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How much is too much?

May 28th, 2015 · No Comments

Questions of density raised at PARA AGM

By Annemarie Brissenden

Palmerston Area Residents’ Association (PARA) members hoping to gain special insight into Gregory Henriquez’s plans for the redevelopment of the corner at Bloor and Bathurst streets had to settle for a presentation on the values underpinning his work.

The architect, chosen by developer Westbank Corp., was the featured guest at PARA’s well-attended annual general meeting on May 11. He was joined by Graig Uens, a Toronto planner coordinating the City of Toronto’s response to the development, who explained the planning process as it relates to the Mirvish Village/Honest Ed’s site.

The meeting itself evolved into a bit of a dance as attendees challenged Henriquez to reveal his plans for the site and pushed Uens to set up community consultation meetings as soon as possible, while both gentlemen did a lot of arm-waving as they tried not to comment on a proposal that has not yet been submitted to City Planning for formal review.

“There is no application in for the site yet,” explained Uens. “Once the application comes in, we will begin our internal review and response process.”

In general terms, if the application comes in at the end of May, the planning department expects to have comments from the city’s agencies in July and present its preliminary report to the Toronto East York Community Council in the fall, likely in October. It would then work toward submitting a final report in late fall or early winter. It will also, as with any application of this nature, conduct community consultations, something that’s not without a unique set of challenges when it comes to this site in particular.

Westbank’s plans have generated a great deal of interest, drawing comment not just from members of neighbouring communities, but also from a broad range of stakeholders. Westbank’s March open house, for example, attracted over 500 people. In this case, the traditional model of community consultation may not work, admitted Uens, “so we may have to come up with significant and unorthodox gestures” for meeting with local residents. All avenues of communication are under consideration, he added, included open houses, pop-up tents at community fairs, on-line materials, and outreach through residents’ associations and business improvement areas.

If the questions from PARA’s AGM are any indication, local residents want to understand the planning review process, as well as what impact a development like the one Westbank presented at its open house would have on their daily lives.

“What effect would 3,000 extra people have on the 12,000 people who are already living there?” asked one resident. “How will I get to work?” “Will we never be able to park on our street again?”

“What will it mean for Bloor Street?” asked others.

“Will the difference to the people living here be huge or marginal?” asked yet another attendee at the meeting, who summed up the general tone of the questions.

Uens stressed that the city will include the answers to these questions in its final report, adding that it will also consider the proposal in conjunction with other approved developments for the area, as well as the results of the four corners study on Bloor and Bathurst streets that is set to be finalized this summer.

The question and answer period made it clear that local residents are still unsure what to make of Westbank and the Vancouver-based architect.

During his presentation, Henriquez discussed the “commodification of density” and the impact of “rapid growth over a short period of time” on Vancouver. In reviewing his previous projects, he stressed his commitment to a values-based architecture and a high level of sustainability, and his desire to find a balance between his client and the community.

“Partnerships with groups like PARA are essential if we are going to do good in the world,” said Henriquez, reassuring the crowd that he was definitely the architect for the site, and that this wasn’t part of some elaborate bait and switch, as one person suggested.

Acknowledging that Vancouver’s exceptional density “is shocking, we are doing things that are needed. The question is, how to do it.”

This seems to be the biggest challenge facing the area, whose residents are mindful of the need for additional density; the question is how to absorb it.

The conundrum is not lost on the planning office, either.

“Toronto is a growth centre,” said Uens, noting that the city attracts 50,000 new residents each year.

But for many PARA members at the AGM, the basic question remains, how much is too much, and how will we know if we have reached the limit?

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