Rockport Group – Corrections

Rockport Group’s Jack and Daniel Winberg sat down with Adam and I in a cordial meeting of minds on Monday. It’s fair to say we were impressed by this father and son team and were were able to find out more of what’s involved in the proposed Cultural Hub. A longer article will emerge from the interview but in the meantime in the spirit of fairness, a couple of correction. On April 13, I mentioned that:

“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.”

This sidenote was incorrect; although Rockport built Scarlett Heights, I was confusing that building with Humber Heights on Lawrence. Scarlett Heights is actually on Eglinton and there was no involvement with the OMB. For the record, here is a list of their completed projects.

With regard to development charges, an impression was created in my articles that the City was waiving them entirely. In fact development charges are waived only for the Hub component and not for the rental apartment building.

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 vs Weston Cultural Hub

 

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 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.

IMG_0445
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.

The lady doth protest too much

Frances Nunziata’s office pamphletedIMG_20150429_223023~2 Weston this week with a defence of the proposed 30-storey tower on King. The new proposed tower will be much taller than original proposal, which had only 18 storeys.

Nunziata’s flyer says that “a[n opposing] flyer has been circulated throughout the community to rally support for an 18-story tower which will result IMG_20150429_223055in greater shadow impacts and less public space for the community’s use, including the Farmers’ Market.”

Her flyer, by contrast, says that the 30-storey proposal is necessary to meet the Tall Building Guidelines, “which apply across the city” (her emphasis). This taller building will also, she says, reduce the impact of the shadow and allow for more community space.

I don’t believe that these statements are true.

The Tall Building Guidelines say,

Tall buildings are desirable in the right places but they don’t belong everywhere…. When poorly located and designed, tall buildings can physically and visually overwhelm adjacent streets, parks and neighbourhoods. They can block sunlight, views of the sky and create uncomfortable wind conditions in adjacent streets, parks and open space, and create traffic congestion. For these reasons, tall buildings come with larger civic responsibilities and obligations than other buildings.

The longer report also says, very clearly, that the guidelines are guidelines and should be used with other important documents like the “Official Plan, applicable Zoning By-Laws, Secondary Plans and Heritage Conservation District Plans”. They also “should also be afforded some flexibility in application” (Page 12).

Far from being binding on Weston, as she suggests they are, the guidelines themselves say that tall buildings should “fit within the existing or planned context and provide an appropriate transition in scale down to lower-scaled buildings, parks, and open space.” It is not clear to me that this building is in context with the rest of our community.

I do not think that Nunziata’s shadow argument is very good either. The area of a shadow is the function of the height and the width. Certainly, a wider building casts a shadow that lasts longer in the area that it reaches—but a taller building casts a longer shadow and reaches out farther. The area affected will be, mathematically, exactly the same.

Nunziata’s pamphlet says that there will be rezoning meetings and a community consultation. I certainly hope that we can get more facts with less spin than we received this time from our councillor.

InsideToronto on cultural hub

InsideToronto has an in-depth article on the history and future of the proposed John Street cultural hub:

While Weston is in desperate need of revitalization, Nunziata said, the relocation of the Weston GO station to south of Lawrence Avenue created a parking lot surplus for the city-owned Toronto Parking Authority, which created an opportunity for this public-private project.

With the addition of the new UP Express stop at the Weston GO station, there is an opportunity to attract new developers and businesses to the area. But, she said, those businesses need an incentive.

“You need someone to come in with a vision to attract other businesses to the area,” she said, which the cultural hub could do. “Hopefully, that will kick off new businesses along Weston Road and bring in a lot of people to Weston.”