Developers run roughshod over city

By Stig Harvor –

Is the preservation of a single historic building worth the destruction of the wider and also historic district around it? This is a question raised by the proposal of a high-rise condo development known as Five Corners along the west side of Church St. all the way from The Esplanade to Front St.

The developer, Concert Properties, unveiled a modified plan of their project at a packed public meeting in St. Lawrence Hall on July 6. A higher 22-storey tower closer to The Esplanade replaced their original proposal of a 17-storey slab type building. The intent was to make their building less dominant along Front with its fine Victorian structures and the famous Flatiron Building.

A basic reason for the unwanted high-rise nature of all Concert proposals so far is the intention to preserve 70 The Esplanade, an historic 4-storey warehouse on their site at the corner of Church. Leaving it in place means crowding any new building onto a reduced site area. A serious urban-design conflict arises when the new building becomes so tall that it will overwhelm both its site and its historic neighbourhood adjoining the St. Lawrence Market.

Under intense public questioning about their high-rise plans, Concert Properties revealed that if 70 The Esplanade were removed, their new project could be built across the whole site as a mid-rise building similar to the very attractive 9-storey Market Square condo along Front and Church.

This revelation opens up a new approach to the development of their sensitive, narrow site. A modified version of Market Square could conform closely, although not fully, both to the present zoning rules and the newly accepted design guidelines for the area. It might even provide a gain to the developer by an increase in the density now sought.

The price to be paid for this intriguing solution is the loss of 70 The Esplanade. That will upset those heritage supporters whose concern is for individual buildings rather than overall urban design.

Complicating matters is the recent listing of this building by the city for its heritage value at the request of its owner. Such listing, however, does not preclude approved alterations. The façades of 70 The Esplanade could conceivably be retained as part of a new building.

There are heritage purists who object to such “façadism.” But such compromises have been successfully incorporated in other new projects in the St. Lawrence area. Better the real physical existence of an interesting and genuine old building façade than its total loss in the streetscape forever.

An added complication for 70 The Esplanade is that it today fulfills a useful function as space for offices and popular pubs on its broad sidewalk. Its temporary replacement is a real financial hardship to its owners and tenants.

The old, 2-unit Georgian row house on the corner of Sherbourne St. and Adelaide illustrates the questionable retention of a historic building from the point of view of urban design. The 3-storey row house is part of the newly opened high-rise Kings Court condo project along Sherbourne between King and Adelaide.

The row house is being totally renovated for eventual sale. It sits on the corner of two, busy arterial streets and has the garage entrance and service area of the big condo along its side. It faces north. It has no backyard, only the shadow of its overwhelming 17-storey neighbour. Will anyone want to buy and live in this building? Office use would seem more suitable.

The irony of the situation is that the very new project, King’s Court, which retained the old house, also has in visual and practical terms destroyed it. Surely, if we care for old buildings, we must also care for their surroundings.

This lesson applies equally to the proposed Five Corners on Church where the retention of 70 The Esplanade leads to it and its historic neighbourhood being overwhelmed if present plans proceeds.

It is painful to see the historic character of the St. Lawrence area mutilated by new projects that pay no attention to the legal limits of existing zoning. Once a new project breaks planning rules with impunity as for the London condo, land prices in the area automatically rise. This ensures that later projects are forced by economics to also break the rules. The only winners are landowners and developers. For our city, it is a no-win game.

“Five Corners” sits in an unusually historic city block with a legal height limit of 8 storeys. Yet in the same block, the earlier, giant condo, “London on The Esplanade,” proposes a western tower of 33 storeys and an eastern one of 16 on a 5-storey base. This project is shortly awaiting a final, binding planning decision by the Ontario Municipal Board.

The “London” condo started off with 33 and 25 storeys. Objections by city planners and the public whittled the 25 storeys down to 16. The argument was to provide a desirable height transition from the high-rise financial district to the mid and low-rise St. Lawrence neighborhood. Height matters.

Now Five Corners is reversing that transition. What little was gained on the London site is being lost on the Five Corners site.

Between Five Corners and London are two properties, the 5-storey office at 56 The Esplanade and the single-storey Spaghetti Factory. Five Corners ought to join up with these two adjoining landowners and develop a common plan for all three sites to the joint benefit of all three.

But such desirable urban design cooperation that would benefit the wider neighborhood appears impossible under our traditions and laws entrenching private ownership. The public good is sacrificed to private interests in the building of our city. It is not a recipe for becoming a great, clean and beautiful city of which we can be proud in the world.

Hope for better city planning lies in the “New Deal” for Toronto now under negotiation with the province in the form a new City of Toronto Act. This act must give our city wider powers to plan its growth. As a first step, the jurisdiction and absolute power of the provincially appointed and run Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) must be changed. It is instructive to note that no other province has an agency identical to the OMB.

Each Canadian province has total control over its land planning. Toronto is today larger than six provinces. Why should it not have control of its own planning? If an appeal body is considered desirable, why cannot Toronto have its own version of the OMB with rules set by city council?

The McGuinty Liberal government promised to reform the OMB. So far little has been accomplished. Call or write your MPP and complain.