Armour Gardens is a neighbourhood where you’re allowed to live, but you’re not allowed to die.
That is the lesson that certain members of the community are sending this week. They are gearing up to prevent a new hospice from being constructed in their 1960s pocket of suburban Toronto.
The Neshama Hospice, a charity, is looking to build a facility on Brightwood St., near Bathurst St. and Hwy. 401. It would be a 12-bed hospice that provides end-of-life care: something the city, with a rapidly aging population, needs now. It would replace two houses and a long-vacant lot; its brick building would be lined by gardens, ironwood trees and sugar maples.
On Tuesday the proposal goes to a meeting of the North York committee of adjustment, a local planning review panel, for approval.
But some neighbours are adamantly against it. Nineteen people plus the Armour Gardens Community Association have written to the city to oppose the project, often in venomous terms. “They should build it some other place, and not in our place,” Nick Nicolaides, head of the association, told me in a phone call Monday.
He spent 20 minutes telling me why. His more coherent arguments echo those in the association’s letter: above all, the new building “does not fit the existing physical character of the neighbourhood.” That’s an argument that has been used to implement all kinds of discrimination and exclusion. But also there’s some pseudo-science about groundwater getting pushed off the site. “The neighbours are going to lose their houses. They’ll have water in their basements!” Nicolaides told me. And, predictably, there’s concern about traffic and noise, even though Highway 401 is literally next door.
Meanwhile Neshama hopes the hospice would serve 250 people a year. Associated with the province’s Ministry of Health, it would cater to the Jewish community but welcome people of all faiths. It is badly needed, to serve a rapidly aging city. “Most families have the goal to care for their loved ones at home,” says Robert Kamen, Neshama’s director of operations. “But more than 70 per cent of Ontarians die in hospital.” A hospice “is a home-like setting,” he said, that provides families with a better way of seeing off their loved ones.
As a home-like place, “it is the kind of space that fits well in a residential community,” says Charles Rosenberg, a partner at Hilditch Architect Inc. who is designing the building with colleague Breagh Mckeough.
But if you ask the opponents, its impacts would be intolerable. One neighbour, a lawyer by profession who contacted me but asked not to be named, spoke angrily about the traffic and a building that would “loom over the neighbourhood.”
This is ridiculous. The building would have two wings: the bigger one just one storey high, containing 12 suites for patients, each lined with a garden. The landscape, by landscape architect Amy Turner, would save some large trees along the property line and add a copse of sugar maple, ironwood and red oak.
All this fuss illustrates what is wrong with how we plan our neighbourhoods. The zoning in this area (as in much of postwar Toronto) permits detached houses, and not much else. That means anyone who aims to build a hospice – or apartments – has to run the gauntlet of “community consultation” and get specific permission to do so. And a hospice is tricky because the “antiquated” planning regulations, Rosenberg says, don’t mention it specifically.
The problem here isn’t the people in charge. Toronto’s planning department supports the application, and has explicitly said so. The local city councillor, James Pasternak, also supports it. That gives Neshama a good chance of success with the committee of adjustment.
But the dysfunctional mess of Toronto’s land use planning provides the opponents lots of ammunition. Does this building involve “minor variances” to the zoning rules? Or something bigger, which means an expensive and drawn-out legal battle? “This is no committee of adjustment job,” Mr. Nicolaides said. “We have lawyers. We’ve got financing. We’re going to fight it.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Rosenberg told me that the building is designed with a clear set of questions in mind. “Is the experience going to be dignified? Will people feel welcomed?”
Maybe they will, as long as they avoid the neighbours.