Update + Plan

Past.

It’s been a while since my last post on here, but I can assure you, I have been up to great things. Within the past eight months since this year began I have:

  • Resigned from my position at Urbanation Inc;
  • Travelled to and fallen in love with Portland, OR;
  • Started and finished my fast-track course in Data Analytics, Big Data, and Predictive Analytics;
  • Gotten involved with #SitTO. (Media links here, here, and here);
  • Come out to my family and greater group of friends.

Present.

Needless to say, the last eight months have pushed me to grow in every sense of the word: technically, with Big Data and programming skills; professionally, from a clearer career path and newfound craving for learning more of the aforementioned technical skills; socially as I’ve learned through my summer program and #SitTO that although I am most comfortable and productive being alone, it takes a team to actualize and accomplish bigger goals; and personally as my coming out process has paralleled a good, hard, critical, no-bullshit look at my self.

I finished (and nailed) my last exam last Thursday and I’ve been taking it easy with my freedom. I’m in no rush to go job-hunting as I’d like to recollect, review, and hone everything that I’ve learned in the past three months.

Future.

We arrive at the crux and purpose of this post – to assign myself to goals. My over-arching career goal is to harness the power of big data and contribute to building a better, more livable and equitable city. In the meantime, my short term goals are to:

  1. Hone my skills in SQL, R, and HiveQL;
  2. Familiarize myself with CLI commands;
  3. Learn Python;
  4. Find a space/firm where I can combine my love for big data and urbanism.

To achieve this, my objectives are to:

a. Practice loading and analyzing comprehensive datasets from Kaggle and other sources. I’ll use Hive and Hadoop to manage and/or parse larger datasets (like the City of Toronto’s Parking Tickets), and R for in-depth analyses and visualizations;
b. Practice using PuTTy CLI commands while loading datasets into Hive and the HDFS;
c. Take a recommended Udacity course on Computer Science (specializing in Python);
d. Speak with those in the big data and/or urbanism field and learn from their industry insights;
e. Attend a CivicTechTO meetup.

I’m very excited for the next phase in my life and career. I think there’s huge untapped potential for big data in city-building, particularly in Canada. The field of urban planning is known to follow an archaic schema and is lethargic to move from legacy documents like the zoning by-law (est. 1986).

Big data can be quickly harnessed to identify key patterns in city-building that will provide guidance for decision-makers and as former New York City Mayor Bloomberg so affectionately puts it, “In God, I trust. Everyone else, bring data”. A challenge here would be finding actual big data for Toronto (as opposed to simply ‘open data’, like I have ranted here and here) but I strongly believe the prevalence of big data sets becoming available in Canada is inevitable. In the meantime, I’ll be preparing for the wave to hit.

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Toronto: Condos or Rental Apartments?

Source: Flickr user: Drum118

 This is not a condo.

After roughly two years of construction and nearing completion, the developer decided to change this project to a purpose-built rental apartment – that’s the second in under two months. As reported by the Toronto Star, Kingsclub, on the western fringe of downtown Toronto, has returned all deposits to its preconstruction buyers due to “not being able to reach its construction financing thresholds (70-80% sales)”. Though this antagonizes the condo industry further, there’s really nothing illegal about what the developer has done. The only other time when a project gets cancelled (that I’m aware of) is when planning approvals don’t go through and the city’s limits on the project (e.g. height) make it unfeasible.

It seems developers are really picking up on the rental wave and are seriously considering them as opposed to condos. This is especially true in cities rated highly for their “livability” like Toronto. Check out a rental comparison I did on a few newer purpose-built rental apartments and their surrounding condo-competitors here.

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Local Appeal Body for Toronto?

Say you’ve inherited an old run-down house built in the 50s in Toronto.

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Your development proposal must fit inside this box, prescribed by the zoning bylaw. (Image Source: Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing)

If you want to redevelop said property beyond the box that the zoning bylaw prescribes (e.g. 2 metres higher than the 15 metres allowed), you need to apply for a minor variance at the Committee of Adjustment. If the application does not pass the four tests for a minor variance, then the Committee will deny your application for redevelopment.

You can appeal this decision by going to the provincial appeal body, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which will review your application de novo and judge it against its conformity to the Official Plan and other applicable planning policy documents. Sometimes the OMB will arrive at a different conclusion than the Committee of Adjustment and the same application would get approved.

In Toronto, what we’ve been seeing is condo developers having their proposals turned down by the Committee of Adjustment for intruding on sunlight/shadow lines, having “excessive heights”, not conforming to the character of the neighbourhood, etc. The developers naturally embark upon an appeal to the OMB and have a greater chance at winning. The popular perception of the OMB is that it favours developers and has little to no context for what they are approving. As well, because of the extra costs, it systematically makes it difficult for the little guy to afford to do what the big bad developer can.

The public outcry for a more “fair” appeal process has pressured the city to do something about this apparently weighted development battle. So in December of 2013, Council’s Planning and Growth Committee passed a decision to initiate a public consultation process on having a Local Appeal Body (LAB) for Toronto as a “made-in-Toronto” alternative to the OMB.

Let’s take a step back.

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Developing a neighbourhood: Oakburn-Avondale (North York)

After the crunching stress of client-based studios, attending networking events I had committed to, and exams, I’d finally caught a break from the whirlwind of third year. My job applications to  “info@developer.ca”s had been in vain (in addition to a sub-par, pre-reviewed resume, there was also skewed competition with seasoned grad students) and I was suddenly left with something foreign and long-lost: time.

After 60+ outgoing e-mails within three weeks, it had become a nauseating process that I needed to take a breather from. My twitter had been flooded with news articles on condo developments in downtown Toronto and I got to wondering about the original condo hub – North York (aka my old ‘hood).

As if that wasn’t enough to get my nostalgia working, I accidentally stumbled upon DTAH’s secondary plan for the area as the solution to Tridel planning to expand Eastward, the critical demand for increasing school capacity, and generally sub-par physical qualities of the area.

Oakburn-Avondale secondary plan area, taken off DTAH's website.

Oakburn-Avondale secondary plan, taken off DTAH’s website.

It had been eight years since I’d last wandered into the old Oakburn-Avondale area – (just East of Yonge St. at Highway 401 – location, location, location!), and I’d heard stories from my parents who’d visited the area while I was downtown during the school year about how much it had changed. The staff report for the sale of the properties surfaced with a quick Google search.

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Watch out for the POPOS!

The San Fran planning dept has something similar to Toronto’s own Section 37 requirement. (For those unfamiliar, it’s basically an agreement between a developer and city council when the former wants their building to exceed the height/density currently allowed on that parcel of land and offers to fund public amenities or provide greenspace etc. in exchange for that height/density.) They get it from the Downtown Plan though.

The parks resulting from these agreements are known as Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces – or POPOS.

‘Murica or Canadia, developers will be developers, and they’ve crafted POPOS in such a way that are just out of the public’s reach, but within legal boundaries (as per their agreement with council), all presumably to 1.) keep the garbage-chucking, dirt-ridden, flower-trampling public out; 2.) maintain a sense of exclusive prestige for the building. Whether they’ve ended up on rooftops, or in between buildings, too many POPOS are hidden, twisting the initial intent of this municipal tool.

Realization of this loophole has led the San Fran Planning Dept to develop a web tool that maps out all POPOS and categorizes their amenities to make finding these elusive places a more user-friendly experience. It would be nice if someone (possibly from blogTO or the Grid… or the cavalry of Reddit) could make something like this for Toronto. Better yet the City Planners could get on this.

As recently reported by Metro, Toronto has identified a total of 27 sites since 2000 covering 1.3 million sq ft. Doesn’t take too many brain cells for one to know that’s a helluva lotta good space wasted, and in a city like ours with conventional parks like these (below), we need some quality public space that the private sector is just so good at creating.

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In the developer’s defense, maintenance fees could be kept a lot lower without the extra traffic. So the “problem” is much deeper than that – it’s the perception of the public, and the actual behaviour of the public. It must begin with the individual public seeing the value of these POPOS and acknowledging that they own a part of this as residents of the city.They must learn to take care of this property, careful not to litter (WHICH IS NOT THAT HARD BTW, PEOPLE) or damage it. The developers must see this and learn to trust the public when drafting their building designs and deciding where and what the POPOS should be.

More importantly though, we as a city should drop the mindset that begins with everything being private. We should work towards switching our cognitive starting point to everything being public unless otherwise indicated instead. When this paradigm shift occurs, it would make a much more inviting community. This generation has recognized the effectiveness and efficiency of car-sharing, building-sharing, and idea-sharing. We cannot forget the most basic thing of all is also the most important thing to share: space.

Perhaps then we’ll see better quality POPOS and less half-assed ones, like this:

I mean, why even bother.

I mean, why even bother.