in the beginning

Old Queen Street Queen Street looking east to the Gladstone

In the beginning there was the Triangle and it was without franchises and lattes and bankers and real estate agents. And in the evenings there were artists dancing or slouching in the streets, depending on their conception of the evening, from studio to bar and back, or from bar to studio and back—but, nevertheless, conceptualizing in both directions. And there was a land called Parkdale to the west and a silvan park to the east called Trinity-Bellwoods and there were many Portuguese to the north, and many, many used appliance stores on the Great Avenue. And there was The Great Hall and the Gladstone Hotel and the Drake Hotel and the Carnegie Library, each and every one falling down gracefully but filled with good cheer. And so it had been from the time before and the time before that.

Gladstone Hotel with its hat Gladstone Hotel with its hat

And then in the year of 2005 there was a voice and it was a voice that crackled with money and the voice cried out from inside the new place called Starbucks and the voice cried loudly, “Let there be condos!” And the conceptual people wandering in the night were not sore afraid. When they heard the sound of money, being people schooled in submitting incomprehensible grant applications to bureaucratic dunderheads, they conceived the incomprehensible idea…we can help them make it better! Whether they want our help or not!

And in the fullness of time there came many condos but also a park and a theatre. And The Great Hall and the Gladstone and The Drake and The Carnegie library now glitter in restored splendor. And Parkdale still lies to the west and Bellwoods to the east but the used appliances are moved to distant lands. And in the evenings the artists come and go…from their fold-out couches in the Junction—a mysterious and barren land in the far far north—they come to their pop-up galleries on the Great Avenue, once filled with refrigerators and washer-dryers, and they go, back and forth, back and forth, conceptualizing how to pay two rents.

And so it came to pass, the Battle of West Queen West. This is how it happened.

2006

In short order in late 2005 and early 2006 three major condo projects were proposed to the City to be built in the Triangle. The Drake Hotel and the Gladstone Hotel were restored by their respective owners. And the neighbourhood became a thing. One of the buildings to be built would replace an old warehouse building at 48 Abell which was a hive of artists living cheap. They were not amused. One of the new buildings to be built at 1171 Queen, across the road from the Gladstone Hotel, was to be called the Bohemian Embassy.

Bohemian Embassy Girl The Bohemian girl—the poster girl of cool

The Bohemian Embassy flyer read:

Into the James Dean void
Steps an embassy of hip.
Don't tell the
government Cause it wasn't meant
For Everyone

Oh yes, *daddio*  We growl and howl
On the street with the beat...
When the Queen goes west and the squares
go east
It's an embassy of cool
It's the embassy for you

Nor was The Gladstone, which hosted highbrow art events, was not amused by the wannabe sales pitch of the parvenu developers.

And so began one of Toronto’s most unusual “development” struggles. It was not led by middle class burghers protecting their property values from low class apartment dwellers. Nor was it lead by impoverished tenants seeking to save their cheap housing from the bulldozer. It was led by a rag-tag gang from the arts community who formed an organization called Active 18 Community Organization (“A18”, for short), whose mantra was Citizens for Good Design. Its first leader was Margie Zeidler, whose family restored the Gladstone Hotel. Margie is an architect by training and an innovative entrepreneur with strong allegiance to the arts community. The steering committee of A18 attracted some serious talent, artists, architects, PR specialists, activists, lawyers, planners and more, and they carried on long after Ms. Zeidler left the organization.

The history of planning scandals in Toronto in prior decades had been resolved by the governments, provincial and municipal—in the fashion favored by such persons—by creating systems of endless public meetings and consultations with the public and opportunities to make deputations and appear before the Ontario Municipal Board. “Resolved” and “public meetings” are trick words. Get used to it. “Resolved” actually means “covered over, obscured, buried” and “public meetings” means, [“sham, charade, distraction”]/planning/comments-and-rants/#official-meetings).

A18 was, of course, denounced as NIMBY—which is developers’ name-calling for “Not in My Back Yard”. Our back yard was acres of abandoned industrial land. Who ever heard of the local community knowing anything about that! How selfish. The denunciations were just the perfect opportunity to present our rival plans, better than theirs. We were never against any of the developments in our twelve years of agitating (with one exception—(see 440 Dufferin). We were for better development that would be a lasting benefit to the community. We were “Citizens for Good Design”. We got after the Planning Division for bad planning as much as the developers for huge, ugly buildings. We supported low income housing. Calling somebody NIMBY used to be good enough to knock them out of the game. No longer. We were a community group that had its eye on the big picture.

One feature of this shifting politics had to do with Section 37 of the Planning Act which permitted the City to allow extra density if the developer provided a “public benefit”. These Section 37 deals were thought, in the old days, to be shady and corrupt and an extra tax. What could be worse than an extra tax on developers’ profits! Irate developers and punctilious law professors were scandalized. Reporters referred to Section 37 as the “crack cocaine” of development—see news clippings for 2006 We stumbled into a situation—and took advantage of it—because there was a concentration of developments in a short period which allowed us to gather up the Section 37 benefits and deploy them strategically. We’ve ended up with a neighbourhood of arts and culture facilities to replace a neighbourhood of artists. We thought, we hoped, we dreamed and schemed. And we succeeded to a degree.

I hasten to add, neither has this journey been smooth, nor the result perfect, but the scornful attitude toward Section 37 benefits is gone. Once I was denounced as a kind of “crack dealer”. Now I’m some kind of pioneer. (It was, sort of, fun being a bad boy who does good.)

[see Affordable Housing]/planning/comments-and-rants/#affordable-housing) for a preview of where Section 37 is going.

The OMB Triangle Case

In 2005 and 2006, Active 18 started to organize to improve upon the bad planning and designs that were coming at us south of Queen. The complex history is told here. The “big event” was a major OMB case in 2006 which was a consolidated hearing for three major developments. There was substantial community participation leading up to that hearing. A18 prepared its own Area Plan and hosted a charrettte to discuss it. We participated in a working group sponsored by the City to further discuss the future of the ‘hood. And there were many negotiations before and during the OMB hearing. All the neighbourhood talk and City Hall meetings came to nothing, until a six week OMB hearing in the fall of 2006 in which we were a Party. (One of the developers was told by his lawyer not to speak to us. Not only a crack dealer but dangerous at City Hall.)

The decision of the OMB in January 2007 was unfavourable on all design, massing, employment and planning issues. This led to several levels of appeals in 2007. But when the dust settled, after the appeals, it finally emerged we had an important success. we had wrung out a real park out of the process. (see Lisgar Park) And just as important, the old Carnegie library was well on the way to funding for restoration and conversion to a theatre by Section 37 benefits.

in the middle

2007—2017

At this point, 2007, the story seems to run off in all directions. Hold on to your hat—and the map. Development also started north of Queen, which I have, some say capriciously, thrown into a separate chapter called North of Queen. Six other developments south of Queen were proposed in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and some of these changed form as they changed hands between developers (see 2-90 Lisgar and 1181 Queen).

In this new phase, roughly starting in 2007, Active 18’s focus shifted to design issues because, by that point, the dye was cast on height issues. We ramped up our original logo—Citizens for Good Design. We bought black shirts and baggy black pants and laser pointers and took out digital projectors to public meetings. Yes, there was guerrilla theatre in all this. But what were the developers doing with all their fancy renderings of buildings that bore little relation to what would get built? Theatre, that’s what.

We fought them at Community Council and at public meetings with our own PowerPoints. We crashed secret “peer review” meetings. We prepared slide shows setting forth better designs or ideas for better designs. We had several artists, designers and architects on our steering committee and did gangbuster sketches and photo shows of good design. We fought ugliness in the alleyways and in the boardrooms, we fought tiny condos in the committee rooms and in the bar rooms late at night, we fought chain stores in the dawn’s early light, and we never surrendered.

We won very little. It might be said we won nothing. But the vibe changed a little. There were some cordial and apparently serious meetings with developers and their architects about design. And the developers started coming to us, wanting to get us on side, which was the best side of the Councillor to be on.

But we did succeed on two other fronts. A18 won a major role for the community in the design of the new park. This story of citizen participation with the Parks Division is interesting. From opposing our participation at first, by 2016 they were quite open to community participation in park programming. See Lisgar Park. GOOD.

This map shows the new park at its full size, the public access open space between the most of the new condos, with two exceptions. The Edge has not yet been darkened. and the mews shows here as running through to Sudbury. In fact the new building at 1181 Queen will bury that.

And we won another major Section 37 benefit from one of the new developments for the Toronto Media Arts Cluster. See TMAC.

North of Queen

While most of the WQW action in 2006, 2007, and 2008 was south of Queen, there were a few proposals for land north of Queen in what we started calling the “North West Triangle”. It was a wake-up call for Active 18. And thereafter there were two major development proposals that were ripe for development. One biggie was built eventually at 11 Peel, called commercially The Carnaby. And another at 440 Dufferin was the subject of an OMB dustup and has yet to be built.

Here’s 440 Dufferin, in 2017, still functioning as real employment space but doomed, doomed, doomed.

It was generally acknowledged that the development south of Queen could have been better managed, if there had been a good plan in place before the development started. The plan and zoning designations north of Queen were slightly different but the problem was essentially the same—no plan! So, was the planning north of Queen better managed?

No.

We said to ourselves, and then we said it to anyone who would listen—and then to folks who didn’t want to listen—“let’s have a plan for north of Queen and put it in place now before the development wave hits.”

The theme of the North of Queen chapter is how the Planning Division fought us on this. Not just failed to plan, but actively fought against planning. The story does not have a happy ending. The excuses they made for doing this are a lesson in doublespeak and bumbling. The consequences will be disastrous for the community. The planners, of course, get to walk away.

When the City and the Planning Division and their allies complain that the OMB is “bad” and should not be allowed to overrule the City and should be abolished, just remember, the Planning Division often fails badly. I wish I could follow this by saying, “and the OMB has a solid record of saving the City from its own follies.” Alas, no. But I can say that the threat of exposing the City’s follies to careful and logical scrutiny in a public forum has been helpful. And I can say that when the planners tell you they could manage nicely all by themselves…horse feathers! See [OMB Reform]/planning/comments-and-rants/#omb-reform)

The second theme in North of Queen is how we tried to save affordable employment space. Not necessarily for artists, but for any one who might use it, especially start-up businesses. We had some success, although it is not built yet. See 440 Dufferin.

at the end

Conclusions—Which Conclusions?

Caught you! You came here to the Overview and clicked on Conclusions thinking you didn’t need to read the rest, all the stuff in between. Alas, for you! There are no tidy conclusions. Conclusions are all over the the place. And any big conclusion has many exceptions.

If you’re looking for the latest hot topic in the media in May 2017, try OMB reform. Or Provincial Planning, which has supplanted and overwhelmed all the more local issues of traditional built form planning.

As you read through the various chapters—my brilliant techie calls them files—on the various topics covered here you’ll see GOOD or BAD where individual things stand out for me in the story. But these quickie conclusions don’t add up nicely to overall conclusions. (Nothing adds up neatly. Arithmetic is a fraud.)

There are two Report Cards where I tried to rate the results of the West Queen West OMB battle in simplified form, one right after the OMB battle ended done in 2008. And another done several years later, in 2010, after the dust had settled, sort of.

Then in Comments and Rants there is an Executive Summary with some policy-wonk type conclusions. And it will refer you to more detailed discussions.

But, wait, there’s more. As I re-wrote these sections in 2017 much had changed, including my mind on a few things. Topics emerged as important for the path forward that were not part of the history our West Queen West struggle. Maybe they should have been. For example Inclusionary Zoning is new in 2017. So there are a second set of conclusions in The Future is Different that tries to refashion community strategies for the future.

General Conclusions

Here are some general conclusions and observations to get you going:

  • While it wasn’t much of a factor in 2007 the provincial take-over of planning is now decisive. The Province requires intensification and doesn’t require the transit to support it. This is such a giant BAD that you say they have doomed the inner city. All the rest is fluff. Read here.
  • The OMB is flawed but the current hot topic, reforming the OMB, really won’t make much difference.
  • There is an awful lot of loose language in the Official Plan, in the Secondary Plans, in the Provincial Plans and in the mouths of planners and politicians, not to mention the citizen warriors. Clear rules are hard to find. Everybody interprets what is best for the community, except the fools who defer to experts to do the interpreting. At the OMB they still rely on the notion that there are experts. It’s away of shutting up and shutting out the community. I spent thirty years in the trial court, very often dealing with expert evidence. Trust me, these people are not “experts”. The idea that planning is some kind of expertise is BS. Don’t be buffaloed. There are experts on how long the sun shines at 4 P< and where the shadows fall on summer solstice. But they are not experts on whether that is enough sun! -The Planning Division staff are occasionally good and often not. They’ll change positions, bluff about what is necessary and possible. Our experience with them, as you will learn if you read this blog, was spotty. They were terrible about doing the basic planning, like preparing Secondary Plans. But on the other hand, they were excellent in helping with special projects like the complex negotiations for Section 37 benefits. See TMAC. They have one worthy excuse—they are understaffed. But it’s not good enough!
  • Within City Hall the relative power of the Councillor, the Planning Staff, the Legal Division, the developers and citizen groups is constantly changing. You might think there are rules. People will tell you there are rules. But really, it’s a knife fight in the jungle, in a fog, in a guerrilla war, in the middle of the night. Bright side? That means there is an opportunity to negotiate. The more time you put in at City Hall the better you will do. See City Hall Maze. And to the extent the enemies of the OMB succeed in abolishing it as a court of last resort, it will get even more intense at City Hall.
  • A good Councillor with some knowledge of planning politics is worth a lot. They can open the door to the back room. Let them know you expect it.
  • The best strategy to protect your neighbourhood is to push the Planning Division to prepare, and Council to adopt, a proper Secondary Plan for your neighbourhood in advance of the developers’ proposals. See Secondary Plans. This is very hard. Who wants to work on all these details when there is no immediate crisis? And when you’re in the crisis and at the OMB then push the Councillor to push the planners and the Legal Division. You think planning is bad? Wait till you meet the lawyers! They have a mind of their own. Terrible people. Trust me. I’ve known a few.
  • As the planning regime evolves and the scope for community participation shrinks—this is the trend—it is not enough to go to the official planning meetings about building design and massing: see Process, Process, Process. Community activists need to broaden our horizons and see the important issues related to taxation and provincial policies on mandatory intensification. These are covered in Provincial Policies and Inclusionary Zoning. And in The Future is Different, I talk about these new challenges.

Effort

And you want to know the answer to the question was it worth the effort? Hundreds of hours of meetings? Where did all the effort get A18?

Well, it got us fifteen plus (depending how you count) condo buildings with one to five more (again depending how you count) on the way to the OMB. It got us a huge population influx, upgraded shopping, a pretty good new park, an excellent theatre, a video arts centre (yet to open), a tower of “affordable housing”, a “new street”, as well as retrofits of two boutique hotels and of the Great Hall. It got us overcrowded streetcars. It got us an “industrial incubator” (yet to get built). It got us an overcrowded, badly laid out nest of condos and a barren mews running east-west. It got us a whack of Artscape units for artists. It got us a private art gallery. That ain’t nothing although it certainly isn’t great. (The details of all this are spread through the blog.)

Comparison? Liberty Village. There is another large development on abandoned industrial land developed without a community voice. The main open space smack dab in the middle—the civic square, if you will—is a parking lot.

So there’s one Conclusion—but for our efforts, it could have been a lot worse!

But that conclusion is relative to our time and place, to the peculiar opportunity of the WQW Triangle. The question is…will a lot of effort get you anywhere as the world turns?

Negative thought: there are so many ways in which “they”, the official world, seek to shut the door on community input. It is depressing. Read District Planning, Provincial Policies, Inclusionary Zoning, the manipulations in City Hall Maze, the fraud of the Official Plan: the windows are closing.

A positive thought. Several major developments in the downtown area, such as the ones at Bathurst and Bloor, and Bloor and Dufferin, have enjoyed, or suffered, major public input and have been improved because of it. Why? Because the people spoke up, whatever the procedural obstacles. And the Councillors listened. It’s politics! I might have said the people made “demands” in the public interest. But “demanding” is so un-Canadian. So we’ll call it SPEAKING UP!