Just in time for Halloween, Tom Jakobek, Toronto’s most infamous undead politician, appeared at a community meeting last week to rally the locals against the bone-chilling prospect of a “big box” condo at the corner of Woodbine and Queen.
The former ward-heeler, who played a starring role in the MFP computer leasing scandal a dozen years ago, warned of a “crisis in planning” in the Beach, according to The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Church, who noted the growing chorus of objections to various Queen Street mid-rise projects, including the Lick’s site.
Any minute now, the east end Beachers will make common cause with the noisily aggrieved Humbertown homeowners over in Etobicoke, who have reared up against a proposal to build mid-rise/mixed-use condos — horrors! — on the site of a sleepy mall near the Kingsway.
Even with zombies on their side, the NIMBYs won’t succeed in driving a stake through the hearts of any of these reasonably-scaled developments, and for that we can thank the much-loathed Ontario Municipal Board.
What’s depressing, however, is that the residents of many middle class neighbourhoods just can’t seem to learn that mid-rise development along arterials doesn’t kill the golden goose. Just ask the burghers of North Toronto, who furiously battled the mid-rises on Yonge north of Blythwood in the 1980s and 1990s, and, more recently, a RioCan mixed-use project on Avenue Road, north of Lawrence. Surprisingly, the anticipated collapse in property values didn’t materialize.
More problematic, however, is the fact that the city’s planning officials seem unwilling to acknowledge the genuinely serious problem of loading up the core with vast vertical warehouses with truly unprecedented heights and densities.
With David Mirvish planning three 80-storey Frank Gehry towers on King and Oxford Properties proposing a Sir Norman Foster ensemble of soaring offices, condos, convention spaces and a casino two blocks south, chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat and the city’s planning officials should be focused on one central question:
What is the core’s tipping point?
Or, put less politely, how many towers of the sizes now being proposed can we erect in that tiny, congested area before the proverbial frog explodes?
I don’t know the answer and I suspect the city doesn’t either.
Let’s quickly dispense with cosmetics. This isn’t about (st)architecture, nor it is about how all these tall buildings meet the street. Good design, of course is important, both for the private and public realms. But the question about how much density a particular area can support is a different issue entirely, although we often deceive ourselves into believing that architectural eye-candy will magically resolve the issue of crowding.
The city, of course, has a fix on the water and waste-water requirements — it has no choice but to ensure that such infrastructure can meet the demand. Yet the structure of council’s approvals process is such that each additional building gets the green light because (i) council doesn’t want to be seen as anti-development; (ii) the planning department knows that the OMB always considers precedent; (iii) Torontonians see their skyline as a kind of global status symbol of the urban era.
But the logic is fundamentally flawed. Imagine your partner brings home a new piece of furniture or a new wall hanging every week, but refuses to dispense with any of the existing objects. At some point, there’s simply no more room.
That’s our problem, writ large. Of course, the carrying capacity debate would track differently if Toronto was the sort of city that effectively tied development approvals to the full suite of infrastructure investment (e.g., New York).
But we don’t. Council slashes funding for social infrastructure of all sorts, citing gravy and other afflictions. The transit funding battle — which lacks a beginning, middle or end — has attained a truly Promethean quality. We fail to retool downtown streets for fewer vehicles. And the city’s various policies for shaking loose change out of developers’ pockets has produced little in the way of quality open space in the downtown core. One need only look at the desultory park in Concord’s City Place to see that such investments are but an afterthought.
Look a bit further down the road and much more devilish questions lurk: Metrolinx, for example, projects that the demands on the Union Station precinct will exceed capacity within one generation, and this despite all the enhancements currently underway.
Given that fact alone, does it make any sense for the city to be considering either the Mirvish project or the Oxford scheme?
Two other related points are also ritually overlooked. The city’s official plan, has a long-standing policy of treating Toronto’s “stable” residential neighbourhoods with kid gloves. If Mirvish wanted to plop his Gehry project down on the Honest Ed’s site, would Adam Vaughan be singing its praises? I don’t think so.
But we’ve somehow forgotten that the downtown core has become a massive neighbourhood, home to tens of thousands of apartment dwellers. Do these high-rise homeowners not deserve the same sort of policy protection as those living in single-family homes, or have we accepted the fact that the core is an inherently unstable community that lacks the social wherewithal to fight for its interests?
You can slice this last point even more clinically: if you own shares in a company, and management keeps issuing more of them, the value of your asset diminishes as your holdings become more diluted.
But isn’t this precisely what the city is doing to all those buyers who invested several hundred thousand dollars for boxy apartments in those towers? With each new condo in the core, the long-term value of those assets is diminished — not because of obstructed views and the like, but because there’s an ever-increasing supply of what is essentially a commodity product. The economics will do the rest.
Finally, the overloading of the core comes with a very specific opportunity cost that is also neglected in the approvals process. A few hundred metres east, Waterfront Toronto is trying to spur development in the East Bayfront and eventually the portlands.
The economic reality is that investor mania for condos in the core — Toronto’s version of the Dutch tulip bubble — effectively sucks capital out of the city’s most important development frontier. Yet the capital flows downtown, as opposed to the waterfront, because council rubber-stamps every high-rise application while dithering when it comes to building transit on Queen’s Quay East.
In my view, the Mirvish and Oxford proposals represent a game-changing moment — a reprise of the events that led to David Crombie’s 45-foot height limit.
Council must reject both until the city can figure out how much is too much.
photo by Wylie Poon