Looking past Lick’s to a new era of community input

It’s been a long and difficult haul, but on May 15, the Toronto East York Community Council voted unanimously in favour of approving the development application at 1960-62 Queen East. Community residents were on hand at city hall to share their frustration with the planning and consultation process, a frustration all members of the Community Council share, and one which I hope to address with the upcoming Visioning Study.

The plan is to start on the afternoon of June 16 (pending confirmation with our facilitation team). The whole community will be invited to provide input at several workshops about what makes the Beach distinct, and also about what kind of development and design people can live with. If you are unable to attend the first session, there will be more public meetings and a survey. During the summer months, we will also be engaging with local community and service groups in smaller sessions. There will be ample opportunity to share your creative ideas before we have it wrapped up and ratified by City Council before year end.

At the same May 15 Community Council session we also passed a motion that asks the Planning Department to pause all future rezoning applications on Queen until our Visioning Study is completed. This is the next best thing to an Interim Control Bylaw and acknowledges the need to take some time to breathe and think through the shape of future Queen Street East development and intensification.

Looking from the outside, it seems almost impossible that a six storey condo development could provoke this kind of interest and outpouring. But as you know, Beachers are passionate about our community.

For most, the charm of this neighbourhood is the small town feel, its front porch culture, and a tree-lined walk down to the lake. And so it’s hard for us to give up on this special character and welcome new buildings that seem more ‘downtown’ than the Beach.

But we also understand that we live in a city and development is coming. 145 condo buildings are going up across the city right now. 100,000 people are arriving here each year, and we’ve all got to live somewhere, preferably not in prime farmland. And it turns out, many of the buyers of these condos already live in the Beach – they just want to downsize and age in place, to live near the neighbours and networks they’ve nurtured over decades. So there’s a lot of good reasons to add housing in the Beach. The problem is how to do it properly. And that’s where it gets tricky.

First, I want to set a few things straight. The building proposed at 1960 Queen East cannot be stopped. There is simply no planning tool available to us to prevent the developers from building a six storey condo. The precedent has already been set and the mid-rise guidelines are firmly in place on Queen St East. The Official Plan prevails and the guidelines are there to protect Queen Street from further height and density, not inflict it.

As the local Councillor, voting ‘no’ on this application was not an option without risking an expensive and dubious legal battle with the OMB. I simply refused to roll the dice on this neighbourhood and risk getting an even bigger building.

So this is the best we can do, and relative to the rest of the city, this is not a bad building. Not all six storey buildings are created equal, and this one has a green roof, a living wall, privacy planter boxes at the rear, it exceeds the parking requirements and splits the retail space at grade. The developers have agreed to design changes requested by the community, including adding more brick at the base and most importantly, a step-back at the third storey.

It should be remembered that developers are partners and stakeholders in city building. They contribute millions each year to the vibrancy of our parks, social housing, public spaces and amenities. They provide housing, retail and employment spaces essential for the continued vitality of the city. Reserve Investments is no exception.

But none of this takes away from the fact that change is not easy for any community. Planning and intensification is fraught, it’s emotional, it’s technical, it’s legal, it’s big money and high stakes. A lot of confusion and anxiety stems from the language of planning which is incredibly confusing. Moreover it takes a lot of time to pore over the drawings, follow the consultation process, and craft emails and deputations. People have a hard time trusting the current planning process for good reason. The city needs to come up with a better way to listen to constituents, because the community must be heard.

I commend the people of the Beach for engaging with this process rigorously, and it’s because of the insights and pressure they’ve applied, that we have a better building today. It’s not the building some people want, but it is a building that most of us can live with.

I’d also like to thank the planning department for being responsive and available to residents with their questions and comments. Answers were given, even if the answers weren’t always the ones that people wanted.

What I’ve learned through all this is that the planning process is bewildering for everyone. Our planners and lawyers can no longer be subverted by the OMB. We need planning tools that fit the job – tools that allow for intensification and growth, but that fit the character of the neighbourhood. And most importantly, our communities should not be asked to become planning experts to defend the heritage and scale of their neighbourhood.

My hope is that everyone will now put their energy towards the Queen East Visioning Study. I want all stakeholders to be involved, to get on the same page, and once and for all, create design guidelines that we can all agree on. I am calling it ‘the Beach Bible’. Hopefully this means we’ll be able to spend more of our free time enjoying the amazing city and neighbourhood we live in. See you on June 16.

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Let’s be honest, Toronto City Council has blown our finances. We are now more than $4.5 BILLION DOLLARS in debt. Our third largest operating expense as a City is the cost of financing this debt behind only police services and TTC. Currently the only way to maintain our profligate spending is to sell our City to condo developers for short term cash. As a result, Toronto is under the heel of a massive “condo-rush” in which 20% to 30% of the purchasers are foreign speculators. For Ms. McMahon to present this massive bubble as a simple byproduct of responsible growth is ridiculous.

The last stat I saw indicated that upon completion of approved or under-development condos Toronto will have ten years of surplus condo units vs our current rate of immigration. According to Bloomberg News, we have almost three times more condos coming to market than NEW YORK CITY. Toronto is not all of a sudden experiencing a huge wave of immigration and a booming economy. City Council is simply selling out our neighbourhoods for some quick condo-rush cash.

The alternative is to cut our spending and bring our operating costs inline with market realities. Yes, sadly, this means that we will no longer be able to compensate a 30 year old L1 police constable more generously than that of a family medical doctor.

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