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A rendering of 28 and 32 Evergreen Gardens, proposed developments on the fringe of Toronto's tony Bennington Heights.Goldberg Group/Goldberg Group

Where, precisely, does a neighbourhood end?

That seemingly anodyne question has become the flashpoint in a low-profile but closely watched Toronto development application – a row of six luxury townhouses proposed for a pair of Evergreen Gardens lots situated on the fringe of the tony Bennington Heights enclave near Bayview and Moore Avenue. The two properties previously housed 1950s-style bungalows that were purchased by a developer.

The case has been stalled at the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (the planning adjudication body that succeeded the Ontario Municipal Board) since August, 2017. It pivots on the surprisingly slippery question of what, precisely constitutes the interior of an established neighbourhood.

Residents of this corner of Bennington say the project, created by RAW Design and the Goldberg Group for a Woodbridge-based numbered company, violates the ambience of a historic residential neighbourhood conceived originally by a planner and an architect as a co-op community not unlike Wychwood Park.

“Their philosophy was the inspired notion that landscape should take precedence over the houses,” says Ian Anderson, a director of Save Bennington Inc.

In December, 2016, the city and former area councillor Jon Burnside agreed, supporting the neighbourhood’s bid to block the application.

But the builders point out that the townhouses would be located directly adjacent to a six-storey apartment block at Bayview and Moore, and are situated kitty corner to a large commercial lot with a Loblaw’s and a strip mall. And, as planner Michael Goldberg points out, Bayview to the north is lined with low-rise apartment buildings and a growing number of townhouse infill projects on former residential lots.

“Context,” he says, “is everything.”

The planning problem here is who gets to define the context.

While the project itself is modest and has none of the more typically contentious elements in most NIMBY fights – social or rental housing, or small commercial uses – it is seen by some planners as a test of Official Plan Amendment 320, a little-known three-year-old “neighbourhoods” policy. OPA 320 aims to strictly dictate the nature of acceptable development within residential communities across Toronto by forcing builders to conform to an area’s “prevailing” character.

Council passed OPA 320 in December, 2015, and the regulation received ministerial approval in 2016. But numerous property owners and developers challenged it at the OMB/LPAT; the final settlement was handed down last month.

While the new policy attempts to compel builders to pay closer attention to issues such as dominant neighbourhood character, the challenge of describing those characteristics within a geographical area can be anything but straightforward.

Mr. Anderson points out that Bennington is defined by larger, wider lots and leafy streets without sidewalks – a move the original planners felt would encourage drivers to pay more attention to pedestrians. He says the townhouses, which front onto an internal Bennington street and would have pad parking, include none of these elements, and thus present a potential precedent that could lead to more intensification within the area. “We’re not opposed to townhouses per se,” he says. “But this community isn’t the right place for it.”

The street-level reality is that Bennington, as with many other older North Toronto and Leaside neighbourhoods, has seen extensive renovation and rebuild activity, with the result that its housing stock now features numerous modernist or mansion-style homes, many of them built fairly recently.

Mr. Goldberg argues that the 2,500- to 3,000-sq. ft townhouses sit at the outside edge of the neighbourhood, and thus should be measured according to the characteristics of the more diverse built form that defines Bayview, and includes the apartment building next door – a structure Mr. Anderson describes as an “anomaly.”

“I really don’t see [the townhouses] as being different from all those other properties,” Mr. Goldberg says, adding that the city has approved numerous new infill townhouse projects at the edges of residential enclaves backing onto Bayview.

He dismisses Mr. Anderson’s concern about the precedent-setting nature of the project because the two properties his client acquired sit at the edge of the area, not in the middle, where this kind of land assembly would be far less likely.

The case evokes some of the issues in another hot-button fight in Rosedale, where a group of homeowners went to war against a luxury townhouse project proposed for a pair of ravine-backed lots on Dale Avenue that sit next to one of the area’s fifties apartment buildings.

In that fight, the neighhourhood sought to use South Rosedale’s heritage conservation district bylaw to prevent an intensification project. Here, the stakes could be even more significant because the proposal tests a new citywide neighbourhood policy that relies on more nebulous concepts, such as prevailing character and neighbourhood boundaries, as the regulatory cudgels that can be used to enforce what kinds of infill projects pass muster with the planning department.

Will the forthcoming LPAT ruling in this case cast a chill over builders seeking approvals for infill projects in residential neighbourhoods across Toronto?

“It’s a good question,” says Mr. Goldberg, adding that he’ll only be able to judge the full impact once he sees the decision, which is long overdue. “The message they might send out is that it reinforces all the principles the city is utilizing [to ensure] that neighbourhoods shouldn’t be intensified, which is nonsense.”

Update: In a ruling released February 19, the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal allowed the zoning amendments required for the townhouses and rejected sharp warnings from Bennington Heights residents that the development planned for the eastern edge of the community represented a slippery slope leading to more infill projects within enclave’s interior. “What may happen on this edge,” wrote LPAT member David Lanthier, “will stay in this edge.”

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