Marchese Queen's Park It’s the understatement of the decade to say that Toronto’s seen a lot of condo building in the last few years.

Easily one of the most development-heavy districts in the city, the provincial riding of Trinity-Spadina has seen a significant portion of the cranes and new constructions. And that much wide-spread change doesn’t happen without a few bumps, conflicts and ruffled feathers.

Representing the central-west district, the New Democrat MPP Rosario Marchese has been involved in various proposals to change condo and development legislation.

Earlier this month, he proposed a bill that would remove Toronto from the power of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).

The OMB is the tribunal that hears applications and appeals on municipal and planning disputes. And some critics believe Toronto should have the ultimate say in planning issues – not the provincial body.

Since the bill passed its second reading and Marchese is hoping for hearings and public debate during the bill’s next phase, we thought it would be a good time to sit down with him to chat about the OMB and development in the city.

Both the audio and the interview transcript have been edited for brevity.

BuzzBuzzHome: What spurred you to bring up the proposed OMB Bill at Queen’s Park?

Rosario Marchese: For a long time in my riding, there have been a lot of people who have expressed strong opinions against the OMB – basically saying what I’ve been saying – and that is that the city of Toronto ought to have it’s own powers to regulate its own official plans and zoning bylaws. And they ought not to have to go to another body for approval or disapproval.

There are other cities that may want the same power to opt out of the OMB because they feel they can manage their own affairs. And if a city is requesting such as power, my view is that they ought to be allowed because I think they can manage their own planning processes.

Toronto is so big with a big planning department and a lot of planning issues. The planning staff are somewhat demoralized because of the level of work they have to do and the number of appeals they have to go and defend at the OMB. If we simply allowed them to do their job, we think they could do planning much better.

BBH: What are your main concerns about the OMB?

RM: The argument I made is there are 25 members of the OMB – appointed, unelected. A one-person panel, a three-person panel can make a decision that affects the whole city of Toronto. They can override a decision made by the City of Toronto on some planning matter.

One or three individuals with such a power? Over a city with a huge planning department? And accountable city councillors? I just think it’s wrong.

BBH: When the bill was being debated, some MPPs suggested that this isn’t just a Toronto issue. MPPs from different cities brought up similar concerns within their ridings. Did you consider opening it up beyond Toronto?

RM: Yeah, I did and I was nervous because unless you have a good sense of where cities are at, how can you say, ‘Well, we’ll also exclude Barrie and Ottawa and Peterborough’ without knowing whether those cities really, really want it?

I thought it would be easier to just go with the city of Toronto. And then if it works here, then other cities can fight for their own power. And I thought, if we can succeed here, others can succeed later.

But I’d be happy to support other cities and include them if it’s possible to in our bill.

BBH: Other MPPs argued that removing the OMB would take a lot of these conflicts into the courts which could be time-consuming and expensive. Where do you see these conflicts being resolved outside the OMB?

RM: Well, the way a few of the ministers argued, it almost made it appear as if I was arguing against or for the elimination of the OMB altogether. I didn’t say that although I did say that if any Liberal moved such a motion, I would support that.

I also said that in my bill we would allow the city of Toronto to set up it’s own appeal process, an appeal board so they would have the power to review a decision. It would be something the city would set up, with its own parameters.

But if they don’t, my view is that if the city of Toronto plans well there will be very few cases that would go to court where they would lose them.

But if they do go to court – God bless. Going to the OMB is like going to court. It’s a very expensive process. It takes time and money – staff time and money to go and defend themselves. And it takes individuals or organizations from the public that want to go, it takes time and money for them too.

Some critics argue, well, all they have to do is pay the fee, the $125 and then they go defend themselves. But I’m sorry it’s not as simple as that. When developers go to the OMB, they hire good planners and good lawyers and that means they’re very well prepared to defend themselves. They’re prepared before they even go.

The city has to go and take time out of its busy work and go and defend themselves and send lawyers. That’s time and money too.

If it were to come to pass that the government says we’ll give you this power, and the city doesn’t introduce an appeal body I think that’s okay. What do they do in other provinces? I presume some of them are going to court too. But I don’t hear anyone across the province saying, ‘Oh we need an OMB to solve these issues because right now the only recourse is going to the court system.’

BBH: The OMB tends to be characterized as biased in favour of development. And at the same time some neighbourhoods within the city have kind of developed a bit of a Not In My Backyard sentiment. How do you balance between density targets and things like the Place to Grow Act and the feeling on the ground in some parts of the city that we shouldn’t necessarily be building up?

RM: There are already directives that are given to cities about intensification. And I think people across the board are realizing that sprawl is not a good thing. There are a lot of projects in the city of Toronto that haven’t been fought by city councillors or communities.

To suggest that the OMB is there to make sure that development happens is not the job of the OMB. Although from the question itself it sounds like that’s what they’re there for. But that’s not their job necessarily. But it turns out that that’s what the OMB does.

My view is that we all believe that we’ve got to intensify. The question might be, how much? How high? And do I think people in my neighbourhood would be opposed to going up four storeys or even five storeys along King Street or along Dundas? No, I don’t believe they are. I think development is here to stay.

BBH: What kind of development would you like to see in the city?

RM: Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of when I travel to Paris I see five, six storeys – I think it’s amazing. It’s uniform and it’s quite a beautiful level of intensification. But it doesn’t have to be five or six storeys.

I’m not against twenty storeys or twenty-five for that matter. I think there’s a place for that as well. And some people are fine with fifty or sixty storeys. I’m not a fan of that level of that level of intensification, I have to admit that. But there’s a place for that as well.

BBH: You’ve brought up these development issues recently and in 2012, you proposed changes to the Ontario Condominium Act. Do you have any other proposed development legislation up your sleeve?

RM: [Laughs] No, no. Those are the main two. But quite frankly with so many people moving into condos, my view is that we’ve got to build them well and build environmentally self-sufficient buildings. What I know is that there’s much more to be done.

Thanks for speaking with us!

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