Marvelling At The Committee Of Adjustment

June 1, 2012

For City Hall watchers, it’s easy to get caught up in the big show. Our larger than life mayor (no, put down your complaint pens, people, that wasn’t a reference to Mayor Ford’s weight), the ideological schism at council and this kind of stuff. It practically writes itself.

So it’s understandable if indefensible that small but vital matters go largely unnoticed. Like, for example, the regular doings at the Committee of Adjustment meetings. Until this week, I’d never attended one and only did so because a development application in my neck of the woods. You might’ve heard about it? A proposed RioCan retail proposal incorporating the Kromer electronics store on Bathurst between College and Dundas streets.

As these things go, this one was a biggie with much community opposition to the 8 ‘minor’ variances RioCan was requesting. But many of the other 14 items before the committee in the same block where unopposed applicants wanting to build a deck or extend basement foundations. Routine matters to everyone but those involved. Yet, the very building blocks of how our city grows and evolves.

The Committee of Adjustment is made up of civilian members, and Toronto has 4 panels, representing 4 areas of the city, Etobicoke-York, North York, Toronto-East York and Scarborough. Members sit for 4 year terms and bring varying degrees of expertise to the job: a working knowledge of law, planning, architecture, government, economic development, community development, land development or citizen advocacy. In other words, a background in engaged citizenry.

A couple things struck me as I watched the proceedings on Wednesday. One was the civility in the room despite a dynamic that could pit neighbour against neighbour or corporate black heartedness against residential entitlement. There was none of the barking and sniping that occurs at council or other committee meeting. Before taking contested applications to the committee, interested parties were requested to conduct a meeting outside the room to see if their issues could be resolved. How often this works, I don’t know. The RioCan representative pointed out to committee members that none of the opponents to their plan chose to talk with them beforehand. Still, there was the sense the committee desired an amicable resolution before they were forced to arbitrate on applications.

The other interesting observation for me was just how thoroughly prepared all committee members were on every application. Those who presented items and spoke against them were frequently but gently nudged along by the committee chair, Gillian Burton, assured that the committee was well versed with the particular application and were looking for any new information. Questions from the committee were informed and concise. It didn’t strike me as some trial by fire or inquisition. Of course, I was simply observing from the audience not up pleading my case.

As for the RioCan application?

First, let me say that I wasn’t simply observing that one. I have a vested interested since I live not too far from their proposed development and took part in one of the residents’ meetings that talked strategy in opposing it. While not impacted directly by the plan, I was concerned greatly about the traffic impact of it on the surrounding neighbourhoods. What?! More cars!?! Well, that just won’t do…

The opposition was fantastically organized with just 4 people taking 5 minutes each to explain their positions but covering concerns from the Kensington Market Business Improvement and a couple of resident associations’ perspectives as well as one who questioned the very legitimacy of the development in terms of the city’s own Official Plan. Was it really adhering to the Avenues idea of proper planning? All retail including a massive box store that took little of its surroundings into consideration.

That seemed to be the Committee of Adjustment take on the matter as well. Beginning with member John Tassiopoulos’s questioning of why this application had even come before them. These weren’t ‘minor’ variances RioCan requested, he suggested, wondering if it wasn’t more a matter for zoning to deal with. The consensus was that the variances amounted to a cumulative overdevelopment of the site and the committee rejected the application outright. So adamant was the decision that committee members searched for strong enough language in their motion to bolster their judgment in case of an appeal to the OMB.

Oh yes, the OMB.

But before I go down that road, I want to express my amazement at just how transparent the Committee of Adjustment process is. They actually have to discuss their decisions in public. No hearing an application and any opponents to it and then retreating to privately arrive at a verdict. It’s right there in front of everyone in the room. Undoubtedly, each member must have inclinations going in based on the written proposals but they still have to air out their views publicly and, at times I’m sure, in the face of those who may ultimately be plenty displeased by the outcome.

If only it all ended so openly.

Looming largely over any Committee of Adjustment decision, of course, is the Ontario Municipal Board. Where the democratic process ends and money and attrition begins. That’s for another post and written by somebody much more well versed in the matter than I am. I will only say that I am concerned that our budget chief is submitting a notice of motion to council next week to study the benefits of ‘sending the City Solicitor to the Ontario Municipal Board on appeals of Committee of Adjustment decisions.’ Nothing wrong with wanting to ensure a bang for our buck but coming from where it does, I worry about nickel and diming the city’s ability to defend itself and its residents in what oftentimes turns out to be a costly process. If we signal our unwillingness to go to the mat purely for monetary reasons, why wouldn’t every applicant with deep pockets automatically appeal to the OMB?

That’s for another day, however.

For now we simply take pleasure in the fact that sometimes it’s not about successfully fighting City Hall but working with it in trying to develop Toronto in a fair and judicious manner.

happily submitted by Cityslikr

Coming Soon To A Neighbourhood Near You

April 18, 2012

It’s funny what escapes your notice when you’re looking at the bigger picture. With casinos, transit battles, a general mayoral malaise keeping my mind focussed on city wide issues, I completely missed this for months, right in my back yard. Well, OK. Not right in my backyard. My front yard, actually, and then across the street and into the nearby alley.

RioCan has descended on the west side of Bathurst Street, almost smack dab in the middle of the block between College and Dundas Streets. Nearly 100 metres of storefront, according to the National Post last October (Last October?! Where the hell was I?) and 13, 000 square metres and 3 tall stories of retail-ly goodness. Hanging over right there in my neighbours’ backyards.

Hoo-rah! My first development battle as a homeowner. You will build there over my cold, dead body!

Now, I don’t think anyone would deny that this particular strip could use some sort of facelift. It is a drab run of real estate, shabbily occupying space south of a beer store and incorporating some industrial looking buildings (including Kromer Radio, a local institution that’s been in its current location since 1974) and ending with a parking lot. Largely uninspiring, long in the tooth, somewhat decrepit even, yeah sure, let’s do something with it, gussy things up a little.

But seriously? A generic box store thingie? Really? That’s the best anyone could come up with? As the plan stands right now, RioCan has tossed a bone to local residents and businesses, giving the ground floor to small retail outlets – A Little Kensington Market Just Steps From The Heart Of Kensington Market! – while keeping the upper two floors for the type of franchise they usually favour. Loblaws? Walmart? Target?

Yes, there are probably areas of the city, neighbourhoods where such kind of stores would fit in even less. But not many. If it goes grocery, why? Kensington Market is 5 minutes away. There’s a Metro supermarket about a twenty minute walk west along College Street. For that matter, RioCan’s new development featuring a massive Loblaws is 15 minutes to the south-east by foot at Queen and Portland.

As for some sort of department store? Again, Queen Street West is a hop, skip and a jump away. If you can’t find what you need there, get on the Queen streetcar and arrive at the Eaton’s Centre in fifteen minutes or so.

This kind of development in this area of the city seems so unnecessary, redundant and not just a little intrusive.

The back of the building, ranging in proposed height anywhere from 21 to 24 metres will loom over an alley and, I imagine, similar to its front footing, nearly 100 metres or so of backyards. Aside from the usual issue of shadowing and blocking out of the morning light which the plans attempt to alleviate with the use of some setbacks, as it stands on paper right now, all the building’s mechanicals – heating, cooling etc. – impose themselves on the row of houses to the west, promising residents a motorized symphony of humming, belching and farting not just morning until evening but all through the night.

It also essentially cuts off the east-west pedestrian flow. Where you can now make your way through an alley off Markham Street through the parking lot on Nassau Street across Bathurst and into the middle of Kensington Market, those on foot or bike will have to head up either to almost College or down to Dundas in order to move make the trip. This isn’t simply about inconvenience. Essentially the building will act as a barrier between the eastern boundary of Little Portugal/Italy and the western edge of Kensington Market, serving as a division between the two neighbourhoods.

Now, I’m no Shawn Micallef but I’d say that’s just flat out bad planning. Shouldn’t the idea be to integrate development into its surrounding area? To fill in a missing piece of the puzzle in order to promote proper and sustainable neighbourhood growth? Instead, RioCan proposes to bulk down an edifice on its landing pad like a Death Star, sucking all life forms into itself.

And then there’s the vehicular traffic.

As anyone who’s ever travelled that portion of Bathurst Streets knows, whether by car, streetcar, bike or foot, it already can be a nightmare. Now RioCan wants to introduce some 300 or so underground parking spots into the mix at one entry point (for both customers and delivery trucks) at the south of the development. So picture this, a regular stream of northbound cars on Bathurst, further snarling up traffic, waiting to make a left turn into the parking lot. The southbound right lane bottles up traffic in that direction, waiting to make their way in.

Right now, cars exiting the street level parking lot on that spot are prohibited from turning left onto Bathurst or going straight onto Nassau. The proposal wants two lanes of exiting traffic, north and south but it’s not difficult to imagine drivers, seeing the mess on Bathurst will push straight forward into Kensington Market in an attempt to escape the madness. A radiating circle of traffic snarls in a location already burdened by them.

That the initial traffic impact study submitted was rejected by the city is telling. One of the reasons given, apparently, was that the study didn’t look at traffic patterns on Saturdays, a seemingly egregious oversight since, you know, we’re talking retail here. Saturdays are kind of their go-to time, aren’t they? It causes one to wonder if RioCan was trying to avoid a serious discussion about what could turn out to be a major, major sticking point.

“What I can tell is the result of broader retailers’ desire to locate in the core,” RioCan vice president Jordan Robins said last fall, “is that they had to adjust their prototypical format to suit an urban environment.” He talked of a ‘seismic shift in retail development’ in order to adapt what is typically a suburban approach to an urban setting. Yet there’s little evidence of any sort of shift in mindset with this particular development. It still caters to car dependency in an area surrounding on 3 sides by public transit. The proposed building imposes itself rather than blends in or compliments its surroundings. If one of the usual RioCan tenants sign on as the signature outlet, it’ll bring almost nothing new or original to the area.

Despite their bland assurances to the contrary, it seems like RioCan is attempting to adjust the urban environment to their prototypical format rather than the other way around. Hardly surprising then when they meet with the inevitable resistance from local residents and business. Being a bad neighbour will tend to elicit that response.

residently submitted by Cityslikr