More big-box retail is headed for Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood, whether or not the local residents like it.
That’s the message from Councillor John Parker, who’s facing heat from property owners in the northeast neighbourhood who say he should have put up a tougher fight against a proposed SmartCentre on Wicksteed Avenue, near Laird Avenue.
The plot of land in question has been vacant since Canada Wire moved out about two decades ago. Sitting on the fringes of an industrial block but with frontage on a major street, Laird Drive, it’s exactly the kind of space that the City of Toronto has targeted, in its official plan, for redevelopment for large-scale retail.
For local residents, who say they are already plagued by heavily congested streets and surrounded by big-box retail centres, the proposed 147,000 square-foot shopping centre – complete with almost 500 parking spots – is just too big.
“If there has to be retail there, we would prefer to see much smaller stores, rather than the giant box stores,” said Carol Burtin Fripp, vice-president of the Leaside Property Owners Association.
Ms. Fripp said as more and more big-box retail stores have popped up, traffic has become heavier and more steady.
“People are cruising around Leaside trying to get away from the heavier flow,” she said. “They're not just sticking to the arterial roads. So the traffic, sort of like a germ, is spreading through the body.”
Mr. Parker said initially he didn’t want a new shopping centre on Laird Drive. He was also worried that traffic would increase and local business would suffer. He would have preferred “light industry” on the site.
“Try as we might, we just can’t attract new industry of any sort to move into those areas,” he said.
So he’s redirected his efforts to working with the developers to minimize any negative affects and create a shopping centre that will beautify the “back-alley traffic sewer” that Laird Avenue, once a proud street that housed office buildings, has become, he said.
“The thought that I can just stir up enough emotion to make the application go away is wrong-headed and a misapplication of everyone’s time, energy and resources,” Mr. Parker said.
When Mr. Parker met with the developers, he told them he wanted attractive architecture. His wish appears to have come true.
The developer, SmartCentres, enlisted award-winning architect Donald Schmitt, who has created a porous design of red brick and back-lit glass that’s integrated into the surrounding neighbourhood.
The design includes smaller shops with glass fronts on street level with an 80,000-square-foot stilted building over top. Restaurants and cafés spill out onto a wide public plaza, creating a sort of retail village. Most of the nearly 500 parking spots are underground.
“We're really trying to create a kind of community gathering space around retail,” Mr. Schmitt said. “We're trying hard to do all the rights things.”
On Mr. Parker's insistence, SmartCentres has subjected their plan to the city's independent design review panel, a voluntary process used to evaluate the city’s most significant development applications. The panel of top-rated architects, urban planners and engineers gave the design glowing reviews.
While residents say they are afraid the biggest space in the new shopping centre could become a Walmart, and bring a flood of new shoppers to the area, representatives of SmartCentre say it’s too early to speculate because they don’t have any tenants yet.
A traffic study conducted by SmartCentres suggests the additional traffic can be accommodated on local roads, with impact only felt during the afternoon rush hour.
Meanwhile, a business impact study shows there are still a significant amount of retail dollars leaving the area, meaning there is capacity for more stores without hurting smaller, local ones.
“People are leaving the area to do different kinds of shopping,” said Paula Bustard, a spokeswoman for SmartCentres. “We would not build [a retail centre] if there was no market for it.”
These studies are currently in the process of being peer reviewed.