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EDITORIAL (MAY 2017): Revoke U of T’s unchecked “licence to build”

May 26th, 2017 · No Comments

The University of Toronto is seeking broader powers to do as it pleases with respect to developing new buildings in certain designated large swaths of its campus. In effect, it wants to be an off-leash development dog, a request that has the community wary. The City of Toronto should be too.

Twenty-five years ago the university convinced the city to adopt its Master Plan.

“Consider what the university has done with its “as of right” building envelopes over the past couple of decades.”

Formalized as a city bylaw, the plan gave the school the right to greater density, height, and less set-back on 29 specific building sites. The university packed more into these envelopes than any single property owner could have hoped to achieve. There was a certain quid pro quo at play that worked so well then that the university is trying it again, dressed up in the latest planning language speak.

Here’s how it goes.

First U of T will point to its vast inventory of heritage buildings and wide-open green spaces. It will undertake not to build new buildings there or on top of Hart House or University College. Then, while residents are supposed to be feeling grateful for the university’s stewardship it will ask for some flexibility elsewhere so that it can, in effect, move that lost density opportunity onto other parts of the campus.

Though the argument was strategically successful, it was, and remains, deeply flawed. The university was trading something it did not and does not possess. There is no way an application to plop a high rise on the front campus would succeed, and neither would filling in the University College quadrangle with office space. The argument is a sleight of hand.

Further, consider what the university has done with its “as of right” building envelopes over the past couple of decades. About one half of the sites were developed. Part of the original argument was that an approved master plan would avoid a lot of process and negotiations. However, many required a trip to the Committee of Adjustment, as U of T wanted to pierce the theoretical envelope in one way or another. The time saving argument did not exactly hold.

One building currently under construction is 47-55 St. George St., or Site 10 in the Master Plan. In 1993 the university undertook to make that building no taller than 23 metres, but then turned around and got approval from the city for 44 metres! The new building could put part of the adjacent heritage Knox College on St. George Street in shadow, but since the university also owns that building there was no one to advocate against the increased height. In this case, U of T has used the super-sized envelope as a spring-board to even greater height and density and appears to have simultaneously ignored its own heritage interests.

Enrolment at the university is not predicted to increase in the next ten years, though there is an intention to shift to a greater percentage of graduate students, but not more students in total. Why then is there need for more buildings? The institution is silent on this question.

The Official Plan amendment would apply to 108 hectares bounded by Bloor Street, College Street, Spadina Avenue, and Bay Street, even though those buildings are not governed by the university. Yet none of the other building owners appear to be at the table, and it’s a big omission: what’s good for one, may not be best for all.

The draft document suggests that the university should endeavour to transition its new built form into adjoining local communities. Sounds good on paper, but the institution long ago breached its borders, buying property west of Spadina Avenue and south of College Street. For example, it’s planning to build a 23-storey student residence on the northwest corner of Spadina and Sussex avenues. That is hardly a transition step to Harbord Village where a typical Victorian house is two-and-a-half stories. Further, the site includes Ten Editions bookstore, housed in a 100-year-old building recently designated by the city as heritage. The university has appealed that designation, a move that does not exactly advance its case as a heritage protector.

The University of Toronto has not demonstrated it can be trusted with a “licence to build” without permissions. The leash shouldn’t be thrown away; it should be shortened.

 

READ MORE

NEWS: U of T seeks to expand planning exemption (April 2017)

EDITORIAL: Westbank’s positive precedent (April 2017)

NEWS: New chapter for student residence? (February 2017)

NEWS: Preventing a wall of towers (October 2016)

CHATTER: Two new rezoning applications submitted to city (September 2016)

NEWS: Tall tower before OMB, as city battles back with block study (August 2016)

NEWS: Planning for the future (May 2016)

DEVELOPINGS: Annual review reflects tension between community activism and OMB (March 2016)

Tags: Annex · Editorial