I dream of an Uber or Airbnb for development. When I started in this business, most development seemed to occur "as of right”. In other words, zoning bylaws matched the official plan, densities were reasonable and allowed profitable development, and for developers not interested in fighting those designations at City Hall, they just had to produce drawings consistent with the zoning bylaw, and apply for a building permit. City staff merely checked for compliance and issued the building permit. Boom. Done. Start digging.
Today? In most major Canadian cities; slow, uncertain, frustrating, and expensive. And seemingly getting worse as politicians find more ways to squeeze subjective fees out of developers and dream up new taxes, and planners think of even more things worth considering in their quest to make every part of every city consistent with the latest buzzwords and visions.
What if development approvals were instantaneous and free? Fill out a long form questionnaire online, behind the scenes software analysis occurs in a nanosecond, and development approval, site plan approval, and building permit get issued instantly. This is the modern version of “as of right” zoning approvals. It just replaces people checking the plans against the zoning bylaw and the official plan with software.
The software would conduct that analysis much more quickly and cheaply than a staff of planners and building officials. And because of that, what if there was a flat rate application fee of just a few hundred dollars? What would happen to development and prosperity?
I have the answer to that question: a torrent of new supply would be unleashed in every major market where that software was employed, bringing down costs and markets across Canada, inciting a lot more entrepreneurs (who are currently completely frustrated by the length, uncertainty, and cost of the process) to enter the business of building the physical infrastructure that Canada needs. A supply pipeline of 18 to 36 months all of a sudden contracts, releasing everything in that pipeline. Think of the instant job creation and new supply coming to market.
Developers, shocked by their ability to finally ascertain all development costs upfront with no surprises, and accurately predict the date of release of building permits (tomorrow!) would be able to attract more capital to the now de-risked business and entice buyers and tenants who can now know almost exactly when they can move in. What a concept. Planners would be employed with software specialists specifying densities, heights and development configurations in advance, programmed into the software. Developers and planners would sit down every five years for the building code and software updates to the latest desired specifications to match the new Official Plan.
Such an idea is not impossible given some of the recent planning and development regulations implemented by municipalities in Canada.
For example, the City of Toronto has implemented a Development Permit System
(DPS) – a kind of area- based Secondary Plan – that pre-zones a prescribed area and sets out development standards and guidelines in advance of any development within that area. The DPS provides transparency and clarity for developers and eliminates the need for tedious negotiation and renegotiation of development parameters. Developers simply get the rules of the game earlier and build based on those rules. In municipalities with a DPS, software and other expedited approval mechanisms would be a natural complement for a development system already becoming more time efficient an uncomplicated.
Surplus planners, development review specialists, lawyers, and bureaucrats would be freed from the drudgery of their current jobs to cross the floor and actually build something. Municipalities would see a drastic reduction in salaried overhead. People would get excited about building Canada's future. People would get excited about innovation. The city of the future would happen much quicker.
Who is building that software? And how do we get municipalities to subscribe to it?