On voluntary community benefits and developer influence

A recap of the Katasa MOU 

As some of you may have seen in the media recently, there have been several stories about a yet to be signed draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for affordable housing and traffic safety in Ward 17 that was to be voluntarily entered into by a developer who has several developments in the ward, approved by Planning Committee (Katasa). 

It has been presented as a novelty, or unprecedented occurrence. CTV referred to this as “extremely unusual”. The fact is, however, that council passed at least three MOUs for the purpose of securing voluntary benefits from development applicants during the last term of council and pursues voluntary agreement every single year. 

One of those MOUs was one that my team drafted with Capital City Shopping Centre Ltd. This MOU stemmed from discussions surrounding the latter’s application for two high-rise towers to be built at the intersection of Bank and Riverside. This MOU passed committee and council unanimously; it focused on seniors housing and transit passes. Other MOUs received similar support last term (e.g., Herongate, Manor Park Estates). 

When the Katasa MOU came to Planning and Housing Committee on November 29th (2023), a Councillor used the term “extortative” (with no evidence). This was inappropriate, and I raised on a point of privilege saying as much.  

After some further discussion, the committee referred the MOU to the Integrity Commissioner (IC) and legal staff to review. Of course, we had already discussed these arrangements with the IC in the past and had legal staff review (and help draft) the MOU before bringing it to committee for consideration. 

Unsurprisingly, then, legal staff and the IC came back with a memo backing up our actions in this regard. 

At the following committee meeting on January 17th, legal staff affirmed their position outlined in the memo and pointed out that the city itself seeks and receives voluntary benefits from development applicants and has done so both before and following recent legislative changes from the province. 

At this meeting, a new line of attack was tested out by critics of the approach. Instead of extortion, it was suggested that I was being influenced by the development industry.  

The committee nevertheless decided to pass the MOU unanimously. The MOU then went to the January 24th meeting of City Council. 

While many councillors defended the process and the integrity and ingenuity of our team in seeking to benefit quality of life for residents through development, some slanderous characterizations also found expression at the council table. One councillor referred to the MOU as an inappropriate ‘bag of money’, while another suggested I was pressuring developers to contribute to a ‘slush fund’. Is my office extorting developers, or being influenced by them? It remains unclear how these two incongruous claims can be believed. 

A motion was moved at the table to develop a policy in Ottawa for voluntary donations, which I supported wholeheartedly, and another amendment was moved at the table so that the benefits earmarked for the community impacted by the forthcoming developments would instead go to the relevant General Managers at the city, for citywide use. The MOU was approved but with the funds now earmarked city wide.  

Since coming to office in 2018, my team and I have consistently encouraged development applicants to respond to oft-raised community concerns—like the lack of affordable housing, the need for greater traffic safety, the need to encourage transit use, the need to preserve and plant more trees, and so on—through policy and voluntary commitments.  

I see it as part of my job to try and ensure that new developments benefit the community and contribute to the public good as much as possible, especially in a context where the province and our city has created a framework that does not do enough to fund the things that people need most. Our development charges are some of the lowest in Ontario for large cities, and the other fees we collect to fund public infrastructure and affordable housing have been inadequate in my view. 

I am not alone in asking for voluntary commitments, as other councillors have also taken this approach to development applications over my time at City Hall. They, too, have secured voluntary benefits for their communities. 

I have also been the most vocal critic of developer influence at city hall over my five years here. This has included being critical of campaign donations from the development industry and calling for election financing reform. I was one of only a few councillors who did not take any campaign donations from individuals connected to the development industry in 2018 and 2022. 

I have also been exceptionally active in advocating for transparency and accountability during major costly decision points at City Hall—urban boundary expansion, the Tewin Lands, LRT, and Lansdowne, to name some key examples. 

This work has not won me any popularity contests at City Hall. I know that I will not be voted prom king of #TeamOttawa this term of council. My top priority is and has been to focus on my duties as an elected official: to carry forward the political mandate I was given by my residents, and to pursue their interests. 

Although I believe in doing politics in a way that is tough on policy, but soft on people, this has not been the approach adopted by everyone at City Hall. I hope that changes moving forward. We owe it to Ottawans to be consistent in legislating according to our principles and our mandates, and to act in good faith.

Read More:

Press Release: Katasa Pulls Community Benefit Agreement in Wake of Council Decision

Menard: Ottawa needs more community benefits – and less developer influence

Adam: Ottawa Council's criticism of developer deal with Shawn Menard is utterly hypocritical

 

 

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