At the heart of everything always was and still is Queen Street itself, the great “main street”. The fight was never just about “condos, how big?” It was about Queen Street, a street of small quirky stores, small galleries, local bars and no chain stores. It’s “cool”. Vogue says it’s the second hippest street in the world. Whoopie!
When the community meet in 2006 in open session working groups about the future of West Queen West, the talk was about keeping the store sizes in the new buildings small. Store size was an issue in OMB case. And that still is what we want in 2017 when the fight has morphed into one about Queen Street as a ‘Heritage Conservation District’.
The history of the Queen Street struggle upsets me more than most because there are so many ways the ineptitude of the professional planners smack you in the face. See my rant about the Avenue Policy, for example. The planners knew right from the start that Queen Street as a commercial strip was a treasure, yet they persisted in policies—especially the Avenue Policy—to destroy it.
The OMB version of the problem in 2006, to state the obvious, was that for our particular stretch of Queen Street we had on the south side mostly empty land or junk buildings, like the old laundry at 1171 Queen West, as well as two excellent old buildings, the Carnegie Library and the Post Office. On the north side we had some fine Victorian buildings that should remain. It’s nobody’s fault that one side of the street is going get built anew and the other is a hundred years old. A serious architecture and design challenge.
In the 2006 OMB case there was only one building before the Board—the Bohemian Embassy at 1171 Queen—that actually fronted on Queen Street itself. The other two projects in issue were located in the turf to the south. But, make no mistake, the nature of the Queen Street face and the impact of the whole set of developments on Queen Street was central. To skip to the present, we are still arguing about the nature of Queen Street.
Queen Street—Height and Intensification
The Area Planner, Elise Hug, identified the unique character and importance of this streetscape to Toronto. Our original charrette identified the key characteristic in fine-grain retail and small stores.
Indeed Queen Street is low rise for miles, except where it passes through the heart of the downtown. The new construction on Queen Street, except in the Core, has largely respected the traditional three storey height. Queen Street is, generally, not about great architecture, although it has quite a few excellent Victorian facades. But our stretch has four great buildings which by all standards should be saved. Not only should they be saved but the rest of the strip should be planned to show them off, or at least be sure they aren’t dwarfed and buried. Our stretch of Queen Street on the south side between Dovercourt and Dufferin is a break in this traditional streetscape where the decayed industrial land has…ecayed!
It seems obvious to us, especially after the original charrette, in 2005, that for new construction on Queen Street we should stick with the existing permitted building envelope, 13 metres plus 2 metres stepback and then more vertical to a total of 16 metres, and also require fine grain frontage (4.5 metre average) which means small stores. This means, roughly, a maximum of five storeys.
However this zoning is meaningless because the Official Plan designates Queen Street as an Avenue, and the Avenue Policy, which governs all such designations, says that density can go to eight storeys. As a practical matter this means any application to rezone on an Avenue can expect to get approval to eight storeys.
An Avenue designation is death to any successful main street with small-store shopping. Why? The ground floor of the rebuilt buildings will rent for so much that the typical displaced small retail businesses—for example, designer clothes—can’t afford the new rent. Who can? Dentists, banks, and chain stores. This is so consistent a pattern it is shocking that Planning doesn’t completely revise the Avenue Policy and designations. (See below, Heritage, where in 2016 they finally wake up, just a bit.)
Queen Street at the OMB
At the OMB hearing only one of the proposed developments fronted on Queen—1171. We were not opposed to a new building there. But to achieve our objective we wanted it to be built within the existing permitted height for Queen Street, which was 13 metres and then a stepback of 2 metres and then three more metres of height, which is to say between 3 to 5 storeys. We wanted fine-grain retail with narrow store fronts and small stores.
In 2006 even before the OMB case, the City planners supported Baywood’s proposed monolith for 1171 Queen Street. Why they did this became an issue for me, a touchstone of what went wrong.
There were issues about the 1171 building at the OMB and conflict with the City. It was about the precise location of the tower element which is situated in such a way that it blocks the view south if you look down Northcote. The city wanted the tower moved to the west. We agreed. But why did the City agree long before the OMB case to allow Baywood to build in what was a city right-of-way for a southward extension of Northcote? The City agreed that Baywood could build over the right-of-way along Queen, leaving only a tunnel to the open space to the south.
What we got at 1171 is an 8-storey monolith along Queen that will dwarf the north side of the block and an 18-storey condo building behind. The City planners supported not just this 8-storey building but also buildings on the same scale all along the south side of Queen. (Except where there are two historic buildings, the Carnegie Library and Post Office.)
The first stated reason was that ‘intensification’ was appropriate for this stretch of Queen Street, just like intensification is supposed to happen on all major Avenues in the city. The planners admitted they were trying to help the developer get more density out of their property. And they were trying to help deal with a problem of an awkward site which spanned what should be a public road allowance. What? Look at the map. Northcote Avenue to north of Queen had a right-of-way running south of Queen, and the planners and the local Councillor at the time, Adam Giambrone, were supporting closing that, so Baywood could build bigger!
“Intensification” is code for more density. Active 18 supported that general idea. Intensification is the opposite of sprawl. We need to accommodate more people closer together. You don’t need a lecture on why. The City had a policy of encouraging intensification along main streets and Avenues with residential construction. (This was back in the days before there were powerful provincial policies requiring this kind of planning.) That working assumption is at odds with what the zoning for Queen Street actually says. But “residential intensification” also has quite a specific meaning in the Official Plan (See Section 17.39). It means “the creation of new residential units or accommodation in existing buildings, or on previously developed, serviced land generally including the creation of rooming, boarding and lodging houses, the creation of accessory apartments, and the conversion of non-residential structures to residential uses, infill and redevelopment.”
See 1181 Queen for how these issues played out ten years later.
The community’s formal instructions to the Active 18 steering committee in 2006 on height, as well as the recommendation of the charrette, were to stick to low rise on Queen. Taller buildings should be located to the south, away from Queen Street
But at the OMB—forget three storeys. The whole argument assumed there would be eight storeys, because that’s what the Avenue Policy dictated, and we just fussed with the details about stepbacks and angular planes and how much sunlight there would be on the north side on March 21 and Sept 21 (the vernal and autumnal equinoxes). This was a distraction from the real issue, which was to save the small stores, and not so much about the amount of sunlight. The argument was that by stepping back enough at the higher storeys of the new buildings on the south side, there would be enough sunlight on the sidewalk of north side? Never mind what would really be “enough” sunlight. The sunlight would fall on a dentist’s office! And the street would die as a fun place. Sorry dentists. Nobody has fun going to the dentist.
The City’s design expert also made the argument that eight storeys on Queen Street could be arranged with stepbacks at the higher floors so that, viewed from straight across the road, a pedestrian would not see the top floors. There might be eight storeys but all you would see would be five. The precise amount of the stepbacks mattered to this calculation. There was a fierce argument about whether the stepbacks proposed were sufficient to “hide” the top storeys. We were against the eight storey option…but if it was going to be eight, in spite of us, we wanted the slightly greater stepbacks proposed by the City to do a better job hiding the over-sized building.
Planners and architects had and have a convention among themselves, which is to measure visual impact by the sight-lines of someone standing straight across the road looking at a building. From that angle you can’t see the top storeys. “What’s the problem?” For me, this was absurd. People walk back and forth, up and down the street. More often we see buildings from a long view. And from these angles, you can’t miss eight storeys. This was an eye-opener to me. So-called expert evidence was being used to bamboozle people.
And the whole argument missed the point that length of the building, almost two city blocks, creates a massive presence that will overwhelm the north side. Little consideration was given to the impact on the north side of the street! We argued that this massive building, both in its breadth and height, would overwhelm the block from Dovercourt to Dufferin.
The other issue regarding streetscape was the necessity of fine grain retail. Everyone agreed the rebuilt Queen Street frontages should be narrow-width to keep them small. In 2006 in community discussions and at the OMB we were talking about one building, 1171 Queen, “The Bohemian”, but the idea was always understood to be a general one for a rebuilt Queen Street.
In 2006 the eight-storey Queen-frontage for Bohemian was a done deal. But the agreement was that the allowed store width would be narrow, like the average width of the traditional Queen Street store, at 4.5 metres.
But the Planning Division betrayed us. At the site plan stage they agreed to wider stores.
These photos tell a tale. By organizing the window bays to look like fine grain stores, have the planners “saved” the nature and quality of the main street? Yes, if what matters is the look. No, if what matters is the disguise for a chain store.
In the OMB hearing itself all the planning evidence favoured this width. The City’s planning evidence said this But when the actual wording of the by-law came back months later for OMB approval the Planning Division evidence was different. The City now proposed an average of 7.5 metres with a maximum of 15 metres. This supposedly could be ameliorated somewhat by good design at the street level, by a façade with fake pillars and window bays to make it look like the store units are smaller than in reality they are. Forget small stores.
This is a triple BAD
So what we got was a mostly flat glass façade on the podium with some slight stepbacks. The window bays look a little like an old warehouse building. But the massive scale of the building compared to everything else on the street will defeat all efforts to achieve a human scale.
At the time, in 2006, when we were arguing all this I knew the devastation of the commerce of the main street from destruction and rebuilding. Jane Jacobs taught that we should care most in planning about what works for the local people and businesses. What is precious is the network of commerce. See Jane, Jane, Jane. Demolishing and rebuilding is death to a neighbourhood.
The difficulty of this whole issue, the trap for me at the time, was that there was nothing there on the south side to save. And in theory, then, I agreed with the basic idea of intensifying to eight storeys along the main streets. (Not any more, I repent, I repent!) However, eight storeys on one side of the street that dwarfs the old Victorians on the other and probably dooms them to the wrecking ball is a bad application of any such idea. I figure [now] there are many, many stretches of main streets where the path to eight storeys will be just as rocky.
My view is that the planning staff got locked into this eight storey scheme in discussions with the developers long before the community woke up. One point of this story is that they set up an expectation with the developers that could not be dislodged by our later efforts.
There is a fundamental problem here in the training and thinking of planners and structure of City Hall bureaucracy. Planners buy into the ‘architects’ view—all that matters is design. They care little or nothing for local commerce. They think Jane Jacobs’ message is that small stores in new buildings is good enough. The triple rent doesn’t matter. The Economic Development Division is dead in the water on this issue. It cares nothing for small business. And it says nothing as local and creative commerce dies. They are coasting in the bubble of Toronto’s current prosperity. Who cares about affordable space for new businesses when there are more dentists than you could ever rent to?
Death of Retail
One of the most painful things to write in 2017 is that maybe main street is a thing of the past. The death of large retail stores is notorious. Thanks Amazon. For lots of stuff, buying online makes a lot of sense. Shopping in unique boutiques for custom fashions may survive in certain select places, living on customers from across the city. Will Queen Street be one of them? But main streets can just easily be shopping streets for the immediate neighbourhood. Will small local hardware stores survive against big box competitors? Will downtowners who eat out more and more expand the local restaurant scene? Can they compete with pizza chains? These are questions no one has a good answer to. I can’t blame the planners if they don’t. If we have built, for better or worse, dense residential neighbourhoods, why not let the chains squeeze themselves in to feed us and sell us toothpaste and razors?
Stop. Stop! We’re having an organizational crisis with the Blog. Chaos! Do the problems and history of Queen Street belong in the chapter on WQW at the OMB, or this one, called Queen Street, or in the Comments and Rants section on Heritage?
Well, this chaos and confusion mirrors the confusion in the real world of planning politics. As planning has failed, “Heritage” as a way of approaching “good community” design has grown to fill the void, and the power of the heritage bureaucrats has also grown. Whether this is good or bad is up for grabs. “Heritage” has changed since 2006. For more about the problems, see Comments and Rants—Heritage.
In 2008 Active 18 tried to get our strip of Queen Street designated as “heritage”. Graham Caswell did a study of the buildings on our strip of Queen Street as a necessary preliminary step. Here it is But before we could get into the public meeting and declaration stage the City itself [took an interest](Active 18—Queen Street West Heritage District Study in the whole Queen Street from Bathurst to Ronscvalles. Finally! Bad/Good They commissioned a study. And Queen Street politics took off in a new direction.
Heritage - Two
In 2016 the City hired an outside consultant to study the whole Queen Street strip from Bathurst to Roncesvalles and opine on whether the street should be designated a Conservation District. That study was presented to a public meeting in late 2016. Here it is. The key point was and is that the study proposed an exempted designation for the middle portion between, roughly, Gladstone and Dovercourt.
The community disagreed. Benj Hellie did a terrific paper on the history of Queen Street and why the whole strip should be one heritage district.
As I write in June 2017, the issue of how large the heritage district should be is being resolved as Benj argued. Two GOODS for him. Except…always an exception…the last two blocks at the west end of Queen before Roncesvalles.
This is just stage one of a larger and on-going struggle. Whether large or small, there are many specific issue of heritage designation and related secondary plan provisions to be worked out.
The desire on Queen Street for Heritage designation is only partly to save certain old buildings for their heritage value. It is also because along with a heritage district designation come much stronger controls on height and rebuilding, and a much greater chance to save the small scale stores. This really means keeping out the chain stores. The whole strategy is bent out of rational shape because the Planning Division and the Economic Development Division have failed completely to address the problem of commerce. Prediction: watch the battles within the “heritage district” for specific exemptions to grow. Ten years from now these fights will seem to replace our current fights over re-zoning. The name on the door will be different but the substance the same. To the extent the objective is purely economic the policies belong in the Official Plan and Secondary Plan, not “heritage”. It is indeed tricky to divide them up.
There is a basic structural point to make here. Everybody involved knows the Avenue Policy is wrong for Queen Street. But no one will bite the bullet and change it. And what we get is an utter mash-up of Heritage and zoning fighting for dominance.
When you add it up, the failure of the Planning Division to save Queen Street is one endless bungle. Yes, our part of Queen Street was just one part of this now world-famous strip. Protect narrow stores in the new building? Betrayed. Put in place a Secondary Plan? Abandoned. Think about local commerce? Not. Then turn to Heritage for a twisted way to protect local business. What knuckleheads!