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From cookies to condos

A swath of land near Toronto's southwestern entrance sits empty, years after the bakery closed. Now, as the owner mulls ideas, the city and residents of Humber Bay Shores fear there will be yet more condo towers. Iain Boekhoff reports

First Capital, the new owner of the Christie bakery site by the Gardiner Expressway, is weighing options for the property, including developing more retail space, rather than a forest of yet more high-rise condo buildings.

A few decades ago, the backdrop to the Christie's bakery tower as seen from the Gardiner Expressway was the water of Lake Ontario. Today, looming large behind the bakery's iconic water tower is a phalanx of condo buildings. And soon, those condos may be moving a little closer.

The bakery was shuttered in 2013 and with it, 550 jobs were lost. Immediately, speculation began about the property's future. Would it become high-rises and if so, how many and how fast? The property owner at the time, Mondelez Canada Inc., ambitiously suggested 27 high-rises could be built on the 27-acre property – a proposal that put the Humber Bay Shores neighbourhood and city hall on the defensive. Since then, there has been little movement either in official plans or on the site. But, just recently, demolition workers began taking down the former factory, sparking new discussions about the site's future.

Standing in the way of any development for the past four years has been the site's zoning as employment, which the city seems intent on keeping. Mondelez applied to rezone the property, but the city denied it and has been fighting the former owner's appeal at the Ontario Municipal Board.

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The neighbourhood has grown at a breakneck speed in the past decade, with condo buildings of 40 to 60-plus storeys rising from the old motel strip, transforming the community into a destination for working professionals and families. The city planned to convert the area to residential, but never envisioned the scale or pace it has proceeded at. Demand has been driving the population boom, with people attracted to the proximity to the lake, protected green space and a half-hour drive to downtown.

The development of the old plant opens up a host of questions for the city, which is trying to balance the desire to preserve employment lands with a push to increase density and address a housing shortage. It's also an opportunity to tackle some of the shortcomings the pace of developments has caused.

The property's new owner, First Capital Realty Inc., hopes it can come to an agreement with the city and residents to provide essential services, such as transit, on the land without having to resort to the lengthy and costly OMB process.

The company specializes in shopping centres and builds neighbourhood retail areas that include grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor stores, medical offices and fitness centres. First Capital's senior vice-president for development, Jodi Shpigel, said there are no concrete plans for the site yet, but the company is listening to what residents and politicians are looking for out of the property.

‘We could actually develop an entire community on that property,’ says Jodi Shpigel, First Capital’s senior vice-president for development.

"There's a lot of residential development that's already taken place," Ms. Shpigel said, "so we felt, first and foremost, there was a need in the community to bring retail services."

The sheer size of the property presents many options beyond more high-rises that First Capital is exploring.

"We could actually develop an entire community on that property," Ms. Shpigel said. "So not only provide retail and offices, but the site could also support other uses, including community benefits, residential uses … and we feel our site could also accommodate a transit hub to help resolve existing traffic issues."

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Mark Grimes, the area's city councillor, said the Humber Bay Shores area has exploded in recent years, with 25,000 new condo units built or approved, mainly through decisions at the OMB that went against the city. This meant development came first and infrastructure second, leaving a bottleneck of traffic and disconnected transit routes that make it impractical to commute. It's also left behind schools, community centres and basic retail needs for residents.

"The density along Park Lawn was never, ever in the city's plan," Grimes said. "Whatever happens [at the Christie's site] will have a huge impact on the community."

Humber Bay Shores resident Daniela Veljkovic, who owns a condo, said the area is suffering from a lack of infrastructure as the developments have brought thousands more people.

"I think, to a great extent, the developments are lovely, it's a great area to live in," Ms. Veljkovic said. "However, there's been such a massive influx in the five years I've been here that getting from Point A to Point B even in the neighbourhood is a mess."

Five-hundred and fifty jobs were lost when the bakery was shuttered in 2013.

The TTC has seen rapid expansion in the daily ridership going downtown. TTC spokesman Stuart Green said in an e-mail that the express bus that operates during rush hour has grown from a ridership of 75 when it started in 2009 to 275 this year. The regular route has rapidly increased from 4,100 daily riders in 2007 to 5,800 last year, with a noticeable increase in the southern part of the route near the Christie's site increasing from 600 daily riders in 2012 to 1,700 last year.

The city is working on a couple of reports for council to consider in addressing the transportation shortfall in the area. Peter Milczyn, the MPP for the area and a city councillor at the time the Christie's factory closed, said he hopes the site generates substantial employment and offers retail outlets for residents. He echoed the concerns about transit in the area.

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"The area as it is today is poorly served by public transit," Mr. Milczyn said. "It does need transit as is. So, obviously, if 27 acres gets redeveloped for whatever purpose, that would put more strain on the local road network and generate even more demand for better public transit in the area."

One thing that Mr. Grimes and community advocates have been pushing for is a GO station at Park Lawn, but the location didn't make the regional transit authority's 12-site shortlist for new stations. Metrolinx's chief planning officer, Leslie Woo, said the transit authority has looked at the site and found there will be challenges in building any future GO station.

"That site is particularly physically challenging because it's adjacent to where the Lake Shore ramp and the Gardiner start to spaghetti a bit and the ways of access into that are a bit complicated," Ms. Woo said. "We have done an initial business case [on the Christie's site] but there are some incomplete pieces of information we're waiting on and once those land, we're in a better position to take our analysis to the next level."

Ms. Woo also listed the various factors that go into planning a GO station, including how many people it would serve, how far away from other stations it would be and how that would affect travel times, and what technology they are able to use. And there are other options besides a GO station: Light rail and better TTC access, including express routes, would improve transit times for riders.

Another concern for the community is schooling. As with some other city neighbourhoods, the Toronto District School Board has posted signs to warn new and potential residents that, because of population growth, there may not be available spots in schools for all students and they could be bused outside the area. The Toronto Catholic District School Board's two high schools in the area are both over capacity and its elementary schools are nearing capacity.

The neighbourhood near Lake Shore Boulevard and Park Lawn Road has grown rapidly over the past 10 years, putting pressure on transit infrastructure and creating a need for more retail space.

"I'm one of many young couples with a kid who are wondering, are we going to have to transition out of this neighbourhood?" Humber Bay Shores resident Randy Barba said. "I don't want people to feel like they have to leave the second their kid reaches age 3."

Mr. Barba moved to the area three years ago and has become active in the city-planning process. He described the area as "gasping for air" and recently started a group, the Humber Bay Shores Ratepayers and Residents Association, to advocate for residents and get people informed and interested in the planning of their community.

Julie Aube, the principal of the Holy Trinity, a newly merged elementary school near Lake Shore and Kipling, said the school is just under capacity now but she expects it will be a year or two before it's full. She said the area has grown noticeably in the past few years and more people are coming to it as a destination.

"Whereas 10 years ago, families would come, rent apartments, come to school and then relocate to another area," Ms. Aube said. "However now, people are buying homes and staying in the area for years and … a lot more parents want their child to be in one school and not have to change schools because it's hard for kids."

That sentiment was echoed by Lisa Tomeczek, principal of high school Father John Redmond. She said the area has become more "artistic" in recent years, with more activities in the community, and said it was changing to become more like a neighbourhood akin to Liberty Village.

One thing that will remain on the site no matter the type of development is the Christie's water tower. First Capital said it intends to keep the tower and the city is considering an application to designate it a heritage site. The development of the site is a long way away, with no official plans yet from First Capital, and the city still hasn't changed the site's zoning from employment. But to politicians, residents and community activists, it seems inevitable that some development will be coming to the former bakery eventually.

"No matter what happens with the zoning of the Christie's site, that property has the ability to make or break this community," Mr. Barba said. "[First Capital] could further compound every other problem we have without solving any of the real problems we have and it will make it two times worse. Or, as they have suggested, we can all come together and try and figure out some sort of solution that will allow this area to thrive instead of just completely drowning in itself.

"I really, really hope that we can all come together and make the community instead of breaking it."

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