Book Review: How We Changed Toronto by John Sewell

John Sewell: How We Changed Toronto – The inside story of twelve creative, tumultuous years in civic life, 1969-1980. 

Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2015.  ISBN  978-1-4594-0940-8 (BOUND), 343 pages plus index.

Reviewed by Max Allen, September 2015

Like Rob Ford, John Sewell was once mayor of Toronto. The similarity ends there.

Or does it?  Both were one-term mayors who had been councillors first.  And they were both elected on far-reaching platforms, at a time when Toronto politics was front page news. 

I was a constant presence in the media, with a daily stream of stories about what I was doing and saying, but there was often an unpleasant edge to the coverage with an underlying implication that I was deliberately provocative.  [p.314]

One difference between Ford and Sewell is that the legacy of Sewell and his fellow reformers can still be seen today, in the physical city of Toronto.  Sewell got things done.  This book tells how.     

We began by attempting to undo the past. It was almost unheard of for City Council to even think of undoing past decisions, but we wanted to repeal the decisions which we thought were wrong.  We assumed that one function of government was to make change, and for us that meant changing bad decisions.  [p.91]

Sewell describes who that “we” involved.  It was not, as you might suppose, mostly professional politicians. The book starts with a seven-page Cast of Characters – sixty of them, each with a mini-biography – followed by 328 pages of drama. 

John Sewell says the years between 1968 and 1980 were “tumultuous.” That’s an understatement.  He illustrates the turmoil with one detailed story after another, over 400 by my count, plus 35 photos, drawings and diagrams, maps and a newspaper cartoon, and a very useful index. All in a book skillfully organized with the help of his editor, Doris Cowan.

Sewell spent most of his early life unaware of the city around him. Then, while he was an articling law student, he was taken by friends to some neighbourhood meetings about “urban renewal,” and it changed his life.

I learned two very powerful lessons.  First, City Hall thought the way to improve the city was to tear it down and start over. [They] had no interest in listening to what local people thought would be a better way to improve their neighbourhood.  By late 1968, I had learned my second lesson: it made no sense to keep fighting the politicians at city hall and trying to get them to change their minds about how to improve the city. Instead, I should try to displace one of them by running as a candidate for alderman in the December 1969 election.  [pp.27-28]

It was a time when the Trefann Court area on Queen Street between Parliament and River Streets was threatened with demolition; so was Don Mount; so was Cabbagetown (today one of Toronto’s most desirable neighbourhoods) which was going to be levelled for apartment towers and a shopping mall.  Plans were afoot to tear down Old City Hall. The Spadina Expressway was scheduled to cut Toronto in half.

Into this came John Sewell, riding his bike.

The book’s cover shows Sewell and four of his colleagues on their bicycles in front of City Hall, on Bike to Work Day [day!] in 1980. Transportation was in the back of the minds of the reformers during Sewell’s time, but it wasn’t their primary concern, as it probably would be today. Building a livable city with services for everybody, rich and poor alike, was the aim. It was a conservative agenda, in the old-fashioned sense, although it seemed to be anything but.  It was an agenda of ideas, not merely of numbers – unlike today where the height of buildings seems to be the main concern, or at best a handy cover for issues that are far more complicated and intractable and more costly to address.

As a result of the 1969 election, Sewell and his fellow reformers were outnumbered on City Council, but they set to work talking and persuading. 

As reform politicians we knew what we wanted to do to protect neighbourhoods, and we quickly moved to set up planning processes engaging residents to create new land-use plans for the places where they lived. By the end of 1973, there were more than thirty working committees devising such plans for as many neighbourhoods. [p.141.]

A useful ally on many civic issues was David Crombie, also newly elected to city council, who became mayor in 1972.  My memory of the time was that Sewell and Crombie were great friends, always on the same team.  Sewell tells a different story.  The details of their many disagreements, and their continuing friendship and civil cooperation, is a lesson of how politics can work.  When Crombie’s term as mayor was over and he won a Conservative seat in Ottawa in 1978, Sewell ran in Toronto to succeed him as mayor, running partly against Crombie’s record.

Sewell was a whirlwind. He and his reform colleagues were everywhere.  In the late 1960s the city-appointed library board decided to build large district libraries and to close local, neighbourhood branches. One, Northern District Library, was built. But the overall big-box plan was halted in 1974 after the reformers appointed publisher Jim Lorimer to the library board (he later became chairman). In the next six years, fifteen local branch libraries were renovated and often expanded, with input from local residents.  Today, Toronto’s library system is the most-used library system in the world.

A friend of mine, when I was telling her about this book, said she didn’t care about what happened in Toronto forty years ago, any more than she cared how other cities managed various urban projects.  She said such comparisons weren’t helpful.  For example, she reminded me that New York has taxing power but Toronto doesn’t, so of course New York can do spectacular things. And the relationship between Toronto and the province of Ontario is much different now than it used to be – not to mention that the amalgamated city is a larger world than it was when the City of Toronto meant, essentially, downtown.  So there could be no useful lessons.  But there are.  Many of them have to do with procedures and styles of argument.

Most of us had a sense that it was our responsibility to bring our best ideas to the table and debate those ideas in a forthright manner. Yes, there was a lot of criticism back and forth (I was constantly being criticized for suggesting a course of action out of the blue, without warning), but it was a very open environment as those elected to office looked for new approaches. Ideas were never rejected because of who suggested them. [p.107]

But there were also terrible ideas and procedures in play, especially when it came to “building” Toronto, where senior city staff and the developers, according to Sewell, “shared the same values and had no trouble speaking the same language and pursuing the same goals.” [p.53].  One notorious tactic used by developers in pursuing what Sewell calls “the high-rise onslaught” was blockbusting.

Meridian (and other developers) assembled properties by a process we called blockbusting. The company would buy a house, then rent it out to a middleman who turned it into a rooming house. Management was loose and repairs were rarely made; since those who lived there were mostly single men with few resources, they rarely complained. Middlemen moved tenants every three or four months just to keep them insecure. When a middleman-controlled house became enough of a problem to a nearby homeowner, the owner phoned Meridian to complain and Meridian would then make them an offer to buy (their house). In that way, the company picked up another property. Some rooming houses experienced emergencies such as fires, which gave the area a strong sense of instability and even danger. … When houses became really derelict and left empty and without electricity or water, they became a place for the homeless to lodge (which explains some of the fires, as the homeless built fires to keep warm). The houses were demolished, leaving a hole filled with rubble on the street.  In a few cases where an owner appeared reluctant to sell, Meridian would demolish the abutting property, and if the two houses shared a common wall (which was often the case with the many row houses in the area) the hold-out owner felt especially threatened. This blockbusting technique was a perfect recipe for Meridian to buy properties cheaply and quickly. [p.49]

What to do?  In the summer of 1970 Meridian gave notice to tenants to vacate twenty-five houses that the company owned.  A tentative Tenant’s Union was formed which offered to rent the houses from Meridian as a group. The president of Meridian refused but said he’d rent them to Sewell!  Sewell decided to take him up on the offer, arranged bank financing, signed the lease, and union members worked to fix up the houses. The neighbourhood stabilized. Alarmed, Meridian cancelled the deal and ordered the tenants out.  The tenants had nowhere to go, so they stayed.  Meridian sued Sewell for, eventually, almost half a million dollars.  The sheriff arrived with a hundred or so police officers to evict the tenants.

Some had chained themselves to radiators so they could not be removed. … I was pushed aside. The police gained entry to the houses and began to lead people out in handcuffs. The scene was mayhem, with people yelling, and police officers making a show of force. Within an hour or two the police had cut the chains of those affixed to the radiators, and cleared the houses of people. Meridian immediately sent in workmen to begin demolition. It was extraordinarily deflating to see that the repairs we had made to the houses were being taken apart, and houses were becoming piles of rubble. Over the coming months, more houses on Bleecker and Ontario Streets were demolished. Within a year, Meridian had managed to demolish many of the houses we had tried to protect.  [pp.55-56]

Meridian’s lawsuit again Sewell was finally heard in late 1976.  Sewell won.  A great many houses had been lost, but the stampede of high-rise buildings from St. Jamestown to the surrounding neighbourhoods was reined in by the unremitting efforts of the reformers.

Another significant result of the reformers’ attempts to bring some socially-responsible order to downtown development was Toronto’s legendary 45-foot Holding Bylaw of 1973, which put the brakes on high-rise development by temporarily limiting new buildings to four or five storeys – until the bylaw was overturned by the Ontario Municipal Board. It was followed by the Central Area Plan, which reinforced heritage preservation and brought some discipline to cowboy development.

In January 1976, City Council spent a final week on the Central Area Plan. Debate is not a strong enough word to describe what happened: it was a bitter and rancorous fight. We were all at the end of our tethers after years of approving or rejecting exemptions to the Holding Bylaws and countless debates about the large and small points that the plan made. The plan was approved by City Council by a vote of fourteen to seven.  … The Central Area Plan was then sent off to the Ontario Municipal Board for hearings. …  Many land owners, represented by over thirty law firms, were in opposition. Their planners and architects testified that the proposed plan was not feasible and would destroy the downtown. The Board hearing occupied most of 1977 and 1978  – an enormously expensive exercise for the city and for the development industry, establishing a pattern that flowered in later years where more money was spent on lawyers at the Ontario Municipal Board than was spent by planners creating the planning documents in the first place. [pp.160-161]

On a happier note, Sewell describes – at length and in useful detail – how he and his colleagues managed to put together the attractive St. Lawrence neighbourhood on a large swath of unpromising and mostly unused downtown land next to the railway corridor.  A working committee was formed (one of Sewell’s favourite tactics; Crombie opposed it) to help the professional planners make the right choices, including having a third of the residential units for low-income families as an integral part of the overall development.

While there were many tense moments between staff and the committee as we got the first buildings under way, I believe it was a healthy tension, and it meant that the elected representatives as well as senior staff had to perform at a very high level.  [p.127]

We’re seeing a contemporary replay of the patience and persuasion necessary to bring about a project of this size in the work of Waterfront Toronto, the multi-government agency that to date has organized a whole new section of Toronto in what’s called the West Donlands, by salvaging land and reengineering the mouth of the Don River, adding parks, and partnering with private development companies and their architects to build an Athletes’ Village for the Pan American Games which will turn into private residences for about 10,000 people.

During Sewell’s tenure on council and as mayor, Toronto consisted largely of a downtown commercial area surrounded at various distances by residential areas.  People seldom lived in areas where they worked.  Industrial operations of all kinds were moving, or had already moved, to the suburbs. Downtown offices were empty at night, and the streets were mostly deserted.  Could this be changed?

A large number of new residents could add to the desired twenty-four-hour vitality of the core.   People who lived downtown could walk to work.  How many people would be living downtown in the next twenty or thirty years? What kinds of densities were needed to encourage developers to build new housing downtown or close to downtown? Would developers actually do something as unthinkable as build housing in the downtown of a city, something that hadn’t happened for seventy or eighty years?  [p.149]

Sewell and his colleagues set out to answer these questions.   The ensuing population explosion in downtown Toronto has brought many people closer to work.  But not enough.  And the public and private transportation problem today is worse than the reformers ever imagined. It seems to me that the current impasse at City Council over what to do about this could use John Sewell’s sharp mind and powers of persuasion. After all, Chapter 13 of How We Changed Toronto is called “Acting Creatively to Solve Problems.”

How were the houses on the islands in Toronto Harbour saved from demolition? How was the island airport shaped? How was the Harbourfront/Harbour Square neighbourhood born?  How did gay rights became a political issue?  How did police reform come about (sort of)?

Why wasn’t Sewell re-elected? 

This book, as the subtitle promises, tells the inside stories.

Max Allen has been a CBC Radio producer since 1971, founded the Textile Museum of Canada, edited Ideas That Matter–The Worlds of Jane Jacobs and Eb Zeidler’s Buildings Cities Life, and is the VP for Planning and Development of the Grange Community Association. He has lived in Toronto since 1967.

Ontario Municipal Board Cost Awards


On April 30, 2015 the Ontario Municipal Board heard a motion asking the Board to award costs against the Richmond Hill Naturalists because of their actions opposing a housing development on the David Dunlap Observatory land (above) in Richmond Hill. 

Given the fear expressed by some community groups that this kind of cost award – possibly as much as $200,000 in this case – could deter or even prevent future public interest interventions [1-3].  I (Max Allen) attended the hearing to see how the motion was argued.

So: Should the threat of cost awards deter community participation at the OMB?

The answer seems to be “no” to both ways of reading the question:  No, it should not be used as a threat; and no, it should not be seen as a threat by community or public interest groups..

A cost-awards action can be initiated by a winning party against a losing party. [4]  Such an action is not initiated by the OMB itself. Cost actions at the OMB are rare, and awards are made even more rarely.  But they do happen. [5]  As the Board held in Kimvar:

…applications for costs are not routine, and cost awards are rare. In short, a successful party appearing before the Board should have no expectation that it will recover its costs. The Board “does not award costs lightly and it does not award costs automatically. In decision after decision, the Board has expressed a sensitivity to the right of appellants to bring matters before this Board” (Westfield Place Inc. v. Blandford Blenheim (Township) Pit Application, [1996] O.M.B.D. No. 1252 at p. 19). Nevertheless, the Board has also concluded that parties must be accountable for their conduct and if that conduct or course of conduct has been unreasonable, frivolous or vexatious, or if the party has acted in bad faith, then the Board may order costs.


the Board has restricted awards of costs to the clearest of cases, where the conduct complained of is unreasonable and improper.

 Was the Richmond Hill Naturalists’ case “unreasonable and improper”?  The developer Corsica, a subsidiary of Metrus (as it was known initially, now The DG Group, of Concord, Ontario; DG refers to the de Gasperis family) argued that the Naturalists’ case was improper. Many details were presented about the five-party negotiations and the eventual agreement which the Naturalists opposed at every step.  According to the city of Richmond Hill [6]:

The mediated settlement between five parties for the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) lands was formally presented at the May 7, 2012 Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) pre-hearing meeting. At the pre-hearing, the Richmond Hill Naturalists stated their objection to the settlement and an OMB hearing has been scheduled to begin August 7 to deal with their issues.

The mediated settlement represents the formal position of five of the parties, officially replacing the original development proposal submitted by Corsica Development Inc. The Town fully supports the mediated settlement as it proposes to save approximately 40 hectares (99 acres) from development and have this natural area dedicated to the Richmond Hill community as public space. The settlement was a result of many months of mediation facilitated by the OMB between Corsica Development Inc., the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders, the Town of Richmond Hill, the Region of York, and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). The Richmond Hill Naturalists are the only party objecting to the settlement and will now have their issues addressed at an OMB hearing scheduled to begin August 7, 2012.

The Naturalists’ lawyer, Ian Flett, took notes only twice (that I saw) during David Bronskill’s presentation on behalf of the developer. The Board member hearing the case, Joseph Sneziek, took many more.

I was not able to stay for the afternoon session, in which Mr. Flett presented his case, but I assumed he was not going to contradict Mr. Bronskill’s presentation about the technical facts of the case (the sides exchange general summaries of their issues and positions in advance of the OMB hearings), but rather he was going to concentrate on whether the Board, recognizing the implications for future interveners, should refuse to award costs against his client – continuing the Board’s traditional reluctance  to do so – as a matter of good public policy.

The OMB member who heard the case, Mr. Sneziek, said at the outset that he would not be able to write a decision quickly because of the pressures of other work. After the hearing, the Naturalists’ lawyer said he thought “it went OK, but no bets.”   

Meanwhile, here are the highlights in point form of the argument in favour of a cost award presented to the OMB by Corsica/DG Group:


Although the Naturalists have a right to be a party at Board hearings, they must accept the associated responsibilities.

The Board has no mechanism other than cost awards for discouraging or dealing with baseless or vexatious cases.

A cost award is the only remedy available for improper conduct.

The Naturalists persisted in the face of warnings from the Board about re-litigating already settled issues, and warnings from the developer that a cost award might result.


A public interest group does not deserve special treatment. The Naturalists should not be held to a lower standard than any other party before the Board.

The Naturalists wear “a manufactured cloak of false nobility” as “the last opponent standing” in the Richmond Hill case.  But there is no nobility in pursuing a case that has already been lost (and, by implication, there is such a thing as losing).

“Good faith” is a binary concept; there is no middle ground. There is no evidence (affidavits, etc.) before the Board that the Naturalists acted in good faith.

This was an ideological pursuit.


The Naturalists say their organization has 65 members.

There is no evidence before the Board that any of the actions undertaken by the Naturalists’ executive went out to the members for approval.

One individual has apparently funded the Naturalists to the tune of $500,000.

The line between whistleblower and gadfly is narrow.

The Naturalists have engaged a different law firm for each of their actions, for a total of five.


When you appeal a planning issue to the Board, you must provide demonstratively sustainable evidence in support of your position, and the Naturalists presented no meaningful evidence.

“This is not about a successful cross-examination of their planning expert; it’s about the quality of the evidence presented to the Board.”

The Naturalists’ case had no meaningful planning evidence against the development, and they knew or should have known it.  A month before the hearing, the Naturalists’ planning expert told them that the draft plan of subdivision conformed to OPA 230.


The OMB’s Rules of Procedure [7], section 103, lists eight “Circumstances in Which Cost Orders May Be Made,” one of which is lack of co-operation with other parties.

The Naturalists did not reply to Mr. Bronskill’s request for positions before the pre-hearing teleconference.

The Naturalist’s issues list of January 31st was a laundry list of 18 subjects unrelated to the guiding policy documents, and was not helpful in efficiently narrowing the issues in contention. In response Mr. Bronskill gave the Naturalists an issues list that could be used as a form for their own issues list.

The Naturalists produced a witness list of 12 names. Corsica needed to prepare for all of them, which it did, including a witness to present archeological evidence.  Later some of the witness names were removed, which meant that Corsica had spent time and money unnecessarily.

One major issue raised by the Naturalists was downstream capacity; and Corsica had to prepare for it.  But during the hearing no evidence about downstream capacity was led for Corsica to respond to.

In brief:  For a compact summary of the chronology and the mediated settlement, see footnote [6].  For a visual representation of what is at stake, see footnote [8].


[1]  See:

[2]  See: 2010 Report to the Ontario Attorney General of the Anti-SLAPP Advisory Panel:

[3]  OMB cost decision in Big Bay Point case: PL050290  30 Jan 2009

[4]   A cost award means that the losing side is required to pay some or all of the expenses of the winning side, including lawyers and expert witness fees. 

[5]  See:  

[6]  See:   Richmond Hill’s chronology of events, including the city’s purchase of 12 acres of the Observatory lands from the developer for $19.1 million.

[7]  Lack of cooperation et al.:

[8]  Clearance of forested lands – by implication the Observatory lands, although the video is not specifically identified – is shown here:

A Realist’s Development Handbook – How to Build an “Illegal” Building

By illegal, we mean against the legislated rules

An illegal building is rarely contrary to the extensive technical requirements of the Ontario Building Code.  Rather, it is contrary to the overarching laws and fundamental policies that shape Toronto.


If your project is only slightly illegal – a few extra storeys here, a bit too crowded there – in order to get permission to do the project  you will go to a Committee of Adjustment panel where no helpful records are ever kept of the proceedings.  So at the Committee you’re always in uncharted waters.   Furthermore, there is no precedent-setting appeal process that might shape future decisions by the Committee or inform other applicants about what kinds of “adjustments” to the law the Committee of Adjustment could properly find acceptable.  There is, in other words, no case law.  The theory behind this is that every Committee of Adjustment decision is specific to a local situation and is not comparable to other situations, so of course nothing is a precedent.  But don’t despair.  At the Committee of Adjustment, having paid your $4000+ application fee, you – like approximately nine out of ten other applicants – will get what you ask for.

If your project is very illegal, it will cost you more in hired private-enterprise lawyers and experts. They will take your proposal to the Planning Division and Community Council and, on your behalf, apply for considerably more than you really want so you can look like you’re making a real sacrifice when you eventually make a more reasonable – though still illegal – proposal, and the city staff and politicians can feel that they’ve accomplished something significant when you alter your original disgraceful application.  If the process is extensive and complex, it may take as much as $1,000,000 of your money to break the law.


Hiring a planner is a good investment.  Your planner will give his expert opinion that your illegal building is completely in accord with higher policy that encourages intensification (this is usually cited in his opinion in great detail), and “in my opinion” the building “fits right in.”  Your planner will cite other buildings – probably recently built in the area, also illegal – to prove that your building is appropriate.  If there’s a problem with the proposal that is plainly unsolvable, your planner will ignore it.  If appropriate social infrastructure may or may not be available, your planner will take the optimistic view that it may be available, and won’t dig deeper.  The planning rationale will often be published in the name of a prominent planning firm without a designated author, so your planner, if pressed, can deny he really meant what the planning rationale says.

Sometimes the planning rationale refers to other documents you’ve commissioned that cite small and presumably fixable technical problems (violent winds, unmanageable traffic), but no private-enterprise planning report that is publicly available has ever criticized a project on planning grounds

The planning rationale and all the other studies you’ve commissioned will say nothing about how the proposed building will actually be built, on the grounds that that issue is irrelevant now and will be addressed at a later date, behind closed doors, during what’s called the site approval process – from which the public is excluded. 


Suppose somebody is determined to stand in the way of your building – maybe the city planning division or city council just can’t stand your proposal, or the neighbours are prepared to fight.  Outspend them.  You can buy lots of expertise that neither the city nor the neighbours can match.  Sheer quantity doesn’t always win, but it helps.  The OMB has many rules that are “judicial” – that is, the Board is required to decide the case that’s before it based on the evidence that is presented.  Sometimes that evidence is quantifiable data, sometimes it is in the form of opinion evidence.  The Board does not think of itself as an investigative body that can obtain evidence for itself – as European courts usually do (and as the Board can do in fact although rarely does in practice) – but rather as an adjudicative body, so it makes its decisions on the basis of what it hears from the contending parties.  Make sure it hears what you want it to hear.

This does not mean that the Board is inherently pro-developer, as it is often said to be.  It means that money talks, because of what it can buy.  But ideas talk, too, and you should be wary of them at Board hearings.


Don’t worry about whether your project can actually be built economically without causing misery to the neighbours or the city as a whole.  First, get permission to put up the building you want.  The issue of how to build it comes later, and that’s none of the public’s business. If you were to abandon your car in the middle of the street, blocking traffic, it would soon be towed away and you would be fined (or jailed).  But if your  building project “needs” to block a couple of lanes of vehicular and bicycle traffic, for two or three years, just ask.  The city will figure out how many parking spaces you’ll take up, send you an invoice for the (reduced) parking fees, and approve your application.  Street and sidewalk blockages for private gain are never turned down.

It’s hard to believe it’s that easy in Toronto, but it is.


The planning rationale document produced by your hired planner will look like others of its kind; it will be similarly organized; and it will say the same things.  It will be graphically attractive.  It will be long.  It will be mostly boilerplate.  It is not meant to be read.  Instead, it is designed to (1) meet the planning division’s requirement that such a document be produced, and (2) exhibit civic responsibility and due diligence on your part.  The part of your planning report (i.e., most of it) that rehashes various existing policies and rules is not news to anybody.  The architectural description and context of your building, and much of the rest of the report, is simply repeated from other documents.  The part that represents your planner’s opinion that your building is terrific is just an opinion.

If your planner started out liking your original proposal for a 44-storey building, he’ll also like your revised proposal for a 25-storey building, and for the same reasons.


Heritage Conservation Districts are meant to preserve and enhance the appearance and function of special historic areas.  Avoid these districts.  They are subject to particular laws and procedures that make disrespectful projects especially onerous.  Heritage Conservation Districts are governed by The Heritage Act, which is essentially bullet-proof and which overrides The Planning Act.  Hic sunt dracones.


Cities are known as “creatures of the province.”  That means that the province can decide what laws a city can enact, how a city can raise money through taxation, and how a city can control property development. 

Toronto has dealt with this by putting in place guidelines – which don’t have the force of law, but are better than nothing when arguing a case at the Ontario Municipal Board.  These guidelines give property developers some idea of what are acceptable parameters when contemplating the general form and location of new multi-unit buildings.  There are Tall Building Guidelines in place.  Mid-Rise Guidelines and Low-Rise/Townhouse Guidelines are in preparation.  These guideline documents are, as you would expect, well written, beautifully illustrated, thoughtful, exhaustive and open to argument and contradiction at every turn.

The regime of guidelines (and zoning by-laws in general) is a recent invention.  The surviving part of old downtown Toronto that everybody admires was built without such a regime.


Planning issues are issues that the various decision-making bodies (Committees of Adjustment, the Ontario Municipal Board, etc.) feel comfortable in dealing with, and do deal with.  Infrastructure overload, transit availability and separation distances between tall buildings are planning issues.  Debatable aesthetics and unseemly greed are not planning issues.  You won’t be questioned on them.

Max Allen, December 2015

Development 101

By Max Allen

Property development in Toronto is a balancing act between preserving good buildings and public spaces, and encouraging new buildings and spaces that may not be identical to the old ones, but don’t wreck them either.

Property development and the decisions surrounding it looks, to an outsider, like a huge black box of mysterious judgements and occasional shouting.  To get a close-up look, you can go and see the process in action, at least the public part of it.  You won’t learn much by going to a full meeting of City Council, because by the time an issue reaches there most details have already been decided.  But there are five arenas where development decisions are actually made:

1.    The councillor’s office

2.    The local Community Council (there are four Community Councils, one for each quadrant of the city). The Grange area is in Ward 20, which is part of the Toronto and East York Community Council

3.    The Committee of Adjustment

4.    The City’s Planning and Legal Departments, and

5.    Other interconnected departments and sub-departments like Transportation, and Municipal Licensing and Standards, and Heritage Preservation. 

The first three are open to the public.  The last two do their business mostly behind closed doors and you have to worm your way in.

If you want something really major, like building a 50-storey building where only 20 storeys are allowed, you go to Community Council and then to City Council for a zoning and/or an Official Plan amendment. The Community Council that governs Ward 20 consists of all the elected councillors from the old downtown city of Toronto plus East York. Maybe the planning department or some other city department dislikes your project so much they recommend that Community Council refuse it. Maybe Community Council says OK to your project anyway, and you get the result you want.

Many projects are fine from the beginning. Objections are minor and can be worked out. But occasionally both the Committee of Adjustment and Community Council deal with situations that are real tragedies in which everybody has good points but there are irreconcilable differences. The Committee or the Council have a miserable job to do in these cases, trying to be fair and decide among competing interests all of whom are to some extent “right.” These cases can be very dramatic.

The Committee of Adjustment and the Community Council meetings are open to the public, and anybody can go. The committees hear a wide range of presentations, from big developers to people who just want to expand their house to accommodate their expanding family – an expansion, as it happens, that will block the sun from their neighbour’s yard. But the committees also listen to the views of any interested person who may either speak or submit their ideas in writing. 

These meetings take place monthly or even more often – during regular working hours, unfortunately, so if you have a job that you can’t take time off from, you’re out of luck. 

The meeting agendas are online on the city’s website.  In addition, advance notices of what’s coming up specifically around Ward 20 are on the councillor’s website. The meetings I’ve described are among the best free shows in town, and if you want to know how the world of city-building works, you should go and watch.

But be warned: The meetings are not viewer-friendly. No real attempt is made to ensure the audience can clearly hear, see or understand what’s going on. The Committee of Adjustment, in particular, sometimes discusses how they feel about an issue, but often their decision seems based on criteria they may understand and agree on, but people watching are mystified by.  No transcripts are made of any of these proceedings.

Do ordinary people, or residents’ associations like the Grange Community Association, have any significant input into what happens?  Yes.

This example from April 27, 2010, involved a new five-storey building proposed for the north-west corner of McCaul and Queen. It would have replaced a two-storey building that had been empty for a couple of years and looked like this:

The owner talked about the proposal at several community meetings and was given some suggestions. His architect came up with several versions of the building which the neighbours and the Grange Community Association thought were appropriate.

The owner went to the Committee of Adjustment, asking for some minor variances and got them. He also showed his ideas to the planning department and to the Toronto Preservation Board, because this section of Queen Street has special rules for the preservation of outstanding old buildings and the design of new ones.

City Planning and the Preservation Board decided the architect should change the building in various major ways, and they wrote a report saying so to Community Council.

There was a meeting of Community Council where several people spoke in favour of the building. Nobody from the community was opposed. The councillor who had been consulted thoughout the whole process, asked Community Council to approve the architect’s version of the building in spite of bureaucratic objections. And that’s what happened.

That was in 2010, and the building was boarded up in hopes that it would soon be demolished and rebuilt.  

 Five years later, the owner of the site has still not found a major tenant for his proposed building, and so the the old building has been spruced up a bit and has had a succession of tenants including a dance studio upstairs and a fish and chips restaurant in half the main floor level.

Here’s another example. With its superior outcome, this development has taken on the status of a legend in neighbourhood planning circles. The site is on the north side of Richmond, about halfway between John and Peter, where the Joker nightclub used to be.  About six years ago the owner of the site came to a community meeting with a proposal to build a residential tower of the usual oversized boxy rectangular characterless smooth green glass and aluminum type.  The low stores along Queen Street would have blocked a view from the north of its base, but otherwise this dull building would have been prominently visible from the east and west and from about a mile away down the unobstructed view corridor of Beverley Street. 

The community meeting told the developer and his architect that they were wasting a fine opportunity to build something outstanding, particularly given the fact of its prominence and visibility from all sides, and they should go away and give it more thought. 

A couple of months later the developer returned with another proposal.  This one looked like Habitat turned on its side.  The building had a highly articulated facade, with all kinds of positive and negative areas and was about half covered by trees growing from its thrust balconies.  It was a show-stopper.  Can you afford to build this, we asked the developer.  Yes, he said.  Then why didn’t you show us something like this in the first place, we wanted to know.  Because nobody ever asked us, was the answer.  We learned a lesson:  Ask!

The spectacular Habitat-style building is not being built, because the owner sold the site to another developer.  But something almost as remarkable has taken its place.  The new owner, and his architect Stephen Teeple, have devised a building called The Picasso with an articulated facade and bands of landscaped balconies.