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A back-alley building brawl Add to ...

A bid to launch a creative new style of downtown home by converting a laneway commercial building into two "town lofts" became a harsh primer in the bureaucratic process for two young sons in a Toronto development dynasty.

The costly tribulations of Jordan Mecklinger, 25, and his brother Shawn, 27, show just how hard it is to build housing anywhere in Toronto's 311 kilometres of back lanes, despite the city's commitment to increasing density in the core and to considering such projects on a case-by-case basis.

Jordan and Shawn, recent graduates in urban development and real estate finance, respectively, and the fourth generation in a family of builders, thought they'd come up with a no-brainer to brand their new company, Kilbarry Hill Corp., as a hip, young downtown developer.

They had purchased a building on Croft Street, tucked behind the shabby cafés and variety stores of Bathurst and College streets, right next door to a pioneer laneway housing development that had set a precedent when the Ontario Municipal Board approved it in the eighties.

The Mecklingers' building, though zoned residential, was being used as a commercial photography studio. To turn it into housing would restore it to its correct legal use.

Furthermore, city planners had specifically mentioned Croft Street as the type of lane that is suitable for the odd, innovative little laneway homes that have been pet projects of a number of architects in the past 20 years. It was classified as a street, had water, sewage and power hookups and a number of commercial structures.

But their plans to transform the big square commercial building into two 2,100-square-foot residences with three open-plan levels and exposed beams and ducts quickly ran into trouble. They needed zoning variances because the present building filled the whole lot, and that meant notices were sent out to the neighbourhood, including the homeowners on to whose yards the property backed.

They got unlucky. Some of the neighbours hated the idea and one happened to work for the city. A massive neighbourhood mobilization ensued, and the Mecklingers found themselves facing a crowd of hostile faces at two public meetings called to discuss the plan.

At the second one, they were shouted down and hustled out of the public hall.

"We had introduced ourselves, said 'Hi, we're gonna be in the neighbourhood,' and there were 20 or 30 people there all shouting," Shawn says. "We weren't building 150 townhomes or a high-rise condo, yet there was this huge mobilization and email campaign."

After purchasing the property a year ago and closing the deal in February, they'd hoped to be starting the construction work last April.

Their uncle, Jerry Mamid, wanted to move into one of the units and had agreed to sell his family's Forest Hill home to Shawn.

"The city ground us," says Mr. Mamid, a former lawyer, teacher and garment factory owner who is "acquisitions director" for Kilbarry Hill.

When the variance issue went to the committee of adjustment, the plans were rejected.

The Mecklingers didn't want to throw in the towel, and prepared an appeal to the OMB. It scheduled a meeting for August. The afternoon before the meeting, the family's lawyer got a call from city solicitors asking for a compromise that would push the massing of the building away from backyards and onto the lane.

Mr. Mamid called on his father-in-law, 75-year-old architect Peter Darling, to do an 11th-hour overhaul of the plan, and the funky H-shaped original with its cut-in courtyards at front and back, and open space on the lane, was gone.

"It would have been beautiful," Jordan sighs. "We wanted it to be like a wedding-cake step-up to the second and third levels. It would have been more aesthetically pleasing."

Mr. Darling drew the redesign by hand, Mr. Mamid recalls.

"Faxes flew back and forth that afternoon and the next morning between lawyers' offices." When they got to the OMB hearing they had made a deal, which the OMB approved.

But still no building permit came.

After spending more than $700,000 on the property and $100,000 to get it through the approvals process, they still don't have a permit in hand -- though the city has said it will come in two weeks and has given them the go-ahead to proceed with digging up the floors and excavating soil for new footings.

Jordan and Shawn's father, Alan Mecklinger, a developer and landlord of industrial and commercial plazas throughout the city, expresses bitterness.

"NDPers [at the city]are just picking our pockets," he says. "A simple project is turned into a very, very costly chain of events orchestrated by the bureaucracy. . . . Everyone is a loser in the end."

Then he switches from experienced businessman to fond father.

"I really saw it as a great opportunity for the boys to put themselves on the map with something creative in the central core, and it turned into a very miserable experience," he says sadly.

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