VIEWPOINT: Condo proposals threaten historic King Street East

By Stig Harvor –

The oldest prominent commercial street in Old Town Toronto is under attack. King St. E. from Yonge in the west to Parliament St. in the east is designated by city planners as a “Special Street” in an “Area of Special Identity.”

Three developers today propose high-rise condos along the street. They are a 29-storey tower at Church St. (originally proposed at 39 storeys), an 18-storey block at Sherbourne, and a 15 storey condo at Parliament. All ignore existing building bylaws and urban design guidelines. More similar proposals can be expected in the future.

King St. E, as its name implies, was the main street of the former City of York, the birthplace of our city of Toronto. Along the street are some notable and impressive historic buildings such as the King Edward Hotel, St. James’ Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall with the unique St. Lawrence Market behind it.

The street is also intermittently lined by rows of modest, traditional 3-storey commercial buildings, many in red brick. The scale and appearance of King St. E is a reminder today of our city’s history. Once new high-rise buildings intrude into this setting, the street irretrievably loses its character and becomes just another canyon in downtown Toronto.

The developer of the proposed 29-storey tower at Church St. is well-known Great Gulf Urban Properties. Ironically, and to its credit, it built the acclaimed St. James Place condo a block east at the corner of King and Jarvis some 10 years ago. That fine building is a perfect example of what Toronto is trying to achieve in its bylaws, regulations and design guidelines for the historic area. St. James Place seamlessly and elegantly fits into rows of older buildings by respecting their scale, materials and height by stepping back its upper floors.

Similar bylaws govern its new L-shaped site along Church St. from King south to Colborne. Two supplementary bylaws of 1986 and 1994 restrict the building height to eight storeys (26m). It requires stepbacks along Church St. of floors above the lower five stories (16m) to within an angular plane of 44 degrees. A density of 5.95 times the site area is allowed. Moreover, the site is in a designated “Height Sensitive Area” which demands that new buildings in this historic area respect its low and mid-rise character as exemplified by the well-designed Market Square condo facing it.

The Great Gulf application ignores these regulations. Their original design was for a whopping 39-storey building. A new, revised proposal now cuts the total height to 29 storeys with a tower sitting on top of a larger 8-storey base which fills the site. The proposal is still 3.5 times the allowable height and 2.5 times the allowable density.

Citizens attending the community consultation meeting Nov. 4 were vocal in their criticism of the project. They echoed the preliminary city planning staff report which pointed out, to put it mildly, that “the scale of the proposal will overwhelm the site and area and greatly exceed acceptable limits for redevelopment of this area of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood.”

Among many concerns, citizens pointed out that studies show the tower would cast shadows for many months of the year directly on the imposing, nearby St. James’ Cathedral and the intimate city Sculpture Garden east of the site. Why should public enjoyment of such iconic landmarks be sacrificed to private profit? Why should irreplaceable tourist attractions in the area be permanently degraded?

Another major concern is the relation of the proposal to the lower, historically designated, continuous row of elaborate red-brick office buildings with shops and restaurants facing the site along Colborne St. Most of the row was designed by Edward James Lennox, architect of our fine, Old City Hall. An 8-storey podium with its tower destroys the scale and character of this unique, short and relatively narrow street. It is unclear if the proposal also ignores the bylaw requirement to widen the sidewalk by a 0.9m setback along Colborne St.

The second example of developers flouting city building regulations is the proposed 18-storey condo at 251-255 King St. E., south-east corner of Sherbourne. (See The Bulletin article by Stig Harvor, September, 2008). The newly established city Design Review Panel (DRP) evaluated the project Sept. 24. The panel is composed of well-known, independent, private architects, urban planners, landscape architects and engineers. The panel voted five for redesign with only one for refinement.

Despite this rejection, the developer presented substantially the same design to a highly critical audience at a later community consultation meeting Nov. 5. Prior to this meeting, the developer wrapped the total upper part of the historically designated building on the site in a shroud of white fabric advertising his as-yet not approved condo. Citing a city bylaw, inspectors demanded removal of the ad. As of press time Nov. 24, it was still there.

The third current developer project is at 330 King St. E. at the northwest corner of Parliament St. The project,  almost twice the allowable building height, ignores stepbacks required along Parliament. The developer is now using the shortcut of an appeal of his design to the all-powerful, provincially appointed Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The hearing will start Dec. 9 and is expected to last four days.

OMB appeals are convenient to developers but expensive and time-consuming to all involved. This includes the developer, city departments, politicians, citizens, and ultimately, taxpayers. City planners and city lawyers today spend considerable time preparing for and attending numerous OMB hearings. Such hearings remove understaffed and over-worked planners from their real work of city planning and processing building applications. It is not a good way to build our city.

For King St. E. two questions must be asked: Must we continue to allow the OMB to be our real city planners? Large buildings built today will last for a century. Must we allow new buildings to ignore and destroy what has been built during the last two centuries?