Michael Speaks out No. 10

Time is of the Essence

Hello, hope all is well. A considerable period of time ‎has elapsed since the posting of my last ‘blog’. Rest assured that this is not a function of having nothing to muse about…no, quite to the contrary. In plain english, I have been busier than the proverbial ‘one-armed paper hanger’! 

Gagnon & Law Urban Planners Ltd. has been pleasantly inundated with clients seeking our assistance on all-manner of projects located across the GTA. This is a good problem to have. We have been able to serve our growing client base by becoming fierce in the prioritization of how we use each and every minute of the each and every day. 

We are currently managing more than 50 active files from the firm’s two professional offices located in Brampton and Markham. We have been retained on a broad cross-section of development proposals; including everything from ‘single detached residential dwellings’ to ‘new car dealerships’ to ‘high-rise residential buildings’ to the ‘adaptive reuse of older industrial buildings’. 

The one thing that all the aforementioned projects have in common is clients who seek the services of urban planning professionals who understand the time-honoured credo that “time is of the essence”. In this respect, the principals and staff at Gagnon & Law Urban Planners Ltd. are mindful of the need to use time wisely, efficiently and in our client’s best interests. We know who we work for.

In a world that seems to be increasingly populated by professionals who have quite frankly gone ‘soft’, our no-nonsense approach to time management is highly valued. With this in mind, it’s back to the ‘grind’, not begrudgingly, but with a sense of pride and appreciation for our Clients who have rewarded our hard work with their patronage and loyalty. 

That’s it for now. Remember… “The only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda).

Guest Blog No.1

Benefits of Wood Construction

I am pleased to have been invited by Michael Gagnon to be his first ‘guest’ blogger. When I accepted the invitation Michael asked me to let him know within a few days of our meeting what topic I was going to tackle. After pondering a broad range of areas of interest I decided to address the recent amendment to the Ontario Building Code (OBC). On January 1, 2015 the OBC was revised to allow for the construction of mid-rise wood frame buildings to a height of six (6) storeys.

Wood frame buildings provide builders with the opportunity to implement more cost effective design solutions as compared to traditional masonry construction. It is anticipated that wood frame building construction up to six (6) storeys will lead to more urban intensification in a shorter period of time.  The change in legislation is not without its challenges though. Along with changes to the OBC for wood frame construction are enhanced safety provisions which are not currently required in four (4) storey wood buildings; not necessarily a bad thing from a health and safety perspective.

Hopefully the changes to the OBC supporting taller wood frame construction will lead to the creation of more affordable, mid-rise buildings. We have several clients that are exploring their options at this time.

Michael Speaks out No.9

City building sounds noble, but just what does it mean? I suspect that there are as many definitions as there are those engaged in city building itself.

I consulted with a wise ‘old’ urban planner (whose identity I promised not to reveal) seeking his insight into the age old practice of city building. This reputable sage suggested that a city is a place where people live and work. He then stated that city building is the exercise of planning, designing and implementing the physical infrastructure where the aforementioned activities take place. I suggested to him that his definition was rather benign, uninspiring and lacking “soul”.

After an uncomfortable silence and a sip of his favorite libation my dear old friend stammered and suggested that what I call “soul” is really beyond what most city planners engage in when they set about the task of city building. At this point I suggested that this is precisely what is wrong with so much of the city building which is taking place today in North America.

The United Nations defines a “City” as a locality with a distinct population cluster (also designated as an inhabited place, populated centre, settlement and so forth) in which the inhabitants live in neighbouring sets of living quarters and that has a name or a locally recognized status. The United Nations definition touches upon the relationship between the people who inhabit cities. More specifically, there is a reference to neighbouring sets of “living” quarters. “Living”… city building should be about creating environments within which individuals and groups of people can experience “living” to its fullest. In my humble opinion city building is not about infrastructure, it’s about “living”.

How many times have we heard our family, friends, neighbours and associates rave about their experiences in what are characterized as world class cities. Not surprisingly, many of these world class cities were built hundreds if not several thousands of years ago (i.e. Rome, Istanbul). These world class cities offer exemplary “living” experiences which stir the “soul”. What they lack in modern infrastructure they compensate for with an abundance of “soul”.

In contrast, many North American cities are rich in infrastructure but sadly lack “soul”. After debating this issue for several hours with my dear old friend, the somewhat famous urban planner realized that his celebrity was attributed to his acumen in delivering infrastructure. Sadly, he confessed that he had failed miserably in creating cities with “soul”. I suspect that this can be attributed to the fact that it is infinitely easier to plan and deliver infrastructure, as opposed to creating the conditions where the “soul” of a city emerges.

The focus of city builders should be on balancing the need to deliver infrastructure with the creation of cities with a “soul”. City builders will succeed in this endeavor if they apply their efforts to creating places which will contribute to the ability of citizens to experience life to the fullest. Facilitating the interaction of family, friends, neighbours and associates in richly designed and executed places which have a “soul” should permeate every element of city building.

That’s it for now. Remember… “The only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda).

Michael Speaks out No.8

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘change’ as “to make different”. Having practiced urban planning since 1984 I can testify to the importance of ‘change’. Gagnon & Law Urban Planners Ltd. has undergone name changes, ownership changes and staff changes. In the course of doing so the firm has become stronger than ever before. There is a very important caveat though. ‘Change’ for the sake of ‘change’ is of no value. ‘Change’ with a purpose is the key.

While ‘change’ is vital and necessary to staying relevant, I believe that staying true to certain indisputable truths is of equal if not greater importance. Just as the police are here to ‘serve and protect’ we at Gagnon & Law Urban Planners Ltd. are here to ‘serve and protect’ our Clients interests.

I have always sought to uphold the principles of ‘good planning’, but that is about to ‘change’. ‘Good planning’ alone is no longer going to make the grade … starting July 1st, 2014 Gagnon & Law Urban Planners Ltd. implemented a program aimed at undertaking and delivering the ‘best possible planning’. So, if ‘change’ is defined as “to make different” rest assured that Gagnon & Law Urban Planners Ltd. will be an agent of ‘change’ with a purpose, all in pursuit of the ‘best possible planning’.  

That’s it for now and remember… “The only way you may succeed is if you try.” (Yoda)

Michael Speaks out No.7

Prior to sharing my thoughts on the value of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), it would be beneficial to understand its history and purpose. The OMB is unique to the Province of Ontario, and was originally named the “Ontario Railway and Municipal Board” (ORMB). It was established in 1906 and was Ontario’s first independent, quasi-judicial administrative tribunal. The ORMB had a name change to the OMB in 1932. Its mandate is to resolve appeals from decisions made by Ontario municipalities and/or other bodies; either via Pre-Hearing sessions or Public Hearings. The OMB provides a setting to hear appeals on land use planning and other matters. The OMB bases its decisions on the evidence presented at a Hearing; and any and all relevant law. At present there are seventeen (17) members that adjudicate on a broad range of disputes.   

With the aforementioned in mind and my experience spanning over 30 years, I can’t help but conclude that the Province of Ontario is better off for having the OMB. I have had the good fortune of appearing and/or preparing for many OMB Hearings. Win or lose, appearing before the OMB is an invigorating, liberating and intellectually stimulating experience.  There is nothing like a good OMB Hearing to get the blood flowing. 

Applications which end up before the OMB are adjudicated in an impartial setting. Unlike municipal Councillors who are more often than not subjected to unfair and fierce pressure from local special interest groups, OMB Members are emotionally detached from the parties appearing before them. Board Members are responsible for making decisions based on “facts”. They undertake “objective” rather than “subjective” evaluations. The broad public interest and the application of sound planning principles rule the day; thank goodness.  

OMB decisions are based on evidence, governing legislation, Official Plan policies, Zoning By-law provisions, as well as relevant technical plans and studies. Expert witnesses are called upon to assist the Board and provide opinion evidence on whether or not the matter before the OMB represents “good planning”. 

Contrary to popular belief that the OMB favors the development industry when rendering decisions, leading Canadian expert and author on public opinion, Aaron A. Moore “found that the OMB often favors expert testimony of municipal planners as they are considered to have greater autonomy than their private sector counterparts.” (www.homefinder.ca BILD). The development industry does not have an unfair advantage at the OMB, nor an ability to influence Board Members in a nefarious manner. At the end of the day, the party who presents the best evidence usually carries the day; as they should.  

From my perspective, I have always found that hard work, perseverance and preparation go a long way in building strong and credible cases. By and large, most professional planners are proud and honest individuals who, when confronted with an Application which has been Appealed to the OMB, take it upon themselves to apply themselves to the task at hand. Legislators, the general public, applicants, and planning and development professionals who believe that they are acting in the best interest of our communities should welcome the opportunity for their decisions and opinions to be scrutinized by independent and impartial OMB Members. The OMB is an extension of the judiciary. In a civil and open society, a free and independent judiciary is vital.  

Long live the Ontario Municipal Board and God Bless all who engage with it! 

That’s it for now. Remember… “The only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda). 

Michael Speaks out No.6

According to researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in the City of Toronto, rates of diabetes in the Region of Peel are amongst the highest in the Province of Ontario.  This they attribute to two significant factors; including: neighbourhood design that discourages walking and the ethnicity of the population which has a pre-disposition to diabetes.

Since 1990, I have been continuously engaged in the design of urban environments, including Secondary Plans, Block Plans, Draft Plans of Subdivision and Site Plans.  My clients and I strive to work with the general parameters embodied within municipally approved Official Plans and Zoning By-laws.  From time-to-time, we have proposed      higher density residential and commercial projects.  Much to our chagrin, occasionally we have been met with strict opposition from ratepayers; presumably some of the same people who are or will suffer from diabetes.  How ironic.   

Ratepayers who oppose higher density residential and commercial projects, usually opine that the offending proposals are simply too dense, too tall, and will result in traffic chaos.  Often if the ratepayers live in predominately single-detached dwellings, they will state that they don’t want any townhouses or apartment buildings in their neighbourhood. 

When it comes to commercial projects many existing Zoning By-laws dictate that parking lots be designed to the ‘worst case’ scenario.  This results in expansive parking lots, which for most of the year sit empty; Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas being the exceptions to the rule. 

Fortunately, progressive municipal planners and enlightened politicians are choosing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with conscientious builders and developers.  If as a society, we hope to create healthier urban environments, we are going to have to make a concerted effort to resist the temptation to acquiesce to that small segment of our population which is driven by an embarrassingly high level of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard).   

In addition to embracing higher density residential and commercial projects, we as a people need to take more responsibility for our own health.  We have to exercise more and eat healthier foods.      

That’s it for now.  Remember… “the only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda).

Michael Speaks out No.5

With the arrival of 2014 and in the wake of all of the less than stellar behaviour on the part of some of our ‘business, political, social and religious leaders’, it is time for all of us to ‘press the reset button’. I include myself in this group. I too have occasionally failed to lead by example and be the best that I can be. For this and all my transgressions, I am truly sorry.

There is an old saying ‘we learn from our mistakes’. Regrettably, not everybody does. This is the great tragedy which befalls us today.  There are countless individuals who have consciously made egregious decisions, driven by their selfish desires and sense of entitlement.   

Many of these individuals have been ‘called out’, but few have had the courage to take responsibility and atone for their behaviour.   What is particularly disturbing is that many of these individuals have the nerve to suggest that they have done nothing wrong or even worse, that someone else is to blame. In doing so, they would like us to believe that they are innocent of any misdeeds. They fool no one.  Each of us knows when we have done something wrong.      

Inspirational Author, Christopher Simon has suggested that “In medicine nowadays, common mistakes are taught… so that new doctors and nurses might avoid them.” Medical practitioners are expected to be technically proficient and of high moral fiber. We should expect the same of ourselves, each other, and the men and women who wish to assume roles of leadership and responsibility in   society. 

With the foregoing in mind, there is no time like the present for each of us to ‘press the reset button’. Each day represents a new beginning. Let’s all try to be the best that we can be. 

That’s it for now. Remember…  “the only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda). 

 

Michael Speaks out No.4

I am pleased to share with you my thoughts on a topic which has garnered many headlines lately; namely the Canadian Senate. In the face of the suspension of Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, an increasing number of Canadians are calling for the abolition of the Senate.

The Senate is an institution which was first established in 1867. In simple terms, the Senate’s role and function as I understand it is four-fold: (1) to review and revise legislation, (2) to investigate matters of interest to the whole of the Country, (3) represent the various geographic regions, and (4) be a protector of linguistics and minorities.  The misdeeds of a small clutch of Senators has not diminished the need for the Canadian Senate.  The increasingly partisanship atmosphere of the House of Commons is proof positive of the need to preserve the Senate; regardless of the behavior of a few overreaching and selfish individuals.

In addition, to the Senate’s primary roles, it is a body which has effectively represented the interests of the diverse Provinces and Territories which constitute our Great Country. The accomplishments of the majority of law abiding Senators, who work tirelessly on Committees, need to be celebrated, not denigrated.

Eugene Lang, a BMO Visiting Fellow, at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Glendon College, York University correctly opined recently in the Toronto Star that “Some Senate Committees – the committee on banking, trade and commerce, the national finance committee, the committee on social affairs, science and technology, for example – have enriched public policy thinking, sparked debate on important issues, and helped improve legislation in a way few House of Commons committees have in many years.”

It would be wise to view the Senate through more objective eyes, rather than subjective ones. Seldom are wise decisions made in anger and haste. While it is understandable to be “angry” at Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin for their reprehensible behavior, it would be inexcusable and foolhardy to punish all Senators and ultimately Canadians in response. What’s the saying…don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Indeed. 

Michael Speaks out No.3

I had originally planned to muse about the role and function of the Ontario Municipal Board, but I have changed my mind. I wish to reflect on being Canadian. This is partially in response to news emanating from Quebec and debates which have been taking place regarding the Canadian flag.

I am a proud French Canadian who celebrates the diverse lineage of fellow Canadians.  I applaud the contributions of Canada’s Provinces and Territories. It warms my heart to see the Canadian flag.

I encourage Canadians from coast-to-coast to reflect on what we have accomplished as a Nation.  We should celebrate the cultures of the two founding nations, but be receptive to new Canadians and what they offer in terms of culture, traditions, knowledge and skills.

The Canadian flag should be a welcome sight to all Canadians, including the residents of Quebec. Quebecers must resist the overtures of the minority within their Province who wish to marginalize and isolate Quebec from the rest of Canada.  We must all guard against fanatical nationalistic pride.

Some Quebecers believe that the rest of Canada doesn’t care about them.  They are wrong.  Canadians care deeply about each other, regardless of where they live.

Canada is a nation of immigrants.  By way of example, the staff at Gagnon and Law Urban Planners Ltd. represent a broad cross-section of ethnicities; including:  French, English and Scottish Canadians, Romanian, German, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Jamaican and Trinidadian.

In terms of the Canadian flag, I invite my fellow Canadians to contact their elected officials to convey support for the display of the “Maple Leaf” from all Federal, Provincial and Municipal buildings.  I am proud to display the Canadian flag at home and at the office. Long live Canada! Vive le Canada!

That’s it for now. Remember…  “the only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda).

I invite you to keep your eyes open for Blog No.4 when I will indeed be speaking out on the “Ontario Municipal Board”.

Michael Speaks out No.2

Well, here goes “Blog No. 2”. I am speaking out on transportation and in particular the traffic congestion which reins supreme in the GTA from Labour Day until the last day of school in June.

If you live or work in the GTA you know it’s Summer when you can leave the suburbs at 7:45 a.m. and arrive to your destination in downtown Toronto a mere 30 minutes later. If only this Summertime phenomenon lasted the whole year long. I’m old enough to remember when the term ‘rush hour’ meant just that – one hour of heavy traffic in the morning and one hour in the late afternoon. Now the ‘rush hour’ lasts at least 2 to 3 hours in the morning, and in the afternoon.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is in large part because of a lack of planning, political will and long term strategic funding.

Traffic congestion has become so bad that it now threatens the GTA’s prosperity. To remedy the current situation local, regional and provincial governments need to act to establish a comprehensive GTA-wide Transportation and Transit Master Plan, overhaul and streamline the Environmental Assessment process and commit the necessary funds to implement a comprehensive GTA-wide Transportation and Transit Master Plan.

In the current economic climate it may seem unthinkable to invest hundreds of millions, even billions on dollars on road and transit infrastructure, but this is precisely what needs to be done to alleviate traffic congestion. Investing in transportation and transit infrastructure will create jobs and increase our competitiveness. Our collective goal should be to ensure that the GTA maintains its reputation as a world class destination and preferred location within which to ‘live and work’.

That’s it for now and remember…the only way you may succeed is if you try” (Yoda).

I invite you to keep your eyes open for Blog No.3 when I will be speaking out on the “Ontario Municipal Board”.

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