Why Toronto needs to rethink its relationships with two pillars of ‘local government’

ANALYSIS: The city has launched a governance review in response to last year’s cut to council. According to a new research paper, it should take a serious look at how it deals with business improvement areas and neighbourhood associations
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 15, 2019
Bloor West Village in Toronto
The world’s first business improvement area was formed in Toronto’s Bloor West Village in 1970. (facebook.com/BloorWestVillageBIA)

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It’s been nearly a year since Premier Doug Ford announced, out of the blue, that his government was introducing legislation to cut Toronto city council in half. The move threw the 2018 municipal and school-board elections into chaos, and Toronto is still dealing with the consequences today: councillors now have to handle the workloads of larger wards alongside the same volume of committee work. No surprise, then, that council has launched a review of the city’s governance in an attempt to figure out how to make Toronto work.

A new paper from the University of Toronto’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance says that, as council rethinks local government, it should pay close attention to the city’s relationship with business improvement areas and neighbourhood associations.

“This governance committee process is the opportunity to look at all of these aspects of local governance,” says Alexandra Flynn, the author of the paper and an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s law school. “What I would urge is that the committee take that role on and really undertake a more sweeping review of how local governance works — and not just the cut in wards.”

If you don’t haunt the towers of city hall, BIAs and NAs can seem like obscure or even trivial bodies, but spend even a little time watching municipal politics, and you’ll realize their importance. The world’s first BIA was formed in Toronto’s Bloor West Village in 1970; it gave local businesses the power to tax themselves in order to invest money in local improvements (and to compete with the new suburban megamalls). BIAs are formally created by the city, their taxes are collected by the city, and they’re overseen by the city.

Neighbourhood associations, on the other hand, are private groups that may or may not be incorporated, have no formal role in the city’s government, and exist to advocate on behalf of the interests of local homeowners (and, less often, tenants).

What both groups have in common is that they play a key political role in local decision-making: BIAs can support or oppose such local measures as the Bloor Street bike lane or the King streetcar pilot; residents associations may support or oppose such things as homeless shelters or condo developments.

Flynn says that any reconsideration of local governance should involve a careful look at how BIAs and NAs operate, where they exist and don’t, and how they could be made more representative and transparent.

“To me, it sounds funny that there’s no [NA] oversight from the city,” Flynn says. “Given the role they claim to play, and the role they actually play, that sounds funny to me.”

Flynn also highlights the role of neighbourhood associations in the planning process, citing the large rental development proposed for the former site of Honest Ed’s, at Bloor and Bathurst: the developer and city staff engaged directly with local associations and invited them to multiple meetings that materially changed the eventual design of the approved development.

“Those meetings are touted by city staff as an ideal model for city planning,” Flynn says. “But if that’s the case, who are they speaking for? And who are their members? Who are they?”

As a first step, Flynn says, the city could do for neighbourhood associations what it has already done for BIAs: create a central directory that indicates which areas of the city they cover. (Her research relied on work done by journalist David Topping.) And, she notes, the city could go further still by giving NAs other benefits enjoyed by BIAs, such as modest grants and access to city staff.

Flynn says that the city could also encourage the creation of BIAs and NAs in more diverse parts of the city (the downtown and wealthier neighbourhoods are currently over-represented). But if the city decided to more actively encourage the formation of such associations, it would then also need to deal with the fact that many of them aren’t necessarily representative of the areas they claim to represent — in 2015, the city acknowledged that, at planning meetings, it mostly heard from “white, male homeowners over the age of 55.”

“I would take a more expansive view of localized governance and want to have more than these bodies in them,” Flynn says. “I don’t think they’re enough to capture the breadth of representation that’s out there.”

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