About 2005 I started a project in “planning”. I got intensively involved with my local community group and its participation in legal / bureaucratic processes regarding zoning, official plans etc. I did this for two reasons—to help my community at a point in my life when I had a little more time to spare. The second reason was that I wanted to “study” the process. I have been interested since undergraduate days in how whether local communities can influence development. I kept a lot notes and accumulated massive files. This section is the distillation of that process. It starts with a detailed history of the development of the West Queen West Triangle and spreads out beyond that. It stops about 2017.
I’m a semi-retired litigation lawyer, of populist tilt, fascinated by planning law issues since law school days. I might have been in the business, had not Fate pointed and said, “this way, young man.” I’ve spent hundreds of hours on planning issues in the last ten years, with no regrets. It started as a sideline. For a while it ate my life. Now I’m a bit cranky about how it could be better done and eager to help other activists cope with the confusion—faster and better.
In addition to all my work with Active 18, I’ve acted for other community groups in their planning fights. I’m partial to their success because the government should listen much more carefully to what the people think, especially at the local level. Period. I’m partial to the insights of Jane Jacobs.
Long ago I was headed for grad school at the LSE to study public administration. Then I read Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of American Cities. Dare I summarize? She taught, “planners are destructive and bad. They are hard-wired to tear up what works for real people and replace it with new stuff that’s worse.” Fifty years later, she’s still right. (They may be wired wrong, but some of them are still very nice, especially when they’re drunk or stoned.)
If you read much of this blog you will see I’m not patient with all the schemes which pretend to listen to the people but hide the real issue in a cloud of supposed expertise. See Process, process process. I am appalled by the amount of work it takes for community groups just to begin to penetrate the system.
Sometimes in the planning world it is useful to be a lawyer and to “get legal” about it. But sometimes you need to be purely political. It is a crazy mix. The bottom line is that, as a lawyer, I’m not afraid, where necessary, to take a difficult case to court, which in the planning world means the Ontario Municipal Board. That definitely doesn’t mean I want to or like it. It means…compromise is not the only way.
I believe in the power of negative thinking. We should always know the worst so we can get closer to the best.
I’m not so interested in the “micro” planning issues, like how big the neighbours’ back yard addition is. Such cases are dealt with at the Committee of Adjustment and don’t—can’t—raise issues about how the Official Plan might be changed. That’s not to say these might not be very important. But…not usually from a broader planning perspective.
I moved to the neighbourhood twenty-five years ago. Fifteen years later the development tsunami hit. I had a little time so I got involved. Today, at a high point in the Toronto real estate bubble, my house, a long block north of Queen Street, is worth seven times what I paid for it.
ACTIVE 18 ASSOCIATION, better known locally as “A18” or Active 18, is an organization of community activists in the very south end of Ward 18. We think we’re activists. Some years we were, very. But as our immediate neighbourhood has developed, the need has not been so great lately.
We have participated as a Party at various OMB hearings regarding projects in our neighbourhood, the longest and best known was in 2006. It is described here in detail. We have been involved in many other planning discussions and fights that did not progress to the OMB. We have been successful in securing Section 37 benefits from the various projects in the neighbourhood and shaping them to preserve some of the arts flavour of the neighbourhood. Our experience is somewhat unusual compared to other groups in that we were dealing with the development of new projects in a downtown neighbourhood, where declining and abandoned industrial building were a development opportunity. Some downtown groups have focused on demolition issues. We had one big one but mostly the land at issue was empty.
I don’t have a high opinion of our success regarding massing. I say “it could have been a lot worse.” On Section 37 benefits, we’re champs.
We ran our own design charrettes and produced our own glossy material to challenge the “bad guys” in their own language. These are discussed at different places through the blog.
- 2006 Preliminary Brainstorming
- 2006 charrette
- Interesting Design and Architecture
- Buildings We Like
- 2-90 Lisgar Street
- 1155 Queen Street West Design Consultation
- 1181 Queen Street West Design Consultation
- Triangle Public Arts concept + Interesting Public Art Concepts
- Triangle Art Network Map
We had the reputation as an arts-oriented organization. That is deserved but misunderstood. The neighbourhood was an arts ‘hood before the development wave hit. Cheap downtown space attracts…artists! We lived here. (Notice how the lawyer says “we”.) So we wanted to preserve the quality and nature of the neighbourhood.
Here’s a little photo album of our golden years.
Doing it right
Active 18 has had rigorous and casual organizational form as the circumstances warranted. It is an unincorporated membership group with a constitution, which spells out the basics of its structure. That structure is this. We have an annual meeting and elect a steering committee. That steering committee is given a mandate for the year. And the steering committee meets monthly to do stuff. The steering committee are automatically the only members of a membership corporation. The only thing the corporation does is become a Party at the OMB, if and when that is necessary. Being a Party at the OMB requires a corporate form. That’s not hard to do. A punctilious board member with a little help from a lawyer can do the paperwork. But keeping a corporation and its board and minutes up-to-date can be a bore and nuisance for the run-of-the-mill meetings. Here is the Active 18 constitution.
A18 has a flaw in 2017. We started in 2006 when south of Queen was mostly abandoned land and industrial space. There were no residents. In 2017 the Triangle is mainly filled with condos. But those new residents have yet to show up in the membership of A18. Bluntly, it’s hard to say we speak for new residents. There is a parks committee emerging and hopefully that will become the nucleus of a “residents’ org”. Nothing to apologize for here. Times change.
A18 sponsors an all-candidates meeting