Sunday, October 02, 2011

No, I'm not involved with StopMintoFreed

Quite a few people have asked me whether I’m involved with StopMintoFreedDevelopment [now defunct -N.], a union of two neighbourhood associations that have banded together against the current design of the Minto/Freed condo project at Front and Bathurst, in Toronto.

Their website links to my essay, Farewell to Rock Oasis, when discussing the colorful industrial history of the corner.

What do you think: Is the development too high/too dense,
relative to the Official Plan? (graphic via StopMintoFreed)

For the record, I am not connected with that organization (consisting of residents from the Wellington Place Neighbourhood Association and the Niagara Neighbourhood Now Association).

However, I am interested in what they have to say.

Like many of my climbing friends, I am still distraught about the premature demolition of the old Doty Engine Works building and the Rock Oasis climbing gym located therein. I’m still trying to get over it. I have my own opinions regarding development on that corner, which are probably fairly predictable.

(The post I wrote -- The Transformation of King-Spadina -- dealing with changes in the area over the last decade, exposes my prejudices for any reader to infer.)

I do think that StopMintoFreed (hereafter SMF) is raising legitimate concerns which deserve consideration -- and further discussion. Specifically, is the proposed development consistent with the City of Toronto’s Official Plan and the medium-density, mixed-use character of the area?

According to SMF, the answer is no. They argue that the proposal:
“violates all planning principles and controls the City of Toronto has in place for the neighbourhood, without providing any clear or justifiable reason or public benefit for doing so.”
That’s a pretty substantial charge -- is it factual?

Let’s look at a particular detail of the proposal, just as an example. Freed and Minto, in a July 25, 2011 zoning amendment application, have asked the city to permit a building that “exceeds the maximum zoning height as permitted in the By-law, and does not comply with the required setback.”

The Reinvestment Area (RA) Zoning By-law 438-86 (under which the site is zoned), permits a maximum height of 26 meters along Bathurst (plus 5 meters for rooftop mechanical elements). The proposed SouthWest tower in the project is 81 meters.

That’s 50 meters of difference!

Perhaps it’s unfair to cite this one element out of context from the whole proposal. But it does tend to raise questions about whether the project is going to heed any of the planning guidelines for the area.

The Grid recently interviewed Lee Jacobson, treasurer of the Wellington Place Neighbourhood Association, and presumably a spokesperson for SMF.

Jacobson is keen to emphasize that SMF is
“not against development in the area. Our campaign is not to stop development and keep this site vacant. We simply want to work together with Minto Freed to build a sustainable community.”
In Jacobson’s view, the overly-dense proposal threatens to strain the existing transit infrastructure and to erode the community spirit of the area, with close to 1,000 new residential units being constructed. It is out of scale and out of proportion with everything else in the neighbourhood.

I’d love to hear Peter Freed (the developer)’s take on this. I haven’t tried to contact him, because I suspect he’s got more pressing priorities than to speak with a not-entirely-receptive blogger fixated on the history of the site. I can speculate, however, that as a developer, he doubtless needs to have a certain density in order to make it all economically profitable. It should not be surprising that the proposal is asking for significantly more density and height than the planning guidelines permit.

In the (somewhat developer-oriented) forum thread about the project, commentators have dismissed the SMF campaign with the derogatory ‘NIMBY’ label. This is an intellectually lazy stance which is just as unwarranted as painting Peter Freed as a ‘greedy developer’.

It’s reasonable to check whether a development proposal is consistent with the urban planning guidelines for the site location -- and when it deviates significantly from the guidelines, to ask whether the benefits outweigh the costs of that deviation.

Will the proposed development loom over Victoria Memorial Square?
graphic via The Daily Planet

The Wellington Place Neighbourhood Association has collaborated with Freed in the past, to help shape projects in the area which were within the generally accepted planning guidelines, so there’s plenty of hope that a compromise may still be worked out.

I don’t know whether I have the psychic energy to properly (and neutrally) assess the case made by SMF. The demolition of the Doty Machine Works was a depressing -- if inevitable -- event, and I’m not sure whether on a personal level it’s worth dwelling on.

I’m definitely curious about the eventual outcome of what happens on the corner, and I’ll probably attend some of the public meetings to see what goes on -- but I’m pretty sure I’m going to simply concentrate on completing my documentation of the history of the site. I’ll leave the future for someone else to battle over.

For those wishing to find out more, the next Community Consultation meeting about the development is taking place October 12, 2011 -- location and time to be determined. A prior meeting attracted “the biggest crowd we’ve had in four years”, according to Adam Vaughan, the local ward Councillor.

It’s critical to make a proper evaluation of how the proposed development will impact the surrounding neighbourhood, which has a rich historical legacy from the very beginning of Toronto. My prime concern would be over how the development affects the nearby Victoria Memorial Park.

The Front and Bathurst project is a significant and precedent-setting development. Whatever happens here will influence the character of the neighbourhood for the next fifty years. And we are about to see it take shape right before our eyes.

Further information and reading
The City of Toronto Staff Report about the project
The Daily Planet’s article about StopMintoFreed
BlogTO’s coverage of the Oct 12, 2011 public meeting
The [defunct] article on Minto Freed and the OMB
StopMintoFreedDevelopment’s website [defunct]’s (somewhat softball) interview with Peter Freed

and of course,

Farewell to Rock Oasis - my essay about the history of the corner and the climbing gym
What’s to Come at Front and Bathurst