Alex Davis articulates a view shared by many residents of Yonge and Eglinton at public consultation meetings and during interviews regarding the neighbourhood’s development: the more tall buildings that go up, the more personality it loses.
“It’s nice to walk along the street with your girlfriend and see a coffee shop that’s not some franchise,” says Davis, the owner of a neighbourhood business, Gamerama and the Repair Store. “All these new buildings want is triple-A tenants — they don’t want to give a chance to a guy who’s an up and comer with something unique.”
If the recent spike in tall, Manhattan-like condominiums around Yonge and Eglinton appears to value height over public realm, however, there’s a reason for that.
Gregg Lintern, the city’s director of community planning with the Toronto and East York district, says that given its ready access to public transportation and “soft” infrastructure such as parks, libraries, schools and a community centre, Yonge and Eglinton has been identified as a node for development in official plans going back decades, including the province’s 2005 Places to Grow Act, which identified Yonge and Eglinton as an urban growth centre.
As of mid-2015, the neighbourhood had about 4,800 units under construction or approved, and 7,500 under review, spread across 25 applications.
“From a planning perspective, it’s been successful,” Lintern says. “And from a policy point of view, it continues to attract interest for redevelopment.”
The trick is making sure that growth is shaped and accommodated in a way that sustains Yonge and Eglinton as a liveable neighbourhood, Ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow says. That includes having enough soft infrastructure to support a high standard of living, and in this, he believes, the Places to Grow Act failed.
“It’s one thing to say ‘we want a bunch of new people living in a certain area,’” Matlow says. “You also need to make sure there’s a public realm — and that’s not written into the law.”
Without an official policy dictating otherwise, Matlow says, the Manhattanization of Yonge and Eglinton will continue to be led by developers who care more about their bottom line than the people who move into their buildings.
This is why Matlow initiated Midtown in Focus, a planning framework that aims to improve the neighbourhood’s public realm over the next decade, and which was officially implemented earlier this year.
Andy Gort hopes Midtown in Focus can serve as a wake-up call for city planners to realize something other than tall condominiums are needed in his neighbourhood.
A member of the South Eglinton Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association, Gort was recently appointed as chair of the organization’s working group for tall and midrise developments.
“Our big concern is that we’re not seeing a proper mix of activities,” Gort says. “So that instead of getting a vibrant Manhattan, you might get a midtown bedroom community where everybody streams out in the morning and comes back at night.”
SERRA’s website tracks the number of tall building applications within the organization’s boundaries, and currently shows 26 buildings approved, proposed or anticipated.
That’s a lot of people moving into the neighbourhood over the next 20 years, even without future proposals, which is why SERRA has begun collaborating with developers through its tall and midrise developments working group, Gort says. Rather than take a combative stance, the group listens to the reasons behind each proposal and presents their own cases for community benefits such as increased setbacks.
The result: developers have been willing to listen, Gort says, instead of approaching the OMB.
“The risk on our side is we don’t get enough concessions,” he says. “But you don’t get those at the OMB either.”
Rockport Group CEO Jack Winberg, whose company is developing Montgomery Square — the project incorporating historic Postal Station K — says he believes the most successful developers are the ones who build communities that work for the people who live in them.
“I think that when you talk about the Manhattanization of a community… you’re referring to the urban form and pace of life going together to create a very active and stimulating environment,” he says.
Moreover, Winberg believes Toronto’s city planning staff are achieving that balance when they place the public realm high on their list of priorities.
“You can see that in all of the buildings they’re approving, the towers are set back from Yonge,” he says. “When you walk on Yonge Street you’re feeling quite open, like there is lots of space, even though there’s also lots of density.”
Not everyone thinks the Manhattanization of Yonge and Eglinton is a bad thing. Dufflet Rosenberg remembers being surrounded by a more vibrant neighbourhood when she opened the second location of her eponymous pastry shop at 2638 Yonge St. in 2002.
With the new condominiums going up and the Eglinton Crosstown making the neighbourhood a transit hub, she hopes it will change back in the future.
“What I think is appealing about Toronto is the neighbourhoods where people walk on the street and do their shopping, like Roncy, or Queen West, or the Bayview strip between Eglinton and Davisville,” she says. “That’s what I’d like to see happening (at Yonge and Eglinton). It’s definitely not there yet.”
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