Councillors have fallen into the habit of not sticking their noses in other wards’ business
Toronto City Council seems to approve almost every rezoning presented to it no matter how ludicrous.
In the good old days rezonings were contentious and subject to much debate, but not today. In the three-day council meeting in early July, 24 rezoning applications were considered and only one received serious debate before being approved, that being David Mirvish’s proposal around his theatres on King Street West to build two condo towers designed by architectural star Frank Gehry. The other 23 rezonings didn’t engender any debate.
And that silence is what usually happens. Councillors don’t debate the rezonings taking place in someone else’s ward. They simply defer to whatever the local councillor wants. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t stick your nose into someone else’s ward and they won’t stick their noses into yours. It’s as though land use planning is something council should not talk about.
The local councillor gets a free hand on development in his or her ward. One key detail about virtually every rezoning is how much money the developer will have to pay. City policy is to demand payment under Section 37 of the Planning Act in return for the rezoning that otherwise would not conform to city policy. It’s basically a quid pro quo: we’ll change the rules for you if you pay us to do it.
The amount to be paid under Section 37 is not determined by any formula, but is a matter that is negotiated in secret by the local councillor and the developer, and the councillor decides on his or her own how that money will be spent.
Maybe the developer will be required to fix up a local park, plant some trees, help a local library, provide some affordable housing or make a grant for a recreation program. Examples of all these uses of Section 37 money can be found. The sums negotiated start at the low hundreds of thousands of dollars and go up to a million dollars or more.
Interfering with a rezoning by saying it is unwarranted or will produce a building that is inappropriate means you would be interfering with the arrangements the local councillor has made with the developer, so it is hardly ever done.
Rezonings are rarely challenged even if they produce something that is questionable. That happened at the July council meeting when a rezoning was approved on College Street permitting a building with retail at grade and 77 apartments on the other eight floors. Almost all of those units — 70 to be exact — have bedrooms without windows to the outside.
That’s correct. City council gave approval to a rezoning where almost all of the apartment units have bedrooms without windows. Architect Astra Burka had raised this issue at the community council meeting asking for reconsideration, but the community council simply approved the staff report saying this rezoning should be recommended to city council. Burka then learned that city staff adopted a policy a decade ago to permit bedrooms without windows and that many of the recently approved large condominium buildings have a goodly share of such units.
It’s as though city hall is trying to replicate the crowded tenement buildings from the 19th century.
After the local councillor said he wouldn’t step in, Burka wrote to the half-dozen councillors who are on the local board of health and asked them to intervene. All of them followed the rule of not intervening and kept their silence. The rezoning for these units with windowless bedrooms was approved. I can’t believe any self-respecting councillor would stand up at a public meeting and say, “I believe the city needs more bedrooms without windows,” but that’s what city council has just done, without any debate and without any dissenting vote.
Maybe these are important issues for candidates in the coming election: Do you think new bedrooms in Toronto should have windows? Do you think council should award rezonings according to how much money is paid by the developer under Section 37? Will you work to change both policies?
L-R: David Mirvish and Frank Gehry overlook their original model that had three towers instead of the current two