We have Many issues that dominate our days in our office but planning is by far the most complicated, time-consuming, and intense.
Toronto is a growing city and so too are our neighbourhoods. In order to limit the amount of greenbelt and farmland we sprawl into, our cities must intensify and accommodate development. Indeed the province has mandated us to do this with the Places to Grow Act.
According to modest estimates, there will be about a million more Torontonians around in the next couple of decades. Unlike many other North American cities, construction continues to boom with 119 condo developments underway in the city right now. Each month at the Toronto East York Community Council, we approve numerous developments that range from 8 to 80 storeys. And considering the natural beauty, amenities, and appeal of Ward 32, it’s no wonder people want to move here! The trick is to balance this growth against our social, city-building, and environmental priorities.
Local planning, especially on Queen Street East, has been largely ad hoc and reactive, resulting in a patchwork of decisions made with politicians and developers. Apart from the one statutory community consultation required of each development proposal, the public has not really been involved. People are very disappointed, distrustful, and confused about the planning process – understandably so! I have worked hard in my first year in office to raise awareness and engagement around planning practices and policy. To date, we have:
· organized a Planning 101 Workshop with our city planning department;
· invited highly acclaimed planner and ward 32 resident Frank Lewinberg of Urban Strategies (formerly Ken Greenberg’s partner) to speak to our community;
· hosted an informative evening talk with the reputable and plain-spoken Paul Bedford (former City of Toronto Chief Planner with 30 years experience);
· coordinated a Segment Study Walk to look at, learn, and hear about development possibilities along Queen Street East;
· passed a motion at council to request a Visioning Study of Queen Street to gather stakeholder input and finally create a plan for the area.
Still, having spent a lot of time speaking and listening to residents and stakeholders, I am struck by how much misinformation is circulating. For instance, some people express concern about six storey developments coming into the neighbourhood and setting height precedents, but these precedents have already been set by my predecessors. A six storey building at 2012 Queen St E. across from the library was built in 2002. There already are several five storey buildings on the south side of Queen St. west of Woodbine. Take a look around next time you are out for a stroll.
I am on record as opposing the continued existence of the Ontario Municipal Board in Toronto because it interferes with our ability to plan our own city and neighbourhoods. The OMB can and has set the sorts of precedents that in my opinion have had a negative impact on neighbourhoods. The official plan, adopted by City Council encourages development in appropriate locations of the City, specifically to the Centres and to the Avenues. By doing so, it steers inappropriate development away from our residential streets. Queen Street East in the Beach, as well Danforth Avenue and portions of Kingston Road and Gerrard Street East in Ward 32 are designated as Avenues.
City Council adopted the mid-rise guidelines for most Avenues as a means to shape development by encouraging buildings that fit into the local context. The mid-rise guidelines limit the height of buildings to the width of the road (including sidewalks) and ensures that there is an appropriate transition to existing residential.
If the Official Plan was amended to remove Queen Street East, in the Beach, from the designated Avenues governed by the mid-rise guidelines, the consequences could be disastrous, a ‘wild west’ of planning that would throw open the doors to developments well in excess of the prescribed six storey limit.
In any case, the ‘six storey’ die was cast prior to my arrival. The goal now is to work together on getting better design, better buildings As Paul Bedford told us, “It’s not what you like or what you want – it’s what you can live with.” We can achieve this if we are realistic with our expectations entering into our Visioning Study!
Some members of our community have suggested that the City should impose an Interim Control Bylaw (ICB) for Queen Street East that would have the effect of putting a moratorium on all development while a study is being undertaken. An ICB only deals with existing zoning and when it is not deemed appropriate anymore.
What the community wants to maintain is the existing character of Queen Street East, which is reflected in the existing zoning.
A good example of an appropriate use of the ICB in Ward 32 is on Gerrard Street East between Ted Reeve and Victoria Park Avenue. After the former railway lands were developed into a residential neighbourhood, there were properties along Gerrard Street East that still had industrial zoning. The uses permitted by the zoning were not compatible with the emerging residential realities. An ICB was put in place, a study was undertaken and the zoning was changed to residential. An ICB would not preclude property owners from making applications for rezonings.
However, if maintaining the existing character of Queen Street East is what the community wants, the best tool available to do that would be the establishment of a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) on Queen Street East. Applying for these heritage-based parameters that limit height and density is a long and extensive process, but it goes a lot further to limiting development and creates a vigorous approval process for everyone.
If you are interested in learning more about HDCs, nomination forms, and background information are available at http://www.toronto.ca/heritage-preservation/heritage_districts.htm.
The visioning study will also look at this in terms of updating the guidelines for the area so that new development will reinforce the best of the Beach while accommodating modest change and investment to keep Queen Street East as a great vibrant street for local living – working, shopping, playing!
And so, in spite of the complicated nature of planning and some gaps in communication, what I hear most consistently is that people want development that suits the neighbourhood, emphasizes sustainability, and above all, upholds good design principles.
What we need to do is to get out ahead of development with a viable plan so that we can push for our wish list of great design, community benefits and sustainable built form. That is what I hope to accomplish with our Queen East Visioning Study coming this summer/ fall. Stay tuned in future BMN issues for updates and how to get involved in that process.
Lots to think about. Lots to do! Keep connected with us to stay informed about your neighbourhood.