Toronto: City Without A Vision (?)

Business | April 23, 2012

Christopher Hume’s passion for the city comes out in his “Condo Critic” columns where he weighs in on the success or failure of today’s new buildings.

But in his Sunday column, he takes on the whole city at once, and Toronto to adapt a long-term view to the city we know and love…

“Toronto Seeks A New Chief Planner; What It Needs Is A Visionary”
By: Christopher Hume
Toronto Star

How curious that a city such as Toronto, one growing so fast its skyline changes weekly, would have no chief planner.

Since March, when the last man to hold that position, Gary Wright, retired, Toronto has made do with an acting chief planner, Gregg Lintern, a respected department veteran who has worked downtown and in Etobicoke.

But a search is underway, and the city is casting as wide a net as possible. “We’re looking across North America,” explains deputy city manager, John Livey. “We’ve had a good response. It’s a great job.”

That’s all excellent, of course, but we’ve gone through this before, had our hopes raised only to be dashed.

Even without Rob Ford in the mayor’s chair, the chances of attracting the brightest and best are slim. Keep in mind that the chief planner reports to a deputy city manager, not the mayor, an indication that the process isn’t one we value particularly.

Still, what’s unfolding now on the waterfront and in Regent Park represents planning as thoughtful and intelligent as any seen here in recent years. Both are projects in which the city can take pride.

But then one drives up to Eglinton and Laird, where SmartCentres has turned an old industrial wasteland into a tarted-up suburban shopping mall. The results are depressing and predictable in equal measure, not to mention wildly inappropriate for a city in need of density.

When the same developer tried to bring Walmart to Eastern Ave. several years ago, all hell broke loose. When the Ontario Municipal Board finally killed the scheme, people cheered.

But outside the downtown core it seems no one gives a damn. Let the sprawl continue. Let the malls go up. Bring on the parking lots. With a few exceptions, mostly cosmetic, what’s going up at Eglinton and Laird now could have been built a generation ago. The east side of Laird and the south side of Eglinton are obvious casualties, but so is the larger neighbourhood.

This sort of thinking never added up, but today it’s more than half-a-century out of date. Knowing what we know, not only does it not make sense, it’s needlessly self-destructive.

Yet few seem to care.

The debate about putting the LRT underground in this part of the city couldn’t have been more misguided. What would be the point? When new transit does arrive, above-grade or below, it will connect with a parking lot.

Meanwhile, an unfortunate 75-storey tower Tridel and Build Toronto want to put on a tiny sliver of land downtown at York and Harbour Sts. has been excoriated by the Waterfront Design Review Panel for the banality of its architecture and how little it would bring to the public realm.

The potential for any sort of public realm at Eglinton and Laird has been all but destroyed. Its fate, in a city the most ignominious of all, is to have ended up a parking lot.

Meanwhile, developers can still count on zoning approved 30, even 40, years ago. Though everything else might have changed, rules from a different era still apply.

In 21st-century Toronto, there’s no room for such sloppiness. No civic function is more crucial than planning, but for us it remains an afterthought. What the city desperately needs is a visionary, someone who can engage residents and developers and articulate a compelling sense of where Toronto is headed and how it will get there.

Instead, we will most likely settle for a nuts-and-bolts manager whose job will be to keep builders honest and enforce the rules. Given that the planning department was understaffed by 65 people at last count, even that will be pushing it.

Expect an announcement late next month.


Having grown up in Leaside, around the Larid & Eglinton area that Mr. Hume describes, I recall the commercial/industrial strip of Laird Drive and how it was even more depressing than what stands their now.

Canada Wire sat on the southeast corner of Brentcliffe & Laird before the first houses were ever constructed in Leaside in the mid-1940’s, and it remained there until the mid 1990’s, if my memory serves me correct.

Home Depot was built around 1996, but the remainder of the land where Canada Wire once stood sat vacant for some time, until, as Mr. Hume describes, Smart Centres came along and slowly built up a massive outdoor shopping mall that we might expect to see in the suburbs, ie. Markham.

First came Best Buy, then the now-defunct Linens & Things, and as one more store moved in, two more saw the potential in the growing business community.

I see this outdoor mall as a lesser of two evils: you’d rather have an outdoor mall with Home Depot, Best Buy, Sobey’s, LCBO, Golf Town, Winners, Sony Store, La Senza, Starbucks, Urban Barn, Subway, Royal Bank, CIBC, and Sport Chek than a giant Canada Wire factory that spans the entire area where ALL these stores are located….wouldn’t you?

I’d take the mall over Canada Wire, but I see what Mr. Hume is saying.

What could that land have been used for instead?  A park, perhaps?

But Mr. Hume is saying that this doesn’t matter – because with an understaffed planning department and a lack of anybody with an identifiable vision for Toronto or certain neighbourhoods within it, this Canada Wire land never stood a chance; it was always destined to be a commercial venture for the highest bidder.

The Leaside shopping mall is a microcosm of what is wrong with Toronto today.  There is no “one person in charge” who has a love, passion, and most importantly a vision for the city, its direction, and its future.

Let’s face it: developers run the city of Toronto.  It’s been noted, on this blog and in plenty of other sources, that Toronto has more towers under construction than any city in North America.  Armed with that little tid-bit, how you can you disagree with the fact that developers run the city of Toronto?

When was the last time a major development proposal was actually rejected, and not just restructured or redesigned?

If a developer wants to build a 60-storey tower, he just applies for 85-storeys, and then “accepts” the mere 60-storey approval he’s given.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Toronto is moving forward in a necessary direction as the city becomes more dense, more people want to live here, and business continues to boom.

But it would be nice to know that there are a few passionate visionaries at the helm, and the city isn’t simply built on a one-at-a-time basis.

Personally, I love what Waterfront Toronto has done with the West Don Lands, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like later this summer!  Of course, this came at the cost of another half-dozen condominiums, but these days, what doesn’t?

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  1. Anonymous

    at 8:33 am

    I agree that Toronto is by no means a “world class city”; far from it actually, mostly because of the left wing dimwits that run the show at City Hall, but I digress.

    What I disagree with about this article is I think that not everyone wants to live in downtown Toronto, and to say that it’s a mistake that we don’t replicate this everywhere is misguided. Some people don’t want to live in the middle of it all in a 500 sq ft+ condo (for a single) or raise a family in a 800 sq ft+ condo, even though there is a benefit of living “walking distance” within everything. Some people like those big box stores, and like to live in a lower density neighbourhood with more space.

    I think that is exactly the problem with our City Council and amalgamation because that’s what they are sought out to do. Some would say that this is an “elitist” attitude or “I know better than you”. Heck, I’ve spoken to some people who live downtown who are even proud that they haven’t been north of Lawrence or Eglinton.

    1. Phil

      at 1:38 pm

      what’s the point of going north of Eglinton Ave anyway? There is nothing there. I myself hardly go north of College street, not because I hate to, but because there was seldom such a necessity.

  2. Geoff

    at 9:04 am

    Having grown up in Leaside, around the Larid & Eglinton area that Mr. Hume describes, I recall the commercial/industrial strip of Laird Drive and how it was even more depressing than what stands their now.

    @ David – The fact that what’s there sucks less than what was before doesn’t make it good. That shouldn’t ever be the benchmark.

    I live in Don mills and actually like that they tried something new with the shops of donmills. Not entirely sure it succeeded, but a nice new try at least.

  3. George

    at 12:07 pm

    A city planner sounds great, but there would still be problems. Who elects the planner? Does the planner get to play God with the city? How many bay plans would the planner approve because he or she received money/benefits to do so? How can we expect a planner to have a long-term vision when individuals are generally short-term focused, especially if they have another election/appointment to win?

  4. Geoff

    at 9:48 am

    @ George – personally I don’t think city planners should be elected. A good example of this is is the story of central park in new york – I wonder if it would have been built if the voterse had to vote on it (it was viewed as a park for the wealthy, as it was far away from the urban workers).

  5. Phil

    at 1:41 pm

    If we compare Toronto with cities of similar size in North America, ie: Chicago, Montreal etc, Toronto’s planning is atrocious. It is too utilitarian and never strives for beauty and elegance. Our achitecture is a desaster and public transit a disgrace. Yes, we do need a city planner who loves the city and wants it to get better, not politicians who care more about pleasing their voters with stupid plans.

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