The man who masterminded Toronto's new Official Plan is starting to have serious concerns about the way its emphasis on increased building densities is being used to promote inappropriate development.
"Intensification as a whole concept is being substantially abused by the development industry," says Paul Bedford, the city's former chief planner. "It's being carried to the extreme everywhere and, frankly, I think that could backfire."
Residents of the downtown Annex neighbourhood couldn't agree more. About 200 of them attended a community meeting Monday night, May 16, to angrily protest a condominium development planned for the northeast corner of Bloor and Bedford.
The proposed project, known as One Bedford (no connection to the retired bureaucrat who left City Hall last year after guiding his blueprint through council in 2003), would consist of two condo towers of 34 and 18 storeys built on a commercial/retail "podium" that would itself be as high as the Intercontinental Hotel next door.
John Bygott, president of the Annex Residents' Association (ARA), described the complex as "a monstrosity that's completely insensitive to the community that surrounds it. There is nothing else on Bloor that is at this height and this mass," he told the assembly at Walmer Road Baptist Church.
Bygott's statement was lent considerable credence when representatives of Lanterra/H&R Developments attempted to project a drawing of the building, designed by the well-known architectural firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, onto a large screen at the front of the church. The 34-storey condo wouldn't fit, eliciting laughs and calls of "You'll have to make it smaller."
Bygott noted that just four years ago, city planning staff rejected a proposal on the same site for a single tower of just 19 storeys, claiming in their report to council that "at 19 storeys, the proposed building is three to four storeys too high" and that "the 19-storey mass extends too far north into the site."
Yet now, armed with a new Official Plan that promotes intensification along major thoroughfares with busy public transit corridors and eschews height limits and density numbers, the developer has come forward with a proposal for a much larger and more massive project.
"Naturally, people are going to react negatively to stuff of that scale," says Bedford. He still insists that "intensification is called for on our famous main streets and avenues," but adds it has to be done in context with surrounding neighbourhoods.
"Don't get me wrong. Tall buildings are great in the right places," the always outspoken planner stresses. "But that doesn't mean you have the same height at Bloor and Bedford or Bloor and St. George as at Yonge and Bloor. You have to get more responsible in terms of the scale and the height for the location." Failing to do that will just "piss everybody off and put at risk all the good the Official Plan has in it," Bedford says.
Annex residents were making much the same point at Walmer Road Baptist. According to Sandra Shaul, "densification in itself can be a good thing for the Annex community." But, she added, the One Bedford proposal is excessive and threatens to start a domino effect of oversized developments along Bloor.
There are no stated plans for improvements to public transit or for preventing increased traffic flows to narrow residential streets and no protection for the existing tree canopy and residential buildings from the excessive shade the development will create.
"It's fair to say the whole core and fabric of the Annex is being threatened," said Helen Kennedy, constituency assistant to Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) Councillor Olivia Chow, who chaired Monday night's meeting.
Many residents argued that One Bedford represents the biggest threat the Annex has faced since they successfully fought the Spadina Expressway back in the 1970s. "It's time to fight again," said one ARA leaflet circulated before the session. "It will be a costly battle," ARA prez Bygott advised before a hat was passed around the church.
As it happens, the developer has already filed an appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board, even though city planners have yet to make a decision on its site plan application or prepare a report to council's July meeting. "This is intimidation pure and simple," Bygott says.
The fact that the planning department is even considering the proposal and negotiating with Lanterra/H&R raised the ire of many Annex residents. Some demanded planning staff take a position on One Bedford at the meeting. "I thought the job of a planner was to plan," said one disgruntled gent.
But Ted Tyndorf, who succeeded Bedford as chief planner, says the city has an obligation to consider every application that comes before it. "You have to deal with it in good faith," he says in an interview. "You keep trying to the best to work out a deal that's satisfactory to all sides. But if push comes to shove and we can't do it, we'll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it."
He maintained the One Bedford project is "superior architecture" by a good builder that probably wouldn't be as much of an issue if it were built even half a block east of the proposed site. And he claimed to understand and even share many of the Annex community's concerns.
"It will set a bar that's considerably different from the current pattern of development," Tyndorf says. "You give somebody an opening and they'll try to hit a home run every single time."