Sunday, July 8, 2012
Battle over Ossington Ave. condo among several in city
Eclectic is a word often used to describe Ossington Ave., and to a diminishing degree it still applies.
On the east side of the street, for example, between Bruce and Argyle Sts., there’s a vintage clothing store, a cigar-making factory, an artist’s studio, a wholesale food distributor, a pasta shop, a used book store and a Vietnamese restaurant, the much reviewed Golden Turtle.
That one block also includes an empty lot once filled with used cars, and a two-storey building once housing a garage. There, and on the wholesale food distributor that will soon disappear, are big signs announcing the arrival of “inspired lofts” in a six-storey condo claiming to be “undeniably Ossington.”
It’s the site of the latest battle for Ossington’s soul.
“It would suck the life out of the strip,” insists Benj Hellie, spokesperson for the Ossington Community Association, newly formed to fight the proposal.
The view was shared by virtually all the 300-plus people who packed a city-mandated community meeting with the developer on June 25. The proposed condo was loudly denounced for breaking the zoning bylaw by two storeys, for units too small for families, and for a huge, ground-level retail space likely to attract a “character-destroying” big chain store.
Some issues are unique to Ossington, which in the past few years has been transformed by restaurants and bars between Queen and Dundas Sts. W. Residents want to protect the edgy mix that made the neighbourhood attractive and raised property values. Inevitably, it also attracted developers.
Similar backlashes, however, echo throughout the city.
Every schoolchild knows that Toronto is in the grips of a condo boom. What’s changed is this: with downtown sites either developed or priced to the stars, developers are turning to spots in residential neighbourhoods.
“It’s getting very difficult to find good building sites in the downtown area,” says Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan. “So what you’re now starting to see is projects pop out of there and onto main streets in other areas.”
“The pocket condos are coming to a main street near you,” he adds, referring to buildings between six and 10 storeys high. “It’s inevitable. As a result, a proactive strategy is required.”
So far, rage has preceded strategy, and not only against developers.
“You could still smell my skin from being burnt at the stake,” laughs Beaches-East York Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, referring to the Queen St. E, six-storey condo proposal she backed at a raucous community meeting last May.
McMahon negotiated some design changes. But a key reason for backing the proposal, she notes, is that most buyers in mid-rise Beach condos are long-time residents downsizing.
“Why shouldn’t they be allowed to continue living in their neighbourhood?” she says.
In the first four months of this year, there were 106 “active” mid-rise condo projects of five to 11 storeys, with a total of 13,385 units. These are projects being sold before building or while under construction, or newly finished and still selling, according to the condo research firm Urbanation Inc. During the same period in 2007, there were 69 active mid-rise projects with 7,934 units.
(In the first four months of this year, there were 243 active highrise condo projects with 77,722 units.)
The city of Toronto is expected to grow by 500,000 people over the next 20 years. Provincial and local plans channel much of that growth in so-called intensification areas, including downtown and main streets designated as avenues.
The plans view condos as making the city denser, public transit more sustainable and retail more varied as new residents demand services within walking distance.
The theory is that condos attract young professionals who, when starting a family, would later move into single family homes in Toronto neighbourhoods, says Art McIlwain, president of Gleneden Property Services Corp., which advises major land owners.
“They then would compete for a limited supply of single family homes and the price would go up like a rocket to the moon, which is what’s happening,” McIlwain says.
“What I’m seeing is a market operating as it was planned. It will make the city a compact and efficient place,” he adds.
Others see a different future. The average unit size built in the first four months of this year is 757 square feet. Ken Greenberg, former director of urban design and architecture for the city of Toronto, warns the market is catering exclusively to young, single people.
“We’re creating a highly transient population,” Greenberg says, adding many condo dwellers will be renters. “They’re basically extended-stay hotels in the heart of the city. It violates all the rules of sustainability.”
Ute Lehrer, associate professor of urban planning at York University, warns of a “mono-culture that does not provide housing for people who are not young professionals.”
On this point, McIlwain agrees: “The poor will not live in the city of Toronto,” he says. Others argue services like public transit and daycare are not keeping up.
These concerns draw the battle lines beyond NIMBYism to a war for the city’s character.
City policies on mid-rise buildings insist that they protect “the character and stability of existing adjacent neighbourhoods.” But condo developers aren’t in the business of urban engineering, even though the business choices they make do exactly that.
“Developers are only in it for the money, to be honest, and they tell me that themselves,” says Parkdale-High Park Councillor Sarah Doucette.
Doucette’s ward is in the middle of a mini-boom along Bloor St. W. Six developments have either been approved or are in the process of getting permits. They’re all about 10 to 12 stories which, at the high end, is almost twice the zoning height allowed.
“It’s scary,” says Doucette, who held two community meetings about developments last week. “We’re meant to be a village — Bloor West Village.”
“Residents aren’t opposed to development, they want development that fits in,” she adds, noting one building would block light to a parkette. “What they don’t want is monstrous buildings coming in way taller than others.”
Historically, Toronto has “under-zoned” property as a way of controlling development, Vaughan says. It’s therefore expected that most proposals require rezoning. Vaughan notes it allows the city to negotiate concessions for parks and community services. But it also results in many developers shooting for the stars.
Vaughan believes a solution is community designed plans — called visioning studies — that set standards for specific streets. He’s participated in studies for downtown stretches of Bloor and Queen, and is now conducting one for Dupont St.
On the heels of mid-rise condo battles, McMahon has embarked on one for Queen St. E., and Trinity-Spadina Councillor Mike Layton is preparing one for Ossington.
There’s no funding for these street plans, however, and no guarantee they’ll be voted into the city’s official plan and given real teeth.
The official city plan is up for review this year, and Vaughan would like to see one that creates “vertical neighbourhoods.” Each building would include non-profit commercial space, family-size units, and one or two units of affordable housing. Short of that, he negotiates with developers on individual projects, often agreeing to more density in return for 3-bedroom units — 1,000 of which are included in projects under construction in his downtown ward.
Some argue councillors are negotiating with a symbolic gun to their heads — the threat of an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, which has the final say on projects and is often accused of being developer-friendly.
“I’ve taken cases to the OMB before and we’ve lost,” says Layton. “Doing everything you can to avoid the OMB, while lessening the impact on the community of the project, is a good course to take. Because when you play an all-or-nothing game, the loss can be big.”
It’s an advantage developers seem to count on.
The Ossington community meeting was a mix of the young professionals and older Portuguese residents who make up the neighbourhood. What upset them most is that 55 per cent of the proposed condo’s 86 units are already sold — most of them on the top two contested floors. Yet there’s at least nine months to go in the city mandated process — which includes more community meetings — before a decision on a building permit is made.
For many, the pre-construction sales made a mockery of the process.
“Does any of this count?” actor J.P. Manoux, 43, who bought a house on Argyle two years ago, asked at the meeting. “This is not a done deal. We’re at the beginning of the process, but that is not what the salesmen are saying.”
“I am not a NIMBY by any stretch,” said one woman. “I firmly believe we have to intensify the city. But I feel these developers are coming in, hand on nose, saying, ‘Nah, nah, we’re going to build what we want.’ ”
In an interview, Layton describes the pre-construction sale practice as “common, and completely legal, but incredibly frustrating.
“It kind of leaves the community at a loss because, what are we going to do, tell people they can’t move into their homes, that their money should be refunded?” Layton says.
Sheldon Fenton, president of Reserve Properties, which is proposing the condo, describes his six-storey building as appropriate for a main street in a rapidly growing city.
“Everywhere we’ve done developments you have a protectionism from the local people,” says Fenton, who is also building the contested condo in the Beach and calls the reaction pure NIMBYism.
“The average person in this room probably has a home that’s worth $750,000; most people who want to live down here cannot afford that,” he said in an interview after the Ossington meeting. “The average unit cost in the condominium project that we’re proposing is somewhere between $350,000 and $400,000, which makes it reachable for many people.
“What we’re trying to do is create a great place for people to live, for people who want to live here and can’t afford to live in many of the homes that these people have,” he argues.
Working in Fenton’s favour is a less dense but recently approved six-storey condo nearby on Ossington. He says he’s willing to listen to community concerns. Asked if he heard anything that would modify his project, he said: “What we’ve proposed is reasonable and I believe it should be approved.”
The city’s planning policies consider mid-rise condos appropriate for “avenues,” defined by the city as main transportation arteries, like Queen and Dundas Sts. But a key point for Hellie — who spearheads the Ossington Community Association with his wife, Jessica Wilson, and Manoux — is that those city plans do not designate Ossington as an avenue.
“Avenues are supposed to be major corridors,” says Hellie, who, like his wife, is a University of Toronto philosophy professor. “But Ossington is only 600 metres long, 17 ½ metres wide and carries little traffic. It feels like a piazza, and it’s important to keep the buildings low-rise.”
The condo will sit on a lot 46 metres long and 42 metres deep, with underground and outdoor parking for a total of 70 cars. Its top two floors would be set back from the rest of the building.
Hellie has Layton’s backing for a lower, less dense building, with small retail stores at ground level. There’s also concern about the building’s shadow on backyard vegetable gardens, and extra traffic on streets and a laneway used by schoolchildren.
With the large majority of units measuring 700 square metres, one resident feared the building will evolve into “a frat house.” At the community meeting, another read a sales brochure she said was for the building, describing “the night scene that doesn’t quit till dawn.”
“Do you think that is what we want?” she said, noting the area is filled with seniors and families with young children.
Attending the meeting was local landlord Jim Colbert. He started buying buildings in the neighbourhood six years ago. Some that were grow ops are now art galleries, but those tenants are thinking of moving.
“They’re saying, ‘Even if we could afford the rents, it’s not clear we want to be in club land west,’ ” Gilbert says in an interview. “It used to be a place for artists. Now it’s becoming a party zone.”
It isn’t the high rents that are forcing Frantic City used books, two doors north of the proposed condo, to go out of business. Store owner Tim Hannah says his Portuguese landlord hasn’t raised his rent in years. People, quite simply, aren’t buying.
“I’m sick of talking about this street,” says Hannah, 42, who rents a one-bedroom apartment in Parkdale. “I’d rather put nails in my eyeballs than walk on Ossington.”
In the eight years he’s had the shop, he’s watched what he says is the gentrification of the strip through manufactured buzz. Property values rose and renters — some of them his clients — were pushed out as houses containing apartment were converted into single-family homes. He now sees the condo battle as homeowners protecting high property values against those who want a piece of the action.
“It’s a middle-class turf war that has nothing to do with us,” Hannah says.
Those with a city-wide perspective see a different dynamic.
“We should not as a city accept that developers tell us what city we need,” says York University’s Lehrer. “There needs to be a public discourse on the kind of city we want.”