The OMB thumbs its nose at St. Lawrence Neighbourhood priorities

Stig Harvor —

The all-powerful Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) has done it again! It has ignored existing zoning regulations and City approved Design Guidelines for the historically sensitive St. Lawrence area around the original 10-block Town of York, the birthplace of our City of Toronto.stig

On July 31, OMB approved a tall 25-storey condo tower called 60 Colborne by Freed Developments. It is located on the west side of Church St. between King St. E and ancient Colborne St. Colborne has a fine row of historically designated Victorian 4-storey brick office buildings. Existing zoning limits height to 8 storeys along Colborne with 5 storeys rising to 7 along Church and King.

60 Colborne ignores the fine urban design and commercially successful 12-storey Berczy condo. It just opened one block further south on Church St. below Front St. and the iconic Flatiron Building. The union-sponsored developer, Concert Properties, had respectfully listened to City and community concerns about its original proposal for a 30-odd storey tower. OMB involvement was avoided.

Freed Developments began the city approval process for 60 Colborne in February, 2012. It first submitted inadequate project documents. (It even built its site sales office before submitting final plans.)

Protracted negotiations followed with the city over the height of the project. Freed launched its OMB appeal in December 2012. It claimed the city had not replied to its final plans within the required 120 day time limit. An OMB mediation attempt failed. Four exhausting days of OMB hearings followed in September, 2013.

The final OMB report was laden with legalistic details and interpretations. Examination and questions on planning and urban design issues centred on their legal basis. By concentrating on complicated legal arguments, the report ignored the community impact of the project.

The report only published the favourable project views presented by consultants paid by the developer and judged “independent” as expert witnesses. It heard but did not publish the informed community views opposing the project, even that of an experienced local architect.

A simple question arises: Do OMB judges ever visit the site involved to see it for themselves? Or do they only sit in splendid isolation in a quasi-court room paying attention to lawyers? Effectively, the OMB has made lawyers our city planners.

The OMB judge for 60 Colborne set an ominous and fateful precedent for Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act. This section allows cities to gain some money from developers for area improvements when giving them extra profits from more dense projects beyond existing zoning rules.

The OMB judge surprisingly refused to order the $1.5 million Section 37 money requested by the city and even the $250,000 voluntarily offered by the developer. This sends an implied, chilling message to all Ontario municipalities: Settle with developers – or you can end up with no Section 37 money at an OMB hearing.

As a desperate measure, the City is considering a complex and costly court appeal of the intricate legal interpretations of Section 37 used by the OMB judge to justify his refusal of ordering payment.

60 Colborne is not the first, and likely not the last, OMB approval wrecking the St. Lawrence Old Town area. It started with tall buildings along King St. E. It continued with nearby 154 Front St. E at Sherbourne with two 26-storey towers (see my column, May, 2013: http// Next for a hearing is an immensely dense project with two 34 storey towers.

This latest project is on the entire city block occupied by Sobey’s supermarket and Acura Motors east of Sherbourne St. between Front and The Esplanade. The site sits smack in the middle of the very successful mixed income, 35-year old, 7 to 12 storeys  St. Lawrence Neighbourhood facing the linear David Crombie Park along The Esplanade.

Popular attempts over many years have failed to curtail the present sweeping powers of the OMB. This spring, the Wynne Liberal government derailed the latest legislative attempt by the NDP to exclude Toronto from OMB involvement.

One ray of hope in the darkening skies of sensitive urban design is our City Planning Department’s advocacy of a new Development Permit System existing in some other cities like Vancouver. The system involves legally binding neighbourhood standards developed with input from key stakeholders, including citizens.