Before Christmas, the first draft of a report was leaked that indicated that when it came to relations between Guelph City Hall and local developers and businesses, the relationship was less than ideal. The report was incendiary, especially with City Hall critics and those who are especially displeased with the administration of Mayor Karen Farbridge. To them, the report confirms their worst fears about the direction of the city and the perception of the Royal City to those with the deepest purse strings. But is the report really as bad as all that? From my point of view, it is not.
The crux of the matter, to me, is that the report seems to be saying that the City won't let business do what it wants, and that should stop. That's overly simplistic, and that's not to say the report doesn't have some valid points, but I think the criticism really comes down to the fact that Guelph is overly conscious of its land use, and that we should pull back and let business do what it thinks is best. It's a stalwart conservative principle that government is an impediment to good business, and the less government interference the better, but with "Places to Grow" dictating that Guelph can only grow within its own borders, does it make sense that the City should start taking down the speed limit signs? Probably not, but as I said, the matter is somewhat more complicated than the report, and it proponents, would have you think.
Let's look at some excerpts.
However, there are somewhat divergent views on this issue of acknowledged complexity. External participants typically say that the City makes things unduly complex and that it is next to impossible to keep pace with and understand City policies, directions and requirements. City staff are more likely to say that those who want to do business in Guelph need to take the time to review and better understand the range of relevant factors — from sewage treatment and ground water capacity constraints, to required studies and reports, to process requirements and associated timelines.
Ever spent a summer in Guelph? Every heard of those colour-coded warnings for water use levels? Frankly, maybe its a good thing that the City makes builders aware of various issues before - I don't know - building a giant water fountain that has to be shut off in July if we go predictably long stretches without rain? Could this be a service issue? Would this be easier if developers could talk to someone who, in layman's terms, can explain the infrastructure issues?
Requirements can differ based on which City staff person one speaks to — that staff have varying levels of experience and knowledge; that the rules (or staff’s interpretation of them) seem to change frequently; that there is no consistency or clarity.
I'm not sure that's a problem unique to City Hall or government, that's not to say that the problem shouldn't be fixed, but you know the line in Office Space about having eight bosses...
Stated City priorities are not reflected in practices — for example, that the City says it wants infill and higher density development, but seems to make it difficult to approve this kind of development.
True. But that's not necessarily the City's fault. Look at the struggle to develop the Lafarge lands in the West End, and the fact it was made a struggle by both a neighbourhood group and a corporation that owns, what would be, a competing plaza a little further to the west.
Inability of the City to sufficiently reconcile a predominant ‘small town feel and outlook’ with its designation as an urban growth centre — that many members of the community in general and some City staff/elected officials have not accepted the level and type of growth proposed for Guelph.
Again, this is a problem shared amongst many and not just those at City Hall. A lot of people move to Guelph for that small town meets growing city vibe.
While recognizing that it is sometimes appropriate for the City to say ‘no,’ many external participants suggest that City staff typically act more as adversarial challengers than client partners. At the heart of this perception is an underlying sense that City Hall focuses more on being a regulator rather than identifying and facilitating solutions. A number of external participants believe that staff find it much easier to raise objections and say ‘no,’ than to work with a client to find a way to say ‘yes.’ There is a perception that staff are not active participants in the search for mutually agreeable options.
This paragraph I find problematic because it implies that City Hall should be 'yes men' (so to speak). Rather, I think it's important that the gatekeepers to development in our city play a devil's advocate role: why is it important to build there? To make this building this size? and other questions. Part of the City's job is being a regulator, and not a rubber stamp for the desires of business, and if business can't stand a few questions about logistics, why should they expect City Hall to approve their proposals before getting decent answers?
Inviting external stakeholders to meaningfully participate in the creation/refinement of City policies and guidelines;
So now we hop-scotch from "why should we meet guidelines?" to "just let us write the guidelines that administer us ourselves!" What could go wrong with that scenario?
While some City staff share the desire for a partnering approach, for others it is code for City Hall capitulation on significant issues. There are concerns about: how staff will be perceived by various external parties (i.e. that they are working too closely with developers and other proponents to help them achieve their desired ends); the extra work/burden placed on them to solve problems not of their own making; and of growing pressure to compromise interests, ideals and City aspirations.
Agreed. There's a lot of pressure on city staff from all stakeholders, and the manner in which this report was leaked will probably do a lot to relieve that situation...*
There is a perception among some external participants — particularly developers, their consultants, real estate officials and businesses generally — that certain City policies and staff are inappropriately directing items that should be more within the purview of the proponent. This includes such things as the type of housing or commercial product and architectural detail/design (from roof treatments, to window shape/size, to the size/shape/placement of signs, to materials used: brick, stucco, etc.). Moreover, there is a sense that City‐mandated approaches run counter to market realities (what ‘works and sells) and do not respect builder or developer expertise. Some believe that City Hall is engaged in unwarranted social engineering and unduly dictating housing or commercial product.
Fair enough. I don't think city staff should be playing This Olde House with say in colour pallets and window frames.
Though not necessarily perceived to be a widespread issue, both internal and external participants raised the issue of favouritism and preferential treatment being given to certain parties — in particular, significant Guelph‐based businesses and larger developers operating in the City. A number of participants referenced the case of a prominent business, which apparently proceeded with an expansion without first obtaining the required building permits — in full knowledge of the City — and was allowed to do so given their size and relative importance to the local economy.
It could be argued that this is a systemic problem anywhere that a few companies hold sway over the majority of jobs. This isn't a so-called "Guelph-problem."
Some developers and their consultants cited examples of long, drawn‐out discussions to reach agreement about such things as the number and placement of trees on a site - and then not actually executing the agreed upon approach (and the City not checking to ensure compliance).
While surely a debate about the degree of detail one needs to abide by in terms of type and number of tree may be warranted, I think we can all agree that if the City's going to demand that a site have 10 trees then they should send someone out to count them and make sure that there are 10 trees on the site once the projects is done.
There is a sense that the Department is too process rather than results focused. There is also a sense that the Department could be more proactive and aggressive: getting out and meeting with more existing and potential Guelph‐based businesses; more actively securing investment in the City; more enthusiastically pursuing prospect companies; better taking advantage of land prices and low development charges relative to other locations closer to the GTA. Moreover, some feel that the Department sometimes ‘drops the ball’ when handling leads provided by others or in moving things forward within the City.
This is probably an internal determination as residents generally have no idea what projects haven't been pursued or have been started. Having said that though, does it seem like there's a shortage of construction in the city?
For others, the key issue is around the speed of City response on a specific issue or question that is highly time sensitive (this was of particular, though not exclusive, concern of real estate officials). The City was described as lacking an appreciation of the urgency required when in the midst of brokering deals. Moreover, there were also concerns about how long it takes to coordinate various departments and establish a joint City response to an economic opportunity, particularly given the narrow windows of time that are available.
Unfortunately, government doesn't typically have more than the one speed.
A significant number of staff — particularly those at the mid to lower levels — agree that there is a great reluctance to share opinions or espouse views that have not been specifically endorsed by more senior staff. Of interest, many staff and external stakeholders say the overall City organizational culture does not foster/promote autonomy, risk‐taking or innovation.
Again, show me a private corporation where the mid to lover levels staffers don't feel the same. It's the corporate culture across the board that fosters the idea that management knows best.
There are concerns that certain City services — for example, Economic Development and Tourism — do not have an adequate voice at the City’s executive team level.
That sounds like a legitimate criticism that warrants further scrutiny.
As duly elected officials with decision‐making authority, City Councillors were frequently identified — by virtually all parties consulted — as contributors to making Guelph ‘a challenging place with which to do business.’
Again, it seems like someone here wants a rubber stamp, and before we forget, councillors are answerable to people too: their constituents.
Moreover, there is a sense among some that Guelph prides itself on being perceived as the ‘Granola capital of the world’ and an ‘unabashedly green community’ — and, though not mutually exclusive, that this works against the impression of being business friendly.
As much as can see this point of view, I don't really see it's a reality anymore. While there is a very Green-friendly community here in the Royal City, I must sadly say that at this point they're really more of an "irritant" to those who want to "build, build, build!" As "unabashed" as the "green community" may be, they have no qualms about the fact that they don't have an iota of real power when it comes to political decisions in this town.
Some believe that this willingness to ‘indulge’ activism gives rise and implicit license to some of the more egregious protester actions including the destruction of equipment, defaced buildings and vandalized construction sites.
There is a belief — particularly among business and development interests, and their respective consultants, but including some staff — that the City gives disproportionate attention and credence to the perspectives of a few and/or special interests of various kinds.
Again, another perception that's about a decade past its expiry date. Everyone has a long memory about the Wal-Mart protests while forgetting that the petition against the mega-store was some 10,000 signatures long and that Guelph was hardly alone in the anti-Wal-Mart crusade. Having said that, there have been protests since, but with increasingly diminishing returns, and the last time any fuss was made about local development was the Hanlon Creek Business Park protest back in 2009. You know what happened then? The SLAAP suit launched by the City and legal charges from the G20 protests pretty much shutdown anyone that might have wanted to speak out. Unless we're talking about delegates at city council, most of whom are ignored if the political winds are strong enough, the City doesn't really "indulge" activism anymore.
You can read the full report for yourself here.