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Former Toronto budget chief Jakobek joins Beach planning fight

An empty lot at 1884 Queen Street East, at the corner of Woodbine Avenue, is seen in Toronto on Friday. An application for an amendment to a zoning bylaw has been submitted to allow the development of a six-storey mixed-use building.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Tom Jakobek, the once-powerful city budget chief who left office under a cloud, is back, rallying forces in his Beach neighbourhood to fight the local councillor's efforts to guide development along Queen Street East in the face of a wave of condo developments.

Mr. Jakobek was front and centre at a meeting this week at Kew Beach Public School, taking the microphone to regale residents in the packed gym with stories of his past victories in stopping intensification and advising them on how to put the brakes on what he characterized as a "crisis in planning" in the east-end neighbourhood.

The news of Mr. Jakobek's re-emergence at a public forum is rippling through the tight-knit community where the former councillor had a lock on power for more than a decade. All that changed after his involvement in a computer-leasing scandal and a dismal showing in the 2003 race for mayor. Since then, Mr. Jakobek has kept a low profile, at times even using others as the public face of his development projects, claiming he would not get a fair shake at city hall.

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Even after years out of office, Mr. Jakobek can still turn heads. His appearance is fuelling speculation of a comeback, or a move to oust rookie Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon.

"Your questioning is going down a road I am not going to go," said Mr. Jakobek when asked about his involvement in the Save Queen Street group that organized this week's meeting to fight new planning guidelines for the Beach's main drag. "My role is not nearly as great as those who are around me."

Mr. Jakobek says he's not testing the waters for a comeback. "Don't go there, I beg you," he said. "I've had my day. These people are good people and that belittles what they have done. I am not in charge. I am just a volunteer."

Wayne Clutterbuck, one of the organizers of the group that wants to cap new buildings at four storeys, rather than six, says he contacted Mr. Jakobek because of his experience with past planning battles. "He gave us some advice on what to do to stir up folks. That's when we got into the signs and flyers," he said.

Other Beach residents and Councillor McMahon are marvelling at the resources the group is mustering. As well as signs and flyers, they have used robo-calls and set up a toll-free number – an unusual measure for a local cause. Ms. McMahon said she first realized what she was up against when she saw the full-page ad in the local paper. "That's when the penny dropped," she said. "I started wondering, where are they getting that coin?"

Mr. Clutterbuck said his group has "some sponsors," including Mr. Jakobek, adding the robo-calls cost only a few hundred dollars.

"I wrote a cheque. I'm sure everybody did," Mr. Jakobek said, likening the group to community movements in the 1970s led by the likes of former mayor John Sewell. Local residents feel so strongly about the need to stop the new guidelines, he said, they are willing to dig into their pockets.

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The guidelines are an attempt to stop what Ms. McMahon calls "big-box condo developments" from going up along Queen Street, like the mid-rise development planned for the site of the original Licks restaurant, a lightning rod for the current protests and the subject of an OMB appeal. They will limit buildings to six storeys and require set-backs after the third level, what Ms. McMahon calls a "wedding cake" design. While the current bylaw limits buildings to four storeys, developers can get five through the committee of adjustment and six with a rezoning. Ms. McMahon said planners suggested taking this route after efforts to stop a five-storey development on a side street south of Queen failed at the OMB.

Two major developments are now in play on either side of Woodbine on the north side of Queen Street. Ms. McMahon describes the sites as the "gateway to the Beach." Without the guidelines in place, the city could find itself on the losing side of another OMB battle, she said.

Sheila Cary-Meagher, a local school board trustee and another panelist at this week's meeting, dismisses the idea that Save Queen Street is a grassroots campaign. A long-time resident of the Beach, who once lost her trustee seat to Mr. Jakobek in 1980, she has worked for more than a year on efforts that led to the new visioning study. The study included 42 citizen advisers – including Mr. Clutterbuck – but Ms. Cary-Meagher said many of the community groups who spent hundreds of hours on the planning effort were not at this week's meeting or left early.

She figures this this week's meeting was about stirring the pot. "It was a fake meeting," she said. "It was an attempt to take over a legitimate community process."

Mr. Jakobek argues residents only are agreeing to the new guidelines because city planners have "put a gun to their head." His group wants them deferred by city council pending further public consultation and wants to freeze development with an interim control bylaw – something Ms. McMahon says city planners and lawyers have advised her is impossible.

Gene Domagala, a long-time local heritage advocate and another of the meeting's panelist, said he would lie down in front of the bulldozers if it would stop development on Queen, but figures the new guidelines are the best chance the neighbourhood has to take some control of the inevitable. Mr. Domagala said he has seen a lot of politicians come and go over four decades and always figured Mr. Jakobek would return in one way or another. "That's democracy, I guess," he said.

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