principles v. rules

People like to talk about thinking outside the box. But sometimes we need to think about the box itself.

What happens when something doesn’t break the rules… but you just know it isn’t right? Or the other way around, what if it breaks the rules, but yet you know it’s right?

I’m thinking the difference is context.

The rules can’t possibly anticipate all the possible options or things that could happen. Principles tell you how to measure the options. Rules ask whether something fits inside the box. Principles help you figure out if it belongs in that particular box.

The latest examples of this are the Victoria/Vidal and Johnston/Thrift proposals.

The proponents of the Victoria project insist that their project fits inside the box, but it seems obvious to everyone but them that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the neighbourhood. Most dramatic is that the facade of the building is 5 storeys whereas nothing around it is more than 3. Yet, it fits within the zoning bylaw.

Some might say that this is a sign that the zoning bylaw needs to be changed. But that might only create different problems on other lots. The zone applies to a large area with a wide range of circumstances. It might be impossible to draft a bylaw that would fit each one.

The proponents of the Thrift project admit it doesn’t fit inside the box. They are asking Council to judge the proposal based on selected principles. But the principle they’re trying to ignore is that their property is supposed to be a transition from the tallest buildings in the city to the shortest.

In supporting the proposal, I believe Council is also ignoring the context of this particular property. They are assuming that what is good for the block between Bryant and Johnston should be good for Johnston to George. But they have much different contexts – different principles apply.

These two proposals illustrate a conundrum. Some would argue that the Thrift proposal proves that the City should have strict rules because it is too easy to become confused by or manipulate the inherent flexibility of principles. However, others will say the Victoria proposal proves that leaving ambiguous principles aside to rely only on firm rules might force the City to allow something that doesn’t fit with the surrounding neighbourhood.

I believe City Council needs to give more consideration to the principles within our OCP and planning documents than the rules in our zoning bylaws. It’s harder to live by principles – sometimes it can be confusing to figure out the best choice, and it requires more time and care think things through – but they allow flexibility for creativity and force consideration of context.

The question is, does our council have the capacity to weigh out the unique circumstances of each property – to measure each individual box against its surroundings – and the guts to make sure developers honour our established principles – to design buildings appropriate to the uniqueness of each property?

And, do our citizens have the capacity to understand and trust the concept of context if it results in rules being applied differently to different sites – that each property represents a unique box to think within?

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