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Residents’ associations share concerns for Mirvish Village

October 8th, 2015 · No Comments

Greenspace, heritage, and integration at top of list as Westbank opens Markham House

Westbank opened its Markham House Citybuilding Lab (610 Markham St.) on Sept. 19. Not only a space for providing information on and answering questions about its proposed Mirvish Village redevelopment, Markham House is envisioned as a community hub that will feature rotating exhibits and art installations. Summer Reid, Gleaner News

Westbank opened its Markham House Citybuilding Lab (610 Markham St.) on Sept. 19. Not only a space for providing information on and answering questions about its proposed Mirvish Village redevelopment, Markham House is envisioned as a community hub that will feature rotating exhibits and art installations. Summer Reid, Gleaner News

Westbank opened its Markham House Citybuilding Lab to great fanfare during the Mirvish Village Sidewalk Sale on Sept. 19. Featuring a model of its proposed redevelopment for the site including Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village, Markham House (610 Markham St.) will be open Tuesdays to Saturdays from noon to 7 p.m., and be staffed with representatives who will provide information and answer questions about the future of Mirvish Village.

Envisioned as a community hub, Markham House will also feature rotating installations and local exhibits. It’s currently home to a Spacing magazine kiosk, a Curbside Cycle installation, and Mirvish Village People, a photo series by Gerald Pisarzowski, shown previously at the Charlotte Hale & Associates gallery during the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival in June.

With Westbank’s application under review at City Planning and another round of community consultations underway, we thought it time to canvass the residents’ associations that abut the four corners at Bloor and Bathurst streets for their thoughts on the plans for Mirvish Village. Three of them, the Harbord Village Residents’ Association, the Palmerston Area Residents Association, and the Seaton Village Residents’ Association, provided op-eds, all of which are printed below.

Compiled by Annemarie Brissenden

HVRA: Protect and restore the urban forest

“The proposed construction at the subject site will require applications to remove 25 city owned trees and 6 privately owned trees,” states an arborist report to Westbank development’s Mirvish Village project dated June 26, 2015.

In clinical language, an arborist outlines the front-end impact of a huge property development. That describes the start. What will be the finish?

We would like to imagine the creation of a thriving element in our urban forest between Bathurst, Bloor, Markham, and Lennox streets, in concert with the massive Westbank property development.

You think it is impossible?

We don’t.

The Westbank Mirvish Village project is easily the most complex property development proposal our part of the city has ever seen.

It has been the most promoted project in our history.

It has 2,000- to 2,500-plus new residents, with businesses and startups and a market — and no green space. Indeed, the community will lose the trees that it presently has, including two large silver maples that have been studied for their contribution to migratory bird biodiversity.

Without a completed application, residents, City of Toronto officials, and councillors cannot be sure of the details of the proposal. However, the broad outlines have remained consistent and raise general concerns and challenges for us all.

Already City Planning and the City’s Design Review Panel have stated major concerns about the complete lack of greenspace on the development plans.

  • In all meetings, Markham Street has been a hard-surfaced landscape for social events, movies, pub seating, and the like.
  • A Westbank arborist report precisely identifies 31 trees on the property that will have to be cut down.

With a site so large, so dense, and requiring massive excavation and protective hoarding onsite for lengthy periods of time, the future of any green on the development is in question unless its restoration and enhancement become part of the plans. It is especially critical because the neighbourhoods immediately around the project are already short of parks and open spaces.

We know from the experience of the south end of Ward 20 that, if left to site by site planning rules, an entire new neighbourhood can spring up with no green infrastructure, no place for kids to toss a ball. We hope it is time for Westbank not only to sit down with its neighbouring communities to actually plan the site to meet some of our needs, as well as its own, but also to build on work we are already doing.

With Joe Cressy (Trinity-Spadina, Ward 20), Harbord Village is working on a Green Master Plan for our neighbourhood, including possible parkspace, and street and lane plantings. Of all the adjacent neighbourhood associations, we are the most deficient in greenspace, particularly with the loss of community access to the grassy field at Central Technical School (our erstwhile informal “park”). We are looking at a nooks and crannies opportunity for planting, to facilitate biodiversity, to reduce the heat island, and to improve the downtown record on climate change. We are hoping to reclaim the urban forest, one little site at a time. We are also looking for a park.

So imagine the possibilities of the Mirvish Village development.

What can we save? What trees might be moved?

What can we lose?

What can we regenerate?

What plants and trees do we need for species diversity?

What wood could be salvaged for craftsmen?

Where do we want our kids to play?

Where is the park to support the population?

Harbord Village would like to change the channel and to begin talking not about Westbank’s ideas, but about the community’s opportunities the proposal, or one based on it, would provide to future renters, visitors to its businesses, and its neighbours.

Is it not possible to design a site that both responds to housing, entertainment, and business needs and also to the identified needs of people for open space, trees, plants, and a healthy ecosystem?

Let’s plan things differently in the city. We need to replace a mentality of either/or with both/and.

We need to change a potential loss to the community to a win for our neighbourhoods and for biodiversity.

We are ready to talk. Is Westbank ready to enter into this conversation?

Sue Dexter on behalf of the board of the Harbord Village Residents’ Association. Harbord Village is the area bordered by Bloor and College streets on the north and south, with Spadina Avenue on the east, and Bathurst Street on the west.

PARA: Integration challenge not yet met

Jane Jacobs, possibly the most influential urban thinker of this century, lived in our area. She championed community-based approaches to planning. What would she have thought of the Westbank proposal?

Here she writes in The Death and Life of American Cities (1961):

“Cities need old buildings so badly it is impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean…a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings…. Hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighbourhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.”

This quote is now 54 years old but a study conducted last year in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. for the National Trust for Historic Preservation confirms it is still valid.

The Westbank development is well funded, massive, and complex. While residents welcome a number of their initiatives — bicycle parking and storage, a small daycare, apartment units large enough to accommodate families, independent retail, and a market — we are unsettled about other aspects.

Westbank was proposing to “save” 16 houses on Markham Street; however on Oct. 6 of this year, the Community Council passed a motion to list 35 properties in Mirvish Village and along Bathurst Street as heritage buildings. The Toronto Preservation Board also recommends positioning Westbank’s towers further away from the street to preserve the authentic and meaningful context that creates the “village feel” of the street. Whether it’s the warmth of material, the human scale, or the craftsmanship of bygone eras, old buildings attract people and are good for small business. Preserving more of the heritage architecture of Mirvish Village is crucial to any possible integration of Westbank’s new buildings into our century-old neighbourhood.

In August of 2014 the four residents’ associations that abut the intersection of Bloor and Bathurst streets conducted a survey of residents’ “wish lists” for the site. Publicly accessible green space scored highest on the list, yet Westbank is providing scant park space, far below what city policy demands.

Markham Street, Westbank seems to suggest, will be their contribution to the public realm, a place where they might program vibrant street festivals, live music, and outdoor movies. Let’s not forget that the street already belongs to us as do the two alleyways Westbank intends to reconfigure.

In the past, the Honest Ed’s parking lot hosted the highly successful Toronto Fringe Festival and the Stop’s Night Market. The Palmerston Area Residents Association worked with these festivals to mitigate noise and disruption to the nearby residents in win-win partnerships. Will such partnerships with residents continue? Westbank’s streetscape design is all cold, hard surfaces without noise-muffling elements.

On the aforementioned survey residents overwhelmingly stated that the new development should not exceed 30 metres, or nine storeys. The site is currently zoned for a maximum of six storeys. At its highest point, Westbank has proposed 29 storeys. A shadow study by City Planning reveals that long swaths of Bloor and Bathurst streets will have insufficient sunlight from September to March.

Not surprisingly, residents have questions about the increase in traffic the Westbank development will cause. With residential streets at capacity with permit parking and highly congested with drop-offs for Randolph’s classes, where will all the people attracted to the market park? (They won’t all come by bike and subway.) Where will the market and retail service trucks queue up? Will trucks be rumbling down our streets at dawn? Will there be more CO2 in the air? How will the reconfiguration of the alleyways affect residents’ access to their own property? No answers yet.

The density envisaged by this proposal of 1,017 units, half of which are larger than two bedrooms, is reminiscent of St. James Town — easily 2,500 people in a single city block. The development will set the standard for the other three corners and for our area in general. How much increase in population can our infrastructure support?

The challenge in creating a future healthy urban environment in this neighbourhood is to integrate new, innovative development into our existing and historic urban fabric. Westbank’s proposal does not yet meet this challenge.

Donna McFarlane, Paul MacLean, and Leo Panitch on behalf of the Palmerston Area Residents Association. The Palmerston area is bounded by Bloor, College, Clinton, and Bathurst streets.

SVRA: Preserve heritage in all its forms

The entire site of Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village is being redeveloped as a mixture of extensive retail on the ground floor with approximately six residential towers, one of which is proposed to be 29 storeys tall.

The proposal is presently being reviewed by City Planning, which along with city councillors have asked the four residents’ associations that represent the four corners of Bathurst and Bloor streets to comment on the development proposal.

This article deals with the architectural heritage of the site.

Architectural heritage can be looked at in many ways. The first is that new buildings can respond to the surrounding context with a similar scale and similar materials. With the Westbank proposal, the first four floors could be masonry that would follow the street line and the upper towers could step back.

A second way of carrying out heritage preservation is to retain portions of existing buildings as artifacts. A common way is to retain just the facade of a building. This would be most appropriate for some of the buildings along Bathurst Street.

A third way is to consider an entire group of buildings that are supporting a functional community heritage that requires all of those buildings to remain so that those cultural activities can continue.

For the residents living in our neighbourhood, we experience this every day in how much the pattern of our houses and streets influences our lives and our connections with our community. If we lived in another setting, such as the towers on the railway lands, the residential districts of Mississauga, or the farmland around Barrie, how we live our lives would be substantially different. Being conservation-minded includes more than preserving the buildings on the development site — it includes the public environment in and around the site, the way people are accommodated on streets and sidewalks for blocks around, and the way transportation linkages work and don’t work around these intersections, now and afterwards.

Of special interest with the redevelopment of the site is Mirvish Village, the houses on both sides of Markham Street, on the southern half of the block between Bloor and Lennox streets. This was a street that the Mirvish family took special pride in preserving and where they fostered an arts community that continues today. It not only gives our district an identity for the local neighbours, but it is also a unique street that is known throughout Toronto. People come from other parts of the city specifically to visit Mirvish Village. Here, one can still afford to make and buy something handcrafted.

The Westbank proposal plans to preserve the west side of the street. But, on the east side, they intend to drastically alter the existing buildings by incorporating (only) the facades into the base of a 16-storey tower and dropping the entrances of the old houses to be level with the street. There is no change of use being proposed — it will remain commercial. The existing culture and community “benefit,” they say, can be replicated with events and festivals parachuted into the neighbourhood.

The working committee made up of residents’ associations believes that to preserve Mirvish Village, the existing houses on both sides of Markham Street need to be preserved and the large residential towers (height to be determined) should be pushed to the perimeter of Bloor and Bathurst streets.

All of the residents of these surrounding neighbourhoods understand how the scale of older buildings, the diversity of their forms, and their relationship to the street are vital to continuing the rich urban life that we enjoy. It supports both the cultural and economic diversity in our community.

Mirvish Village is an early example of the adaptive reuse of buildings that was done by the Mirvish family, who helped the architectural heritage movement in Toronto with the preservation of the Royal Alexandra Theatre and adjacent warehouses.

The proposed heritage designations stand in the face of developer proposals and even of some reasonably tolerant attitudes among all of us about how much building the site can take without causing harm. The residents’ associations would like to hear from people in the neighbourhood about their concerns in relation to the heritage aspects of the Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village site.

Written by the Seaton Village Residents’ Association executive in collaboration with Jennifer Hunter. Seaton Village is bounded by Bloor, Dupont, Christie, and Bathurst streets.

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