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.

2292 Weston Road sells for $10.2 million

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2292 Weston Road. From Google Earth.

This 65 unit 8-storey rental apartment building was sold recently for $10.2 million. That works out to an average price of approximately $157,000 per unit. The building had been owned by True North Apartment REIT (real estate income trust) and the deal was expected to close today, June 1. No details as to the identity of the purchaser.

For more details, follow this link.

Weston Cultural Hub – the issues, Part 2.

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

The community of Weston

Housing:

Weston is awash in apartments. A walk along Weston Road will give an idea of how plentiful they are. Anyone currently looking to rent an apartment in Weston has a huge number to choose from. Prices are very reasonable for Toronto.

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The Westlaw – 1920 Weston Road. 1 Bedroom: $ 925. 2 Bedroom: $1125

 

2190 Weston Road.   1 Bedroom:    $ 880.   2 Bedroom:    $1065

2190 Weston Road.
1 Bedroom: $ 880.
2 Bedroom: $1065

At 2304 and 2336 Weston Road newly renovated apartments start at $1075 for a one-bedroom and $1250 for a two. There is lots of choice.

There are a few condominiums available near Weston Village. Just off Weston Road on Hickory Tree for example, nicely constructed apartments sell for about $180,000 for a one-bedroom and $220,00 for a two. In short there is an ample supply of (for Toronto) low-cost housing.

There is also an enclave of beautiful older homes and buildings which deserve a heritage designation but for reasons which are not clear, the political will is lacking. For more than 10 years, Weston has been waiting for Heritage District status. Why has it taken so long to achieve such an obvious designation? Who knows. Delays in granting this status are puzzling and only serve developers rather than the people living here.

Transportation:

Weston is a transportation hub. Huge numbers of people travel through or switch routes in Weston. Next month, as a result of strong citizen involvement, Weston will become a stop on the much discussed UP Express. We will have all-day (if expensive) and rapid service to downtown. Airport workers will be able to use this service at a discount and with this transit link, and especially when all-day GO Train service begins, demand for real estate in Weston (and prices) will increase accordingly. Astute home buyers, investors and developers have already been quietly buying properties here in the knowledge that Weston is turning a corner. There will be a medical centre opening this summer in the old Federal Building. The same developer is proposing condominium townhomes for the old Beer Store property and restaurants and stores are upgrading their facilities. Payday loan companies seem to be on the wane.

Planning for the future:

About 6 years ago, a University of Toronto planning course led by former Toronto Chief Planner, Paul Bedford looked at ways to revitalize communities through planning. Weston was used as an example since it was a priority neighbourhood and the UP Express was coming. During the course, some bold ideas were explored. One was to

“encourage a broader mix of residential buildings through the development of co-ops and condominium buildings to create a stronger long term commitment of apartment residents to Weston.”

Another of the ideas was to develop the podium of 33-35 King Street so that it became a campus of George Brown College. Unfortunately, that plan along with many of the ideas failed to gain traction but the exercise led to further thinking about Weston’s future involving the community in a planning ‘charette‘. Many of the ideas that came out of the charette revolved around the squalid state of apartment accommodation along with how the new Weston GO and UP Express station would fit into the community.

A look into the cavernous space of 35 King Street.

A view of the cavernous and under-used podium at 35 King Street.

For quite some time, the City of Toronto Planning Department has been in discussion with developers, land owners, the Toronto Parking Authority and Artscape in the hopes that some form of community centre / cultural hub could be built on the old Farmers Market site while incorporating the Farmers Market, allowing accommodation for artists and space for community groups.

Proposed Development

The tower.

The proposed 30-storey rental apartment that will form part of the Cultural Hub.

A proposal, recently approved in principle by the City of Toronto is to build 26 subsidized live-work artist accommodations around the podium. The 8600 square foot interior will be converted to community group space leased out on a break-even basis and the Farmers Market will stay but move closer to the tracks. Read more here.

The money for this will come from:

  • City of Toronto: waiving city fees and charges, selling the parking lot to a developer
  • Artscape: $2 million through fundraising and a mortgage
  • A developer, Rockport will set up a $2 million endowment in exchange for building a 30-storey 350-unit apartment building on the current Farmers Market site.
  • federal-provincial Investment in Affordable Housing program

Total cost: $10.5 million – with no direct impact on City of Toronto budgets.

It is not known what contribution the owners of the podium at 35 King Street will bring to the table.

Tomorrow: A direct comparison of Artscape’s Wychwood Barns and Weston Cultural Hub projects.

 

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.

Take a tour inside one of Weston’s landmarks

Everyone loves a little real-estate snooping. The Globe and Mail has a great write-up of one of Weston’s treasures that has just gone on the market. 

The former Odd Fellow’s Hall at 24 Church is for sale for $800,000, and it is spectacular. Nowhere in Toronto could you get a place this lovely for such a reasonable amount (assuming, of course, that it’s not in a bidding war).

In 1893, the Masons borrowed the building for a dinner one February night. Around 10 p.m., local accounts say, the second floor collapsed and 90 people crashed through to the floor below. No one was killed but many were seriously injured in the catastrophe and, after that, the second floor was reinforced with steel beams….

During all of the changes, the Odd Fellows congregated at their lodge building for more than 100 years. In the late 1980s they hired real estate agent Anita Merlo to sell the building.

Ms. Merlo recalls that the neighbourhood was undergoing a transformation at the time and she speculated that builders might want to develop the property. She knew the next-door neighbour was a designer who created props and mannequins. She approached the Ken Albright about buying the property in order to preserve it.

The family quickly agreed.

Thanks to S for the tip.

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.

City Council will consider ‘Community Hub’ in Weston next week

City Council will vote on funding the cultural hub in Weston next week.

The development will have

  • An 18-storey tower with 350 rental units
  • An 800-square meter (8600 square foot) community/cultural hub
  • 26 rental artist live/work units
  • An 1,150 square meter (12000 square foot) open-space area for the  Weston Farmers’ Market
  • A 75-spot parking lot

The apartment building, townhouses, and live-work spaces will be built on the John Street parking lot and in the vacant spaces under 33-35 King.

City Council will be voting next week to “expedite the planning review process once the Rockport Group has made the necessary planning applications”, among other motions.

The proposal to Council says:

The proposed multi-million dollar investment in the Development will create some 940 new jobs, which, together with the local expansion of public transit byMetrolinx and GO Transit will contribute to an area-wide social and economic revitalization…. The cost to build the Community/Cultural Hub, Live/Work Units and Open Space Area is projected to be $13.3 million, including an operating reserve.

 

Construction is expected to begin in 2016.