Weston Station – a work in progress

Yesterday I took a look at Weston Station and two things are evident;

1. The station still needs a lot of work before it is complete.

2. It’s going to look very nice – a lot nicer than the old one.

Judge for yourself in these images.

 

 

Mayor Tory attends WVRA AGM

It was a full court press at the annual general meeting of the Weston Village Residents’ Association (membership of almost 100 apparently). Mayor John Tory had agreed to attend along with the president of Artscape, Celia Smith and all three of our political representatives. The meeting was no doubt sold to His Honour as an opportunity to bask in the approval and gratitude of residents. After all, aren’t we getting a wonderful new cultural hub?

Mayor Tory checks out the audience.

Mayor Tory checks out the audience.

The elephant in the room was a giant middle finger (ok enough metaphors) seemingly directed at the people of Weston in the form of a 30-storey rental apartment building; allegedly the unavoidable price of getting the hub. Despite organizers’ best efforts (I was in the second row yet somehow invisible when I raised my hand) a couple of awkward questions were asked about the latest tower proposal and judging by the spontaneous applause, a growing concern is shared by many in the audience. This latest rental apartment in Weston seems destined to become like the others (only taller).

The questions that still need answers are,

  • Was it necessary to sell the old GO Station parking lot to a developer? Why didn’t the negotiating team look at retaining the site and developing a decent Wychwood Barns type space with parkland and no 30 storey rental apartment building? Costs could have been amortized over years rather than all at once.
  • Who owns the podium at 33-35 King? (The largely unoccupied building that is about to be bailed out by this project.)
  • What did 33-35 King bring to the table to offset the costs of developing the hub since they stand to gain millions from this in rents, parking charges and a more valuable building?
The 'Podium' and parking lot - Who owns it and what did they bring to the table? Click for expanded view.

The ‘Podium’ – Who owns it and what did they bring to the table? Click for expanded view.

  • Was Rockport the only developer asked to submit proposals? If not, who else made proposals and why were they rejected?
  • Is the current deal the best the negotiating team could make? Who was on the negotiating team?
  • Metrolinx paid $1 million to be applied to the purchase of the additional land to the south of the TPA lot. The City ended up purchasing the lot in a separate deal. What will happen to the $1 million? Where is it now? Why was this information withheld from the public?
  • Were the highest ethical standards applied in making this deal?
  • Why is extracting information about this project so difficult?

Until the public gets answers to these questions (and others) we are working in the dark and cannot provide an informed consent to this project (if that was ever an option).

Let’s have some daylight on this, please.

Weston Cultural Hub – The Issues Part 3

This is the last of a three-part series on the proposal to build a Cultural Hub in Weston.

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

From Urban Land Institute.

From Urban Land Institute.

The story so far:

  • A Cultural Hub has been proposed for Weston.
  • Disused podium space at 33 King Street will be refurbished by developer, Rockport and leased to community groups at cost.
  • 26 artist live / work spaces will be attached to the 33 King Street podium
  • The old GO parking lot has been sold to developers Rockport
  • Rockport will donate $2 million to the cost of construction
  • Rockport gets to build a 30-storey 350-unit rental building (subject to approval)
  • The City will waive $13.3 million in developer charges
  • Artscape will contribute $2 million to the project and will lease the spaces for 50 years.
There is no shortage of apartment buildings in Weston.

There is no shortage of rental apartment buildings in Weston.

We are being told by almost everyone involved in this project that the only way for Weston to get money for its Cultural Hub is to allow the developer to build a 30-storey rental apartment on the site. The project is being framed as a ‘Wychwood Barns for Weston’. Let’s take a look at the two projects and see how they compare.

Wychwood Barns and Weston Cultural Hub – a comparison

Cost to build:

Wychwood: $19 million     Weston: $10 million

Tied to construction of high rise rental building:

Wychwood: No     Weston: Yes

City Financial Support:

Wychwood: $4.5 million     Weston: $0

Developer Charges Waived

Wychwood: Yes     Weston: Yes

Province and Federal Contribution:

Wychwood: $5.3 million     Weston: $0

Artscape Contribution:

Wychwood: $9.2 million     Weston: $2 million

Parkland Included:

Wychwood: Yes     Weston: No

Landscaping Included:

Wychwood: Yes     Weston: Yes

Farmers Market Space:

Wychwood: Yes     Weston: Yes

Heritage District Status

Wychwood: Yes     Weston: No

So there you have it. Although the City seems to be generously waiving $13.3 million in developer fees, according to Councillor Joe Mihevc developer fees were waived for the Wychwood project too. Incidentally, Councillor Mihevc thinks the Weston Hub plan is ‘terrific’ but hadn’t realized that there was a rental tower as part of the deal. He said it’s up to the parties involved to hammer out the best deal they can for Weston. He did speak well of developers Rockport saying they are based in his ward and are ‘good people’.

The Wychwood project received generous grants from Artscape, the City, the Province and the Federal Government while Weston, a Priority Neighbourhood is told that this is the only deal that can be obtained. Wychwood got a community hub without developer involvement while Weston’s hub is tied to a rental tower that will be the tallest in the area.

Weston residents are confronting some difficult decisions. There is a temptation to accept any form of development because change is felt to be better than the status quo. It is long understood that one reason for Weston’s decline was an excess of cheaply constructed and rather tall rental buildings. For years, Weston was a dumping ground for high-rise buildings, each one built to minimum standards and plunked down with the blessing of the City government of the day. City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat candidly acknowledged this at the meeting held recently but at the same time telling us that the current understanding with the developer is the best that can be done.

In the developer’s original apartment proposal, there was no podium, too wide a base and 18 storeys (perhaps the architect didn’t read the City’s Tall Building Guidelines). The developer was sent back for a redo and returned with the exactly the same rental space (300,000 square feet) and same number of apartments (350) only this time on 30 floors. The argument being that since Weston has lots of tall buildings, another one won’t hurt. At the information meeting, developer Jack Winberg was adamant that the building must be a rental and not a condo. With lots of rental units available in Weston at bargain basement prices, the community has no guarantee that this building will not become another low-income project (not that there’s anything wrong with low income housing, however Weston does more than its fair share to accommodate that sector of society).

The old GO Station parking lot, existing rental tower and unused podium.

The old GO Station parking lot, existing rental tower and unused podium.

There are no easy answers to improving a priority neighbourhood. Improvement requires encouraging a variety of housing types, support for businesses, improved transportation links and infrastructure that add to the fabric of a community along with strong citizen involvement. Most of all it requires money from all levels of government that isn’t tied to developers on a take it or leave it basis.

Yet another rental building in Weston will cement our reputation as a low income dumping ground as the temptation to fill the building with TCHC tenants will inevitably win out. This is not to denigrate people who need help with their accommodation but shouldn’t we try to achieve a balance of housing types in all areas of Toronto.

Finally…

Here is a quote from a paper written in 2009 by Former Chief Planner Paul Bedford that got the ball rolling in Weston.

  • given the relocation of GO train parking to the new station at Weston Road and Lawrence Avenue, embrace the opportunity to develop a town square concept forming the heart and central meeting place in Weston on John Street
  • re-use a portion of the vacant concourse area to the west of 33 King to incorporate an indoor component of the farmers market with outdoor stalls adjacent and on the west side close to parking
  • consider introducing a mix of functions into the podium of 33-35 King such as recreation, community centre, artist studio lofts, non-profit offices similar in concept to the Wychwood Barns along with a park and community gardens on east side of parking lot and on the green covered rail corridor deck with possible bike lanes
Wychwood Barns.

Wychwood Barns.

Bottom Line:

Some questions seem to be needing answers:

  • Why is there real money from all levels of government for a project in Wychwood yet none for a Priority Neighbourhood like Weston?

  • Why did Artscape contribute so much more for Wychwood Barns than its proposed contribution for Weston’s Cultural Hub?

  • Why is the Weston project tied to the construction of a new rental building when a project costing double was achieved without one?

  • Who owns the podium and parking garage at 33 King street and what is their interest / involvement / contribution?

  • How can Weston absorb yet another rental tower when we already have 32?

  • Should Artscape accept donations from developers?

  • What is being done about Weston’s long awaited Heritage Status?

Make no mistake; this project is a done deal unless people demand answers to these troubling questions. Yes, a lot of work has gone into this development proposal. Many city employees have spent a long time sorting out the details along with Weston Residents’ Association, Artscape, Councillor Nunziata and the developer. That doesn’t make it a worthy project as there are far too many unknowns.

Incidentally, Mayor John Tory will be speaking at Weston Memorial Jr. P.S. next Tuesday, June 2nd at 6:30. He may wish to hear what Weston residents think of this proposal.

Weston Cultural Hub – the issues, Part 1.

This is the first of a three-part series on the proposal to build a cultural Hub in Weston.

The idea of an artistic community sparking gentrification is an old one, well documented in many cities. The idea is that artists move into a run-down community, attracted by low rents. They enrich the area causing young professionals to move in, attracted by the cool vibe. Demand boosts property values and the area revives and gentrifies. Unfortunately, the artists are then priced out of the area and begin the process elsewhere.

Brewing for quite a few years has been the idea of a Cultural Hub that will spark an upturn in Weston’s fortunes. Like many good ideas it has several parents but a few individuals have been key in pushing the ideas along. More on that tomorrow.

Artscape is a ‘not for profit urban development organization’. It specializes in partnerships with the City of Toronto and (sometimes) developers to convert vacant or underused properties into cultural hubs. These are places where artists can live in subsidized live / work studios and at the same time, cultural organizations can rent space at a reduced cost.

Toronto City Council recently endorsed the plans to have our very own Cultural Hub in Weston. Let’s look at an Artscape project that is seen as a model for Weston.

Wychwood Barns

Wychwood Barns is in the affluent Bracondale or Hillcrest community of Toronto. It was built in 1913 as a streetcar maintenance and storage facility. After it was abandoned and sold to the city for one dollar, plans were made for its demolition. Councillor Joe Mihevc initiated the idea of re-purposing this heritage building. As always with such ideas, the process was long, involved and controversial but eventually with funding of $19 million the new Wychwood Barns Community Centre, including a greenhouse, beach volleyball court, leash free zone for dogs, artists’ housing, offices and green space emerged in 2011.

The old Barn building that originally stored street cars.

The old Barn building that originally stored street cars.

Inside the main building.

Inside the main building. There is community rental and office space upstairs.

One of the community organizations using a subsidized space.

The Children’s Art Studio. One of the community organizations using a subsidized space.

There is a well-attended year-round farmers market every Saturday that focuses on organic and sustainable produce. A waiting list of vendors applying to operate there is needed because of demand.

Outdoor Farmers Market stalls on Saturday May 23.

Outdoor Farmers Market stalls on Saturday May 23.

As mentioned, the project cost $19 million and was funded entirely by Artscape, the Federal Government, the Provincial Government, and the City of Toronto. Not one penny of developer money was needed for the project. The area around Wychwood is quite affluent with many streets of million dollar plus homes and but a single apartment building nearby.

The lone apartment building near Wychwood Barns.

The lone apartment building past Wychwood’s grounds and across the road at 580 Christie. As a co-ownership building, it cannot be converted into condos in order to preserve the rare affordable housing it provides for the area.

The impression of Wychwood Barns is one of purposeful activity. The place is a magnet for the area and affluence seems to be the order of the day. It is well attended with hordes of upwardly mobile young professionals, many with children in strollers. Outdoor market stalls sell what you might expect but also esoterica such as fancy mushrooms, sheep yogurt and hemp drinks (all organic of course). There is an art gallery, crafts stalls and even a theatre group engaging in loud, enthusiastic rehearsals in the main barn.

Could something like this work in Weston?

Tomorrow: Artscape’s plans for a Cultural Hub in Weston.

Water main break shuts down Weston businesses

Yesterday a water main broke sending water flooding down John Street. Metrolinx is working to install a pedestrian bridge in that area and repairs took about nine hours. Businesses along John Street were affected. Because waterman repair is a function of the City, unfortunately, the notification that residents and businesses would have no water for several hours fell between the cracks.

Water flowing from the main break on Wednesday May 6.

Water flowing from the main break on Wednesday May 6. Photo: Weston B.I.A.

This should have been where either the City or Metrolinx’s Community Office swung into action to notify long suffering residents and businesses (such as Pizza Pizza who were forced to close).

It’s surprising that nobody saw this coming. Let’s hope further interruptions can be avoided.

UP Express opens June 6.

With great fanfare, Premier Wynne today rode the UP Express from Union Station through to Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport. The Premier, pronouncing the much discussed train as the ‘up express’ (rather than U.P.), stated that this is the beginning of a new era in infrastructure investments. She also suggested that public transport becomes widely used if it is a more convenient way to move from one place to another than driving. No doubt many people will sample the new service for the first time out of curiosity but whether the train is viable in the long term is a highly contentious point. Time will tell if our new transit link will be more convenient for Torontonians, airport workers and tourists (and therefore successful) or if it will end up as a commuter rail line with additional stops along the way.

The Premier also referred to the doubling of GO train service by 2020 which is part of a $16 Billion Liberal infrastructure spend designed to get people out of their cars and onto public transit. Metrolinx President, Bruce McCuaig claimed that in its first year, the UP Express will result in 1.6 million fewer car trips. Former federal Transport Minister David Collenette who got the ball rolling back in 2000 tagged along for the ride. Sadly, there was no invite for WestonWeb to sample the new line.

In its early inception, the train was called Blue 22 and tragically, with the addition of a stop in Weston and three minutes of extra travelling time, nobody in the government could come up with a brief rhyming couplet that ended in twenty-five; hence UP Express. As readers are aware, the stop in Weston was a testament to the political clout of residents who forced the government to offset the negative repercussions of about 150 extra trains through Weston every day. Hence we ended up with a stop along the route, new respect from politicians and a beginning to the end of the decline of Weston.

Arrive in 25.

Don’t Drive – Arrive in 25™

Let’s hope that the same fighting spirit hasn’t left the station as there are fresh battles coming (more on that later).

For extra credit, here is an article that extolls the merits of vastly expanding our current (slow and very tentative) link to Kitchener (Incidentally, there is considerable interest among Kitchener residents, some of whom would like to change at Weston onto the UP Express).

30 Storey tower concerns residents

There’s some good news and bad in the latest development proposal unveiled in last week’s information meeting hosted by Councillor Frances Nunziata. Well over 100 people packed the York West Active Living Centre where terms such as podium as it refers to the base of a tall tower and Woonerf were tossed around.

Since the move of Weston GO Station south of Lawrence, the parking lot has remained the home of Weston Farmers Market but is a bit of an eyesore and has lost its primary function. Over the last few years, residents have been involved in brainstorming the future of Weston and responding to subsequent ideas brought forward by developers and the city.

The Good

People power in Weston pushed the addition of a stop along the UP Express line. From that one act has come political respect for Weston residents, a commitment from politicians to spend money, quality planning for the future that involves residents and the unavoidable attention of developers who want a piece of the action. A business plan has been approved by the city for the development of land in the centre of Weston.

Lands to be developed not only include the old GO Station parking lot but the recently expropriated adjacent vacant land. Tied in with this will be an agreement with the owners of 35 King Street (late lamented home of Andrew McLean), Artscape and the City. The betting is that 26 subsidized living / work spaces plus creative programming and outdoor public space will encourage businesses and institutions to invest in Weston. Artscape will be given a lease to run the spaces for 50 years.

There will still be outdoor space for the Farmers Market which has been a diminished attraction in recent years, losing both customers and vendors. Hopefully the new digs will boost attendance.

A lot of ideas from the charette are still alive and the city feels that creating high quality public spaces is important as people walk through Weston to the UP Express. This pleasant environment will encourage them to linger and support local businesses.

place

The layout of the proposal – the footbridge and rail tracks are at the top right. Artists’ accommodations (brown) are along two sides of the existing building to the left. The original tower footprint is the dotted line.

 

place

The new tower footprint is the small blue square. The Farmers Market will be located near the footbridge ramp (stalls are dark red). Parking spaces for the Farmers Market will ease the parking on Weston Road at other times.

The Bad

Crowning the whole development like a single birthday candle will be a 30-storey residential rental tower. Apparently this kind of height is needed to make enough money for the developer the project worth while. Responding to a resident’s question, Rockport Group C.E.O. Jack Winberg, stated that a condominium development instead of a rental building would not sell in the current market. When asked if there is another tower of similar height in the locality, he mentioned the co-op building at 2100 Weston Road (it’s closer to 20 storeys).

The tower.

The tower.

As a sidenote, Mr Winberg’s company built Scarlett Heights retirement home along Lawrence and handily smacked down residents’ objections when the development was inevitably taken to the OMB.

The not so bad.

Chief City Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat mentioned that the original tower proposal was wider and had no podium. The latest version will have less of a shadow and a podium cuts down on the wind that tall buildings generate.

What Now?

There will be further opportunities to have input on this project and others but it is up to every Weston resident to get involved, attend consultation meetings and ask questions. Community input and the hard work of people and groups such as the Weston Village Residents’ Association have resulted in good things happening but vigilance will be needed to make sure that developers don’t cut corners or maximize their profits at the cost of a liveable community that we can all be proud of.