Cutting Through the Red Tape of Civic Projects
In 2018, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) released several of the worst examples of so-called “Red Tape” that businesses and developers need to complete before getting projects off the ground. The list reads almost as a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to get a development, whether a condominium or a warehouse, completed quickly and on time.
If this list is accurate, getting things done on time may largely be a thing of the past.
To be sure, some of the items listed could be considered eye-rolling. The list ranges from brutal customer service in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan to businesses in one local area affected by water main replacement. Quebec’s Liquor, Racing and Gaming Authority has stringent amusement regulations that require businesses to obtain separate, expensive and time-consuming licenses for every bowling lane, pinball machine and pool table – and they all have to be renewed annually.
The BC Government’s Community Benefits Agreement, meanwhile, requires construction companies working on provincial infrastructure projects to join specific unions. Businesses must comply with nearly 350 pages of rules which specify esoteric things like warming plates before serving food to employees. Still in BC, the Town of Smithers requires businesses that perform renovations valued at over $100,000 to conduct unrelated offsite work, like sidewalk construction.
In Canada’s largest city, Toronto businesses that need licensing can only get it done at one location, and the process must be completed on paper and in person. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the word “Cannabis” is prohibited in any business that is not a licensed cannabis retailer. An out here in Nova Scotia, our Occupational Health and Safety Division demands employers apply strict hazardous materials handling guidelines to simple hand soaps and common household cleaners found in the workplace.
But we might not have it as bad out here for development as some other provinces when it comes to process. Currently, Halifax is in the midst of a building renaissance, with more cranes appearing in tourist pictures than buildings, as one tourist joked as he took a picture of the city from the famed Citadel Hill national park. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it’s not exactly a secret that the Halifax Regional Municipality’s council has become very pro-development. Concrete skeletons are climbing toward the sky as old parking lots and buildings dating back to the early 20th century are demolished. Queen’s Marque, a condo and office space building, is currently being built directly on the waterfront, and a high-rise at the corner of Barrington and Sackville Streets is going up on the site of the old Zellers building, one of many across the HRM.
Across the harbour in Dartmouth, on the site of old government lands, Shannon Park is being looked at for the newest entry into the Canadian Football League. The option is still being explored, with council waiting for the results of the latest study (there have been five) to figure out how much, if any, public funding will go toward all those touchdowns.
All those studies can be a major hindrance to development. The city centre plan was announced earlier last year and will include destroying the Cogswell Exchange, or the area around Barrington Street into the downtown core, and rebuilding it to include more bike lanes and pedways in an attempt to make the city more environmentally friendly. It’s a noble goal, but one that comes with decades of studies.
At a recent council meeting, one councillor, Matt Whitman, a potential mayoral candidate, complained that there were too many studies over the years – especially useless, he said, given that each study says essentially the same thing. The cost of each of those studies is upwards of $2 million.
Out in the suburbs, treed lots are being transformed into condos and houses seemingly in the blink of an eye, and developers out there seem to have only one complaint with the municipal process: approval time.
Yanni Kivotos, a Greek immigrant, bought a half-acre lot six years ago to eventually turn it into a four-story townhome development, which borders directly on newly constructed single lots. Kivotos, a trained dentist in his country of origin, decided that construction would be a great second career upon his arrival in Canada a few years back. But getting something approved only after six years was something he didn’t count on.
Kivotos had to satisfy the municipality’s environmental concerns. He had to put everything he wanted to do in writing for several different departments, including the number of eventual tenants, parking spaces, building type and number of floors his rental unit would contain. He also had to wait to see what the parent company of the building, West Bedford Holdings Ltd., a joint venture between Clayton Developments Ltd. and Cresco Ltd., would approve.
Then he waited. And waited. And waited. Six years later, he cleared the trees and broke ground.
“That’s probably my biggest issue with red tape around here, I don’t believe it ever should have taken so long,” he said from the little shack on the property. He had the time to talk because of a rainstorm hampering his crew’s efforts at a speedy completion. “I’m not the only one; I know of a few developers who say the same thing: when you get an idea and you present it, it takes [the municipality] a really long time to approve it, and that really doesn’t make sense to me.”
Kivotos said it’s a contradiction in terms that developers have to wait so long when they’re expected to add to the development of the area. “We’re making places for people to live, we’re adding to the tax base, but they put all these restrictions on us and make us wait,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong; it’s better than doing business back in Greece, but it still seems unnecessary,” alluding to the fact that in Greece he’d have a corrupt government to deal with, and government officials with their hands out before moving a project along in the process. All levels of government are easier to deal with in Canada, he said, adding that developments in the downtown core tend to approved faster than in the suburbs.
At the other end of the spectrum, developer Mori Salehi is constructing Brookline Plaza, a commercial site that has yet to get a shovel into the ground. But in stark opposition to Kivotos, Salehi said the process has actually been fairly quick. Within a year, Salehi said, he was able to get a sign into the ground notifying passersby in Bedford of his intentions.
“Maybe it depends on what you’re doing but the process for us was smooth and we’re on time so far,” he said. “We got permission from the parent company fairly quickly and I have no complaints.”
That’s probably because all the work for the area was already done before Salehi came along. In the initial plan at the city’s website, Salehi’s lot was chosen for commercial development six years ago.
Local councillor Tim Outhit says this is one area where he can sympathize with developers. The time it takes, he said, really isn’t conducive to healthy development.
Outhit has become a fairly outspoken opponent against overdevelopment, stating that residents don’t seem to feel that they have a say in any kind of new construction. But he understands the frustration of those doing the building. Sometimes, he said, it’s a matter of a developer sticking to what they’re planning instead of changing it after approval is granted.
“Sometimes the land of no-decision goes on too long,” he said. “If you come forward and ask if you can build 40 storeys on a residential street where there are only houses, the answer should be a yes or no instead of taking years to decide. Especially if we already have a sense of what the answer will be.”
Like most towns and cities across Canada, public consultations will take place if a development is to be constructed in areas where it could have a major impact, which in itself, Outhit recognized, takes a lot of time. But, he said, this is what a democracy is about. He’d just like it to go a little faster.
To that end, the city actually is trying to make it easier, by bringing in more staff and looking at changes to the system. Council will discuss that in the new year.