With his outspoken support of the proposed Mirvish-Gehry project at King and John, councillor Adam Vaughan has solidified his rep as Mr. Downtown Density. He claims he’s just a pragmatist trying to make the inevitable high-rise takeover a little less painful. But when does more, more, more become just too much?
A year and a half ago, when second-generation Toronto businessman David Mirvish and local-boy-turned-international-starchitect Frank Gehry announced their plans to redevelop a block at King and John, it became a flashpoint in the city’s density wars.
The scale of the proposed project is unprecedented: three 80- to 85-storey condo towers swooping over the Entertainment District, and defining a chunk of the skyline. The buildings would rise from two six-storey podiums containing shops, art galleries, offices, and a new 25,000-square-foot exhibit, performance, and classroom space for the Ontario College of Art and Design University.
Almost immediately, the Mirvish-Gehry proposal stood as a Rorschach test for those in the development debate attempting to figure out the most efficient, affordable, attractive, and sustainable way to house the city’s swelling population. Some, like the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume, called the project “a unique opportunity to do something truly remarkable” that would “help bring Toronto into the 21st century.” Others raised concerns about the demands on transit and the neighbourhood’s capacity to absorb the people in the project’s 2,700 units, and lamented the loss of four heritage buildings—former warehouses built in the early 1900s—the towers would replace. Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, while acknowledging a Gehry-designed project would be valuable to the city, called it architecturally “trite,” and demanded the density and size be scaled back.
Enter downtown Councillor Adam Vaughan, representative of Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, the main battleground in Toronto’s high-rise condo skirmishes and home to the proposed development. From the initial announcement in fall 2012, he came out in support of the Mirvish-Gehry project, telling the Globe it was “a real positive for the city.” In December 2013, when council was about to reject the plan on the advice of city staff, Vaughan found a way to keep it alive. Council agreed to refer the matter to a working group chaired by Vaughan, who could, he said, “find a way to say yes” to the proposal—to get it into a shape the city could embrace, or at least accept.
Vaughan’s role in the debate was familiar. He is seen as the champion of downtown density, an urbanist who literally grew up at the feet of urban studies icon Jane Jacobs (his father was an activist and city councillor who fought the Spadina expressway with Jacobs). Since 2008, more than 40 per cent of the city’s proposed new residential units have been in the downtown-waterfront, and Vaughan represents about half of that area. Roughly one-fifth of Toronto’s population growth between 2001 and 2011 was in his ward.
But in his office in January, when I ask Vaughan about his reputation as Mr. High-rise Density, he sighs. “No. No. No,” he says. He doesn’t see himself as a cheerleader for sky-scrapers and rampant construction, but as a pragmatic negotiator. He says his core mission in politics is to be smart about development, and he hopes the approaches he’s taken in his ward, which he has represented for eight years, can serve as a model for other areas in Toronto.
(Full disclosure: My cousin is Vaughan’s chief of staff and my sister-in-law is his constituency assistant, and before he was elected I edited a couple of pieces he wrote for the old Eye Weekly.)
Is it feasible, though, to think of the glass-and-steel high-rise village of the downtown-waterfront as a harbinger for the rest of the city? Density has terrific benefits: a place where lots of people live close to each other is vibrant, it encourages walking around, it makes good mass transit viable, and it is more environmentally sustainable. But how much density is too much? In the southern part of Ward 20, we’re in the process of finding out. The Mirvish-Gehry proposal—and Vaughan’s support of it—has helped frame the debate about whether we need to slow down the drive for density. Or, in the downtown core, at least, whether we even can slow down anymore.
Hanging above his desk at City Hall, Vaughan has a painting by local street artist Mike Parsons entitled OMB Squared: One Million Bodies. It depicts a giant building rising out of Toronto’s downtown and twisting itself into a massive black cloud over the skyline. This dark caricature of high-rise development may surprise those who consider Vaughan a friend of the condo-builders, but the councillor says it points to something important and unavoidable about his job: that he is often negotiating with one hand tied behind his back.
The city has limited control over development. Council approves or rejects proposals on the advice of planners and development guidelines. But developers can appeal rejections at the Ontario Municipal Board, an appointed provincial body. The OMB has a long history of ignoring the city’s decisions. It tends to work on the common-law model of a civil court: If there are other tall buildings around, it will approve a new tall building. It does not work out nuanced compromises; it approves or rejects proposals as presented.
In 2006, for instance, developers wanted to build three condo towers near Queen and Dufferin, an area that was then primarily low-rise, and had turned into an up-and-coming hotspot after the refurbishment of the Drake Hotel. Local residents were stridently opposed and well-organized, planners sided with them, and the proposal was turned down by city council. The OMB rejected virtually all of the evidence from the city, and approved the projects exactly as the developers proposed them. (To preserve community relations, the developers did make modifications, once they had secured the authority to do what they wanted.)
For most neighbourhoods, high-rise construction is not so much a slippery slope as a towering cliff. In the southern part of Vaughan’s ward, it’s already condoland, and has been since the gigantic CityPlace development was approved way back when Mel Lastman was mayor. It was actually monster projects like CityPlace that inspired Vaughan to run for office. When he was first campaigning, he suggested that CityPlace and other nearby towers risked becoming a slum. He gave speeches pointing out that no family units—two- and three-bedroom apartments—were being built, and that not enough attention was being paid to creating workplaces, retail main streets, and public amenities.
Vaughan is not a fan of extreme, concentrated height. (“Do I think that tall buildings and tall buildings alone are the way to build housing in this world? No. It’s environmentally, socially, and economically distorted.”) But he doesn’t think height is the boogeyman it’s made out to be. When predicting the likely success of a neighbourhood, he says, “Height is the easiest and the dumbest way to measure. There’s a whole series of other things that impact quality of life… If you build crappy 12-storey buildings, you still have crappy buildings. Wouldn’t you rather build a brilliant 15-storey building?”
He cites the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood, full of condos, co-ops, and apartments, as a positive example of high-density city building. The high-rise towers of Market Square are in a neighbourhood full of shops, offices, and parks. It’s a mixed-income, mixed-use area by design, one with arts and culture venues, workplaces, and pedestrian-friendly living spaces. “Texture matters,” Vaughan says. “The texture of a neighbourhood is as important as physical form.”
Vaughan says that to get developers to include these kinds of neighbourhood-y elements, you have to give them what they want. And what developers want is enough height to build a lot of units and make tons of money. If he can negotiate with developers and prevent them from appealing to the OMB—which saves them the time, legal expenses, and uncertainty of the process—then he can get them to include a number of positive enhancements to their projects, partly through a process called “section 37” (see sidebar for a longer explanation).
“If you’re measuring tall buildings, I’ve probably said yes to more than any other councillor in the city,” he says. “Does it make me happy? Of course it doesn’t. But they are the best high-rises in the city, and that will create long-term viability in neighbourhoods that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
Since he’s been in office, more than 600 units with three or more bedrooms have been approved in his ward, over six times as many as in the decade before he took office. He consults residents and holds public meetings on development, and has negotiated for the addition of low-income housing and secured the inclusion of artists’ studios. The mayor once compared Vaughan’s actions to a “shakedown” because the councillor has so successfully used the section 37 provisions to get developers to kick in millions of dollars for parks, pedestrian improvements, and planning and heritage research in his ward. (The mayor later recanted the use of the term “shakedown,” but remains critical of Vaughan’s approach.)
Vaughan says those who would try to stand up and say “no” to big projects are being “deliberately naïve.” In the downtown-waterfront and Entertainment District, the OMB essentially ensures high-rises are unavoidable, and recognizing that, Vaughan says, he’s negotiated the best he could get.
But the Mirvish-Gehry proposal—so large, so visible, and in the heart of an area that’s already among the densest and tallest in the city—is where some people say it’s time to draw a line in the sky. The problems cited in Jennifer Keesmaat’s report to the city on the plan are legitimate and numerous: The King streetcar is already overloaded, the local sewer infrastructure needs updating, and the sheer size of the buildings could overwhelm the neighbourhood (and set new precedents for the OMB to follow, trashing zoning requirements in the area). As well, there aren’t enough provisions for parks and other public spaces.
Keesmaat, who is, like Vaughan, an advocate of density, urbanization, and the virtues of walkable neighbourhoods, advised council to reject the plan. “We have reached this exciting and terrifying tipping point where we are starting to question whether it could be that there is something called too much density,” she told the Globe and Mail in reference to the project. She also spoke about the imbalance in development. “There are some areas of the city where we are seeing too much density—hyperdensity—and there are other areas of the city where we are seeing no growth at all.”
On this latter point, Keesmaat has widely championed the city’s longstanding (and evolving) plan to encourage mid-rise density along major avenues, including those outside the downtown core. While there has been some high-rise development along the Sheppard Avenue subway line and near the Scarborough Town Centre, growth remains concentrated downtown. Part of that is due to huge opposition from residents in places like the Beaches, on Ossington, and in suburban areas such as Humbertown in Etobicoke, who don’t want even relatively short condo buildings in their neighbourhoods. But a larger issue is that developers don’t bother to bring mid-rise proposals forward all that often—such is the allure of the economics of tall buildings. And that puts more pressure on the downtown, where the density precendent has been established, to absorb new towers.
Plenty of experts join Keesmaat in her concerns and worry that Vaughan and the city risk giving away the store. University of Toronto geography and planning professor Larry Bourne told the Star that the King and John area has a serious infrastructure deficit and can’t handle the new buildings: “I shudder to think not only of transit, but vehicles and sidewalks.” Urban affairs journalist John Lorinc wrote that the city must reject the proposal until it can figure out “how much is too much.” This sentiment is echoed by Grid real estate columnist David Fleming, who said, “It’s time that city council and eventually the OMB, finally stand up to a developer and say, ‘Not today, thanks.’”
Vaughan seems, in principle, to agree with these critics, but given the city’s situation, he says, the Mirvish-Gehry proposal looks like a godsend. His point is that in the area near King and John developers could get almost automatic approval for 40-storey towers, and lots more of them. So he’d prefer to work with and support this larger building project for the benefits he says it could bring.
The art galleries, he says, and especially the inclusion of the classroom and student space for OCAD, will add character to the neighbourhood for generations to come. He says that the level of fine detail the working group have set up in considering the mix of office and retail uses will enable the area to thrive. The influx of new residents and businesses, for instance, will require the city to develop King Street as a transit corridor and could help accelerate and fund the needed sewer improvements in the area.
The more I talk to Vaughan, the more it becomes clear that a lot of his faith comes from his trust in Gehry, whose critically adored work includes the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the revamp of the Art Gallery of Ontario. As the son and brother of architects, Vaughan believes in the power of good design to overcome a problem. “Architects bring an amazing capacity for social phenomena. They don’t look at space with a measuring stick, they look at it on a human level.”
For the rest of us, it’s harder to blindly buy into the magic of Gehry. It seems naïve—to borrow a description from Vaughan—to assume that better transit and infrastructure will organically appear, just because three beautiful buildings have been erected. As bewitching as this new proposal appears, it would exist as part of a much larger ecosystem. Crucial questions about the capacity of transit and infrastructure, and concerns about the precedents the project would set for future development, are issues that haven’t been adequately addressed yet.
Which is why this battle over the Mirvish-Gehry proposal is so important, because it is emblematic of a bigger and more significant challenge for the city. We fight a lot about development in Toronto, but in the end we are all at the mercy of an unelected board that doesn’t respond to our needs and our wishes.
Many initiatives have been put in place to mitigate the power of the OMB: Keesmaat’s office has raised public awareness on development and infrastructure, and the 2014 budget provides for more planning staff to work on avenue and heritage studies, which will allow the city to be more proactive in its approach to working on development proposals.
But the endgame for Vaughan remains getting rid of the OMB altogether. Many others agree. A motion to ask the province to abolish the board by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam received unanimous approval from the planning and growth committee (and was approved by council) in 2012. At Queen’s Park, there is a proposal to revoke the OMB’s power over Toronto planning by NDP MPP Rosario Marchese.
If the city’s planning destiny was put into council’s hands, Vaughan says, things would be different. Councillors would have the power to work with developers towards the city’s goals, rather than hoping to minimize damage. “So if I say yes to too many tall buildings, you kick my sorry ass out.”
As it stands, Vaughan says he’s left trying to negotiate lemonade when developers bring him lemons. In the case of Mirvish-Gehry, he says if the working group fails, he fears that instead of a controversial but breathtakingly interesting proposal for three 80-storey towers, we’ll wind up with six more cookie-cutter 40-storey towers that offer no cultural value.
With or without the Mirvish-Gehry buildings, we are indeed, as Keesmaat says, at an interesting and frightening point in the development of the southern downtown area. Even Vaughan admits, “We don’t know the capacity of that neighbourhood,” as it quickly—very quickly—becomes the tallest, most crowded part of the city. Killing the proposal or setting a height limit will not eliminate the problems, or even significantly slow them. The pace of growth is relentless, and the city is all but powerless to stop it.
For now, Vaughan thinks the best we can do is soothe the growing pains by inserting ourselves into the process and use the leverage we have. But at some point, for a city growing like this one is, we need to be in charge of the process, not finding our way around it. Only then will we be able to plan the city we want, rather than one we grit our teeth about and accept.
Too close for comfort
Critics of hyper-density often offer St. James Town as a cautionary example. The concrete-tower neighbourhood near Cabbagetown was unveiled as housing for swinging singles in the 1960s and it very quickly came to define the problems of low-income communities. Here’s how it compares the St. Lawrence Market area, which was designed, in part, to correct some of the hyper-density mistakes made in the development of St. James Town.
Cash for cramming
Section 37 of the province’s Planning Act allows municipalities to get money or other types of contributions from developers, in exchange for letting those developers build projects that exceed existing height and density limits. In the past, contributions have included things like parks, public art, playgrounds, and streetscapes. On top of that, it’s estimated that the city has pocketed about $136 million in cash under the section 37 provision.
Aaron A. Moore, a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, wrote a critical report on section 37 last year. He noted that there isn’t a lot of clarity, consistency, or agreement on what the contributions should be used for, and the negotions are left to the discretion of individual councillors. Notably, the money from developers has to be spent in the ward where the building is happening—it can’t be distributed across the city. That means some wards benefit much more than others. For instance, over half the cash, about $75 million, went to just three wards. (One of those is Adam Vaughan’s ward 20.) Meanwhile, three other wards got only $5 million combined.