The following is my account of what happened at 1717 Avenue Road, the former blockbuster / LCBO plaza, which is fast becoming the 7 story RioCan Residences on Avenue Road. I was part of the working group set up by Councillor Karen Stintz, whose purpose it was to negotiate with the representatives from RioCan and resident’s in the area, along with City planners in order to meet the needs of all three parties.
That process failed miserably and there is a 7-story reminder on Avenue Road and precedent set for future developments on that affluent strip of road.
It is not my intention to single anyone out, but rather just want to set the record straight once and for all as to what happened in this working group. I have been asked MANY times over by residents as to what really happened, and when I tell them I was involved they seem surprised. I tell them what I witnessed and experienced and they are all shocked. My friend suggested I post it so anyone interested will be able to read what I went through. Granted this was a few years ago, so some of my details might be off, but the gist of the story, I will never forget.
So let’s go back to the beginning.
There is a large parcel of land in mid-town Toronto, on Avenue Road specifically which is a middle-to-upper-middle class area of the city. This parcel of land is owned by RioCan and housed a LCBO (liquor store), a Blockbuster video location, a juice bar and a Mr. Sub location. This area is predominently residential, with 2 story commercial buildings lining the street. The tallest building on Avenue Road from Wilson (the 401) to Lawrence is mainly 2 stories – taking out the Bedford Glen development at the corner of Avenue Road and Sylvan Valleyway which is 6 stories but 2-3 of those stories are underground.
On this lot, RioCan put in a proposal to the City to erect a 7 story mixed residential / commercial complex in place of the LCBO / Blockbuster / Booster Juice and ample free parking.
Knowing and understanding that resident’s in the area would be against this development, due to its enormity and increased traffic flow on their streets, the City Councillor, Karen Stintz, quickly moved to set up a working group to discuss the proposal. This working group included some close neighbours, the three local residents’ groups and some concerned citizens. As president of the residents group in the area I was included.
The working group spent the better part of the next 6 months meeting with the Councillor and her staff, the Planner for RioCan (who was former Mayor Mel Lastman’s head urban planner for 13 years), the city planner and the rest of the group, learning about density, the lie of the building, shading, commercial vs residential property and the whole planning process in the city, including the role of the Ontario municipal Board (OMB) who would ultimately and unfortunately have the final say on this matter.
During this process, we had traffic studies done, created a plan for Avenue Road, met with the public to discuss options and had town hall sessions to go over options. The Councillor kept the public up to date on the proceedings, including posting minutes of the meetings on her web-site (probably still there).
We all knew deep down inside, and quite possibly discussed the fact that something was going to get built on this site by RioCan. It was their right. The only decision they had to make was whether they were going to comply with zoning and build a smaller, less dense complex, or if they were going to ask for amendments to the official plan from the City, knowing they might get rejected and have to apply to the OMB where they could go as ask for the moon. It was just a matter of doing what was right for the community. This development on Avenue Road was the first large-scale development in decades and would set the precedent for any further development. Considering is was determined by the city that there were 7 other potential sites identified which could house this kind of development, we had quite the responsibility in front of ourselves.
Towards the end of the process, RioCan came to the table with 3 models they had built which would fit the site. One was a 2-story model which would have used up some of the residential land at the back of the complex, one was a 4-story, tiered-back model which used up only the mixed commercial / residential land available and RioCan would build a house on the residential piece which would be joined to the complex and the last one was a 6-story, tiered back model at the 4th floor, of which the 6th story was only one unit. Missing from this selection was the original 7 story-model they first showed us, which we all felt was way too big for this part of the City.
By this point in the negotiation, it was clearly obvious to the Councillor and most of the group that there were some residents, 2 or 3 of them if I recall correctly, who lived on the other side of Avenue Road who were nit-picking every aspect of each model. They argued about shading, they disputed traffic surveys, they questioned density. They seemed to be less interested in negotiating a solution and hell-bent on quashing this development.
I recall having a conversation with one of the 3 residents, the apparent leader, when I thought they were going to jeopardize these negotiations about the OMB. He shared with me their intentions and told me that they had been meeting secretly, behind the back of the RioCan rep and the Councillor. He said their goal was to squash this development before it starts. He said they were lawyers and had connections to other lawyers and for the right price all the citizens could give a nominal amount, like $10.00 each and we could fight RioCan all the way to the OMB. He added that one of their group had relatives who used to build shopping malls and as a result that made him feel that he understood the development process in the City. So they had decided to decline all RioCan’s options and instead force them to go to the OMB, and fight them there.
I remember as if it were yesterday taking him outside on the patio of the facility we were in and asking him if he had ever been involved in negotiations like these before or if he had any idea about the power the OMB possesses. He told me that he knew they would be successful fighting RioCan at the OMB.
I reminded him that I was sitting in with other resident’s groups at different times as they fought the Minto Towers at Yonge and Eglinton (2-approx 50 story towers), the Rosewell Gardens complex at Avenue Road and Lawrence and the Crystal Palace at Yonge and Eglinton. I had been involved in residents’ groups for a good 4 years, at that time, and had recently joined a group called FONTRA, the Federation of North Toronto Residents’ Associations. Two of those three developments went to the OMB and the residents lost big-time in each case.
He did not care. He acted like he knew better…
I explained to him that the OMB operates erratically and usually to the favour of the builder. The OMB has been known to take conflicts where the City wants to development capped at 4 stories and the builder wants permission for 10 stories for the OMB to approve 12 stories. I reminded him that we cannot stop RioCan from building, that they can build on this parcel of land according to the official plan and he said that they should do just that. I reminded him that they can apply for an amendment to the official plan – well within their right – and still build what they want.
I told him this was a mistake and they should not challenge RioCan but rather agree with the models or leave the group before more harm is caused. I referred him back to some rather odd suggestions and comments that he made earlier in the process to the RioCan planner. He wanted RioCan to build all 40 condo units without parking spots. Then he tried to argue that RioCan should not building a condo of that size on Avenue Road because of the “undesirables” that this project would bring to our middle class / upper middle class area.
We’re talking about condos starting at $800,000 and topping out at $2 million dollars each.
Undesirables? Yup. We don’t want any rich folks in this area… They might buy stuff in the stores on the strip…
The end came for this working group when we were all looking over the models RioCan had developed, when this breakaway group comes forward at tells all of us that they are rejecting all the models. They tell the group that they have been meeting on their own and will not be attending any other meetings with the group, and at that point they tell the RioCan representative that they will be presenting a case to the OMB.
Obviously disappointed and feeling quite frustrated, RioCan’s urban planner asks the Councillor and myself if we knew about this plan – which we did not – and he then pulls out of his bag 7-story model – what they had sought originally, and tells this renegade group that RioCan will be asking for – well within their rights – an 8 story building so that they guarantee they get the 7-story model they wanted.
To make a long story short…
This renegade group of concerned neighbours went to the OMB and lost.
Presently, RioCan is nearing completion of a seven story mixed commercial / residential complex which towers over its nearest neighbour. Probably the most disturbing part of this process, for me, is the precedent this large-scale development sets for the strip. As a result of the actions of a few, developers are licking their chops when looking at Avenue Road to build. I know, because I have spoken to a few of them.
So today the largest building on the strip is 7-storeys, tomorrow it could be 9, next week 11… You just never know when the OMB is involved, and when residents are fighting against each other instead of mobilizing towards a common goal.
I know that Councillor Stintz would not single out these few folks when discussing this development and she took a lot of heat from residents for allowing this to happen. It wasn’t her fault in the least. If you could have seen the look on her face when this went down, you would know she was shocked, disappointed and angry, as were the rest of us.
I always felt odd, having been on this working group, and knowing what I saw, heard and was a part of. Hearing second and third hand stories from, neighbours and people sitting at the Starbucks right across the street from the complex, knowing it is all speculation was getting to me.
I will always look at the size of that development and recall how much it appeared to me that RioCan wanted to work with the community in light of the fact that they could have just applied to the committee of adjustment for a 20 story building, took it to the OMB and received permission for a 7, 8 or 9 story building… But they didn’t. They engaged the community and were treated like crap.
I was embarrassed.
Now the truth is out there.
But I don’t feel any better…