When I first met Kyle Rae nine years ago, the councillor for Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) had a reputation as a left-leaning politician with strong anti-development tendencies."Kyle's never met a three-storey building he didn't like," one of Rae's right-wing colleagues on the old city of Toronto council said at the time. No way the remark was meant as a compliment.
But that was then. Much has changed over the course of almost a decade. For example, Rae is now known to cast an approving glance at structures pushing beyond the 20-storey range. And these days, he's the frequent target of nasty criticism for being too damned chummy with the development industry that some say wants to blight the downtown landscape with pointy high-rise condominium towers.
But Rae appears unfazed by all the darts being hurled in his direction. Hell, he shoots back as good as he gets.
"Torontonians have vertigo," Rae says. "They're afraid of heights." And they seem to be particularly fearful of elevation in trendy parts of his electoral domain running roughly south from Moore to Queen between University and the Don River.
In recent weeks, two condo developments have been approved for construction in Ward 27. In both cases Rae has come under fire for defending the projects (one at the confluence of Church and Yonge north of Bloor, the other at 100 Yorkville) as acceptable compromises between corporate wishes and local concerns. Rae says a vocal minority who won't be satisfied with any structure over three storeys are trying to make his life miserable.
"What I get is the same people complaining, and they only complain about development," the councillor says. "They don't complain about their taxes. They don't complain about all the rubbish in the streets. They don't complain about our failure to have a good AIDS prevention program. They don't complain about any of that. Their only urban experience is with development, and that is not the full picture of life in the inner city."
Rae has become a devout believer in the gospel inscribed in the city's new Official Plan. "There are OP directives that I espouse very strongly, and one of them is intensification,' he says. Rae insists that the two projects he's currently taking heat for are actually the result of planning compromises worked out between the developers, surrounding residential and business communities and the city.
But you can never please everybody. And this seems especially so with the 100 Yorkville crowd. Rae says redevelopment of the old Mt. Sinai Hospital site is being opposed by a few "who want three-storey buildings to replace what is there today -- an empty parking lot and the facade of the old hospital."
That's all fine and good. But 10 years ago the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) approved development of an eight-storey building on the site east of Hazelton between Yorkville and Scollard. Rae says that structure -- including a shopping mall "running from one end of the property to the other" -- was never built. But the development parameters were set, and subsequent changes in city zoning regulations resulted in a further increase in the allowable density on a piece of real estate purchased for about $25 million.
"You're not going to get three-storey townhouses from an investment of $25 million," Rae says. What you are going to get is three-storey townhouses, two condo towers of eight and 16 storeys and some new two-storey commercial development along Yorkville."
The councillor admits to having been "very conflicted" about the development when the process began. But he's now satisfied that the project will be a fine piece of architecture. Rae is convinced that most people from the area also accept it -- even if a small group plan to challenge it at the OMB.
"I get phone calls from people who live on the 23rd floor of a building saying they don't want another 23rd floor in the neighbourhood," Rae says. "I find that hypocritical. If people find that living downtown is better than living in the suburbs, they should expect others will want to enjoy the experience, too. Cities don't stop changing. If they do, they die."
Since we're on the subject of dead places, I ask Rae what's going on over at Dundas Square, another project in his ward that's been under fire. The square became city property last November, but it remains unfinished and rather derelict -- much like the moribund Metropolis development site directly across from it on Dundas.
"I think Torontonians are just crabby and impatient," Rae says. "There are still light standards to go in, a canopy to go over the stage, and the fountains can't operate in winter. Those people who think the square is barren? Wait until they see it with the fountains going."
And when that big day finally comes, it will be up to city residents to make Dundas Square a vibrant public place. "Once it's open, once the snow is off it, go and entertain yourselves," Rae exhorts no one in particular. "It's not my responsibility to give you a TV set and a sofa to go sit and feel comfortable." On second thought, maybe some of that criticism is starting to get to the councillor. Well, a little bit, anyway.