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Marcus Gee

The NIMBY crusade against a Toronto condo Add to ...

What, me NIMBY? Neighbourhood groups that oppose development in their backyard always deny that selfish motives play any part in their campaign against that new building, widened street or bigger power station.

The Save St. Nick group is a classic example. The St. Nickers have been waging a crusade against the construction of a condo tower in their little corner of downtown Toronto. The 244-unit building would rise on quiet St. Nicholas Street, near Bloor and Yonge.

Located in the heart of the city, in an area thick with new condos and apartment blocks, the development fits perfectly with the city's official plan. The plan aims to "intensify" the downtown by getting more and more people living and working in the heart of the city, making optimum use of transit and getting people out of their cars.

Excellent idea in theory, say the St. Nickers. Just not in our backyard. At a committee hearing this week, they came forward to rage against the plan.

One resident said the neighbourhood would be overrun by "condo sales agents and people with a quarter million bucks to get in on a hot deal." Another decried "suffocating towers that weigh against serenity and sensitivity." Yet another presented city councillors with a homemade cake in the shape of the charming St. Nicholas streetscape, with a condo tower made of Rice Krispie squares looming over it.

Their passion for the area is understandable. St. Nicholas is indeed a charming little street. Part of it is lined with quaint Victorian row houses and modern knockoffs in red brick.

But there is nothing to suggest the new condo will "ruin" the street. None of the Victorian cottages will be knocked down for the development. It will replace a three-storey building that currently houses a Jesuit college.

To satisfy city planners and appease residents, the developer will preserve the facade of the college and preserve the flavour of the streetscape. Under an agreement with the city, it will help improve the street with landscaping and tree planting. It has also agreed to limit the tower to 29 storeys instead of the planned 44 - a shame, because the figure-of-eight-shaped original was much more interesting.

Why, then, are the St. Nickers still so angry about this project? "We are not a group of fringe NIMBYs," says Hy Rosenberg, writing for the group. "All we are looking for is for the city to enforce the existing zoning by-law for that property and allow an 8- to 10-storey, tastefully designed low-rise."

In other words, what they hate is its height. Most NIMBYs share this allergy. Whenever a new apartment or condo tower threatens to go up anywhere in Toronto, residents swarm out with torches and pitchforks to get it cancelled - or at least cut it down to size. It's a weird vestige of small-town thinking. The proliferation of high-rise residences in downtown is doing wonders for the city, bringing thousands more people into the core and making it a livelier, more livable place.

Downtown dwellers like the St. Nickers should understand that better than anyone. There are already two big apartment buildings next to the site where the new condo is to rise, one of them 20 storeys the other 24. They haven't destroyed St. Nicholas. Bay Street just to the west is becoming a veritable forest of high-rise condos. If the city won't allow a tall building to go up in a district like this, its drive to intensify downtown is sunk.

Fortunately, a city planning committee okayed the development this week, sending it up the line to city council for final approval. Residents are bitter. "We are not opposed to intensification," said Shawn Tracy, president of the Bay Corridor Community Association. Sure. Just as long as the intensity happens somewhere else.

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