Thursday, April 1, 2010

Power Politics at Play over Convent Redevelopment

My wife Allegra and I wrote a series of posts for that chronicled our involvment in a condo development on Richmond Road, behind our house.

The project ended up falling through, but the experience of working with the developer was largely positive. Though I believe that the City's height restrictions are too liberal (especially for the north side of a 'traditional mainstreet'), the developer was more or less happy to stay within City bylaws, with minor variances. He was also a nice guy and was listening to what people were saying: we didn't like parking at the back, so he put it all underground; we didn't want an access off a dead-end sidestreet, so he proposed moving it to Wellington.

Economic concerns doomed the project. Residents were relieved. But our ongoing experience with the redevelopment of the Soeurs de la Visitation Convent currently being proposed by Ashcroft Homes inspires a more sober perspective: what might happen behind us if this style of developer comes knocking.

Ashcroft's proposal for the Convent site doubles the permitted density and height prescribed in the City's Official Plan and Secondary Plan. It crowds and overbears the historic convent building. It cuts a private access road through the Byron Linear Park. It has no useful public space and it threatens to gridlock traffic on Richmond Road (the City's figures show that the proposal would push the neighbourhood to within a breath of its 2031 density targets).

The residents on surrounding streets that were invited to pre-consultations on the proposal see no trace of their input. The developer has filed with the Ontario Superior Court to quash a recommendation for heritage designation of the whole property that could strengthen the City's hand when reviewing the plan.

Unlike the experience we had in our backyard, this one's going to be a fight. A crowd of hundreds at a public meeting was inspired to repeated applause last week by a puckish local resident who revealed various 'inconvenient truths' about the proposal using creative 3-D renderings. This public meeting was Councillor Christine Leadman throwing down the gauntlet, challenging Ashcroft to meet City guidelines or fight. The lead architect, Roderick Lahey was there to pick it up and did so, announcing to the media that the consultation game was over and that final plans had been filed with the City.

This one is now all about power politics. The outcome will be determined not by back-and-forth with the community, but by the actions of the allies that line up on either side of this issue (Lahey: "We would have come to the community with the revised proposal, but we saw no point after we saw what was happening with the councillor (Christine Leadman)").

The community and Leadman stand together. Which side will City Planning Staff staff take? Will Parks and Recreation oppose the destruction of park land? Will the City's Bylaw Enforcement Branch play hardball or cave to Ashcroft and issue permits for the destruction of distinctive trees on the site? How will the Ontario Municipal Board, if called upon, view the reasonableness of the City's planning requirements and Ashcroft's alternative view? Or will Council support a heritage designation for the whole site that will leave Ashcroft unable to appeal to the OMB?

Both sides are now in full campaign mode, with the initial focus on an April 14 Council meeting where the heritage designation of the site will be decided.

Our first blog post on the development proposal in 'our backyard' offered a perspective that I think applies equally here. Except this time, things don't look so rosy.

We are ready to engage with the developer to address our interests and so far he has reciprocated. It occurs to me that this process will not so much be a test of our support for traditional mainstreets and urban intensification but rather a test of whether the City and developers are really committed to sensitive development that fits the surrounding community and neighbourhoods. We are urbanists with fair interests. If adjacent development won’t work for us, it won’t work for anybody.

The gathering storm over the Convent site looks less like it's going go be about traditional mainstreets and intensification and more about making money and fighting for community values and identity.

This post can also be seen at

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mystery structures on Wellington

These lovely snow fence frames have adorned Wellington between Holland and Western since the side walks were redone last year.

Anyone know what they are?

Here are a couple of guesses:
  • The concrete blocks will be the foundation for pieces of public art;
  • The orange contraptions themselves are the art!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Heritage Designation for Convent One Step Closer

The Planning and Environment Committee approved a recommendation today to designate the entire Soeurs de la Visitation site as a heritage property. This will be voted on by City Council on April 14.

The developer, Ashcroft Homes is all up in arms about it and is trying to quash the designation through the Ontario Superior Court. The funny thing is the main effect that the designation will have is it will make it harder for the developer to appeal City decisions about the site to the Ontario Municipal Board. Ashcroft's lawyer pointed this out with indignation today at the Committee hearing, referring to this 'veto' as a 'draconian measure.'

But this 'veto' would suit me just fine. It means that the developer would likely have to comply with the density, height, heritage protection rules and other planning guidelines that it was fully aware of when it bought the property. Ashcroft's proposed plans show that it would much rather double the density and the height, excavate most of the site for under ground parking, punch a hole through the Byron Linear Park, cut down trees protected by the City tree cutting bylaw and block the view of the Convent from Richmond.

I am quite keen to see the site developed in a way that is actually in accordance with the planning bylaws and Westboro's secondary plan. A heritage designation is a great tool to make that happen and is completely consistent with the history and values of the site.