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
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This sort of thinking never added up, but today it’s more than half-a-century out of date.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?Back To Top Back To Comments