Cheol Joon Baek
Notice: an application has been made to ruin this street.
St. Nicholas is a charming mutt of a street for downtown Toronto.
Tucked between the towers of Yonge and Bay, it starts at Wellesley as a laneway and, heading north, passes old three-storey industrial spaces turned commercial lofts and ramshackle garages, ending as a cobblestone street of Victorian row houses and faux Victorian townhouses.
This dreamy 19th-century streetscape is already somewhat interrupted by a 1970s apartment tower - but residents of the tiny, tony road fear that if Urban Capital's proposed 44-storey condo at number 65 gets the go-ahead, the historic feel of their enclave will be irretrievably lost.
Do we really need another testing ground for the manifest destiny of upward intensification - and more confusion over the difference between good planning and profiteering passing itself off as ecological land use?
The good news is that the capable locals have made a ruckus, handing Councillor Kyle Rae the ammo to ask for a heritage study. He's recently obtained a commitment that staff will report on the street to the city's Heritage Preservation Board in February.
But the long shadow of the Ontario Municipal Board is looming, so of course anything can happen.
At a November 4 meeting, 200 residents and neighbours from the Bay corridor tore themselves away from the U.S. election coverage to pack the auditorium of the Catholic Girls' School on Wellesley. All the ingredients were in place for a cartoonish confrontation between greedy developers and NIMBYists.
At first, locals didn't disappoint. Each time Robert Glover, the planner hired by UC, showed photographs of the anticipated change to the local skyline, rows of residents let out catcalls and boos so rousing, so predictable that I looked around for cue cards.
But I got their point. The developer's presentation leaned heavily on the city's official density mandate. Urban Capital lawyer Adam Brown informed the crowd in a scolding, teacher-like tone that downtown neighbourhoods must intensify to limit northern sprawl. "This is because of a provincial mandate," he argued. "This is exactly the sort of site designated for growth."
The company showed bird's-eye photos essentially establishing that there are already a lot of towers in the 'hood, so what's one more?
To a developer or even a city planner operating under the received wisdom that the core must figuratively and literally grow up, skyscrapers might make some sense. But not to residents and local businesses measuring what could be lost in one particular intensification project in one particular corner of the city.
"This is a very attractive building. It's not a building for St. Nicholas," said Kathryn Holden of the Bloor Corridor Community Association. "People always tell me they walk to work down St. Nicholas. They don't walk down Yonge, they don't walk down Bay. That street is a park - which costs the city nothing because the community maintains it. We put the mulch on the trees."
One wonders: has anyone involved in this development walked the area? "We want density," said Sean Tracy, BCCA president. "We have a subway - you can't have that without density. But we also value heritage."
Condo dwellers can destroy quaint streets while seeking them. Quaint locals want density but don't want to live in it. This could be resolved by discussion. For all its appeals to authority, the developer ignored the central fact: the city zoned the site for six storeys, not 44. What if Urban Capital committed to experimentation with a modern low-rise? What if area residents agreed to six plus two or three extra floors?
Councillor Rae acknowledged that the development-crazed OMB was the real issue when he rose to inform staff in attendance that the public outcry had now given him reason to request a heritage conservation study. "We needed to have this meeting so the city will have a response that can be defended at the board."
City Hall itself isn't blameless, though. Just as the province uses its left hand to wash its right of responsibility - one ministry restricting growth to cities in principle but taking no responsibility for the OMB's laissez-faire interpretations - the city's new Official Plan leaves many gaps to be exploited.
The St. Nicholas area is designated as an "apartment neighbourhood" in the OP but has no area plan, a finer-grain, more consultative plan to guide zoning.
In a part of Toronto considered appropriate for towers, that's a surprising gap in the city's toolbox. It's also a hint of what other residents facing development pressure may need to push for to prevent land grabs. An area plan is, after all, Rae says, an important defence at an OMB hearing.
The residents of St. Nick, however, are lucky for now, having resources - and political support. "Intensification doesn't mean 44 storeys," said Rae. "Right now I don't see a project that will fly on this site."