For over a century, the determined residents of the city’s eastern lakeside enclave have managed to fight outside developers and preserve their neighbourhood’s unique character. Should the rest of Toronto be taking notes?
Eight years ago, Leanne Rapley moved from her longtime home in Markham to the far east end of The Beaches, on a street that terminates in a sandy dead end where the waves roll in from Lake Ontario. “I didn’t even have my boxes unpacked when the condo sign arrived,” she says.
Someone wanted to build a midrise at the foot of Neville Park on the lake.
Luckily, Rapley’s new neighbours were used to fighting—every few years someone suggests extending the boardwalk out to the waterworks, and the residents get together to successfully preserve the quiet on their stretch of beach. In short order, the Beach Lakefront Neighbourhood Association (of which Rapley is now the vice chair) was formed. They fought the developers all the way to the Ontario Municipal Board and won.
“One thing I hear [about] why people might move here is they think, ‘This is a stable place. There’s not a lot of room for a whole lot more growth,’” she says. “My neighbourhood is not going to change too much.”
In the years since Rapley arrived, she’s fallen in love with this community, where you can walk to Canadian Tire along the boardwalk, where there’s a dog on every corner and “every dog gets along.” Where people still call the Garden Gate restaurant “The Goof” because of the time the “GOOD FOOD” neon lights malfunctioned in the 1960s. This neighbourhood, with its holistic health centres and lawn-bowling club, feels like it’s part Santa Monica and part New England, a streetcar suburb that’s become increasingly urban while maintaining elements of a summer-resort town. It’s a place where, above all else, the people who live nearby are neighbours in the old-fashioned, small-town sense.
One warm day in September, I rode the streetcar way out to the east end of Queen Street to meet Rapley in the big old house that serves as her law practice (she moved it from Bay Street two years ago). Now she can walk to work—a bonus in a place where parking is at such a premium that it’s been known to cause fist fights—and her conference room faces the forested backyard, where seats are arranged around a coffee table in the garden.
“I know my neighbours and they know me. People say hello to you while you’re walking to work,” Rapley says. Even as she’s speaking, a resident stops by on the sidewalk to say hello and chat. “It’s a calm place, it’s peaceful, and quiet and safe. People here look out for each other.”
And they look out for the community, too—actively. Virtually every weekend, there’s a charity event or street party of some kind. Seemingly each block has its own residents’ association, formed to fight whatever proposals emanate from City Hall or corporate chains or neighbours fixing to replace their brick Victorian century homes with modernist monsters.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else now,” Rapley says.
As much as there’s a sense that The Beaches seems to be an unchanging, or at least relatively unchanged, place, there are constant proposals from developers to alter it significantly. People are not always happy about it.
It’s a struggle that’s taking place all over boomtown Toronto, as condos spring up at an astounding pace to accommodate the population growth of the GTA. City planners advocate highrise and midrise development along main streets, but in established enclaves, people are fearful that the growth will undermine the qualities they love. While it’s a common story, The Beaches is in many ways an uncommon area.
First of all, it’s a very white place, ethnically speaking, something that everyone remarks upon and no one seems particularly happy about. Fewer than 10 per cent of residents belong to visible-minority groups, according to the most recent statistics available from the city, and fewer than three per cent of people there speak a language other than English or French at home. It’s an affluent place, too, where a solid majority of families are in the top income group the city tracks (earning more than $100,000 per year)—not by any means Toronto’s wealthiest area, but solidly comfortable nevertheless. As groups of residents go, Beachers are in a pretty good position. In many ways, they are the establishment.
They also have history on their side. It’s a place particularly conscious of neighbourhood lore—the local library next to Kew Gardens is full of volumes detailing the story of The Beaches. And that story is one of constant struggle to preserve the place against the city-building ambitions of Toronto at large. In fact, before The Beaches—or the beach, for that matter—even existed, locals were already erecting barricades against growth proposals from other Torontonians.
In a café east of Woodbine, John Ellis, the first vice-president of the Beach Triangle Residents’ Association and an amateur local historian who’s been living in the neighbourhood since 1973, tells me about his favourite Beaches moment—or moments. “More than once, my wife and I have been walking along the boardwalk, very late at night. When the moon is full and [we] look out across the lake and the moonlight is shimmering along the water, we are inspired to burst into song,” he says. They sing “Moonlight Bay” and “Harvest Moon” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Ellis croons a few bars. “Your spirit soars: the beauty and tranquility, there’s spontaneous joy with place. It doesn’t [have] much [to do] with urban design, except that this village is the product of the beach.”
And, he tells me, that beach, that boardwalk would not exist without what you might call NIMBYism. Back in 1907 or 1908, the Grand Trunk Railway wanted to build tracks into the city along where the boardwalk now sits. The federal, provincial, and municipal governments were all in favour. “Well, the people who were in this community said, ‘Hell, no! We value this as the wonderful place that it is. Putting a railway through our backyard? It’s not going to happen.’ So they organized.” And they won—not just stopping the railroad, but banning factories and hotels from the area, too, ensuring it would develop into the combination of residential and recreational parkland uses that still exists in The Beaches today.
It happened again, Ellis says, in the 1950s and 1960s, when city councillors wanted to extend the Gardiner Expressway along Kingston Road and out to Scarborough. Once again, residents mobilized. Once again, they won, preserving what they had against people preoccupied with the need to grow. That fight was decided in 1974.
The 1980s brought gentrification to the neighbourhood, but the character of Queen Street east of Woodbine has remained roughly the same since then. It’s a network of parkland made up of the beaches themselves, Kew Gardens, the Glen Davis Ravine, and the sprawling lawns of the palatial R.C. Harris Water Treatment plant. The parks are lined by small shops, none bigger than two or three storeys tall, creating a vibrant main street where residents of the local single-family homes and walk-up apartment blocks wander among summer day-trippers.
Whatever The Beaches is today, it was citizen activism in the interest of preservation that formed it. And Ellis says that history is not all in the past: “The test is now coming.” In the early 1900s, city builders brought railroads. In the 1960s, it was highways. Today, of course, it is condos.
“Beachers say, ‘Our neighbourhood is special,’ and it is,” says Ward 32 city councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, who represents the area. “But so is the The Danforth, so is Gerrard, so is Ossington. The Beaches has been untouchable for the last 10 years—basically, we’ve had one re-zoning,” she says. “And the rest of the city has been growing up. So, it’s our turn.”
West of Woodbine, where the racetrack used to be, a four-block-long wall of five-storey condos lines Queen Street. Across from them, one building is already completed, another is under construction, and a sales office for a third is by the intersection. A vacant lot on the northeast corner, formerly a gas station, is the site of another proposed condo. Further east, one more is under construction on the site of an old church building, which is incorporated into the structure. While I spoke to McMahon, a bulldozer began dismantling the old Lick’s restaurant location, which will become a six-storey glass condo building.
In McMahon’s first weeks in office in 2010, she faced a condo proposal on the edge of the Glen Davis Ravine and another on a residential street. She thought the community could win in opposing them, but lost on both sites. “I thought, Wow, if we can’t even win with those two, we’re going to have to work with the developers somehow. We can’t stand out on Coxwell with pitchforks and say ‘No!’”
And from what I can tell, residents don’t want to just say “no.” Despite The Beaches’ reputation for NIMBYism, virtually everyone I spoke to—members of Save Queen Street, the Greater Beach Neighbourhood Association, the Beach Triangle Residents’ Association, and Rapley, from the Beach Lakefront Neighbourhood Association—said they welcome, or at least accept, growth.
There are even condo developments they speak fondly of—the building that houses Walking on a Cloud is four storeys and made of brick, and fits in well with the neighbourhood. Ellis even told me he’d consider living in the church conversion building that’s underway. It’s the (relatively) tall buildings that stick out that are stirring up a fight. As much as the neighbourhood is defined by its relationship to the water, the parkland, and the people who populate the community, there’s a sense that the main-street character of Queen East ties the whole thing together; those rows of shops in low-rise buildings encourage people to walk around and meet and greet each other. It’s an urban landscape similar to that of other iconic old Toronto neighbourhoods from Roncesvalles to the Annex to Kensington Market to The Danforth, and people here are afraid of mucking with the formula.
There’s a sense that erecting a wall of nondescript glass midrises with big-boxes on the main floor, like the ones that have emerged west of Woodbine, may destroy the whole community. They aren’t afraid of growth, Beachers say, but they don’t want the new to just erase the old. They want the best things about the old Beaches preserved, and they want the developments to be an evolution, rather than a reinvention.
Roger Keil, a 20-year resident of the neighbourhood and the former director of the City Institute at York University, suggests that the residents are struggling, like much of the city, to reconcile two entirely valid truths: We need to grow, and we want to preserve the things we like. “We have to take responsibility. We have the resources, we have the streetcar line, we have very good connections to the subway, we have the best schools in the city, we have tremendous community resources and a cultural history of making things work,” he says. “On the other hand, they need to be very careful not to destroy the mixed-main-street character that has defined the quality of life in this neighbourhood.”
McMahon, and others, think the community may have threaded that needle following a one-year process that produced design guidelines for new construction in the area. At meetings where hundreds of residents turned out, along with developer representatives and city planning staff, rules were drawn up to demand narrow storefronts, limit buildings to four storeys—or six, if they’re set back from the street and appear to be four storeys—and set other conditions meant to keep the small-town feel of the street intact. The guidelines were unanimously adopted by city council this year.
Everyone I spoke with was willing to accept, if not completely celebrate, this plan. There are other concerns—about parking and transit reliability, about water infrastructure, and especially about whether the Ontario Municipal Board will force developers to respect the guidelines (see sidebar below). Most residents are cautiously optimistic about their chances for success. McMahon calls the guidelines her “Beach Bible” and says that neighbouring councillor Paula Fletcher is already developing something similar (“The New Testament”) for Leslieville.
For all the reasons The Beaches stands out as unique—and for the uncommon privileges its residents enjoy—it could serve as a prototype. If these guidelines are enforced, they could be a model for other parts of the city trying to protect the main-street strips that have defined them, preserving the types of neighbourhoods that will be ready to fight when the next generation’s city builders arrive with plans of their own.
OMG it’s the OMB
Beaches residents and city council have agreed on urban-design guidelines to preserve the nature of Queen Street East, which could provide a happy ending to this chapter of the story. But many still fear for the future of the thoroughfare, thanks to what councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon calls “The three scariest letters known to mankind: OMB.” The Ontario Municipal Board is the provincially appointed body that makes final decisions about urban planning and development in all Ontario cities. It has a habit of overruling city council’s wishes—recently, the OMB approved a development in Waterloo that was in direct violation of the city’s official plan and the province’s own Places to Grow Act.
Many in The Beaches fear their hard-fought urban-design guidelines could be tossed aside by the board. It was the OMB that approved the condo on the Glen Davis Ravine and the OMB that recently approved construction on the former Lick’s site. Two condos that were in development before the new guidelines were finalized have applied to have the OMB hear their cases for projects that refuse to conform.
Local residents are gearing up for a fight, but many are hopeful about the outcome. The OMB has recently fallen into political disfavour: Local councillors have called for Toronto to be exempt from its rulings, and provincial NDP MPP Rosario Marchese has put forward a motion to remove the city from the OMB’s jurisdiction.* The Liberal government has promised an overhaul of the board to make it more accountable. If the OMB rules in line with Beaches residents’ guidelines, it will prove the model of preservation. If it doesn’t, such a decision could galvanize the fight to abolish the OMB. Either way, it could have far-reaching implications for the city at large.
*This sentence has been edited to correct an error. Originally, it said Marchese had removed the city from the OMB’s jurisdiction—which is incorrect (or at least premature).