With the media revving scare stories in the wake of the stabbing death on Queen West a few weeks back, development issues on the strip have once again slipped below the radar.
Too bad, because the fiercely contested transformation of the West Queen West triangle is much farther ahead than many realize.
For this we can thank the surreptitious deal inked in July between the city and two developers - a harbinger, for sure. The fact is, six more tower-addled rezoning applications lie in wait with city planning, half of them by the same developer, Baywood Homes. (See box.)
If these get the nod, the total effect will be the displacement of an entire community, artists, residents and small businesses alike. The dynamic and wildly creative 'hood - the city-applauded Arts and Design District - is on the cusp of becoming an amorphous upscale bedroom community.
The most recent blow came in a late-night meeting July 18. That's when the city - bypassing Active 18, the community group pushing for artist-friendly development - suddenly settled with Verdiroc-Aristocrat and Baywood Homes.
Now, within a few short months, 48 Abell, the beloved warehouse that's anchored the arts community for the last 25 years, will lose its west wing to Verdiroc's wrecking ball. In its stead will rise 18 storeys of affordable housing; the rest of Abell will be demolished shortly thereafter to make way for a 14-storey condo. And at 1171 and 1171R Queen West, Baywood will finally replace the smoky-eyed Bohemian Embassy billboard waif that daily insults artistic sensibilities with an eight- and 19-storey luxury condo project.
Photo By Kathryn Gaitens
"It's a total mess of urban planning," says artist and Abell resident Jessica Rose. "The developers, the city and the province had at their fingertips a powerful community that's turned this neighbourhood into one of the most dynamic in the city. Given that mix, you'd think we'd have achieved some really amazing results."
Now, tenants in 48 Abell's west wing are dealing with the eviction notices that were slid under their doors July 31. By way of appeasement, the developer is offering the 45 to 50 evictees temporary tenancy in Abell's east wing or in other Aristocrat/Verdiroc buildings, some financial compensation and possible accommodation in the affordable housing high-rise run by St. Clare's Multifaith Housing that promises 27 live-work studios.
But this goodwill offering will amount to very little. No way can 27 studios in an apartment building make up for the loss of Abell and its unique warehouse spaces, especially when those studios are located amid a citadel of luxury condos that'll spike rents for local galleries, restaurants and stores.
Picture, say neighbourhood activists, a Queen West version of the Distillery District, with its highbrow galleries and swank eateries. "That's a planned arts community, and it's a failure," says installation artist and Abell evictee Michael Toke. "It's completely gentrified and looks like a mall. Arts communities grow organically."
The settlement - occurring just hours before a date with Ontario Divisional Court to appeal an Ontario Municipal Board ruling that awarded carte blanche to the two developers - has left activists questioning the city's skills and commitment to the idea of a self-generating artists' community.
What did the city wrest from the builders in exchange for dropping its lawsuit? Essentially this: a minor increase in commercial space; some public green space; a slight increase in building stepbacks to allow for more light; cash - 5 per cent of the land value of Abell and 1171 Queen toward the purchase of Baywood-owned park space.
As for Section 37 concessions (as a result of zoning infractions), Verdiroc-Aristocrat will offer the city or an arts org six of its nine 650-to-750-square-foot artist workshops (not to be confused with the 27 live/work spaces) at less than market value that will line the alley affectionately referred to by developers as the "pedestrian mews."
Baywood Homes' Section 37 agreement gives the city $500,000 toward the purchase of artist workshops within the triangle.
All in all, not much in the way of compensation for what will be lost, and it's a far cry from Active 18's proposals. Off the table are the group's plans for architectural zoning in keeping with the unique scale and character of Queen West (two to four storeys); mixed use supporting cultural/arts production - light industrial, commercial and residential; a healthy dose of parkland; protection of 48 Abell.
City Hall defends this unhappy bargain as a necessity. "The city's legal opinion was that we would not win [the Divisional Court appeal]," says area councillor Adam Giambrone. "Am I happy with the settlement? No. Active 18 has played an incredibly important role, and its input has formed the basis of the settlements. But had we gone to court and lost there'd be no negotiation at all."
Not a satisfying response for many activists, particularly since on July 26 the Ontario Superior Court approved the city's request to appeal another nearby development, Landmark Development/Westside Lofts' OMB-approved plans for 150 Sudbury.
"We're really angry," says Active 18 member Michelle Gay. "What the city settled for, it's cruel, it's cynical. It's shockingly bad urban design." The group, which had party status at the OMB trial, was shut out of this last stretch. "July 17 was the first we'd heard of [the city's move to negotiate]," says Gay. "They didn't consult with us. They told us what they were settling for."
And those Section 37 agreements? "Six artist workshops do not make a viable creative community in a block of 8,000 new people," she says. Indeed, this contrived arts alleyway is the antithesis of creative industry. Rather than support artists making art, it promises the moneyed a stroll through a simulated artscape.
What was missing throughout was the wherewithal to tackle these developments before they became a possibility: think height restrictions and advance planning.
As Artscape president and CEO Tim Jones notes, "Had people sat down a year ago and pulled the developers, community, artists, etc into a room and figured how to make this work for everyone, we'd have a much better development. At the end of day, the city settled with no leverage."
Verdiroc-Aristocrat lawyer David Bronskill insists the company has attempted to address community needs. "The settlement ensures artists can stay and work on this site. That's something special that isn't done everywhere in the city. The rents will be significantly less than those in the existing building (48 Abell), so any suggestion that artists living there won't be able to afford the new building is simply wrong."
Baywood Homes/Bohemian Embassy lawyer Ron Kanter is also emphatic that his project will not affect the 'hood. "There are zero artists living or working on the Baywood site. It's vacant. After the site is constructed, there will be people employed, some of them likely artists. And there will be a significant increase in the population who may buy artists' works."
Too bad the art-loving condo owners will have to wait till artists set up digs in a whole new neighbourhood.
The problem of Michael Toke's warehouse space has become a metaphor for the real consequences of the transformation He's resided at Abell since 1991 and is particularly tough to relocate. His studio occupies some 1,500 square feet, and its layout has allowed it to function not just as live/work space but also as an arts venue.
DropShip Entertainment's play Mojo was mounted in Toke's space in June, and a film festival was in the early planning stage. Although his in-studio Nuit Blanche installation is still a go, the eviction's got him scrambling for alternatives for his late fall city-funded installation that, ironically, probes the triangle's developments.
Expect a lot of arts activity at Abell in the coming months. Tenants are committed to going all out before they're kicked out.
ZONING APPLICATIONS ON WEST QUEEN WEST
? 1155 Queen West (currently Queen's Car Wash) for an additional eight-storey tower linking to 19 and eight stories at 1171 Queen West (Baywood Homes)
? 1181 Queen West for an eight-storey tower south of the Gladstone (Baywood Homes)
? 1093 Queen West for a nine-storey tower (Baywood Homes)
? 2 Gladstone for an eight-storey tower
? 1205 Queen West for a seven-storey tower
? 45 Lisgar for 18- and nine-storey towers. The city has rejected this. It heads to the OMB in January.