De­mo­li­tion derby rages on

Investment Executive - - COMMENT & INSIGHT - BY PATRI CIA C H IS H O LM

a walk in cen­tral toronto that doesn’ t in­clude a crane, a halffin­ished high rise or, worse, a mas­sive pit where an­other stretch of cen­tury-old build­ings ex­isted only the month be­fore, is rare in­deed. With hous­ing in short sup­ply, prop­erty taxes con­stantly ris­ing and zon­ing re­stric­tions right­fully re­strict­ing sprawl on city edges, build­ing up makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is al­low­ing pri­vate de­vel­op­ers to de­mol­ish the his­toric fab­ric and so­cial his­tory of Canada’s largest ur­ban cen­tre with only the briefest nod to what will re­place it. Block by block, neigh­bour­hood by neigh­bour­hood, the most grace­ful and vi­brant sec­tions of the old city are be­ing re­placed with ba­nal glass tow­ers and store­fronts that sit empty, un­leaseable, for months and years un­til the next chain drug­store or fit­ness cen­tre moves in. The city’s plan­ning depart­ment is led by the re­spected Jennifer Keesmaat, an avowed pro­po­nent of den­sity who has also moved ag­gres­sively at times to pro­tect neigh­bour­hoods and con­tain the neg­a­tive im­pacts of run­away de­vel­op­ment. Still, the om­ni­scient On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board con­tin­ues to rou­tinely over­rule city de­ci­sions.

It’s not that growth is a bad thing or that all tall build­ings are bad. What’s crit­i­cally im­por­tant is that tall build­ings are built where they make sense, not sim­ply where they max­i­mize prof­its for the builder. And midrise de­vel­op­ment in low-den­sity ar­eas near tran­sit (many, many re­main) needs to be fully ex­plored. Oth­er­wise, too many of the ir­re­place­able neigh­bour­hoods that make up the city’s DNA will be sac­ri­ficed to the pres­sures of the bot­tom line. Af­ter all, ev­ery storey rep­re­sents more cash.

Cities that are lively and safe re­quire con­sid­ered change, with a gen­uine mix of old and new, as well as in­no­va­tive de­sign. That doesn’t in­clude height for its own sake, in­serted clum­sily into low- to midrise neigh­bour­hoods.

One of the big­gest losses in all this car­nage is the sac­ri­fice of land that might oth­er­wise be con­sid­ered for parks. Even the largest devel­op­ments seem to in­clude lit­tle more than sliv­ers of open space, gener­i­cally de­signed and sparsely used. In con­trast, sev­eral of the stand­out parks in the core, of which there are far too few, are the di­rect re­sult of in­ter­ven­tion by in­di­vid­u­als who were able to seize win­dows of op­por­tu­nity when devel­op­ments were un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in more thought­ful times.

Th­ese restora­tive places aren’t huge: the mirac­u­lous Yo-Yo Ma Mu­sic Garden on Queen’s Quay West, made pos­si­ble in 1999 by the Fleck fam­ily, among oth­ers; Ber­czy Park on Front Street, nar­rowly saved from be­com­ing a park­ing garage by preser­va­tion­ists in 1980; and the strik­ing Vil­lage of Yorkville Park, which ex­ists only be­cause of the heroic ef­forts of lo­cal re­tailer and ac­tivist Budd Su­gar­man in 1997.

In a tes­ti­mony to their unique ap­peal, th­ese older parks re­main mas­sively pop­u­lar. Where are their newer ver­sions? There’s no doubt they will be des­per­ately needed, as Toronto too of­ten turns away from the his­tory and hu­man scale that marks the great cities of the world, no mat­ter their den­sity or hous­ing pres­sures — or need for rev­enue from prop­erty taxes.

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