Imagine if, instead of enforcing the speed limit, the police allowed high-performance luxury cars to go faster than everyone else. No one would accuse those who objected of being small-minded.
Yet that's the way opponents of high-rise buildings are portrayed when they object to the city's height rules being broken to build condo towers for the wealthy.
We're told we should accept tall buildings because the city needs to be more densely populated. The Official Plan calls for an increase of at least half a million people over the next 30 years. But the plan also recognizes that building glass towers to the sky isn't necessary. In fact, it calls for increasing population through mid-rise building - four to eight storeys over stores along main streets all over the city - and specifically restricts high-rises to areas where they already exist.
But developers are exploiting the plan by leveraging threats of OMB approval to get council permission to build skyward, as they did for the 30-storey tower recently allowed near the St. George subway station.
The real driving force behind the push for height is not concern for vibrant city life, but profits for developers and privileged views for wealthy condo owners. The reality is, the price of condos goes up floor by floor. In essence, public space, the air above the maximum permitted height that allows a sky view and sun into the surrounding neighbourhood, is being appropriated for private gain, purchased by those who can afford to buy on the highest floors.
They get to look down over the city and enjoy the sunlight and spacious sky view. Meanwhile, the people in the community below have to look up at the new owners, their view marred and their sunlight blocked. No wonder residents get angry.
A related argument we often hear as a justification for high-rise condo projects at desirable locations such as Yonge and Eglinton or Bloor and St. George is that we should put people near subways.
The first problem is that many of these condos are luxury units. And people who live in million-dollar condos are probably not big subway users. But secondly, even if they wanted to commute by transit, morning rush hour trains are already packed like sardine cans by the time they get to these midtown stations.
There are certainly places in Toronto where tall buildings make sense. The planned Etobicoke "Centre" around Kipling station is well served by transit with capacity to spare, and is not part of an established neighbourhood that would be overwhelmed. Even here, however, development must follow rules in consultation with citizens. A "centre" can't mean a windswept mass of random towers.
There's more than one way to fulfill planners' density dreams. Major European cities are far denser than North American ones, and yet they contain few buildings taller than eight storeys.
The most populous self-governing municipal district in Canada, Plateau Mont-Royal, a borough of the city of Montreal, contains almost no buildings higher than four storeys.
When citizens are allowed to take part in setting the rules for development from the beginning, they can be open to intensification that benefits both the community and developers, and results in this kind of dense but human-scale urban environment.
The work of the grassroots group Active 18 on the Queen West triangle (around the tracks southeast of Queen and Dufferin) is an example. In the face of seven new condo proposals, some as high as 26 storeys, they began their own process to create an alternate development plan that would bring more people into the area without undermining the neighbourhood's existing appeal.
This kind of participation shows that citizens can embrace intensification - when they know the process is fair and open and in the interests of everyone.
Dylan Reid is an associate editor of Spacing magazine. Dylan Reid is an associate editor of Spacing magazine.