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# Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Halifax Regional Municipality is in the throes of moving its long awaited Centre Plan from draft to reality.  With the first package of draft policy and regulation released in late February, it’s come a long way from the high-level guiding document that Turner Drake assisted with in 2016. However, there is still a ways to go. As one might imagine, when replacing multiple planning policy and development regulation documents for the most dynamic and complex urban environment in Atlantic Canada, the devil is truly in the details.

One of the biggest details being grappled with is the deployment of density bonusing, which is principally designed as an affordable housing tool. Depending on what you read, the current framework may actually backfire by delivering no affordable housing and even drive up market-rate housing prices by suppressing supply, or it may be perfectly fine and a good replacement for present ad hoc negotiations which are falling short of the Centre Plan’s achievable outcomes. Either way it provides an opportunity to highlight the perks and pitfalls of this increasingly common strategy.

What is Density Bonusing?

Density bonusing is a planning policy tool whereby new development projects can access higher regulatory limits on built area in return for provision of some public benefit. In other words, trade height for amenities. It is sound in concept. The value of urban land (but not the buildings on it) is primarily driven by where it is located, and what can be done on it. Thus, it is value created by our collective society through the infrastructure and services provided to it, the legal framework that governs it, and the surrounding public and private activities which would make one desire a particular location over another. When local governments “add density” by increasing regulatory limits over what is currently anticipated by the market (i.e. already reflected in its price), they literally create additional land value out of thin air. In requiring a developer to provide public benefits for this added density, local governments are recapturing the value they created in the first place.

There is an obvious tension here in terms of why this ‘bonus’ density was not permitted in the first place, but in the messy world of city-building, ideological purity will always lose to practicality. Density bonusing thus becomes something akin to racketeering: nice development application you’ve got there… what say you give us some art and affordable housing, and maybe that shadow ain’t so bad anymore.

How Does it Work?

While it’s a clear win-win in concept, it can be complex in practice. There are four important factors that determine whether or not density bonusing works on a given site:

·         the value of the property as it exists today

·         the value of the land if purchased for redevelopment

·         the value created by adding bonus density

·         the value captured through required public benefits

It is important to note that all but the last factor on this list are determined by the real estate market. The value captured is set by the municipality, and is typically based on an estimation of the value of the bonus density. In HRM, the tradeoff of density for benefits is structured under a predefined framework. Other municipalities negotiate these arrangements on a case-specific basis, but this approach it generally used in far larger centres due to the complexity and sophistication involved.

Roughly speaking, development projects are feasible in areas where the market price for land exceeds the value of properties as currently developed.  Adding a density bonusing program to the mix will increase the redevelopment value, but also add a new cost in the form of requisite public benefits. On net, this is usually a positive value; these programs are designed to recapture only a portion of the value they create.

It should be apparent that density bonusing is not, in principle, a drag on development. In fact, a properly designed program should improve the feasibility of existing projects and even increase the total pool of viable projects where the net positive addition of value (bonus density minus benefit cost) actually tips the balance of feasibility. For all intents and purposes, this is indistinguishable from a basic upzoning.

Where Can It Go Wrong?

There are plenty of opportunities for density bonusing programs to go awry, but most are the usual pitfalls of any public policy. There needs to be a logical and efficient administration process. The program needs to be supported by accurate data so that its function lives up to its intent. Appropriate buffers needs to be left to account for secondary costs and added overhead created by the program itself. There needs to be additional mechanisms in place to deal with the outputs (this is an important topic of conversation in the Centre Plan context, in which the majority of benefit is supposed to be in the form of affordable housing while the municipality has no formal jurisdiction or established programming).

However, the fundamental issue of whether a density bonusing program works is the value relationship between what is proposed, and what exists today. Most of the debate and discussion in HRM has been focussed on aspects of the former: what is the best value capture rate to use, what is the right threshold for triggering the bonus requirements, what are the correct value assumptions? Important questions, but their answers are all derived from the latter issue, not determined in a vacuum.

At the scale of a city, form follows finance. Whether density bonusing is implemented or ignored by the private sector will ultimately depend on whether the total value of entitled and bonus density, less the cost of delivering it (development costs plus public benefit), is a sweeter deal than exists today. If a profit incentive exists, a badly designed program will still deliver. If a perfectly designed program equates to a downzoning, don’t count on anything happening until prices rise, or losses are written off.

How to Get it Right?

As municipal planning increasingly makes use of economic and market-based tools (and it should) it also needs to expand its understanding of the principles and systems that underpin them. Weight does need to be placed on the market conditions of the present given their influence on the future (to say nothing of the municipality’s complicity in forming them).

The traditional approach would state planning policies cannot be captive to past practices and existing conditions, otherwise change would never be possible. While this is true, it is not justification for being willfully ignorant either. Understanding the basic value relationship between today's conditions and those proposed under new policy is the key to understanding whether density bonusing, or any planning policy for that matter, will deliver on its promise.

Neil Lovitt, our Senior Manager of Planning & Economic Intelligence can be reached at 429-1811 ext. 349 (HRM), 1 (800) 567-3033 (toll free), or nlovitt@turnerdrake.com.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018 15:00:58 (Atlantic Daylight Time, UTC-03:00)  #    -
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