NOW GOOD PLANNG IS JUST NOSTALGIA
The reason I moved to Etobicoke, then billing itself as Canada's first planned municipality, got kicked in the teeth the other day by a red-tape monstrosity known as the Committee of Adjustment now fiddling with streetscapes in what used to be the suburbs of Etobicoke and York.
I have 50 years as a journalist in dealing with the guts of the Canadian political processes, beginning with the Whitehorse city council trying to expel me into the Yukon night in 1957.
It has left me with a certain cynicism as well as real knowledge about how things work, whether you're presenting a new act to be passed by the Legislature, which I have done twice, or covered every last committee at every level of government, or been a member of a Board of Trade committee studying municipal governance, which included such heavies as Michael Wilson, or chairing advisory committees to Toronto city hall.
Nothing quite prepared me for the panel the other day ignoring what I thought were sensible views on planning. And as a result, the little bungalow three feet away from my closest wall will become a towering three storeys, more than 30 feet high, as it grows to around 2,600 square feet, meaning it will be the tallest building for blocks as well as one of the most obese.
Back when it all began, when Mary and I and the first baby lived in a small one-bedroom apartment outside the Ex's Dufferin Gate, we concentrated on Etobicoke in our search for a home because of its reputation as a stable and sensible community.
We were going out the door to bid on a house under the flight path for Pearson when a city alderman, Harold Menzies, knocked unannounced and showed me some pictures of houses. And one caught my eye because it was in a desirable area just south-east of Royal York and Bloor.
As a city hall reporter, I knew that three important municipal commissioners, Tommy Thompson of parks, Voytek Wronski of planning and Ross Clark of works, lived near the house, and that an east-west subway station was 99% certain for that intersection.
We moved in April, 1963, just two months before the next son arrived, and lived there happily. Until now! The proof is that two son bought houses just two blocks away and we never moved from the storey-and-a-half of what was really supposed to be the starter house.
It bothered me that the bungalow to the south was so close. I stood in the mutual walkway between my garage wall and its kitchen wall and could touch both easily. But its eaves trough was just 12 feet above the ground, which was not imposing, and when you looked out our kitchen window, there was still some sky and a tree to be seen as well as sunlight above its roof.
Just across from the bungalow on a narrow corner lot was Sunnylea junior school, built in 1947 by John Parkin after his studies as an architect at Harvard with the famous Walter Gropius.
Parkin lived near the end of Glenroy and was not yet famous as the Canadian architect on Toronto's iconic city hall.
Parkin intended Sunnylea to be a low, lean building, a revolutionary model for Canadians wanting innovative economic schools that wouldn't dominate a neighbourhood. Another famous architect, Saarinen, built a similar school in Illinois which also became a famous model.
Parkin designed classrooms with a roof edge of around 13 feet in height, making them compatible with the streetscapes of these three blocks of Glenroy and the first blocks of Elsfield and Humbervale running north. Even his tallest part of the school, the gym in which three of my sons have played, was only 24 feet high.
The Committee of Adjustment has just allowed a bungalow directly across the street to grow to over 31 feet, arguing that the area may be mainly bungalows with some storeys and half, and very few two storeys, but by golly if the rules allow you to build seven feet higher than an historic building then they will allow it no matter if it does stick like a sore thumb into the eye of every beholder.
The neighbours have always joked that we are the poor Kingswayers, or that we are the fortunate SoBs (South of Bloor) with the NoBs (North of Bloor) having to pay a lot more for similar homes. The area is usually called Sunnylea after the school and the vanished orchards.
Developers have now viewed Sunnylea as a gold mine where if they push and pull and whine at the Committee of Adjustment and the Ontario Municipal Board, they will be allowed to demolish part or all of the decent bungalows and build two-storeys with cunning tricks to get a disguised third storey.
My area several blocks south of Bloor has survived for decades with nearly 60 bungalows in the blocks around this bungalow. There are only 16 houses which are storeys and a half, or two, or have been improved? higher by developers who treat the streets as their private parking lots.
The view of the city planner, who obviously needs an eye examination, is that the design is compatible with the area. That is so laughable, there is no need to deal with it at length. Obviously someone could have used a year under Gropius.
Since my home is literally under the gun here, but no longer the sun, and you may think me prejudiced by the overbuilding threat, let me offer the view of another resident of an area which until recently tended to be the pleasant expanses of long-time residents who didn't tinker with the skins of their homes.
Morley Kells has represented the area as a councillor, MPP, Olympic commissioner and cabinet minister, and is certainly not anti-development because he once was president of the pro-builder Urban Development Institute. He points out the savage ridiculous irony of one of the smallest lots in the area now being the site for a house proposed to be one of the largest.
Expansion should never have been approved, Kells says. It's just too damn large he says about the proposed house he will pass every day.
In the old days, we would say it's just too big for its britches.
Ironically, this application was for what are called "minor" variances. What was ignored was that the attic had been converted illegally into little bedrooms and a bathroom with windows and deck doors. With all these "minor" variances added to a bootleg attic, a major change is created.
I recalled to the committee, in a speech cut short by the chairman who had mumbled the rules of engagement and the timing of speeches into a mike that was pointed off to one side, that the affair reminded me of the award-winning movie Amadeus.
The emperor is asked why he does not like a new composition by the giggling Mozart.
"Too many notes," he said.
And why don't I like this proposal which would block the light and sky away from my windows, turn a patio into a well and allow cars to park at my backyard fence?
Too many variances!
What is the point of taking approval for planning away from the elected representatives if a clutch of officials then allow builders to break every regulation that deal with the size of the building?
No wonder neighbours refused to come to the hearing because they had been told by councillors and officials that it was a waste of time because these Committees of Adjustment "rubber stamp" everything.
The result can be seen everywhere. Decent and valuable homes that have existed for decades now have quick-buck artists shoehorning newby creations over them. Streetscapes look like they have been mowed by giant weedwackers.
One thing's certain! The Committee of Adjustment process needs a lot of adjusting. No minor variance will do. It's either that or council and the Legislature must confess frankly that the let's make a deal process where developers and their expensive coteries of lawyers and consultants who run wild on the main streets have so infected urban planning on the side streets that anything goes.
Thank heavens this proposal wasn't for an outhouse or a factory.