Sneaky Dee’s is going! Toronto is over! That was the instant narrative on social media on the long weekend, after it emerged that a 13-storey development might replace the downtown music venue and dive bar.
That spot at College and Bathurst Streets is a landmark for a certain set of University of Toronto students, musicians and service industry folks. And although the details of the development remain unclear, there was a swift backlash. “I don’t recognize this city anymore,” wrote a Twitter user named Rob McLarty.
This doesn’t quite pin down the problem. Toronto is changing, and it must. But it is changing in the wrong places. Toronto’s planning policy protects almost every house in the city from new development. The spots in between – including retail and restaurant strips like the Sneaky Dee’s site – are sacrificed.
That’s the city’s plan. But it shouldn’t be.
The development proposal is for a residential building with street-level retail space. It would replace five buildings. These currently house Dee’s, a storied site in Toronto music history and an important venue today; another live venue and the restaurant Quetzal.
The proposal has just been submitted to the city. The landowner of Sneaky Dee’s, Stan Kravitz, could not be reached for comment. It’s not clear who else is involved or what the timeline for development might be.
But it’ll come some day. In 2018, the city passed a new plan for downtown Toronto, dubbed TOCore. That plan shows the Sneaky Dee’s site is in a “mixed-use area,” which calls for “modest intensification.” The owners could get permission to tear down the bar and build a larger structure tomorrow. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood behind, Kensington Market, is off-limits for development. (Fine.) So is the neighbourhood of houses across the street, known as Harbord Village. And virtually every other house downtown.
A $2-million semi-detached? Big developers can’t even breathe on it. A main-street bar? Knock it down.
This is the vision of Toronto’s city plan. It’s an extension of old ideas, steeped in classism, that “neighbourhood character” is critical. The city is basically a place for families in houses.
Since houses cover most of the city, and much of the downtown, there’s not much room left for new people.
And Toronto is expected to reach a population of four million by 2041. That’s an increase of nearly a million. This is a fire hose of new residents; the city is pointing it into a funnel, which is then aimed at retail strips and old warehouses.
Does this make sense? I asked local Councillor Mike Layton. Sort of, he replied. While small-scale “missing middle” development “can be beneficial,” he said, “you wouldn’t build 13-storey apartments in neighbourhoods. There needs to be some commonality between buildings.”
That’s the orthodox view held at city hall. Mid-sized buildings go on big streets; houses only goes on small streets.
It has casualties. Goodbye, Sneaky Dee’s; hello, Shoppers Drug Mart.
Look to Eglinton Avenue. The Little Jamaica strip on Eglinton Avenue West is getting a new LRT, and its businesses – hugely important to the city’s large Caribbean-Canadian community – are soft targets for development.
There’s a larger question of whether adding more housing to this city is good. It is. Toronto’s rapid growth means if you build enough housing, affluent people won’t squeeze the less monied out of their apartments, as has often been the case in Toronto’s tight rental market. And cities are where our population should grow, for a host of reasons. Ontario’s progressive provincial planning regulations, shaped by a Liberal government, emphasize that point.
It’s time to acknowledge that this is going to mean more apartment buildings, across a much wider area. Perhaps in my backyard, or yours. It’s that, or say goodbye to many of the bars and barbershops that we claim to love.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.