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EDITORIAL (APRIL 2017): Westbank’s positive precedent

April 10th, 2017 · 1 Comment

The Toronto and East York Community Council unanimously endorsed a planning staff recommendation to approve Westbank Projects Corp.’s application to redevelop the southwest corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets on April 4. It’s a significant milestone that comes after three years of community consultations and collaborative work between the Vancouver-based developer, planning staff, and community representatives.

Called Mirvish Village, the plan will retain 24 of 27 heritage buildings, and add 804 residential units (over 40 per cent of which will have two or more bedrooms), 200,000 square feet of commercial space, and a new park. Taken together these elements not only create a neighbourhood unto itself, but complement the surrounding community. It’s an innovative and welcome re-imagining of the corner.

“The Westbank precedent has taught us much about municipal planning.”

The question is no longer so much whether or not this represents intelligent growth. It’s rather two questions: how did we get to such a happy result? And, can the city replicate this approach for other new developments while successfully avoiding the many development atrocities that the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) permits on our collective landscape?

The Westbank precedent has taught us much about municipal planning. To recreate the magic, one needs a developer with a certain progressive mind-set, a receptive and highly competent planning department (led in this case by Graig Uens), and a community that responds with a constructive tone.

Three years ago, Westbank’s project director Ian Duke told a skeptical audience gathered at the Randolph Academy that, despite having spent reportedly over $70 million for the 3.47-acre site, the company had not yet hired an architect and the closest thing it had to a plan were some guiding principles. He explained the principles clustered around nine points that included residential and commercial components, shared economies (co-op daycare, car share, farmers’ market), heritage, community space, and urban mobility. It would reflect a mix of commercial and residential uses, and all the units would be rental. Moreover, Duke urged the small audience to see Westbank “not as developers but as city builders”.

At the time, few were prepared to accept all this lofty goodness, and many saw Westbank’s pitch as a bunch of “Vancouver hooey”. Privately, some community representatives even admitted they were biased against renters over owners, doubting that renters “could be house-proud”. The extremely low vacancy rate for apartments across the city coupled with certain pressing needs — accommodating a burgeoning population, combatting urban sprawl — are not problems residents’ associations are prepared to solve in their backyards.

To win over the community, and avoid the pitfalls so prevalent in the OMB process, the dynamic duo of councillors Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) and Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) decided at the outset to take the developer’s stated position at face value. A comprehensive series of community consultations, private and public, were begun. And the city established a working group (of which the publisher of this newspaper was a member by virtue of his position as chair of the Bloor-Annex BIA) to evaluate the first, second, and third iteration of the development application through four distinct prisms: transportation, heritage, built-form, and public realm. At one of the sessions the group even directly cross-examined the applicant. There were many public engagement opportunities hosted first by Westbank, then by the city’s planning department, and then finally in March of this year by Layton and Cressy.

It was not consultation just for the sake of consultation. The net effect was transformative to the project: significant park space was added, tall structures were relocated from the corners, heritage buildings were meaningfully preserved, and the guidelines in the Bathurst-Bloor Four Corners Study were respected.

As Cressy told The Gleaner: “This is a model for how we want the development community to engage with us. When they work with the community and listen to the community we build better neighbourhoods.”



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Tags: Annex · Editorial

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Bill // Apr 12, 2017 at 9:18 am

    What a ridiculous “article”. It’s a 29-storey building in the middle of the annex, and will literally block out the sun.

    Screw you, this is bs.