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Renderings of Platinum Vista, a proposed 26-unit/85,000 sq-ft project designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects.Hariri Pontarini Architects

In a city where soaring towers, new mansions and architectural showcase projects sprout every week, the discretely designed four-storey luxury apartment proposal for a south Rosedale ravine lot hardly seemed like a ticking time bomb when it was submitted two years ago.

After all, Platinum Vista’s proposed 26-unit/85,000 sq-ft project, to be designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, was slated for an assembled three-lot site situated literally next door to one of Rosedale 1950s-vintage low-rise apartments. The project is slated to replace three bungalows on the south side of Dale Avenue.

But the application – which is hurtling toward an Ontario Municipal Board showdown – has triggered an impressively nasty feud between two factions of Rosedale homeowners, featuring accusations of a hijacked planning process, a coup within the local ratepayers association and vast sums spent on consultants.

At the heart of this civil war is the contentious question about whether the neighbourhood’s 15-year-old heritage conservation district (HCD) bylaw, ostensibly meant to protect architecturally significant houses and the area’s character, can be weaponized to block any intensification in an exclusive enclave.

The fight, in fact, has exposed a paradox buried deep in south Rosedale’s HCD designation: While the area’s contemporary ambience is formed from the eclectic mix of stately Edwardian homes and the smattering of low-rise apartments that dot the neighbourhood, it is highly unlikely the latter could be ever be developed today.

“There is an overwhelming expression of opposition to the development proposal,” says Don Hogarth, the president of the South Rosedale Residents Association (SRRA), who explains that a newly formed sub-group, My Rosedale, which consists mainly of residents in the immediate vicinity of Dale, are pushing to have one of those three bungalows, at 7 Dale, “nominated” as a protected structure, effectively blocking the approval. That house was designed by Gordon Adamson, a highly regarded modernist architect and founder of Adamson Associates.

“There are other places to build,” says Kathy Lee, the Dale Avenue resident who founded My Rosedale. She dismisses suggestions that the group is motivated by NIMBYism. “The developer conveniently didn’t engage earlier the most impacted neighbours that is the residents who live on Dale and adjacent streets. If they did, they would have heard the response early and clearly.”

7 Dale Ave. was designed by highly-regarded modernist architect Gordon Adamson.University of Calgary

But Siamak Hariri says his firm, his client, city planning and heritage staff, and members of a SRRA working group met repeatedly for almost two years to refine the design to address a range of local concerns about massing, the street face, setbacks and materials. “It was a really fine-grain conversation,” notes Mr. Hariri, who says My Rosedale pushed out long-standing association members specifically in order to block the project. He adds that he’s never encountered this kind of reversal in a planning process.

“They basically changed their minds and said the project in any form was unacceptable,” former SRRA president David Townley adds. “I’m still a sitting director of the board, so I want to be careful about what I say. But definitely, the process was changed from a normal evaluation.”

Ms. Lee, however, contends that Mr. Townley and other members of the working group didn’t have authorization to negotiate on behalf of SRRA members.

A January 30 staff report recommended against the project, as did the Toronto Preservation Board. The application is still being reviewed by the city’s planning department and has yet to be debated at council.

Kristyn Wong-Tam, the local councillor, confirms she has received several private letters from SRRA members saying the process had been hijacked. “Even leaders in the community felt silenced.”

At issue is the way the HCD designates homes. The bylaw classifies every structure in the area as A, B, C or unrated, depending on their heritage importance. The three bungalows on Dale were rated as “C” buildings, and could be demolished as long as they are replaced with structures of greater architectural value.

The developer hired Philip Goldsmith, a respected local heritage planner, to conduct a heritage impact assessment on the properties. His January report concluded that the three bungalows were “stylistically inconsistent” with the area’s overall heritage character. “I do not consider them significant as architectural designs or to have significant landscaping that is visible to the street,” he wrote.

But My Rosedale raised more than $15,000 to commission its own heritage study, which effectively found the opposite. “A lot of people mistake the heritage designation as architectural taste,” Ms. Lee says. “It’s based on heritage and cultural criteria, such as streetscape. It’s not about the look of the house.”

The city’s heritage planning officials did their own research on the home and grounds of 7 Dale, says Ms. Wong-Tam, who adds that she will support their professional judgment when the application lands at council.

What’s far less clear is how this particular property, which has suddenly been discovered to have heritage value, didn’t show up in South Rosedale’s original HCD inventory study. It was conducted by experienced consultants and area residents in 2002, confirmed by city staff and then approved by council in 2003.

Ms. Wong-Tam can’t explain what happened, but adds that it’s “unlikely” that the original survey would have missed a structure with such significance. Ms. Lee claims that because local volunteers did some of the research, the history of 7 Dale might have been overlooked. “They didn’t have the ability to go deep at the time.”

Mr. Hariri says that during the working group meetings held throughout 2016, “no one at the city mentioned [the significance of 7 Dale] – not once.”

Quite apart from the particulars of those bungalows, the other question hovering over this application has to do with the fact that there are already compact, low-rise apartments all over Rosedale, including one directly east of this property.

While some locals fear the project will pave the way for more land assembly and intensification in Rosedale, Mr. Hariri stresses that concerns about precedent are red herrings. “You can’t invoke precedent without pointing to where else this could happen.” He says there are no other sites in Rosedale where three properties could be assembled in this way.

Ms. Wong-Tam, for her part, points out that she felt the South Rosedale HCD – one of the first to be approved in Toronto – relies on a form of building classification that is no longer in use in other neighbourhoods that have adopted such heritage-protection planning policies. But when she suggested to the SRRA executive several years ago that the members might consider updating it, she was rebuffed.

The HCD, Mr. Hariri adds, wasn’t designed to “pickle a bungalow so you can’t touch the lots.”

Amid the storm of claims and counterclaims, it seems almost certain that the OMB will be the body that ends up adjudicating this fight – a decision that could have far-reaching implications for the HCD itself. Indeed, Platinum has hired one of Toronto’s toughest development lawyers, Jane Pepino, to represent it at the board.

As Ms. Wong-Tam says, cautiously, “It might be the body that gives the applicant the outcome he’s looking for.”