Councillor John Parker knows he took some heat for not simply opposing the SmartCentre North development proposal, as some Leaside residents wanted him to do. And he knows others might have handled the issue differently.
“Some councillors paint every developer as evil and pledge to fight them every step of the way. That may be the best way to get the crowd behind you,” he says, “but it’s not how you get the best result.”
The proof, Parker suggests, is in the record produced at the Ontario Municipal Board.
“The reason so many developers are successful at the OMB is because their application is initially dealt with on a political basis and that generates a result that doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. The room for political decision-making is limited to aspects that are not prescribed in the Official Plan.
“Zoning is subordinate to the Official Plan which, in turn, has to follow the Planning Act. The OMB also has to adhere to the Planning Act.”
So, instead, Parker says, the approach that yields the best results for Leaside, and for any other neighbourhood, when faced with a controversial development proposal, is to understand realistically what is and isn’t permissible under the Official Plan, to insist on the most thorough and rigorous possible application of the design review process, including traffic studies and economic impact studies, and to ensure that every step throughout the process is conducted in an open and transparent manner.
Toronto’s Official Plan was adopted in 2002 and went into effect in 2006 but most zoning by-laws were written well before it went into effect. For example, the site of the SmartCentre North proposal is zoned industrial.
But the new Official Plan talks instead about employment areas and says that large-scale retail developments are permissible on the edges of these employment areas provided that the impact on traffic and on the surrounding employment areas is deemed acceptable.
Because the SmartCentre North proposal site has frontage on Laird it qualifies for this circumstance under the terms of the Official Plan. In other words, the proposed use is allowed under the Official Plan so simply opposing it wholesale is not going to be effective.
“The number of lawn signs opposed to a project is not one of the tests under the Official Plan as to whether a project is permissible or not,” said Parker.
Instead Parker says he focused his efforts on the design review process aiming to achieve the best possible end result for Leaside.
“The city says to the applicant, ‘We need a traffic study and you have to pay for it.’ Then the city pokes holes in it.
“The city required six revisions to the traffic study. This was the most thoroughly examined and reviewed traffic study ever to come before North York Transportation Services because I told them how important it was that we get this right.”
When it came to the economic impact study, Parker insisted that it be as rigorous as the traffic study and that it be peer-reviewed because, he says, “the city has no expertise in this area.” A Design Review Panel (DRP) is selected by the city and made up of an architect, engineer, planner and landscape architect, all with expertise in urban planning and construction.
The same process was applied to the Leaside Village proposal four years ago.
“The DRP trashed the first version of the Longo’s proposal,” Parker recalls. “They insisted on many changes, and made it so much better in the end, making the railway building much more prominent. The DRP succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in producing the result I was hoping for on the Longo’s site.”
One of Parker’s key design objectives with this new development was that it not have a big parking lot between the street and the retail space. as is the case both at Canadian Tire and at SmartCentre South.
“I pointed to SmartCentre South and said, ‘I will not tolerate another abomination like that!’ and the developers agreed.” They retained architect Don Schmidt, of Diamond Schmidt Architects (his partner is the famed Jack Diamond), and when the plans eventually went before the Design Review Panel they were enthusiastically endorsed the first time.
And finally, Parker says, transparency is essential. “There can be no secret, back-room deals. All the studies, design proposals and related information have been posted on the city website so that anyone who wants to can see them. And there were three separate opportunities for all concerned to meet with the planning people and review the reports.
“Some people wanted to play poker with the whole thing. I didn’t think that was in the best interest of the community. I directed my efforts at getting the best architect, the best design, the best ancillary features and the smallest footprint that we could hope for using the tools available to us.”
Time will tell how successful this approach has been.