Town and Country: get in step with development realities

Pedestrians head to City Gate across South Quay in Port of Spain. - File photo
Pedestrians head to City Gate across South Quay in Port of Spain. - File photo

The following article was submitted by the Trinidad and Tobago Society of Planners and the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Architects.

Our previous articles examined the glaring disparity between what the State says and does regarding consultation on planning policy, using Port of Spain as a case study.

This week, we look at the state entity that private sector planners and architects regularly interact with, the Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD). In line with the objectives of the 1960 Town and Country Planning Act (TCP Act), the TCPD is responsible for preparing plans which set out policy for the use and development of land, and granting permission to develop land.

Three statutory plans have been produced in the years since the operationalisation of the TCP Act, and numerous others that are not statutory. It is unclear if any of these plans are actually followed in practice. The resulting absence of clear, consistent, fit-for-purpose development policy at any given time contributes to massive inefficiency in the development control function of the TCPD. As professionals to whom many landowners and developers turn to take their projects through the statutory approval process, we understand firsthand the impacts of this inefficiency, which include cost overruns and, too often, cancellation of projects.

We are seeing the consequences of the north regional office (NRO) operating for months with only one dedicated urban planner; now two. This office covers county Caroni and greater Port of Spain (PoS), and has a backlog of reportedly more than 700 planning applications. It is unbelievable that this is happening in the midst of a public relations blitz about revitalising PoS, the digitisation of TCPD documents, and the registration drive for the DevelopTT system.

Continued challenges in securing planning permissions and construction permits in a timely manner do not augur well for revitalisation efforts, post pandemic recovery, or improving the ease of doing business. Applications submitted to the NRO under the highly praised online DevelopTT platform continue to suffer from what appears to be the longest processing times of all the TCPD offices, due in large part to staffing capacity and, importantly, capability. The result is that some of our members have clients who will not invest in projects in the city due to approval uncertainties.

The TCPD has recently secured cabinet approval for an update to land use regulations for PoS, which will regulate building heights, building distance from lot boundaries, residential units per lot, minimum parking requirements and more. These will play a large role in determining the ability of households and small businesses and entrepreneurs to afford decent housing and commercial space. This in turn affects commuting and general travelling distances, and our ability to curb leakage of foreign exchange and greenhouse gas emissions through reduced automobile imports and usage. Technocrats within the TCPD must take the responsibility to draft such influential regulations seriously.

Let us look at some practical implications of development regulations.

A prominent local valuation surveyor indicated that Woodbrook land prices in 1987 averaged roughly $25 per square foot, compared with a current value in the range $400-$500 plus; a 16-20 fold increase. In 1987, when the previous regulations for PoS were drafted, one could build three residential units on a 5,000 sq ft lot on Tragarete Road or Ariapita Avenue.

Each unit would have had a land cost of roughly $41,666. According to a Planning and Development Ministry’s press release, in 2021 one can build five residential units on that same lot. Each unit would now have a land cost alone of $400,000-$500,000, before considering the cost of construction, financing, professional fees, and profits. No one gets into development to lose money or break even. Ignoring the realities of the property development market is an act of sheer folly.

The provision to increase permitted residential densities by less than two-fold along Tragarete Road and Ariapita Avenue practically ignores the change in land values over the period. More appropriate residential densities and other standards would allow for the typical lots along these streets, which are 5000 sq ft or smaller, to be developed efficiently, and result in more affordable real estate. Every presentation related to the State’s revitalisation initiative has emphasised the goal of bringing residents back into the city. How then does one explain the TCPD’s decision, based on the published preview of regulations for Ariapita and Tragarete, to continue the 1980s tradition of enforcing stricter site development standards on residential than commercial development?

Commercial development naturally generates higher returns and can better absorb higher land costs than residential development. In the context of a city that has a rapidly dwindling population and is largely deserted after working hours, perhaps a more logical strategy would be to give “bonuses” for including a residential component in buildings. Instead, commercial uses are allowed a larger building footprint, and require a smaller minimum lot size to benefit from increased building heights, compared to residential uses, contributing to the continued attrition of population from the city.

The minimum number of parking spaces that must be provided based on use of a building may seem insignificant, but is a key determinant of success in a revitalisation strategy. According to local transportation planner and engineer, Katherine Agong, parking minimums should definitely be location-specific.

In other words, places that have a mix of uses, are walkable, and have enough public transportation, should not be treated the same as suburban areas lacking transit opportunities. She explains that high parking minimums can lead to reduced pedestrian activity and public transit usage, and uneconomical development due to more building and land space being devoted to parking. To that, we add that parking minimums can prevent old historic buildings from being adaptively reused for new purposes and prevent small lots from being developed, leading to high vacancy rates. There is no evidence that the TCPD has attempted to reassess its approach to parking, or bothered to seek transportation planning expertise. A minimum of 1.5 parking spaces per residential unit, whether next to City Gate, at the edge of a town centre, or within a suburban cul-de-sac, is not an acceptable standard.

These are exactly the types of issues that technocrats would be better equipped to solve if they included the experiences and feedback from individuals outside of their ivory twin towers, or questioned the underlying principles behind the regulations they draft and enforce. How can they justify some of the approaches to development and restrictions on land use that haven’t been considered as best-practice for decades?

The preview of regulations released to the public already causes grave concerns about the TCPD’s dated thinking and exclusionary approach to policy making. It is in the public interest for the ministry to make the full regulations available as soon as possible, and allow for them to be assessed by a wider audience of professionals, developers and the public, as the resulting buildings, or lack thereof, will have an impact for years to come.


"Town and Country: get in step with development realities"

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