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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Dense about density

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It's been a year since Christina Zeidler stood before an audience in the Ballroom at the Gladstone Hotel to share her fears of what could become of her neighbourhood. That night in October 2005 was one of the first public meetings held by Active 18, an organization formed to provide Queen-Beaconsfield residents of ward 18 with a voice in plans for the development of the Queen West Triangle, where six building applications — four with plans for condominiums up to 19 storeys tall — currently await approval. The chunk of former industrial land, which runs between Queen Street West, Lisgar Avenue, and the railway tracks to the south, could soon be home to thousands of new residents.

"I got this wave of fear that everyone's going to be afraid to talk to each other, that decisions will be made behind closed doors," Zeidler, one of the masterminds behind the redevelopment of the Gladstone Hotel, told the crowd last fall. Like many others in the room, she had no intention of trying to stop change from taking place. "We want to invite great development," she said.

Over half a year later, Active 18's list of accomplishments is impressive. City staff have drawn up recommendations for the Triangle based on meetings the group helped organize between residents, developers, planners, and politicians. Residents elsewhere in Toronto have praised the neighbourhood organization for their ability to pull stakeholders together and they hope to emulate Active 18's approach when similar situations arise in their neck of the woods.

Unfortunately, few can shake the feeling that haphazard decisions are still being made. At the last working-group meeting held in the spring, City planners hadn't completed a necessary traffic study. The ward councillor, Adam Giambrone, suggested postponing discussion of parks until a later date, despite the notion that the amount of new park space created in the already park-deprived area should depend on the number of people moving into the neighbourhood. The City's list of recommendations for the triangle includes building heights above the limits set in the zoning bylaw, and two developers have already set dates at the Ontario Municipal Board, where provincially appointed officials have the power to approve applications.

Active 18's experience is an example of how Toronto politicians and bureaucrats have come to deal with city planning. Residents are brought into the discussion late. There's a lot of talking and negotiating. Battles are fought and lost and won, and, in the end, issues such as family housing and park space are often ignored. City councillors and planners claim they're powerless in the face of the OMB, and decisions are made without enough consideration given to how an influx of new residents will affect the public realm.

Architect Joe Lobko, who lives and works in the east end, was invited to an Active 18 meeting to share his experience working with the City and developers on a block of land in South Riverdale. "What I heard from the [Queen/Beaconsfield] residents that night was that nobody was looking at that space comprehensively," he says later from his office on Carlaw Avenue. "It's like they're looking at one application at a time and not at the big picture."

Lobko has similar concerns about an area that the Toronto Film Studios will soon vacate for a new home in the Port Lands. The City recently turned down an application to create a mixed-use community on the property (between Lake Shore, Eastern, DVP, and Leslie), which would include places to live, places to work, and streets running through it. Lobko worries a different kind of monoculture will emerge here. Zoned an employment area, the property could very likely be taken over by big box stores, following an already obvious trend in the area — a supersized Canadian Tire marks the latest addition.

What the City needs, argues Lobko (and his argument has been made by many others frustrated with Toronto's planning process) is proactive planning — a framework for each neighbourhood so that residents, developers, politicians, and planners know what the City expects before applications are made and don't have to start from scratch every time someone wants to build something new.

"It would be a painful process to give birth to that planning framework, and birth is painful," says Lobko. "[But] if everybody executes it, you don't have to go to the committee of adjustments and fight for your neighbourhood, you don't have to go to council, you don't have to go to the OMB. There's a framework in which we can calm down and let the city emerge within some kind of plan."

Toronto's new Official Plan was adopted this spring after four years of appeals. It outlines how the city should grow and where growth should take place, but leaves out specific details for each neighbourhood such as exact building heights, the number of family units an area should have, or the number of new people the area can handle before new parks should be built or public transit should be improved. While neighbourhoods have zoning bylaws that provide more specific guidelines, most of them are out of date, an argument Lobko says is often used when developers appeal to the OMB.

Without a framework, the City is left susceptible to what Annex Resident Association member Sandra Shaul calls "the horror of spot zoning." The term refers to buildings, heights, and densities that are approved one by one, without considering how, for example, a new 30 storey building down the road, a 24 storey building across the street, and a 65 story tower two blocks away will affect the neighbourhood they're plopped into. Shaul's organization was lauded in the media last year after claiming victory for negotiating a 32 storey tower at 1 Bedford Road just off Bloor Street, instead of two buildings, one 34 storeys, the other 23. Part of the deal involved funds for a visioning study of the Bloor-Annex corridor between Avenue Road and Christie Street, something that would have been helpful to have from the beginning.

Toronto resident and world-renowned urban planner Ken Greenberg agrees that the City needs to take a different approach in dealing with development. "Approving one building at a time and being so preoccupied with issues of height and floor area and nothing else, that's not how you make a city," he says. "We react to the private sector, we don't think ahead," argues Greenberg, who recently participated in the development of community design plan for the City of Ottawa. He notes that Vancouver, whose city council has the final say on applications, has been able to force developers to build green, provide affordable units, and contribute to park space. "So many other cities can show the way here, this is not new; this is not rocket science; we just have to move ahead with this much more aggressively."

Conducting neighbourhood studies before development applications are made would make it easier to address issues such as how little family housing new condo buildings provide, a problem that often takes a back seat to concerns over heights and shadows. It's a subject former CityTV reporter and candidate for Trinity-Spadina Adam Vaughan talks about with as much passion as the ward's former councillor Olivia Chow advocated for ridding Toronto's waterfront of the island airport.

"We're building a city where you can start a family, but you can't raise a family. It creates a transient population inside your condo, which means no one has a long-term investment in the upkeep of the building," he says. "If you switch the equation that we're moving a million people in the city to we're moving 300,000 families into the city, you immediately change the dynamic of what you're trying to build and what services you need in terms of the livability of the neighbourhood."

Lobko, Greenberg, and Vaughan argue that the City needs to work harder to ensure our neighbourhood buildings and spaces remain diverse, that they include businesses as well as housing, homes for a variety of income levels, and public spaces everyone can share. It's a concept Active 18 has advocated for as well — the results of the community charrette they organized (released in March 2006) showed participants envision development in the Queen West Triangle that includes affordable housing, live/work studios for artists, shops, parks, and public squares.

"Toronto is turning into a place to shop and a place to live in really small apartments, that's where all the new development's going and we need to be doing more than that to sustain ourselves. It's not a sustainable way to keep going as a city," says Lobko. "This is a great city and it's still doing wonderful in many ways, but we could be doing better and in a boom time like this, we ought to be more careful."


Pam McConnell, Toronto Centre-Rosedale • Has a variety of development in her ward, but has been successful in advocating for smart projects like the Distillery District, West Donlands, and the Regent Park renewal.

Kyle Rae, Toronto Centre-Rosedale • Rae is probably the most knowledgeable councillor on development issues. He demands good architecture and materials, which is rare from anyone on this council. But he is also seen as being too cozy with developers and refers to any human-scale, mid-rise structure as a Euro-loaf. The verdict is certainly still out on Yonge-Dundas Square.

Paula Fletcher, Toronto-Danforth • Fletcher has found herself in over her head on many development issues. The fiasco of Bridgepoint and the loss of the half-round building lands squarely on her lap. Her rejection of the Toronto Film Studio proposal for a mixed use redevelopment in South Riverdale has left the future of these lands uncertain, typifying her confrontational approach to development.

Gay Cowbourne, Scarborough East • Cowbourne is a symptom of Toronto's suburban aversion to affordable housing. The Manse Road project, proposed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, was blocked by Cowbourne, with the backing of neigbouring councillors. Mike Del Grande and Frank Di Giorgio are two other councillors who've kept affordable housing out of their wards, thwarting a city-wide effort to house people in need.