Current high-rise condo mess caused by megacity, two official plans, OMB

By Stig Harvor –

A lot of people in our city today are asking what good are existing, legally binding building bylaws if there is no effective way to enforce them? Huge high-rises are sprouting up all over the place where only mid-rises are allowed. City planners, politicians, and ordinary citizens are caught up in fights with developers. A lot of precious time and effort and money are wasted by all concerned.

The reason for all this is seemingly found in three facts. One: The creation of the Megacity of Toronto in 1998. Two: Today’s existence of two Official Plans, the old and the new. Three: The Ontario Municipal Board.

The Harris government forcibly imposed the megacity against the will of its citizens. The amalgamation compelled the enormous task of reviewing and harmonizing the disparate building bylaws of the previous five separate municipalities. Seven years later, this task is still in its early stages hampered by megacity planning staff cutbacks and reorganization. Declaring “Ontario is open for business!” Harris also forced overworked planners to spend less time reviewing new developer proposals during a time when many proposals became bigger and more complicated.

Of the two official plans, the old one of 1994 is the only one legally binding. It formed the basis for all existing zoning regulations controlling the form of development. The new one of 2002 emphasized in general terms the intensification of development in some areas and not others. The aim was to accommodate a large growth in population up to one million in the next 30 years. This is a commendable aim to slow down the cancer of urban sprawl.

The new plan was adopted by city council after many contentious public meetings. It was criticized for being too vague, particularly about height and density.

Enter the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The new official plan was immediately appealed to the OMB by a great variety of affected parties. Appeal hearings will start June 13. No one knows when final OMB decisions will be made. Meanwhile, the planning process is in a vulnerable state since the old plan is still legally in force.

Many developers have been quick to take extensive advantage of the idea of intensification in the new official plan. In the opinion of former city chief planner, Paul Bedford, who developed the plan, they have gone too far and are abusing the idea of intensification.

These developers in many areas of our city, for solely their own benefit, totally disregard existing zoning, density and height rules. If city planners, city councilors, and the public object to their grandiose ideas, they threaten or actually do take their plans to the OMB for a final and binding decision with no provision for appeal.

Effectively, the provincially appointed, non-elected OMB, which became developer-friendly during the reign of the Harris government, now is the ultimate planner of our city. Our planning department, our elected politicians, we who live in the city, are virtually powerless. This situation must change. Write to your MPP and complain.

The Downtown historic St. Lawrence/Old Town area has become a battleground pitting developers against city planners and the public. City planners, local councilor Pam McConnell, business people and citizens are anxious to bring some focus to desirable future development in a particularly sensitive part of this area given the name St. Lawrence Neighbourhood West

The part roughly extends from Yonge to Jarvis and King to The Esplanade. The planners are nearing completion of their study of the characteristics of present conditions done in collaboration with a variety of interested neighbourhood organizations and residents.

The study will result in what are called design guidelines for future development. These guidelines will help developers and the public to understand what is meant by the aim of both the new and the old official plans.

The old plan states that new buildings should be of “compatible building design in areas of historic buildings, streetscapes and landscapes.” The new plan echoes the same sentiment. It calls for “building massing and heights in context with, and respectful of existing buildings and open spaces.” But what good are such noble sentiments if they cannot be implemented?

The final design guidelines for St. Lawrence Neighbourhood West will be going to city council for hopeful approval in July. While they have no legal force, the guidelines can be a useful influence in achieving better development. They can even be brought to OMB hearings.

A critical area in this particular neighbourhood is the block between Front St. and The Esplanade from Scott St. to Church. The block adjoins the Hummingbird Centre and includes the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Along Front St. it features an exquisite row of Victorian commercial buildings facing the attractive Berczy Park and the famous, freestanding Flatiron Building.

This historic block today faces intense developer pressure. Two new condo projects, both high and large, have been submitted to the city for approval.

The first is a giant project called “London on The Esplanade” at 40 The Esplanade, corner of Scott St., directly behind the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. The developer, the Cityzen Group, started off by brazenly demanding four times the allowable amount of building on the site.

They also demanded a 33-storey tower that is four times the allowable height. They justified this by pointing to the existing, massive 25 The Esplanade condo of an identical height across the street. This was built 17 years ago to encourage development in this former industrial area. It has now become an unfortunate precedent.

A second intended tower of 25 storeys has been reduced to 16 storeys through city planning pressure. The intent is to effect a desirable height transition in accordance with our city’s official plans from the tall office buildings along Yonge St. to the old, mid- and low-rise area to the east toward the St. Lawrence Market

The developer has appealed his project to the OMB. A hearing open to the public will be held in the OMB offices at 655 Bay St., 16th floor, on June 13 at 10 a.m. Present will be some high-priced lawyers and professional consultants arguing the case for the developer. Opposing them will be the city. Anticipating a favourable decision, the developer is already selling his condos from a specially built, fancy sales office on the site.

Another large condo in the same block is now proposed along the west side of Church St. all the way from The Esplanade up to Front St. It is being developed by Concert Properties under the name “Five Corners.” Concert Properties is interesting in that it was started by some 20 union pension plans in British Columbia in 1989 as a means to provide economic rental housing. It has since grown, widened its activities and spread to Alberta and Ontario.

The final design of the project is still under study. An original design was submitted to the city early this year. It comprised a 5-storey podium with stores at street level. A residential slab building on the podium rose to 17 storeys at The Esplanade end, 16 storeys at the Front St. end because of the slope of Church St. The site density was 1.6 times and the height; 2.4 times the allowable under present zoning. “Five Corners” is in an even more sensitive location than “London on The Esplanade.” “Five Corners” was criticized for affecting views of the row of exceptionally fine, historic buildings along Front St by towering up too close to them and the Flatiron Building. New studies show the massing of the residential slab moving southward on the podium. Because it is shorter in length, it now is higher.

It is set back from The Esplanade by the intent to preserve, under a heritage easement agreement, the existing 1880s warehouse, later office building, at 70 The Esplanade with its popular sidewalk pubs. A difficult trade-off is created: Must we accept a tall building in exchange for preserving an old one? It is well to remember that the entire city block where “Five Corners” and “London on the Esplanade” are located, has a height limit of eight storeys under existing zoning. Tell that to the OMB!

There is also the question of the future development of the ugly parking lot site at 75 The Esplanade directly across the street. Its owner may well want to erect a taller building there than the present allowable 13 storeys. Behind 75 The Esplanade is the roughly 16-storey-high apartments atop the large city parking garage.

The valuable principle of a height transition in the more sensitive area between The Esplanade and Front St. seems lost in all this.

Keep your ears and eyes open for the next, large, non-conforming condo proposal on the block of the former Goodwill store at Jarvis and Adelaide St. At its pubic unveiling it features two towers of 32 and 18 storeys and 8 storey stacked townhouses. In the absence of binding rules for high-rise projects in the St. Lawrence/Old Town district, the floodgates are open. The area is bound to face more tall towers—and more citizen-developer fights. Too bad. This is no way to build our city.