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Developers to mayors/councils: We give you millions for community benefits, you take the credit

July 25th, 2013 · 29 Comments

One Twitter follower asked if I was writing for the Onion with this story in the Globe, so I guess the snark brigade will be out in full force here. Would be nice to have a more thoughtful discussion about developer contributions — do they deserve more acknowledgement or is their contribution in fact a pretty minimal tax on their profits, as I know some will think?


Published Monday, Jul. 22, 2013 10:15PM EDT


Last updated Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013 11:20AM EDT


Developers are growing increasingly exasperated that they get little or no credit for huge contributions they make to everything from culture to parks to daycares in the Lower Mainland – contributions increasingly required by area cities.

“The fact is that the development community does a ton and makes a huge contribution to all kinds of social benefits,” said Dana Westermark, president of Oris Development Corporation. Mr. Westermark did a slow burn recently when a news story about Richmond announcing $4.3-million for “cultural-history projects” didn’t mention he provided that money as part of his London Landing project.

It’s not the first time. “We did a very large project with the city, built a neighbourhood utility project for the Alexandra neighbourhood,” he said. “They crowed about what a fantastic thing they had done without acknowledging our part.”

Mr. Westermark is hardly the only unhappy developer. The region’s development-industry association says the failure to mention industry contributions is a pattern in many cities, one it is determined to fight.

Urban Development Institute “is fully prepared to challenge any ‘fluffy’ press announcements by municipal officials/mayors/councillors regarding public amenities paid for in part or whole by [fees charged to builders] and which do not properly and fairly reference the development industry,” said one recent internal e-mail from the institute to its members. The institute provided a series of announcements from Vancouver demonstrating the problem.

Institute president Anne McMullin said the lack of credit is not just a case of well-off developers having hurt feelings. The public perception that developers don’t contribute affects cities’ ability to talk about planning or growth in neighbourhoods. “The public just sees the change in their community and they don’t see the public benefits,” she said.

As a result, she said, there’s uproar in communities where either individual projects are proposed or where cities are creating new planning frameworks for whole areas – like Vancouver’s Grandview-Woodlands – because it’s not spelled out what those communities are getting back.

In Vancouver, which extracts the most from developers of any municipality in the region, even the signs set up around new projects announcing what is planned for that plot of land don’t spell out what the developer is contributing – even though it’s typically something substantial.

“You need to do that right from the get-go so the community knows the benefit,” Ms. McMullin said.

According to provincial government statistics the UDI has dug out, developers paid $634-million last year to various municipalities through what are called developer cost charges – DCCs, for short.

Developers in an increasing number of municipalities also pay a second layer of fees, called community-amenity contributions.

Vancouver has been at the forefront of those – charging $180-million last year – but suburban municipalities that have become the sites of high-density projects are starting to charge them too.

Vancouver’s general manager of planning, Brian Jackson, said he concurs that the city has not done a good enough job of acknowledging developer contributions. That’s critical, because those contributions are not just extras – they’re essential.

“In delivering the kinds of ambitious amenities people want, we can only do it now with the assistance of the private sector,” he said.

Mr. Jackson said the city is starting a process to collect information on how much developers have paid for in the city to help make the public more aware. He also said that when the four city neighbourhood plans are being finalized this fall – plans that generated some backlash over proposals for much higher-density development – there will be specifics that show exactly what benefits at what price neighbourhoods will get in return.

“We need that so the public does understand how growth finances community benefits,” he said.

In Richmond, Councillor Bill McNulty, who made the recent announcement about the $4.3-million in cultural projects the city is financing, said he is never shy about giving developers credit.

“I always give them full marks,” he said. “Without development, a lot of things we get credit for would never happen.”

The problem, he says, is that even when the politicians do give developers credit, that doesn’t get passed on by the people who tell the story – those news reporters who don’t provide the full picture.



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