5.16.2007

just what toronto needs: more condo towers

Now that the knot in my stomach is finally gone, I can blog about something other than myself.

I was very disappointed, but not at all surprised, to see that the City of Toronto is handing over one of the last undeveloped pieces of prime waterfront property to condo developers. Frankly, it would have been shocking if they had done otherwise.

Most of Toronto's lakefront is blocked by a wall of condo towers, growing ever denser and uglier every year. The City Council claims they are powerless to stop the project, a unusually frank admission that the real-estate developers actually control the city.

It takes a powerful and forward-thinking city government to bring about true public waterfront development. Toronto can find a model for such urban planning in the city of Chicago, where the lakefront has been preserved and developed for the use of the people, thanks to Mayor Richard M. Daley. On our last visit to Chicago, we were astounded by the lakefront's elegant, people-friendly design, and the numbers of Chicagoans out enjoying it. And this was before Millennium Park was built. Millennium Park is now said to be one of the world's great urban oases. (And its presence guarantees me another trip to Chicago!)

If Chicago is a shining example of how a city's great natural resource can be nurtured for the public, Toronto is a lesson in short-term gain for private use.

I saw this in a recent letter to Star. I haven't been able to verify it, so I'll use it here with a caveat: someone said this happened.
Several if not many years ago, a group of architects, developers, city planners and various other government officials from South Africa toured various waterfront cities around the world to explore the best and the worst. They wanted to see what worked and what didn't before they began the revitalization of what is now the spectacular city of Cape Town. We were in the "what-not-to-do" category, in case anyone had any doubt. If that is what they thought then, can you imagine their horror now? -- Linda Dowds, Toronto [excerpt]

I've read about plans to build parks and modest, middle-income housing on the lower Don River. There is also endless discussion about the waterfront to the east of downtown, with talk of parks, recreation, and natural beauty. Why do I doubt those plans will ever become reality?

I've been visiting and reading about this city only since 2003, and living in the GTA only since September, 2005, and I already know that this is a shell game. Somehow the plans for those lovely parks will morph into plans for tall glass towers, and the city government will say, "We had no choice."

17 comments:

James said...

I love the fact that so many people actually live in the core in Toronto, but the waterfront condo development has been horribly mismanaged.

There's not much point to burying the Gardiner to reunite the city with its lakeshore anymore.

The sad thing is how fast the ugly towers go up along the water, while much more interesting condos actually within downtown (Adelaide & Bay, University & Adelaide, etc) stall out for years at a time.

MrvnMouse said...

While I agree that using up all of the lakefront property for private condo towers is sad. I am always pleased in Toronto to see how much residential exists right in the downtown core. This type of growth makes it a lot easier for people to live near where they work and walk/bike to work every day as opposed to living in suburban regions and driving the 401 (or 403) to work every day.

It's sort of a difficult situation. Tall condo buildings need a good view otherwise the units never sell, however that implies they also end up taking up property immediately next to large parks and lakefronts as those are properties guaranteed to have the best views for the longest time.

Perhaps Toronto's municipal government should start considering building large parks like the river valley in Edmonton or Central Park in New York City to accomodate more condos and still provide some nice public land for people to enjoy.

L-girl said...

I agree that it's good that people live and work in the downtown core. No doubt about it.

However, there are many other ways to manage that without blocking the waterfront with glass towers. A more useable and beautiful waterfront encourages people to live nearby, not discourages it.

A Central Park-type park is not feasible in most cities anymore. That land was put aside (over the fierce objections of nearly everyone) in the 19th Century. Such tracts of urban land don't exist anymore.

Tall condo buildings need a good view otherwise the units never sell

This is the accepted wisdom, however, most people only have views of the Gardner or other condos. And from what I understand, there's a huge vacancy and turnover rate. That indicates something is not working.

loneprimate said...

Wow, weird, deja vu... I only put this up the other day, but the parallels are eerie...

http://www.flickr.com/photos/loneprimate/499060696/in/set-72157600216918400/

loneprimate said...

What ought to have happened some time ago would be for a city council with guts and foresight to have banned the construction of building above a certain height south of the Gardiner. It's too late now. I've seen pictures of the skyline from 1960 or so taken from the lake that, in spite of being rather humbler, are more pleasing to the eye than what you see now. It's as though the lake and harbour are now the private preserve a few thousand people. I have little sympathy or regard for the hothouse flowers living downtown or their ignorant notions of entitlement.

L-girl said...

It's as though the lake and harbour are now the private preserve a few thousand people.

My feelings exactly.

LP, I was thinking of you as I wrote this, as I know you have compared Toronto to Chicago. (I originally had that in the post.)

L-girl said...

And I wrote that last comment *before* I went to look at your Flickr post!

"Sinn Fein" :)

Scott M. said...

If we are to lay blame where it is deserved, it is not the city's fault, it is the province. As I've mentioned before, the Ontario Municipal Board always, as in 100% of the time, sides with the developer and forces the city to permit development.

The city has no legal choice.

K said...

My dad is on the board of the Toronto Waterfront Redevelopment corporation, and is just as frustrated as any of us about the wall of condos along the downtown waterfront, but I can assure you that that was because of the shortsightedness of 10 to 20 years ago. The redeveloped Don lands projects will not morph into another wall of condo towers, it does take a while to lay the foundations for flood protections etc, but the winning projects have strict conditions imposed on them, and there is already money guaranteed for those projects. There is a new era of waterfront rejuvenation for sure. It takes a while to do the environmental and flood preparations, but the progress will be there. Take a look at how the boardwalk along harbourfront has been improved for pedestrian use from barely a sidewalk to a full 25 meter landscaped boardwalk for a taste of the type of projects they are doing. It's part of the reason that I want to live in Toronto, that they are doing this rejuvenation work.

L-girl said...

K, if you're right, I'll be thrilled to see it.

Scott, I thought of your warnings about that a while back. So there is no "home rule" (or similar proviso) for larger municipalities in Ontario? How, then, does Toronto levy its own taxes, for example?

New York City has home rule within New York State, and largely makes its own decisions. Nothing like that exists here? A stronger City Council couldn't affect this?

Anyone?

James said...

Scott, I thought of your warnings about that a while back. So there is no "home rule" (or similar proviso) for larger municipalities in Ontario? How, then, does Toronto levy its own taxes, for example?

I don't know the details, but IIRC, some of it is administered by the province, which complicates matters.

Scott M. said...

Scott, I thought of your warnings about that a while back. So there is no "home rule" (or similar proviso) for larger municipalities in Ontario? How, then, does Toronto levy its own taxes, for example?

In Ontario and other provinces, cities are simply handy creations of the Province so that they don't have to deal with local issues. As such, the Provinces have generally held cities in low regard, and the OMB is just an example of that. The OMB was put in place so that a rogue town council made up of crazy hicks didn't start doing crazy things. Unfortunately, now it's just a clearing board for anything development (due to it's mandate).

In the case of Toronto, the City of Toronto Act 2006 gave expanded taxation powers to the city and rejigged council a bit (not enough in my mind) to give the mayor more power and to have a speaker and more decorum.

Unfortunately the City of Toronto act still allows appeals to the OMB on all development matters, and the OMB still has the same "all development is good, all cities are bad" perspective. And to make matters worse, there is no available appeal to an OMB decision -- all decisions are final.

It's a sufficiently complex and boring system that it doesn't make for compelling reading or listening, so the media doesn't cover it. Instead, the media blames the city, or just ignores the problems.

Most voters think that their council is effective and that all development goes through the official plan and that any transgressions are the fault of the city. Sadly that's not true.

Scott M. said...

I should be fair and mention that the City has a right to set up an appeals board with the same powers as the OMB, but there are many loopholes where the developer or city can go to the OMB directly. I don't know if they've set up the appeals board yet.

loneprimate said...

"Sinn Fein" :)

Heh... I wondered if anyone would catch that. :D

loneprimate said...

And to make matters worse, there is no available appeal to an OMB decision -- all decisions are final.

That would come as a news to all the proponents of the Spadina Expressway, which the OMB mandated and cabinet overruled.

L-girl said...

It's a sufficiently complex and boring system that it doesn't make for compelling reading or listening, so the media doesn't cover it. Instead, the media blames the city, or just ignores the problems.

Most voters think that their council is effective and that all development goes through the official plan and that any transgressions are the fault of the city. Sadly that's not true.


Hmm. I understand media not thinking these logistics make compelling reading. But to act as if the city has powers it does not would be strange reporting indeed.

It's not that I doubt your reading, Scott. I have no doubt that some body of adjudication always sides with developers. I know how that goes. But the province vs municipality issue doesn't square with other things I read. Of course, I could be reading it wrong. But it seems strange. I will keep reading... :)

Scott M. said...

That would come as a news to all the proponents of the Spadina Expressway, which the OMB mandated and cabinet overruled.

Ah yes, but that wasn't a case where the law was written that way. The law specifically says that there's no appeal.

Of course if you can get the minister to whisper in someone's ear, you can have pretty much anything. He can change the regulations in a flash.

But no, it's not an official appeals process.