Mayor’s growth fee plan badly executed

Bowman needs to fix relationship with developers and councillors


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Good idea, bad execution. In politics, that is not a recipe for success.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/09/2016 (2277 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Good idea, bad execution. In politics, that is not a recipe for success.

As a case in point, consider the drama unfolding at city hall. Mayor Brian Bowman continues his quest to introduce “growth fees” on new development. It is a tool used widely in cities across Canada, and in fact in many neighbouring municipalities in Manitoba, to help pay for the collateral costs of sprawl. 

Bowman has signalled for more than a year now that he wants growth fees levied in this city, more than enough time to consult and negotiate and mediate some sort of consensus on the issue. And yet, rather than agreement, Bowman finds himself surrounded by hostility.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The Waverley underpass project will ease traffic flow at Waverley near Taylor.

The development industry is up in arms and making all kinds of non-specific threats of retaliation. Councillors have concerns about political backlash. And the Progressive Conservative government is waiting in the long grass, possibly ready to squash Bowman’s plan for being outside the authority of provincial legislation.

The developers and the mayor’s office have essentially been talking over each other for months now in an endless, but rather pointless, debate over growth fees that has done little to clarify this complex issue.

The developers have a pretty thin argument against growth fees. They moan and whine about how it will slow or stop new residential development in the suburbs without dealing with the principle issue: these fees are in use in many other jurisdictions. 

Consider that Qualico, which has threatened to pull out of the Sage Creek development, continues to build homes in cities in other provinces where growth fees are the norm. Heck, Qualico also builds homes in capital region municipalities just outside Winnipeg city limits that charge growth fees that are very similar to what Bowman has proposed.

The biggest flaw in the developer case, however, is their refusal to acknowledge the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars the city spends to widen or extend roads and build grade separations needed to move a rapidly increasing suburban population back and forth from their swanky new suburban homes. Developers do pay for roads, sewers and water lines in the immediate vicinity of their developments, but not the infrastructure necessary to connect those developments to the rest of the city.

The Waverley West arterial roads project — which included an extension of Kenaston Boulevard and a new intersection and overpass at Waverley Street — cost nearly $70 million, none of which was covered by developers. The same goes for the $155-million, soon-to-be-constructed Waverley underpass at Taylor Avenue. Those two projects alone — which approach a quarter of a billion dollars in city expenditures — are costs directly connected to suburban sprawl but borne directly by property taxpayers from all areas of the city.

On the other side of the equation, Bowman has made a reasonably solid opening case for growth fees by pointing out how extensively they are used in other jurisdictions, and how badly Winnipeg needs the additional revenue. The cost of projects like the Waverley West arterial roads upgrades are proof enough that the city deserves more from developers.

However, Bowman has struggled with the execution of his plan. 

Bowman did hire a consultant to provide some analysis of the need for, and impact of, growth fees. But the consultant did not widely consult with affected constituencies, including the business community and development industry. That omission gives Bowman’s opponents a lot of traction to undermine the consultant’s final report.

As well, the mayor appears to have been lazy about cultivating support on council. Councillors have complained about a lack of information coming from Bowman’s office, and a general failure to be more open and consultative with the development industry. Developers are important cogs in the municipal political machine, both as donors and opinion leaders and their displeasure will be felt by many councillors.

Which brings us to the real point of inflection in this debate. Although most of the attention is focused right now on the war of words between Bowman and developers, there is a bigger and more difficult battle looming on the floor of Winnipeg city council.

Ultimately, a majority of councillors will have to get behind Bowman’s plan for it to become reality. And that is hardly a done deal.

There will be councillors, particularly those representing suburban neighbourhoods, who will be very nervous to sign on to Bowman’s plan. Core-area councillors as well have bones to pick with the growth fee plan, particularly if the mayor attempts to apply it evenly throughout all areas of the city.

Bowman has not indicated clearly if he would consider exempting certain types of development, or certain areas of the city, from growth fees. However, applying growth fees to the downtown — where the city and province are spending millions of dollars to incent developers to build residential units — seems counterproductive to say the least. At worst, a blanket imposition of growth fees that would include downtown would kill any interest in continuing to build population density.

To get any policy through city council, even a worthy one such as this, the mayor must be vigilant about defusing opposition among developers and cultivating support on council. Following the summit meeting on Monday, Bowman has promised to meet and talk more with his detractors; he has not, however, said he will compromise with anyone to get a deal done on growth fees.

Growth fees are important to the future of the city and the mayor is correct in pursuing them as an additional source of revenue. However, even the best ideas can come undone with bad execution. The mayor needs to survey the current state of the debate, and fix his relationships with developers and councillors, or risk seeing a good idea never come to fruition.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.


Updated on Monday, September 12, 2016 8:06 PM CDT: added photo

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