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Leaside needs to study Section 37 funds

Section 37 has been in the news quite a lot recently, including here in Leaside, where $500,000 in Section 37 funds from the SmartCentre North’s developer is scheduled to go to the Leaside Arena’s new rink. Not all Leasiders have been delighted at this, feeling that perhaps there are different local needs which should have been addressed instead.

The concept of Section 37 itself is not without controversy. It’s been called a necessary way to build better communities. On the other hand, it’s also been called blackmail, or a “shakedown” of developers, even “let’s make a deal” planning.

Section 37 of the Planning Act allows the City to permit increased height and/or density in return for what is called “community benefits”. If a developer wants to build something higher or more dense than the Official Plan allows, the developer has to offer cash or payment in kind, for such community benefits as parks, playgrounds, recreation or arts centres, affordable housing, transit facilities, and so on.

But there are no clear rules about how Section 37 works, or even what the price should be.  There are no clear rules on how the money should be spent, or even if it must actually be spent in the affected local community, rather than in the city at large or elsewhere where there may be a need.

And there is no clear rule on how–or by whom–it should be decided: planners? The local councillor? The community council? Should there first be consultations with community groups about their community’s needs?

In the Leaside area, Section 37 concessions have been applied over the years.  If the LPOA had lost our fight at the Ontario Municipal Board to protect the heritage Talbot buildings along Bayview, the owner would have had to compensate the city with funds for increased green space, among other things.

Looking to the present and future, we face major development proposals from a Costco store to be on Overlea at the old Coca-Cola site; a challenge at the OMB from the owners of the former Leaside post office at Malcolm, for a massive seven-storey building; Diamond Corporation’s application to develop the north-
east corner of Brentcliffe/Eglinton with a million square feet of condos, plus retail space; and the Scenic condominiums just east of that intersection are applying for more height and density.

If any of these projects is approved by council, Section 37 payments would certainly be applied– and what they would pay for, and where, would be negotiated on a case by case ad hoc basis.

Who should decide how these funds are spent?

Councillor Adam Vaughan has often stated that these decisions should be left to elected councillors, rather than to unelected planners. But councillors are not required to observe Official Plan policies or to consult with their consti-tuents.

Mayor Ford and Councillor Doug Ford  have referred to Section 37 as “a shakedown,” because “good developers would donate” money for good causes- which doesn’t address the fact that not all developers are “good”.

A former city budget chief, David Soknacki, says, “City planning officials have little defence against the practice of councillors acting as ward dictators, establishing personal priorities for amenities.” He suggests that all Section 37 decisions be approved by city-wide committees and then council.

Jennifer Keesmat, Toronto’s chief planner, says that community benefits won through development deals should be clarified to be more transparent.

Is Section 37 a tool for good planning? Is too much power regarding major development decisions in the hands of individual councillors? In the hands of planning departments? Should consultation with local stakeholders (aka residents) be required to identify what Section 37 should pay for, and where?

Thus far there has been practically no public involvement in Section 37 decision-making. Development issues, and Section 37 funds, have the power to shape and reshape our neighbourhood and the larger city. So give this some thought. The next municipal election is only a year away, and Section 37 should be on the table for debate.