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City building is about having a vision and sticking to it, not giving in

JOHN SEWELL
August 2012

Did you hear about the development application that the city planners and council turned down because it didn’t meet the city plan?
No, I didn’t think you did. In Toronto, planning doesn’t work that way. Instead, the usual procedure is hardly different from what’s happening at the southeast corner of Bathurst and St. Clair, to use one example. There a developer opened an office in January and started selling condos for a 25-storey tower he wants to build.

Responding to neighbourhood concerns, the councillor called a community meeting a few months later where the developer reported he had sold most of the 324 units. The city planner said she’d been considering an even higher building on the site for the last two years. Her report said the city’s official plan designated the area as a mixed-use, mid-rise area where a building could be no more than 30 metres high or about 10 storeys.

Many at the meeting were pleased to learn that the city would not permit anything more than 10 storeys. A few said they welcomed the condo project since it would allow them to buy into an area they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some said that since other buildings in the block were two, three and four storeys, even a 10-storey building would be too much. The developer said that since there was a 22-storey building on the northwest corner and a building only slightly smaller under construction beside it, he thought 28 storeys made sense.

The planner thanked everyone for their opinions and said she’d report to city council.

But she didn’t report.

Instead, she and the councillor called another community meeting in June to talk about the need to do a study of the block on which the development was proposed and the park across the street. What should happen in this quadrant, the councillor and planner asked? Studies had been done on other parts of St. Clair — those studies allowed very high buildings to the west of Bathurst. A similar study was needed here, they said. People were asked to suggest the improvements that should be made in Hillcrest Park, although residents were warned there was no money in the budget for this. It felt like people were being tricked.

Many residents asked if it was true that the developer had bought more properties on the block and might buy out a small apartment building beside his proposed tower and move the residents — it is occupied by individuals who require social supports — into a better facility. There were no answers. The meeting became very contentious since many residents believed the rationale for the study was to change the city’s plan so the developer was not constrained by the 10-storey height limit.

That’s where the matter stands. It seems the city is looking for the rationale to change the plan so the developer gets what he has asked for.

Many hints have been made that, if the developer can get approval for 28 storeys, then the city can negotiate for money under Section 37 of the Planning Act. For the 22-storey building on the northwest corner, negotiations swept aside the 10-storey limit and produced $1 million, which helped renovate the Artscape Wychwood Barns — a two-storey community facility a few blocks away. The Artscape Barns is a great success, but some residents are unwilling to sell their soul to do something like that again.

Yet it looks like that’s what is happening. Planning in this city seems to be about finding a way to loosen the agreed-upon land-use constraints so developers can have their way. It should be about creating a plan that will make a vibrant city and provide predictability for developers and for the community. Look in any corner of the city and it’s abundantly clear city council doesn’t agree with planning for the future. It only wants to accommodate developers.

Couldn’t we stop this short-sightedness for a minute and focus on strong plans for neighbourhoods?

Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of Suburbs.

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