In 1980, a burger joint opened in the Beach strip of Queen Street East. Singing staff served up burgers, fries and milkshakes from a corner building on a commercial strip of one- or two-storey shops, a streetscape that was pretty typical of Toronto’s main streets.
In the ensuing 32 years, that Lick’s Homeburgers has grown to become a chain of 23 outlets and Toronto has become home to the greatest concentration of condo-building construction cranes on the continent. Still, that low-slung Beach strip has remained more or less the same.
If local resident associations are any indication, Beachers like their Queen Street just the way it is. A proposed six-storey, 29-unit building with ground-floor retail at the Lick’s location is kicking up a surprising amount of dust. The city’s planning department recommended the re-zoning application be approved earlier this month and on Tuesday the Toronto and East York community council will vote on it. Planners say smart growth in Toronto means building up main avenues. Resident groups are decrying what they see as a policy void that could erode the character of main-street strips across Toronto.
At an open-house meeting at the end of April, the prospective developer, Shane Fenton, vice-president of Reserve Properties, described the block of storefronts where he hopes to raze the Lick’s building as “a mishmash of multiple buildings, built over time.”
Mr. Fenton says he considers the proposal modest and thinks the community is not understanding the city’s policy toward growth and need for residential development.
“We’ve found the Beach to be slightly more vocal than other [neighbourhoods]” says Mr. Fenton.
Jason Self would argue that understanding the city’s policy toward growth is difficult, given the overlapping guidelines.
“It’s like quicksand. The rules change underneath you,” says Mr. Self. The 41-year-old works in finance and is a founding member of Friends of Queen Street. He says the current approval process is based on site-by-site re-zonings, with no overarching local plan.
A local plan for Queen Street East was prescribed in Toronto’s Official Plan from 2002 but has yet to be completed, says Jan Hykamp, president of the Greater Beach Neighbourhood Association.
Mr. Hykamp has lived in the neighbourhood for almost 40 years and says that without what’s called an Avenue Study, the Official Plan is vague and open to interpretation.
“We don’t know the cumulative impact of these re-zonings on the services or character of the area. In the drive to intensify, we don’t want to lose neighbourhoods that are so special to the city.”
Toronto’s Official Plan projects Toronto will grow by half a million people between 2001 and 2031. Gregg Lintern, director of planning for Toronto and East York, explains the strategy is to focus growth along main avenues to encourage local shopping and travel by foot and transit. To that end, the plan spells out goals for so-called avenues like Queen Street. When it comes to deciding on re-zoning applications, these goals apparently trump specific guidelines that were drawn up for Queen Street East in the 1980s.
Mr. Lintern also says redevelopment can provide housing options for downsizing residents who want to stay in their neighbourhoods. Mr. Fenton says the units, which cost up to a million dollars, are 90 per cent sold and that 85 per cent of buyers already live in the Beach.
Planner Leontine Major downplays recent and future development in the area. She says in the past 10 years, the 20-block stretch between Woodbine Avenue and Neville Park Boulevard has had no re-zonings approved, excluding the Lick’s site. Seven site plan applications have allowed for 67 new residential units and 1,432 square feet of new retail space. Ms. Major says because of things like shallow lot sizes, heritage designations and a lack of rear access lanes, there are only four more sites in the area that could be similarly redeveloped between Woodbine and Hambly avenues.
Brian Graff thinks there are more, but even four would be too many. In his view, the Beach area does not need more residences. The 53-year-old researcher for Friends of Queen Street says when “rogue planners” re-zone areas in already established areas like the Beach, it starves other areas where there is more potential to really accomplish the kind of densification that would combat urban sprawl. He points to areas like Danforth Avenue and Main Street, or along Lawrence Avenue in Scarborough.
Mr. Graff says the way the new but vague Official Plan seems to override 1987 guidelines designed for the Beach leaves too many decisions to the “subjective opinions of government employees.”
Which brings us to the vote next week. Local city councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon says that this week she convinced the developer to change the design and step the building back three feet above the third storey, to reduce the street presence of the tiered building.
Ms. McMahon says she will support the re-zoning application at the vote on Tuesday. She says if council rejects the report, the developer can go to the Ontario Municipal Board.
“I have to be realistic. If you roll the dice with the OMB, you can get something that’s worse than what was originally planned.”
Ms. McMahon says development is inevitable, and her goal is to follow the lead of councillor Adam Vaughan and create local urban design review panels to encourage local input into the planning process earlier in the game, “so when developers come, we are at Coxwell with our beach volleyball saying, ‘You want to develop here, this is what you have to follow.’ We need more than two mandatory meetings.”
A visioning study to guide future development on Queen Street was approved by council last winter, but terms of reference are not yet available.
While all this was being debated at the open-house meeting, Mark Schweitzer was down the street treating his two daughters to an ice cream at the Lick’s restaurant that may soon fill a demolition order.
The 55-year-old moved to the Beach from the U.S. in 1996, and has a lot of sympathy for the idea of other people wanting to live here, something, he says, that can only happen with more development.
“Who wouldn’t want to live here? Development is a train coming down the tracks,” says Mr. Schweitzer. He doesn’t seem worried, though. “This is a desirable neighbourhood. That’s not going to change.” On the first point, it seems everyone can agree. The second one remains open to debate.
Special to The Globe and Mail