Eric Morse —
The Distillery District is experiencing growing pains, and something of an identity problem. Designed as a heritage district and venue for studios, boutiques and entertainment, and at the same time as a low-density residential neighbourhood, its two personalities are finding themselves somewhat at odds over diverging needs and some common ones.
The issue has been hinted at in recent complaints from residents over traffic flow, crowding and parking management problems at 2014’s wildly successful Christmas Market. It was thrown into focus at a standing-room-only community consultation meeting Jan. 27 in the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse to discuss a development proposal for the north side of the railway tracks, along the south side of Distillery Lane, which is now an unkempt 5-metre berm and parking lot with a tall billboard at the Parliament Street end.
The proposal, designed by a KPMB Architects team spearheaded by Bruce Kuwabara, received a mixed reception. The eastward component, composed of a 5-storey “Ribbon Building” housing office and retail space backed (with crash wall) against the CN tracks, was generally welcomed; the proposed 57-storey (189.5 metre) condo tower at the west end (at lot 31 Rear Parliament St.) less so. The city report to community council—which was the working paper for the public consultation—expressed reservations about this part of the project on the grounds that it is out of scale with the rest of the district. The highest of the six existing condo buildings there—the Clear Spirit Building at 70 Distillery Lane—is 40 storeys).
The major issues that residents raised at the meeting were: that the tower would overwhelm the rest of the site and especially block a clear perspective of the Stone Distillery—the most significant heritage building on the site. Also were complaints that the 661 parking spaces proposed would not adequately supplement the existing parking. Merchants complained that loading access would be very much hindered: “Will we have to load our merchandise onto carts to get them to our stores? It’s very quaint and European but…”
Shadowing from the tower was also clearly an issue, and in light of the proposal city staff have framed an amendment to the Official Plan prohibiting shadowing of Trinity Square by new construction.
The nut of the problem is that the shops of the Distillery don’t serve the local residents, but they weren’t designed to. The population of approximately 2,936 in the six existing condo units that are part of Gooderham and Worts Neighbourhood Association (GWNA), is not enough, even with the additional 461 units of the proposed tower, to provide a critical mass for basic services and amenities like grocery stores, dry cleaners and an LCBO.
On the other hand, increased residential density does not necessarily mean increased business for the shops of the district, since they are luxury-goods-oriented.
“I’d love to shop here if I could,” Samantha Anderson, a 5-year resident of 39 Parliament told the meeting, “but I can’t because I work nine to five and the shops are closed when I get home. But anyway we need a broader spectrum of support services and shops that will serve the residents. I overlook Grist Mill Lane, and the noise of pedestrians is already excessive. How will increased density on Distillery Lane affect noise levels on that side?”
Anderson told The Bulletin that the nearest supermarket is at Princess and Front, while the nearest LCBO is at Market and Front (the nearest drugstore might be Parliament and Queen). She also commented that she is a Car2Go user with four bikes, and she noted that there is already an inadequate amount of bike parking.
One of the “unknown unknowns” affecting the district is that it is effectively an island in the city, cut off by the ongoing construction to the north in the Canary District and the East in the West Don Lands (Pan Am Village), with poor traffic flow and public transit. The opening of those two projects, likely in early 2016, may add critical mass to the area in general.
Lester Brown of GWNA thinks that the office space of the proposed Ribbon Building is an important element in building critical mass for amenities.
“The problem is that none of the shops are geared to local consumers,” Brown said in an interview. The Canary District and the West Don Lands will add to the mix, however. My take is that they need commercial office on site. They have about 21 000 square metres of office space in this plan. Offices really animate a site and have people using their stores, banks and services.”
The proposal will return to the city for further assessment, consultations with the developer, and possible further public consultation.