By Peter Small
A 36-storey development proposed for the corner of Church and Wellesley Streets will disrupt and destabilize what is supposed to be a protected, culturally significant neighbourhood, the City of Toronto says.
"The proposed rezoning would represent development that is too intense for this site," Mark Piel, a lawyer for the city, told an urban planning appeals hearing. It would result in "massing, height and scale that are not appropriate for this part of the city's downtown."
ONE Properties Inc. has applied for an amendment to the city's Official Plan to allow for a complex at the northwest corner of Church and Wellesley, an intersection in the centre of the historic Church Street Village area. It includes a 36-storey tower on Wellesley St. with a nine-storey base that terraces down to six floors on Church St. The development would contain 2,015 square metres of retail space and 433 dwelling units.
The city has repeatedly turned down the application, which was originally proposed as a 43-storey tower right at Church and Wellesley. [timeline and images]
ONE Properties is appealing the city's refusal to the province's Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). A two-person panel heard the matter in December and has reserved its decision.
The development would incorporate the facade of a five-storey heritage designated apartment building at 64 Wellesley St. E. It would replace two four-storey buildings -- one at 66 Wellesley St. E. and the other at 552 Church St. -- and a row of two-storey commercial buildings at 556-570 Church St.
The property straddles the Church Street Character Area and the Wellesley Wood Character Area to the west, both designated by the city's Official Plan and Site and Area Specific Policy 382 as "mixed use" or "apartment neighbourhoods" that permit only sensitive low-scale infill.
The city's lawyer told the tribunal that the development is out of character with the neighbourhood.
"The appellant's approach is disruptive, destabilizing, and without regard to the sensitively designed policy framework," Piel said. "The Church Street Village Character Area is not an area for tall buildings."
ONE Properties seems to expect other sites and land uses to respond to its proposal and suffer its impacts, rather than responding appropriately to its planned surroundings, Piel said in summarizing the city's position. "The proposed development should fit within the existing planned context, not the other way around," he said.
However David Bronskill, lawyer for ONE Properties, told the tribunal that the area is designated by the provincial government for denser development because it is close to major transit, particularly Wellesley subway station.
"Whether or not the lands are designated as apartment neighbourhoods or mixed use areas in my respectful submission is irrelevant to that consideration, to that overarching consideration of intensification," he said in his final arguments.
In June 2019, the Doug Ford Conservative government imposed changes to Toronto's urban plans to allow vastly taller and denser development than previously considered. The same month, the province passed Bill 108, which weakened 13 existing laws regulating the development industry.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, whose Toronto Centre ward includes the Church-Wellesley area, and two other city councillors accused the province of throwing out careful planning "in favour of a few well-connected developers."
City officials complained they had not been consulted, but this was denied by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark. “We indicated that we would be intensifying around major transit station areas," The Toronto Star reported him as saying.
Bronskill told the tribunal that intensification is "an overarching policy imperative" that should inform consideration of all issues in this case. "Much of the city's evidence in opposition has been based on a failure to apply provincial policy in a meaningful way," he said.
But Piel countered that the proposal undermines city policies that have been approved by the provincial government. These policies are aimed at protecting the Wellesley / Wood area, which is reserved for "apartment neighbourhoods," and the main street character of the Church St. Village, he said.
The tribunal has not heard any evidence that the city is not meeting its required intensification targets, Piel said. "It's also well established that the provincial objective of intensification is not an objective to be pursued at all costs."
The province has left it to municipalities to determine where to designate urban growth centres, Piel said. Moreover, significant intensification has already been approved next to Wellesley subway station, he said.
"The city can accommodate intensification to satisfy provincial policy without every site in the downtown being the target of significant intensification which has no regard to site and area specific characteristics," Piel said.
"The proposed development does not even partially meet tall building guidelines and exceeds the maximum requirement for floor plate size without any justification"
The tower would impact privacy in the surrounding neighbourhood and cast unacceptable shadows on Barbara Hall Park, according to Piel.
Planning policies dictate that development within the Church St. Character Area must minimize shadow impacts and must allow no new net shadow on Barbara Hall Park between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on March 21 and Sept. 21.
But the development would increase shadows on the park by 434 per cent at 4:18 p.m. on March 21 and 328 per cent at the same time on Sept. 21.
"To the city's knowledge the tribunal has not previously determined that a 434 per cent increase of shadow on a park by a single developer satisfies the meaning of 'minimize'," Piel said.
But Bronskill questioned Piel's use of "horrific sounding percentages."
There is "no evidence that a passing shadow that might linger for between 26 and 55 minutes on any one portion of a park will diminish the use of this downtown park," he said.
"The location, design and orientation of the tower, in my respectful submission, minimizes shadow impacts on surrounding parks and neighborhoods," he told the tribunal.
In any event, the shadow policy does not apply to buildings outside the Church St. Character Area, where the proposed tower portion of the development is located, he said.
He challenged the city's assertion that the proposed tower must have a minimum separation distance of 12.5 metres from the property line, a policy designed to achieve 25 metres distances between tall buildings. The guideline does not apply because the development will abut, at most, mid-rise buildings, he said. He called the city's approach "mathematical dogma, based on an inaccurate and inappropriate approach to the tall building guidelines."
As for blocking sky views, "it is insufficient to say that the proposal is visible from Church St. That is not a test in policy," Bronskill said.
Bronskill added that Wellesley St. is a high street identified as appropriate for tall buildings of up to 35 stories. There are big towers to the west and east on Wellesley, including a 39-storey building just east of Jarvis St., and a recently approved 35-storey development close to Yonge St. A 28-storey building, now under construction at 81 Wellesley St. E., is an almost identical distance east of Church St. as the proposed tower would be to the west.
"The proposed development achieves an appropriate balance among the applicable planning objectives, including transit-supportive intensification, increased housing supply, heritage conservation and built form impacts," Bronskill said.
The portion of the development on Church St. "largely conforms" to the Site and Area Specific Policy, he added.
Peter Smith, a witness for the developer, testified that the city has not seriously engaged with ONE Properties to try to arrive at a resolution. The developer has significantly reduced the size of the proposal from 43 to 36 storeys and the density from 18 to 11.8 FSI (floor space index), Smith told the panel.
"The key policy considerations are that the site is identified as an urban growth centre in the growth plan, part of the downtown in the Official Plan first; secondly, is located within approximately 160 meters walking distance of the subway station and is therefore within a major transit station area," Smith testified.
The proposed tower has a setback from the north property line of 5.5 metres from the 6th to 20th floors and 7.5 metres from the 21st to 36th floors, short of the required 12.5 metres, Joseph Luk, a senior City urban designer, wrote in an affidavit.
The development represents poor urban design and clashes with the Church-Wellesley area which is one of Toronto's most significant intersections and home to the LGBTQ2 + community, Luk testified.
"In my opinion, the proposed development will cause irreversible negative impacts on the surroundings"
Drew Graham, a city tree specialist, said the development would destroy seven mature city-owned trees in Paul Kane House Parkette, immediately to the west. If undisturbed, these littleleaf linden trees could last 100 more years, he testified. "The healthy mature subject trees are effectively irreplaceable,' he said.
Donald Altman, representing the Church Isabella Residents Cooperative, said the tower is not in keeping with the character of the neighbourhood and should be rejected.
"The proposal is in violation of many provisions of city policy," Altman said in his closing remarks.
The Local Planning Appeal Tribunal will issue its ruling in the coming months.
Related: Timeline with images