grind salt into the wound, let’s add the subsidy: from sustainable, walkable, transit-friendly existing or new development to unsustainable existing and the suburbs-to-come, paid year after year. Properties generating $100,000 or more per acre are paying for municipal services for other areas of the city that incur the costs, yet generate only about $14,000 per acre. In business terms, it makes no sense whatsoever.

And what is the attitude of suburban voters to this largesse? On transit investment to support densification, or quality downtown urban infrastructure? Don’t do it. On taxes? We need relief. On municipal services? We don’t get our fair share. On change to allow density and a greater variety of uses? Don’t touch us!

Given that “Smart Growth” apparently means 40% residential development within built-up areas, and 60% outside it, and given that commercial and employment development can go where it wishes to chew more farmland, our municipal leadership will continue to massively subsidize low density development with capital and operating dollars, while talking a good game.

For this New Year, let’s resolve to end this fraud. It’s not enough to promote sustainable development. We’ve got to stop penalizing it.