One of the most salient features of the land use process in America is the total reliance on experts hired by the developer. Across this nation, thousands of Planning and Zoning boards listen to hours of testimony presented by engineers and land use consultants who have been hired by developers and big box retailers to sell their project. Public boards are left swimming in a sea of techno-babble and engineering imponderables. Citizens groups are forced to retain their own experts — an expensive proposition — to present data that is not colored by the developer. The same biased process is at work in Canada, where this week one small community managed to convince its elected officials to use independent consultants to measure the impact of a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. That could spell major problems for the Arkansas-based retailer, because the site they have chosen in London, Ontario is the last place you would locate a 225,000 s.f. superstore. According to this week’s London Free Press, residents in the Meadowlily Woods neighborhood of London have submitted thousands of names on petitions, and turned out hundreds of people to hearings against the Wal-Mart project. Residents demanded that their elected officials have the project reviewed by unbiased eyes. The land in question is surrounded by woods, is considered a “heritage site” and is located in a residential neighborhood with lots of open space. The City Council was apparently moved by the strength of this citizen response, and is expected to insist that the developer, Smart Centres, allow the city to hire the experts who will take apart their plan. Smart Centres describes itself as “Canada’s largest and most-active retail developer and operator… committed to bringing value to Canadian communities through a large-scale, unenclosed shopping centre format that is adapted to each market it is located in.” Smart Centres claims it opens a new shopping center every three to four weeks, and is currently managing and developing more than 185 SmartCentres. These centers are strategically located in every major market across Canada, with the majority anchored by a Wal-Mart store.” Neighbors say regardless of who the developer is, this location on the southside of London just makes no sense. “It’s not about Smart Centres. It’s not about Wal-Mart . . . It’s about (what’s best for) London,” Gary Smith, who lives across from the project, told the Free Press. To date, Smart Centres has rolled out its own experts to evaluate the effect of what is referred to as “the mega-plaza on the woods.” At this week’s Planning Committee, the board unanimously agreed to have city-hired experts do the site analysis. One Committee member admitted to the Free Press, “I can’t imagine anything more incongruous (with the area) than a large, big-box development.” There was an effort to kill the proposal outright, but London Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best said the city’s consultants need to review the project first. “I’ve lived in this area all my life,” the Mayor explained. “Our job is to make sure we protect it.” By putting the city in the driver’s seat, neighbors say, residents will have the chance to comment on the plan, and the study will not narrow its findings only to satisfy the developer who is paying their invoices. “We got exactly what we wanted,” one resident told the newspaper. “This will set a precedent on how the city will deal with (land that can be developed).” But Smart Centres did not think the use of free-standing consultants was a smart idea. “It puts many developers in a not-very-happy position,” said a spokesman for the developer. One Council member said the decision by the city to take a leading role in the review signals a change from ‘development at all costs’ to a manged growth approach. “It’s an example of the new way we do business,” the councilor said.
This is a new way of doing business, and it would not have come about without sustained pressure from the public. A fundamental change to using independent experts to review development plans would amount to a major revolution in the ‘insider track’ politics of how land decisions are made. Often local planning and zoning boards — whether they are elected or appointed — are filled with real estate interests and local politicians who cannot process technical reports, and who are dependent on the developer’s consultants to evaluate the plan. The obvious conflict of such presentations is usually ignored. Appointed boards usually follow the direction of the local Mayor or City Council that appointed them — leaving no room for independent, unbiased analysis. London, the 10th largest center in Canada, is a hub for southwestern Ontario. The city is known as “The Forest City,” and the tree is a symbol of commitment to environmental stewardship, economic prosperity, and a high quality of life. The city says it wants to “foster private sector investment,” but among its 98 strategic priorities is environmental leadership, and managed, balanced growth. A superstore larger than 4 football fields is totally incongruous with such a strategic plan. Readers are urged to email London’s Mayor Anne-Marie DeCicco-Best at: [email protected]?subject=Feedback with the following message: “Dear Mayor DeCicco-Best, Wal-Mart’s proposal to put a superstore in Medowlilly Woods is incompatible with the strategic goals of your city. The location is wrong, and the scale is absurd. You cannot manage growth as a goal, and allow stores four times the size of a football field. The Smart Centres plan is an example of suburban sprawl, a form of ‘dumb growth’ that will undermine the character of your city, waste land, and foster more dependence on the automobile. You point out that London has a multitude of trees,parks and pathways, and a rich heritage. Superstore sprawl is the wrong pathway for your future. There are thousands of Wal-Mart superstores — but only one London, Canada. Which would you rather protect?”