Overzoning, Development, Risk and Planning

Daniel Appell: Nov. 8, 2010

I believe I’m coining the term ‘over-zoning.’  At least I haven’t come across its use in the planning literature I’ve been reading. So I must define it — ‘over-zoning’ is the practice of providing for a projected population well beyond the foreseeable future. It’s a lot like planning a wedding reception for 500 people when you know only 250 are going to show up. The inevitable result is a lot of waste.Nanaimo has had a fair bit of experience with ‘over-zoning.’ It could be argued that all most all our development since the 1960s has been affected by this practice. When we expropriated large sections of land in the north end, we created a huge area ‘over-zoned’ for single unit residential. Fifty to sixty years later we still haven’t completed the development of these areas. While this process is incomplete we have recognized the folly of this type of development, and we have changed policy to encourage more density, making the infill in that area even harder.

The effects of ‘over-zoning’ are evident in almost every part of the city. Roads will stop somewhere, and begin again somewhere else. Or roads narrow, then widen, then narrow again. Sidewalks stop and start in the middle of blocks. Lately, we’ve been getting bicycle paths that start somewhere and end somewhere else for no apparent reason. Bus routes look like they were determined by someone throwing spaghetti at a map. Development happens here, then over there and in between becomes increasingly harder to fill. The city itself tends to look half-empty, rather than half-full (as a result a lot of opportunity is overlooked).

With the current and proposed zoning, developers get to develop whatever they want, whenever they want, and a critical component of urban planning is lost. We have a planning department that is geared to serving the random needs of the development industry, instead of providing the coordination, integration and intelligence necessary to make a city progress. We are getting the appearance of planning, but no real planning.

There is an irony here; ‘over-zoning’ is a way for the planning department to talk themselves out of doing the work we need them to do. The more planners advocate for this type of zoning, the harder it is to justify their employment.

Also, this means the paid officials get to do the easy stuff associated with planning such as “growth management.” The hard stuff, such as; advocating for better neighbourhood plans, better architecture and better organization of city services, is almost always done by unpaid citizens.

To further complicate the situation; planning is the only city department that is almost fully funded by fees. Very little from general revenues goes into the planning department. Developers pay their fees, and the planning department works for them. This relationship requires constant clarification. We have hired these people to protect and advocate for our interests, yet the development industry pays for their service. Increasingly, planners use this nebulous position to allow us to believe they are working for the city, when, in fact, they are only advocating for a certain developer.

Not always are the interests of developers and the community at odds, but in the case of Brechin Hill the opposition is extreme and, clearly, the planning department is working against the interests of the community to the greatest benefit to the developer. There is no balance here, there is no rational, there is no real neighbourhood plan; simply, the neighbourhood is being forced to accept a risk without compensation, because that is what a certain set of developers want.

The idea of risk is significant here. It was a term introduced to me by Frank Murray although I was well aware of the concept. Every development progresses with the assumption of risk. The risk is built into the cost of financing the project. In the case of developing in the waterfront the risks are relatively low, because we sense that demand for such property is high.

However, if a waterfront development is built in front of another property, the real effect is to transfer the risk associated with development to that other property. In effect, a portion of the cost of development is borne by the other property, which receives no benefit or compensation. This other property is subsidizing the development in front of it. Brechin Hill is in this position. The city is trying to force the whole community to provide a form of subsidy, for development to house rich people.

Often a planning policy is required to mitigate these special circumstances. A policy adopted by a lot of communities, is to require height restrictions. The closer a property is to the water the lower it must be. While this reduces the benefit of developing by the water, it means less risk is transferred to other properties.

This policy has a number of other benefits as well:

  • The scale of waterside development becomes very comfortable. As the pleasure of a water side lifestyle is increased, value is added to these properties (this value tends to be retained despite the general condition of the economy).
  • Waterside development becomes less capital intensive. This means the demand for financing is decreased and more developers can have access to capital. More waterfront development can be completed faster. Instead of one development over here, and another over there with it becoming increasing harder to develop in between, we get a more continuous pattern of development, with less unfinished gaps.
  • Development is distributed throughout the community. Because more capital is available, it is easier to develop other parts of the neighbourhood. In the case of Brechin Hill, there would be more incentive to develop along Terminal Ave. where the risk of development would almost always be retained by the developer, and the advantages of development can be shared by the whole community. The plan, in its present form, actively discourages such development.
  • More capital can be directed towards the quality of the architecture. Large scale projects in this economic environment are still constrained by the demand for capital. This means that building design tends to be given less consideration. We tend to get buildings designed more by bankers then by architects. The result is second rate and third rate architecture built in prime locations. Instead if getting buildings that retain their value, we get buildings which have a value determined by the prevailing economy or are inclined to decline in value.

If we had a real planning department, with enough skill to produce real community and neighbourhood plans, and enough professional integrity to advance the cause of this city despite the insistence of certain developers, then real progress could be made towards improving our lifestyle, managing our resources, and creating financial stability in this region.

Real planning can make a real difference. I would recommend it.