City 'disingenuous' with 'outlandish' demands in Pearl Company issue

By Mary Louise Pigott
Published February 13, 2009

(Published as a letter to the editor in today's Hamilton Spectator.)

I am disheartened but not surprised that we are on the verge of losing the Pearl Company, one of the finest visual arts and performing spaces in the city.

My daughter is fortunate to be participating in a children's program there, so I know first-hand the benefits this facility brings to our community.

It is extremely disingenuous of city representative Al Fletcher to suggest that a $7,000 fee, the outlandish requirement of 150 parking spaces and potentially tens of thousands in fines would not create difficulties for a nonprofit arts organization.

I admire his dedication to clamping down on illegal uses, however. Perhaps when all the artists have been run out of town, he can turn his attention to the developers who operate illegal parking lots on the site of demolished buildings, practise demolition by neglect and continue to build homes without permits with impunity.

A better use of the Pearl Company's meagre resources might be to incorporate as Santucci Development.

Then maybe the city would give them a break.

Mary Louise Pigott is an armchair urbanist and founding member of the Useful Knowledge Society, whose passion for urban neighbourhoods and public spaces occasionally moves her to write.

You can follow her on twitter at @mlhpigott.


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By Melville (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 01:19:10

Is there any chance we can get a link or explanation so we have some context for this commentary? What's going on? I'd really like to know...

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 07:23:19

shortsighted Hamilton politics at it's best. People come from all over southern Ontario to enjoy this gem in the heart of our city. Other cities would kill to have such a facility proposed for a down on it's luck inner city neighbourhood.
Here, we run them out of town. I used this quote in another thread here on RTH, but it's applicable here:

"people don't visit Paris to check out the nice sidewalks and sewers". They will visit a city like ours to enjoy a facility like this and the ArtBus.

The more things change, the more they stay the same in this town. And not surprisingly, I haven't heard a peep from the folks at Hamilton Tourism. They're more interested in building a fast food restaurant along the QEW than supporting a tourism-generating gem mere minutes from the tourism head office.

Such a shame.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 09:06:10

Here's the article I was responding to:

Mary Louise

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 09:31:54

Well the burearcracy strikes again. What is up with all these bureaucrats anyways, it always seems that the average person trying to do something beneficial is almost always have to deal with the minions at the city hall.

But of course those like Mr Fletcher have never heard the term starving artists. Artists are creative and add value to the community, what value does a city hall minion actually add??????? As far as I am concerned NOT MUCH!!!!!

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted February 13, 2009 at 10:20:31

Someone keeps saying that people don't visit a city because of the sidewalks and the sewers. That may be true, but they will make a choice not to visit a city because the sidewalks and sewers are in bad repair.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 11:02:11

I doubt that. I've seen some of the most horrendous roads anywhere in Montreal, but I keep going back for more.
My trip to Cabo, Mexico it was apparent that the sewer system was overloaded all the time. Guess what? I'd go back tomorrow if I could. One of the best trips of my life.

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By Balance (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 11:08:28

Why don't they rezone the property for the use? And quit complaining? Every other property owner everywhere has to do the same thing. If I bought a property that was zoned for a dry cleaners and wanted to turn it into a art studio then I would need to have it rezoned.

Is it the fee associated with the application that is creating the issue. Sorry folks, that's life and the cost of doing business. Buyer beware. My interpretation is that some people on the RTH website feel that the rules should not be applied fairly and that if you are proposing something linked to the arts then the zoning by-law and any application fees should not apply. Sorry but that is illegal because the rules would not be applied fairly and where do you draw the line?

These people are trying to make a living and so am I. Why should they have a break and no one else? If I wanted to open a not for profit nursing home for the elderly, a school for the disabled, or a shelter for abandoned animals than I would need to submit applications and fees. Why shouldn't they?

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 11:28:57

"why should they have a break and no one else?"

Do some research on how many thousands of homes are built in Hamilton by developers with no permits. And that's just the surface. There's a ton of 'favours' and blind-eyes turned by city hall when it's convenient for them.

Pearl Company is a bonafide success story that has received national and international press. It draws people onto urban streets that not too long ago were reserved for hookers and dealers. property values are benefiting by their presence and clean property. the Art Bus has become one of the best events this city has ever seen.
It's not just the city fees that are driving this, but the insane parking requirements. If city hall had their way, the entire lower city would be bulldozed into a massive parking lot in order to meet their crazy obligations.

If joe-blow homebuilder can catch a break thousands of times over for several decades, why can't a hard working couple bringing life into a city block catch a single break? Just once.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 12:17:49

Jason, >> people don't visit Paris to check out the nice sidewalks and sewers

What is wrong with your brain? The reason people pay taxes is to ensure their homes aren't flooded with sewage and so they can enjoy a basic level of safety. If a private businesses want to bring in out of town visitors, let them pay for it.

Ryan >> The entire lower city should be zoned for mixed use with no mandated parking requirements.

Just scrap the plans all together. Give businesses the freedom to make their customers happy they way they know best.

>> Rules of good neighbourliness (like limits on noise, odour, etc.) should apply to the effects, not to the activities themselves

I agree, but these are common sense, no need to write them down. Less rules, more principles.

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By Three (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 14:23:46

Whoa whoa whoa. We can't have it both ways, demanding bureaucrats make contractors follow the rules when building homes, then demand they not apply the rules to arts entrepreneurs who have opened shop where they're not to. We may want some of those rules handy when, say, someone wants to open a strip club in an abandoned neighbourhood church down the block.

The Pearl Company IS a gem and it is facing some issues common to the types of changes going on in our neighbourhoods right now. It is evident to me that city bureaucrats recognize this. After all, they have not applied $50,000/day fines against The Pearl for non-conforming use, they have merely told the owners of their potential liability according to existing laws. They would have been unfair and remiss not to have provided such important information. But rather than apply fines they have negotiated with the owners to find a way through the problem. City bureaucrats should not be changing the laws or their applications willy nilly. Applying for a zoning change and meeting the parking conditions satisfies existing laws is a lot cheaper and better than paying fines. It is not ideal for the owners, but it is improvement.

City council can make exceptions regarding parking requirements, however. They are the ones to lobby, rather than insulting bureaucrats. And fundraisers can be held to help with the fees. It happens that The Pearl Company has the facilities and I think they have sufficient deserved community support to easily raise $7,000. I'd kick in. wouldn't you?

Far more productive to lobby councillors and contribute a few dollars than to insult an often unfairly maligned group of folks for doing what they are supposed to do- apply the rules.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 15:05:21

Ryan, you're right on. The entire zoning system needs to be re-written.
Let's get back to basics. We don't need all this nonsense in the urban part of the city. Mixed use and no parking requirements would be a wonderful start.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 16:20:09

Hi Three,

This link will give you a detailed run down of this issue.

When the Pearl Company "opened shop", the building had been used for commercial purposes, the PC had every reason to believe that theirs was a legal non-conforming use.

It is not as simple as bureaucrats merely "applying the rules" equally across the board. There are countless examples across the city of 'flexibility' in the way zoning rules are applied, which is why I pointed out the city's double standards when it comes to developers willfully flouting the rules. The fact that no flexibility or accommodation has been forthcoming, when the Pearl Company is so obviously a net benefit for the neighbourhood, and has done everything in its power to comply with the city's demands, speaks to a level of dysfunction and irrationality in the culture at City Hall that harms creative efforts to improve our city.

Councillors are being lobbied. In fact, they will be voting on a new official plan this coming June that will rezone the area mixed use commercial, thereby rendering the zoning application redundant. I can think of much better uses of the Pearl Company's resources, and the generosity of their supporters, than raising $7,000 for a meaningless zoning application.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 16:31:53

I should add, that not only is the zoning application meaningless in light of the new official plan, but would very likely be rejected anyway, because of the completely irrational requirement for 150 parking spaces. You can't seriously suggest that the PC knock themselves out raising money for something so pointless.

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By Balance (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 19:30:28

Ryan you are right on, Jason take a lesson here. I'm not saying that the regulations make sense but nonetheless, they are the rules and fairly applied. 150 parking spaces for a site along an arterial road with an abundance of public transit does not make sense. I will guarantee that if the proponent submits the required application that the bureaucrats and politicians will have no problem waving this requirement. The point is they need to apply instead of running to the media and crying poor me. Watch and see, I have no doubt that they will be able to move forward, it is common sense. For example, a couple of blocks away in the "Downtown Core" if you are converting space to a use that requires additional parking over the present use then it is waved due to public transit and full site coverage. You only need what you have that existed when the new zoning by-law was passed for the downtown core a couple of years ago. This is not rocket science and was copied from by-laws across the province. They need to suck it up, make the application and move on to success. I wish them all the best!

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 22:30:25

balance, I'm somewhat confused as I agree wholeheartedly with everything Ryan has said so far. Also, the parking requirements are not simply 'waived' as you suspect. I know business owners on King St and Locke St and they have to pay fees to the city each year for NOT having enough parking spaces as per city zoning requirements.
Sure, the city will let them open up their business or shop in a built-up urban area with no opportunity (short of demolishing surrounding buildings) to create off-road parking spaces, but will then charge them hundreds and in some cases, thousands of dollars each year as a penalty for not providing said parking spaces.
I'll repeat it again, the entire zoning system needs to be rewritten. This ain't the Meadowlands.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2009 at 23:30:47

Jason, >> I know business owners on King St and Locke St and they have to pay fees to the city each year for NOT having enough parking spaces as per city zoning requirements.

How does this help anyone? All this does is raise costs for the consumers. Why not let businesses decide whether parking is important or not? For once we are in total agreement.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 14, 2009 at 09:02:34

it was bound to happen eventually. Lol.

Check out Terry's Cooke piece in today's Spec.

Hits the nail on the head.

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By Three (anonymous) | Posted February 14, 2009 at 12:43:43

Yes, I assure you I am serious. And please note that I support the Pearl Company as an organization and as individuals, including their use of public media to assert their case. The Lansdale neighbourhood is vastly underserved by the city. And I stand corrected if, as stated in Cooke's Spec column, building department pressure is now being applied on the owners to immediately comply.

But my first point was that changes to the rules should be made by elected officials, not by the bureaucrats. As noted there has already been too much of the latter, and we don't like it (not enforcing building permits.) Establishing zoning rules are how consumers and communities are protected. Ignoring them is like throwing out the baby and keeping the dirty bathwater.

Secondly, city council can and has waived things like parking requirements. They can change the zoning bylaws too. Bureaucrats should not. But even if a new and more accommodating zone category were created it seems probable that The Pearl Company will have to apply to have their building zoned for the new designation, fee attached. If this does not make sense to you, understand that the city, for all its foolishness, is also a non-profit, public body. Revenue comes from fees and taxation. When we pay such fees we're paying ourselves. Not perhaps an ideal system, but one that has worked fairly well over the long run. But here again, if we want more imagination applied to the solution then we need to bring it to city council, not the bureaucrats.

I doubt those bureaucrats are as venal or stupid as they've been depicted. It is city councillors who so frequently have local builders and developers among their election campaign contributors. I can easily envision city councillors visiting the building department and demanding on behalf of their contributors to loosen the system, red tape etc. being the bane of attracting business and so on, a popular political cry. That's just idle speculation, not a whiff of truth to it, of course. But does anyone seriously suggest that the public interest is served if bureaucrats are allowed to waive the rules at their own discretion? Do we believe ignoring the building code has been a good thing?

As for raising the $7000, my bad. It's annoying. A real bother. Too much trouble. Waste of effort. Easier to put a rant into Raise The Hammer, and get on to the next whine. Easier for city councillors to dismiss rants too.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 14, 2009 at 14:23:28

an interesting read regarding the rezoning underway for the Westside Concert Theatre on the other side of downtown:

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 14, 2009 at 15:34:16

Hi again Three,

I invite you again to click on the above link to get a fuller picture of the situation. The PC has been working with the city and doing everything it can right from the get go. The city has often been less than forthright, claiming their investigations were based on 'complaints', when in fact they were based on internal miscommunication between departments - a prime example of the dysfunction I was referring to. Staff have more power and discretion than you give them credit for. It's all too easy to hide behind the 'rules'.

You are correct that parking requirements have been waived in certain situations in the past. That's one of the things that makes this situation so maddening. The city has given no indication that it is willing to do that in this case, which is one of the reasons why a costly zoning application is a waste of resources.

You keep coming back to lobbying council, so I'll say it again. Council IS being lobbied, to little avail up until now. They will be voting on a new official plan that will make the zoning application redundant - again, redundant zoning applications are a tremendous waste of a non-profit organization's limited resources. It is completely unfair to characterize PC's reluctance to pursue it as "A real bother. Too much trouble", as though they were just being lazy. If as you suggest, an application must still be made after the zoning changes are in place (not sure why that would be), and they can be assured that the parking requirements will be waived, I'm sure they wouldn't have a problem proceeding at that time, but at the moment it would be pointless.

Easier to put a rant into Raise The Hammer, and get on to the next whine. Easier for city councillors to dismiss rants too.

Yes. Far more heroic to be silent and apathetic.

Balance wrote

I will guarantee that if the proponent submits the required application that the bureaucrats and politicians will have no problem waving this requirement.

Fletcher, is that you? Morelli? If not, I'd love to know how you can "guarantee" this. As I said above, the city has given no indication that they are willing to waive the requirements in this case.

The point is they need to apply instead of running to the media and crying poor me.

Their home and livelihood is at stake, and you begrudge them their democratic recourse to the fourth estate?

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted February 14, 2009 at 16:49:18

I would like to make a comment on Mr Cooke's comment about the lost souls in relation to the social spending.

The current social services system is mockery of social justice, plain and simple, it is a poverty industry of its own. I find it sort of atrocious that we have the many bureaucrats and adminstrators who form policy, yet have no real life experience as to the system they have set up. One has to walk in another's shoes, to really understand the practically of the system they have set up which is layer upon layer of redundancy which does little to actually help the people to become self sufficient.

How does someone who earns in excess of $100,000, have any idea of trying to live on $540.00 per month, trying to find shelter, food, transportation costs even to find work. Never mind the fact that the policies of "Workfare" and "Elect to Work" have not been properly addressed by any political body.

The system is brutal, I know from personal experience and I have post secondary education, many years experience in my field but have had experience problems around the issue of lack of enforcement of some of the basics of employment rights. I was directed to a not for profit organization, in which I explained my issues. The so called "social worker" did not listen to me. In fact, I was told that a job interview had been set up for work that was entry level, which had nothing to do with my skill level, at a wage that was less then I was earning, I was told that I would have to work two to three weeks with no pay, as I had received an OW cheque of $530.00, which did not even cover shelter never mind all the other financial obligations I had. I was threatened to be cut off the meager funds from OW by this worker, as this person hissed at me, "this is workfare, this is the way it is", and in fact the worker from the not for profit did call the OW worker and was told that I cannot challenge the system.

In fact the same agency had a workshop on networking, which had nothing to do with netwroking, how does someone who was a receptionist have any skill or education in labour issues which affect many of those that are marginalized? The facilitator did not even understand the term "living wage" as set by the Living Wage and Fair Employment Coalition. Just another tyrannt who had no clue as the real issues faced by the people. But then if someone does challenge these incompetants, then they are banned.

So, if I was having a hard time coping, where does that leave others who do not have the education, who may have disabilities, illness or addictions or whatever issue they may have, when they no longer treated as people but only as numbers. I tell you where at the bottom of the heap, with no place to go.

As the economy slides and more of the middle class finally wakes up to the system that has been created, well then I say some of you had better open your eyes to the reality that you have created. But then that is what workfare does, it supercedes the basics of employment standards where the person has no rights, not even to earn a wage for work performed.

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By DR (anonymous) | Posted February 14, 2009 at 21:24:06

The main issue here, like most everything else is we have a council managing as opposed to governing.

We have councilors who one day are experts on zoning, the next day on tourism, the next on industry.

Over and over they vote contrary to trained staff, sit back and do nothing about all the buildings built without permits.

Yet when they want something in THEIR ward, notice ward as opposed to city, things happen

I can not recal which councilor wanted the sidewalks cleared for the residents of his ward, if the idea was good why not for every ward?

Or the councilor who despite public opinion, (for some reason I thought councilors were supposed to support us the public) while personally I may or not be in favour of a stadium at Confederation Park, ONE, yes ONE councilor denied the citizens the chance to even consider the location,and from what I have read on the city hallmarks site, looks like more CITIZENS, are in favour of the site then opposed.

Perhaps there was a reason Tourism Hamilton was considering that site, but our councilor is more knowledeable.

We need a Civic committee of citizens to ensure we have a council representing us, the taxpayers of Hamilton, not just during their elections, or to issues of their back yards but collectively for the city,

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