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A sign shows a fake proposal to convert Toronto’s Old City Hall into a parking garage with a 90-storey condo. (Micheal Stulberg)
A sign shows a fake proposal to convert Toronto’s Old City Hall into a parking garage with a 90-storey condo. (Micheal Stulberg)

Why I pranked Torontonians with fake condo signs Add to ...

It was a mock proposal so realistic that, for a moment, Toronto collectively gasped – was Old City Hall really being turned into a condo? The artists behind the stunt, self-identified ‘urban interventionists’ known only as Glo’erm and Tuggy, intended to spark outrage when they erected a fake public notice last week. They wanted people to be angry – so angry that they started caring about how this city is developing. Now, creator Daniel Rotsztain is stepping out of the shadow to ensure the discussion continues.

As soon as we loaded our homemade development proposal sign out of the rental van and placed it on Old City Hall’s front lawn last Friday, it disappeared into the streetscape, fading into a city with such indistinguishable signs on almost every corner.

Most people streaming along the sidewalk between the Eaton Centre and Bay Street didn’t notice it at all.

The few that did were in shock at the proposal to convert the civic landmark into a parking garage with a 90-storey condo.

“This is one of the most important buildings in Toronto,” reacted one passerby, echoing the sentiments of others who pointed and stared. “I can’t believe they’d do this.”

Others snapped photos of the sign, posting them to social media to the outrage of commenters who believed the proposal was real. By Monday morning, most of the city’s major news outlets had covered the story.

The idea that such an outrageous development proposal could be considered real, even for a moment, is what motivated fellow artist Mike Stulberg and I to do this project.

A link at the bottom of the sign, normally leading to the city planning website, instead revealed a collection of increasingly absurd development proposals ranging from a conceivable 30-storey addition to Casa Loma to a condo atop OCAD University’s iconic Sharp Centre, a condo on top of an existing condo and a mid-air residential appendage clinging to the outside of the CN Tower.

In the real estate frenzy this city is experiencing, it feels like nothing is too sacred not to be considered for development. Our faux proposals featuring Toronto’s most beloved buildings address our concern that the development proposal process in this city is broken. How many of us are meaningfully included in the shaping of Toronto?

Recent proposals seem increasingly preposterous. Proposed projects, such as 385 Yonge St., or those under construction, as with 1 Yorkville Ave., feature a tiny strip of heritage architecture with an enormous, out-of-proportion glass tower plopped on top. They already are parodies of a development process gone wrong.

While providing some token heritage preservation, such proposals do no service to the city. In lieu of contributing services, affordable housing or community space, today’s developments instead maximize units by multiplying stories ad nauseam.

To be sure, density is good for the city. But concentrated hyper-density is a thoughtless imposition on Toronto, so much so that, last week, chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat called for a pause on development on Yonge Street between Dundas and Bloor. The condo boom, already reaching densities equivalent to London, England, has not been accompanied by an increase in transit, affordable housing, or public amenities.

These hyper-dense development proposals don’t reflect my values as a Torontonian. But I am not opposed to development. In the face of an affordability crisis, this city sorely needs more housing, and the densification of most existing neighbourhoods is necessary. I am opposed, however, to development that so dramatically disrespects the city.

Density can come in many shapes and sizes, including mid-rise. Cities can achieve high densities while balancing quality of life. A lack of meaningful mechanisms to control development in this city means developers understandably opt for more storeys – because they can.

Thanks to activists such as Dave Meslin, the style of sign we satirized has been updated to be less bureaucratic and more engaging, with coloured renderings and plain language. His campaign criticized the black-and-white signs for failing to inform citizens and meaningfully solicit participation. He offered design alternatives from other municipalities and the advertising world that the city has since taken up. While a marked improvement, even the new signs seem to say “this is happening” and nothing more.

What can average people really do when they see a fully formed proposal pop up in their neighbourhood? The signs are a passive announcement of the future of the city, and are distancing when they should be engaging. Even on the new signs, the statutory public meeting is often yet to be announced.

We want the city to go beyond a sign when it comes to development proposals. They must embrace technological tools to meaningfully engage with residents. We can have online town halls on social media to voice our visions for the future. We can have people present outside proposed developments, noting concerns during peak rush-hour times. But most importantly, we need effective mechanisms that control the development process to reflect our values.

We didn’t want to just provide a critique, so in another corner of the city and with far less fanfare, we posted a development proposal sign with an alternative. Instead of the existing proposal – a 57-storey glass tower rocketing out of a heritage warehouse on Adelaide – our proposal includes a three-storey addition, 100 units of affordable housing, and an open-air pavilion for community uses on the adjacent lot. When was the last time you saw a proposal like that?

The reaction to the project has been heartening. Our proposal’s viral spread reminds me that Torontonians care deeply about this city. It’s time for the development-proposal process to reflect that.

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