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They walk the talk

April 16th, 2015 · No Comments

The recent unveiling of plans to redevelop the Honest Ed’s site and adjoining Mirvish Village left a largely local audience in awe. At the opening curtain on the proposed plan, yet to be submitted to the City for approval, Westbank Corp. of Vancouver displayed an innovative plan of multiple residential towers, “small-grain” retail, open public space, preserved architecture (Mirvish Village), and a street (Markham Street) dedicated to pedestrians. They did almost exactly what they said they would do—they listened.

City planners have long anticipated this application, having sharpened their axes on the now sidelined plan to erect a Walmart on Bathurst Street south of College Street. One worry was how to prevent a big box at Bathurst and Bloor streets. The City approved an amendment to the Official Plan, which limits retail frontages to nine metres (about the width of Wiener’s Home Hardware on Bloor?Street) and total retail area of any one tenant to 3,500 square metres (about the size of the Metro grocery store on Bloor Street). But Westbank did not need a bylaw to tell them that “small-grain retail,” a phrase that Westbank is introducing into our lexicon, was the way to go. Such stores will define the lower periphery of the northern (Bloor Street) and eastern (Bathurst?Street) flanks, Mirvish Village, and a new lane running north from Lennox Street (at the rear of Victory Café) to about halfway up the property. In all, 200,000 square feet of retail will be provided.

What surprised many was the plan for rental—1,000 units in total. According to Employment and Social Development Canada, Toronto’s rental vacancy rate stood at a scant 1.7 per cent in 2014. While no figures are available on the subject, creating vacancy at a major intersection, and on a subway line, could be argued as fulfilling an acute need. One-half of the units proposed are two or more bedrooms, read the possibility of “families.” Bravo to Westbank!

Too many condominium projects built in recent years consist mostly of bachelor units. Condo developers have taken advantage of low interest rates and a desire for downtown living, and have built an endless skyline of concrete cubicles, with little creativity and many with no nearby amenities. No one accuses the condo kings of city building.

The approach of Westbank to this project ought to go into a how-to book somewhere for wannabe city builders who have “leaving a legacy” somewhere in their mantra. They consulted, and apparently they were listening. There is no great sentimentality around Honest Ed’s the store, and there is little evidence of its preservation in the development. There is, however, a lasting affection for Anne and Ed Mirvish. And their names live on. Moreover, Anne’s vision for Markham Street (Mirvish Village) is maintained and reinvigorated in the plan. Westbank listened when they were urged to consider that Mirvish Village is more than the built-form of Victorian buildings, it’s an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and bars, and above those venues, writers and other artists. Some balance must be struck so that it does not become another Yorkville.

Contrast the Westbank plan with what is proposed at Bloor Street and Madison Avenue, formerly the site of the Restaurants Association of Canada. That unnamed developer did zero community consultation, and just dropped an application off at the City for 42 storeys of condominiums (over 500 units), on what is arguably a postage stamp lot by comparison. It’s quite a juxtaposition of approaches.

The Westbank plan needs some scrutiny in respect to setbacks. One of the biggest obstacles that faces Bloor Street is accommodating pedestrian and cycling traffic. There is also a missing puzzle piece, and it’s glaring, and that is improved access to the subway. This is where the City should focus on helping the project. Improving access to the Markham Street subway entrance (yes, the Bathurst subway station has another entrance point, it’s a secret to most) would take pressure off the narrow sidewalk adjacent to the CIBC on Bathurst Street. Someone should really convene a meeting between the TTC, the City, and Westbank. The City could “city build” too and get behind this laudable plan.

Tags: Annex · Liberty · Editorial