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Category Archives: Planning & Development

Drawing the line on cultural development in Toronto

As city bends rules to accommodate growth, arts groups have been able to benefit.

Murray Whyte – Toronto Star

In the frenzied world of Toronto property development, there’s only one place left to go: up.

City planning has put a premium on increased density for years and its not hard to see why. With freeways like the Gardiner Expressway clogged like the arteries of a particularly devoted poutine enthusiast, sprawl is the last thing we can continue to accommodate.

So when the Daniels Corporation announced its plan last week to build 900 condos in two towers on the gravesite of the Guvernment nightclub on Queens Quay, no one could be surprised. As eager as the city’s been to increase density in the core, its been nearly as eager to breathe life into the windswept no-mans-land of Toronto’s waterfront.

Not to be lost in this bundle of checklist priorities, though, is the projects name: City of the Arts. When it comes to urban revitalization, Toronto has bought fully into the zeitgeisty notion that culture, however you choose to describe it, is the tide that lifts all boats.

Comment: Yes. At least adding to the condo construction. In any way that incorporates the larger city into any new development. These buildings need not be warehouses for renters, we can make them part of the actual fabric of the city.

Daniels rolled out an impressive package that not only ticks every box but ties them up with a shiny bow. Artscape, decorated with the many laurels of its various urban reclamation projects, will move its headquarters in, bumping elbows in the projects “Creative Industries Hub” with groups like Manifesto, a well-known non-profit that runs a hip-hop festival, and the Remix Project, which offers marginalized youth an education and entrée to the economic nirvana of the “creative industries.” And up above, in 900-plus condominium suites, residents eager to soak up the culture by osmosis.

City of the Arts isn’t the result of the city’s many development tools to force altruism from builders looking to profit from things like increased building heights. But you could fairly say, philosophically, that it is their product.

TIFF Bell Lightbox
Daniels has been down this road before. In 2010, the company built the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the gargantuan Festival Tower above it. When it applied for a height that exceeded the official plan by more than quadruple, it ran into Section 37.

In exchange for building a state-of-the-art home for the Toronto International Film Festival, the city backed off its height restriction of 30 metres, allowing the Festival Tower to climb to more than 143 metres, or nearly five times what the bylaw allowed. (Initially, Daniels had asked for even more.)

But the developer saw quickly that its mandated gesture to local culture was hardly a concession. Instead, it was worth its weight in marketing gold, as buyers eagerly snapped up units in a building that serves as ground zero for global celebrity culture every September.

Comment: And that is how you make a condo development part of the city.

This is how Section 37 works: a developer wants to build something bigger than the city’s official plan allows. The planning department says maybe, but what do we get in return? Through a negotiation involving the builder, planners, the local councillor and, ideally, local residents, an agreement emerges. In exchange for a fatter profit envelope, Section 37 can produce anything from public art to bike racks, daycare centres, playgrounds or parks.

But in the city’s fervour for cultural amenities, opportunities have emerged for bigger gains. In the West Queen West triangle, a development-frenzied zone jump-started by the opening of the Drake Hotel in 2004, an initial panic produced an ongoing neighbourhood preservation strategy.

The stretch of Queen West between Ossington and Dufferin has been the front line of Toronto’s gentrification war for at least a decade. In 2004, tensions ramped up quickly between developers and the hundreds of artist types living in the buildings they hoped to knock down and replace.

48 Abell Street Lofts
One of the first, the Triangle Lofts on Abell Street south of Queen, initially embodied the community’s worst fears. At an early meeting on the Section 37 benefit they might receive, recalls Michelle Gay, “I think they offered to repave some roads for us. We said we didn’t think so.”

Comment: Why they couldn’t have renovated and saved the old loft building I will never know.

Gay is one of several residents who ganged together amid the tumult to form Active 18, a residents group that took its seat at the table through the city’s community consultation process.

Negotiating through local councillor Ana Bailao, the group successfully transformed new blacktop into something more significant: the Triangle Lofts development was built with 70 permanent artist live-work spaces and a gallery now occupied by an art collective called Propeller.

Those 70 units were generated with the help of Artscape, which was then a smaller operator on the development landscape. It has since blossomed into a major force in the city’s redevelopment, and its emergence parallels the growth of an ethic that’s taken hold in both the public and private sector: that culture sells.

“The private sector is increasingly seeing how artists can be catalysts for change, growth and development,” says Tim Jones, Artscapes CEO. “That’s why so many developers are interested in working with us: we can help them build that narrative.”

For Active 18, Section 37 was less an opportunity for branding than it was about preserving what made the neighbourhood attractive in the first place.

“What we were fighting for were real community benefits,” Gay says. “Our thinking was simple: instead of another sculpture than nobody looks at more than once, lets build permanent infrastructure that keeps artists in the neighbourhood.”

Since then, Active 18 has been at the table for almost every Section 37 conversation — in their tiny pocket of the city, more than 20 in the past decade — which has played a part in such landmark projects as the re-purposing of the decrepit Carnegie Library on Queen Street as a state-of-the-art new home for the Theatre Centre.

Theatre Centre Queen Street West
But its the Toronto Media Arts Cluster that waves the Section 37 flag most vigorously here. Sometime this summer, with any luck (its still under construction) a consortium of venerable Toronto arts organizations like the Images Festival and InterAccess will move into a purpose-built facility in the base of a new condo tower just off Queen Street.

It will have offices, exhibition space, a theatre and — most importantly — the guarantee they won’t be gone if the rent goes up. Because thanks to Section 37, it won’t.

“That was our vision for the community: a permanent hub that was active and really added something,” Gay said. “There’s always pressure, pressure, pressure — public space is diminishing, affordable space for artists is diminishing. This is one way we were able to get something done.”

Comment: See, include people, create space to be used by the public. And make sure it isn’t pushed out and replaced by Starbucks in a few years. We can do this. We need to do this. More of this.

Even so, Section 37 is far from a panacea. Its critics over the years are many: planners who say it forces them into zoning concessions; developers who decry it as a shakedown and now Mayor John Tory, who ordered a full review of it in January.

In 2012, the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs published a report critical of its fast and loose approach. “That’s the problem: its always been far too vague,” says Aaron Moore, the reports author. Among other problems, lack of transparency was found to be a problem, he said, with the eventual benefit typically being negotiated mano à mano between the developer and the area councillor.

Its lack of specificity — “community benefit” can be almost anything, depending on your point of view — undermined its use as a credible tool to keep development in check.

Section 37 is voluntary, he said, not required by law. Non-compliance wont kill a project, but it could delay it so it effectively becomes pay-to-play. “If a developer balks at affordable housing (as a Section 37 provision), for example, there’s not a lot the city can do,” he says.

Comment: Make it public and let the people shame them into doing something for the good of the city.

He also warned of the bulldozer effect of the “creative cities” rhetoric and its tendency to romanticize one groups poverty over another, which Section 37 may have unwittingly exacerbated. “Its relatively easy to sell condominiums in a building where the affordable housing is artist live-work studios,” he says. “Its not so easy if there’s a soup kitchen.”

But Section 37’s looseness has also allowed it to evolve. “In our case, there was going to be development one way or another,” Gay says. “Its not easy to get people organized, but if you can articulate what a benefit to your community really looks like, (Section 37) can bring you something really meaningful.”

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Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.
He did not write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who
are interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.

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