construction of residential house

Toronto to curb builders’ use of public space?

A councillor proposes to stop allowing developers to occupy traffic lanes during construction
Monday, August 25, 2014
By Michelle Ervin

A Toronto city councillor is proposing to curb the practice of allowing developers to occupy the public right-of-way. It’s a move that has surprised and raised concerns for at least one building industry group.

Coun. Josh Matlow is asking city council, at its August meeting, to approve a staff investigation into the feasibility of halting the use of public streets and sidewalks for private construction projects. He is also asking council to have staff investigate the feasibility of hiking upfront permit fees and applying escalating monthly fees as an interim measure to motivate developers to find alternative solutions.

The city councillor’s proposal builds on his efforts to combat traffic congestion, which include an earlier move to prevent delivery trucks from blocking lanes during rush hours. In advance of this latest motion, Matlow consulted with traffic management staff, who he says indicated that, outside of the city’s needing a better transit system, construction hoarding that takes over the public right-of-way is the leading cause of congestion in Toronto.

“There isn’t a day that residents aren’t impacted by the public right-of-way being occupied by the development industry,” he says. “They’re driving to work, they’re trying to get home to their family at the end of the day, and they’re stuck in traffic, and they realize that a street that would normally be two lanes is now one lane because developers have taken over that lane.”

Matlow says he receives calls from residents about the issue on a weekly basis. And he says it’s not fair to inconvenience residents, who have nothing to gain from the closure of public sidewalks or streets for private projects, by automatically giving developers, who stand to profit, permission to occupy the public right-of-way.

Though the city charges developers a permit and monthly fee, the city councillor is also proposing that staff investigate charging an increasing monthly fee to encourage shorter occupations.

“Right now, it’s such a minimal cost to the developer to occupy an entire lane of traffic for — most often — about two years,” he says. “But if there’s an incentive to move that staging ground onto their site as quickly as possible, I think that would be helpful and in the public interest.”

Developers pay a slightly more than $500 fee for the processing of their application, as well as an ongoing monthly fee over the length of their occupation. The fee is calculated at $5.64 per cubic metre of public space occupied.

But the fees Matlow describes as “peanuts” to developers add up over time, says Leona Savoie, who sits on the Building Industry and Land Development Association’s Toronto chapter board of directors.

“The larger projects that are under construction for several years might be paying upwards to $100,000 to the city,” Savoie says. “But it depends on the size of project, how long you’re under construction, and how much [space] you’re occupying.”

She says she was surprised by the proposal to investigate raising these fees and potentially ending the practice. She says her initial reaction was that it unfairly targeted developers, pointing out that the city and utilities also occupy the public right-of-way, for infrastructure projects.

“We already have to apply for permits for any road occupancy that’s needed for a construction site,” Savoie says. “Through that process, we have to demonstrate to staff that it’s absolutely necessary when we do occupy the city’s right-of-way.”

For example, she says, when a development features an underground garage, its site must be excavated from property line to property line.

For these reasons, Savoie doesn’t think the move would result in any changes, other than to ding developers with additional fees that will ultimately get passed along to purchasers and affect the affordability of housing.

Besides, she adds, the development industry is already in regular contact with city staff. In fact, she says, only a few months ago, they were discussing how to improve overhead protection and the pedestrian experience around construction sites.

“We’d like to work with the city as opposed to being slapped with prohibitions, and slapped with an increase in fees in order to disincentivize us from doing certain things,” Savoie says.

Coun. Matlow’s proposal, which asks for transportation services staff to report back to the public works and infrastructure committee in February 2015, will be considered at a city council meeting scheduled to occur Aug. 25 and 26. As a member’s motion, it will require a two-thirds vote to bypass being referred back to the public works and infrastructure committee for consideration.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.