High Anxiety

The story first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Jan 8, 2005. The Dover Square tower never got built, though the city has seen an incredible high-rise boom ever since.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Luis Berroa vows not to take sides, but says he can’t avoid neighbourhood talk about plans for a new apartment tower south of Bloor Street West on Dovercourt Road.

“Everyone talks high-rise now; this fight will be ferocious,” the drywaller/roofer says while eating breakfast at the counter in Billy’s Souvlaki Place on Dovercourt.

“The people are against the building. Me? I’m torn. I like all construction. It’s good for the economy.” But Mr. Berroa says he knows why his neighbours are angry. “Nobody wants tall buildings close to their house.

“If I owned [my home], I’d be mad, too.”

The battle he speaks of stems from Sterling Karamar Property Management’s plan to add a 285-unit building to the three Dover Square towers that went up in the 1960s.

The Dufferin Grove Residents Association, formed in response to the Dover Square plan, says the 13-storey building would eat up nearly half the immediate community’s green space, overburden amenities and lower property values.

Members of the residents association plastered notices aimed at bolstering opposition with a dramatic rallying cry: “Save our neighbourhood! Don’t wait until it’s too late. . . . Do we want another St. James Town?”

Elsewhere in the city, similar fights are becoming increasingly common. The Minto Place tower now being built at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue prompted probably the city’s nastiest high-rise squabble in recent years. North Toronto resident Raymond Tong remains so upset over the Ontario Municipal Board’s decision to allow the building that he has been lending support to the Dufferin Grove residents. Those fighting Dover Square are also supported by Mike Kilpatrick, who is battling proposals to add high-rise towers in the Warden corridor of southwest Scarborough. And residents at the south end of Church Street are battling to stop a development at 40 The Esplanade.

According to the website UrbanToronto.ca, about 100 residential buildings of 30 storeys or more are currently proposed, approved or under construction in the GTA. As Toronto prepares to grow by an estimated three million residents over the next three decades, is there any way to avoid acrimony?

Former mayor John Sewell says yes, but suggests that much of the conflict stems from the official plan itself, even though it hasn’t been officially implemented yet. The new plan, which will replace seven plans from pre-amalgamation Toronto, encourages more intensive, transit-supportive land use.

“It seems to say intensification is good, no matter what form it takes,” he says. “People generally agree intensification is a smart thing, but they object to buildings that are entirely inappropriate for where they are planned.”

He says much of the acrimony would be unnecessary if people understood that we can have high density in a low-rise format.

“The densest development in the city is the St. Lawrence community [100 units an acre]. Nothing in it is higher than 10 storeys. It really works. People like living there. But just up the road, a developer — and the city — want to give us an awful high-rise,” he says of Cityzen Urban Lifestyle’s plan for 40 Esplanade. He also blasts Ted Tyndorf for supporting it.

Mr. Tyndorf, the city’s new chief planner, blasts back, calling Mr. Sewell’s statements “simply not true.”

“What you’re seeing is not the product of a document and a policy paper. It’s the product of a market demand and the maturity of a large urban centre. High-rise is not the only form [needed to meet the city’s intensification goals],” Mr. Tyndorf adds, before mentioning some of the same low- and mid-rise successes that Mr. Sewell cites.

But he defends Cityzen’s plan, saying “it’s really on the edge of downtown, and across the street from an existing 35-storey building. It’s not an inappropriate context.”

Mr. Tyndorf says early public consultation — ideally, before a developer has even made an application — is the key to wise and peaceful resolutions. An example he raises involved a year of meetings that led to plans for a proposed high-rise project at the old Eglinton subway bus terminal. “It has the approval of the same ratepayers and the same city councillor [Michael Walker] who fought the Minto application so hard.”

Although it’s been more than two years since Minto got OMB approval to exceed the densities and heights set out in the old official plan, anger lingers. Mr. Tong, who opposed the project, thinks the OMB is much too understanding of the developer’s position. “Why do we elect city councils or go to the trouble and expense of producing official plans if the OMB is going to ignore them?”

Anne Johnston, a 30-year city councillor who lost her seat in 2003 largely because of her support for the Minto deal, shares concerns that the OMB has too much power, but also suggests city residents who want to avoid high-density living altogether are being unrealistic. “A lot of people, call them NIMBYs if you will, fear or hate all growth. They don’t understand that a city is not healthy unless there’s steady growth.”

Karl Jaffary, a lawyer who represents developers and residents groups (including those who fought Minto and some Yorkville high-rises), has noticed the recent rise in neighbourhood battles, and he doesn’t sound optimistic that peace will break out any time soon.

“The existing official plan seems to have little meaning for the city planning staff, and the new plan would do nothing to restrain them in any event,” says Mr. Jaffary, who served alongside Mr. Sewell as a city councillor in the early 1970s. “We seem to be back very much to a let’s-make-a-deal sort of planning,” he says of a system that allows developers to exceed official plans in exchange for funding other ventures, such as seniors’ housing or parks. “The city seems to be flying by the seat of its pants.”

Dovercourt and Bloor is a hive of activity on New Year’s eve afternoon, and only 11 people have to be questioned to find 10 with an opinion on Dover Square — seven against, two in favour, and the “torn” Mr. Berroa.

Mario Calderon calls Dover Square opponents “nuts.”

“Sure the rents are high,” the west-tower tenant says, “but the buildings are well maintained. Maybe if more apartments are built, landlords will have to lower the rent.” Mr. Calderon also says that “except when the ice-cream truck comes, or when the landlord has the free barbecue,” the green space is not that well used.

A few days later, Andrew Munger is unhappy to hear Mr. Calderon’s views. “On a warm June or July evening, there will be 100 to 150 people there,” he says. “And there’s a constant stream of pedestrians all year on the path through the site.”

Mr. Munger, president of the Dufferin Grove Residents’ Association, likes Mr. Tyndorf’s idea about getting residents involved early in the planning. But he says, “That’s exactly what did not happen here. We were more or less shut out of the process.

“We’re not against intensification and not totally against high-rise, but you have to be careful not to overwhelm a community,” he says. “The existing complex is high-rise, but it’s integrated with the community. All plans we’ve seen [from the developer] would encroach significantly on the green space.”

Marvin Sadowski of Sterling Karamar replies that “some green space will go, but it will be minimal,” and “many of those who talk about the loss of green space are people who also complain regularly about the noise of kids playing there.” He adds that the original plan called for a taller building that would have taken up less space, but the city and neighbours said it was too high. And although the number of units did go from 187 to 285, they’re smaller units.

The citywide fighting is all “a NIMBY thing,” he says. “I think a lot of it is precipitated by people who have been, perhaps, coached as to what to say at public meetings.”

And so the war continues.
Mr. Jaffary will be representing Sterling Karamar.

Mr. Munger says his group now has to settle on a strategy. “Is there an acceptable compromise to be had? Do we gamble on the OMB?”

The next official round in the fight is Feb. 1 at an OMB pre-hearing session.

THE DENSITY ISSUE

City planning chief Ted Tyndorf and former mayor John Sewell disagree about some controversial high-rises, but both cite the success in east downtown of the St. Lawrence community, the city’s densest development.

At 100 units an acre, it doesn’t have any buildings taller than 10 storeys. And St. Lawrence may not be an aberration.

Census data and statistics provided by the city indicate that Dover Square, central to one ongoing high-rise battle, is in Ward 18, which has Toronto’s densest population: 10,347 people per square kilometre. But only 16.2 per cent of Ward 18’s households are in buildings of five or more storeys, compared to a city average of 37.6 per cent.

And while high-rises are common in some dense areas of Toronto, Ward 17, which has the city’s lowest percentage of households in buildings of five or more storeys (5.8 per cent), is the third-densest of the 44 wards at 8,180 people per square km.

Mr. Tyndorf says the numbers indicate that the city has to look at all options to make intensification work, but also that Ward 18 may not face such a shortage of green space with more high-rises.

Marvin Sadowski, executive vice-president of developer Sterling Karamar, says it comes down to profit. “We provide good housing at what we think is a fair price, but we don’t provide social housing. Based on economics, if it’s going to be rental, it has to be high-rise.”

Leave a Reply