Dermot Sweeny designs first-class buildings. One of his best, Queen Richmond Centre West near Queen Street and Spadina Avenue, has won a bunch of awards. It encloses two heritage buildings in a huge airy lobby, with office space built overtop on giant pillars.
So when Mr. Sweeny went to City Hall with plans for something similar in Liberty Village, south of King Street West, officials should have greeted the architect and developer with open arms. Instead, he says, he is getting a mixed reception. The economic development people like the project, but city planners tell him that it is too big, rendering it out of keeping with an area characterized by old factories and warehouses.
Never mind that the building would put millions of dollars in new taxes into city coffers. No matter that it would be a magnet for just the sort of high-tech and creative workers that the city seeks to attract. Disregard that it would exceed top environmental standards. Forget that it would protect a heritage building, enclosing it, as at Queen Richmond, with a light-bathed, glass-enclosed lobby. Out of keeping, they say.
All of this drives Mr. Sweeny a little mad. A big, blunt-spoken man constructed like a linebacker, he turns the air blue as he describes his frustration at a city that talks a better game than it plays. Sitting in a boardroom at the Queen Richmond building with sweeping views of the city below, he speaks almost without pause for two hours and more.
Any other city, he insists, would jump at the chance to approve such an outstanding project. At a proposed 12 storeys, it is hardly a skyscraper. It is perfectly situated in an attractive central district that is already near the King streetcar and is supposed to get a regional rail station too. It is backed by a group of smart U.S. and Canadian investors. "Right now, the world wants to invest here," he says, "and we're telling them, 'We're not sure we want you.'"
Mr. Sweeny is more than just another developer complaining that he can't build tall enough to make his pile. He loves Toronto, but sometimes it makes him crazy. It makes him crazy that the sidewalks on some bustling downtown streets are cracked and shabby. It makes him crazy that so many of the trees in sidewalk planters die and are left to stand barren and leafless to mar the streetscape. It makes him crazy when staffers arrive at work soaked in sweat because the air conditioning on the subway car was busted. "We have to demand higher levels of performance and higher levels of accountability and, more important than anything, a true alignment, an accepted vision."
He hit the bull's eye there. Toronto is a thriving city with lots going for it – a construction boom, a busy, vital downtown, steady immigration that brings in new blood and new money – but too often its ambitions are thwarted by poor execution, poor maintenance and poor leadership.
Mr. Sweeny is frustrated because he sees the city's potential and believes that it can do much, much better. He raised a family in Parkdale and knows every block. He is passionate about cities. He has lived in Rome and he spends his vacations tromping the streets of cities around the globe. In an urbanizing world, he says, cities are the true powers.
Toronto has a chance to be, if not in the first tier of world cities, like New York or London or Beijing, then at least in the second, but sometimes it seems that "we are doing everything in our power not to be that place," he says.
Development is just one example. Though the city's official plan calls for "intensification" in places like big intersections and transit hubs, it also makes settled neighbourhoods sacrosanct, Mr. Sweeny says. Whenever a developer proposes a building of any kind of height, neighbourhood groups, backed by local city councillors, grab their torches and pitchforks.
Something much like that is happening to Mr. Sweeny a few blocks from Liberty Village at Queen and Dufferin streets, where his firm is proposing a rental building that would include room for the ballet school now housed on the site. The local councillor wants that one cut down to size too.
When developers have to scale back their projects under pressure, it can mean less urban density, less vitality, fewer people on the streets. It can also mean poorer quality. With less space to sell or lease, developers often use cheaper materials and cut back on amenities, like terraces and atriums, that they can no longer afford to include.
The problem goes much further than opposition to a couple of medium-sized buildings, Mr. Sweeny says. Toronto simply hasn't embraced density in the way it must.
Although thickets of condos and office towers have risen at key hubs, especially downtown, great stretches of the city are still grossly underdeveloped. Plans for encouraging development on big city avenues lined with small buildings has never really taken off. As a result, much of even central Toronto remains essentially suburban in form, not to mention the endlessly sprawling suburbs and exurbs themselves. Transit projects such as a subway to Vaughan and Scarborough or regional rail lines to outlying communities only fuel further sprawl.
The day after our talk, Mr. Sweeny calls to say he hopes that his passion didn't come across as mere crankiness. He respects city planners and knows they have a job do. He thinks that Toronto has a golden opportunity to seize control of its future, if only people can learn to work together instead of at odds. "I probably sound like a raving lunatic, but I'm a positive person," he says.
Mr. Sweeny should not have worried. Toronto needs more like him – people who love the place, think that it's falling short of its promise and aren't afraid to say it loud.