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Transit – driving change in Leaside – but at what cost?

“Eglinton Connects is driving the changes proposed,” Brian Gallaugher, the City Planning expert witness, testified at the OMB on December 6th. He made it clear that the City’s intent under the Eglinton Connects Plan was for intensification all along Eglinton, not just at the major intersections like Bayview and Laird that were designated as “focus areas”.

So while Leaside residents’ attention was focused on development applications at Bayview’s Sunnybrook Plaza (RioCan) and 939 Brentcliffe (Diamondcorp), the City passed a site-specific Official Plan Amendment (OPA) to allow four-storey townhouses on the block west of Hanna (south side) and a zoning bylaw amendment (ZBA) to allow “as of right” 7-8 storey mid-rise buildings between Sutherland and Laird (both sides). The LPOA filed appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board on each measure in 2014.

At the recent OMB hearing, the key issue raised by the LPOA was whether the small amount of additional density (relative to the massive development applications already in the planning pipeline at Sunnybrook Plaza, Laird, and Brentcliffe) represented by these changes was really “worth it” compared to the negative impacts likely to be wrought on the neighbourhoods affected by the measures. The other issue, whether the City properly consulted those affected, was raised several times by the residents who testified at the hearing, but was ruled as being outside the OMB’s jurisdiction….the LPOA would need to pursue this issue using “other avenues”.

How did we get here?

The Eglinton Connects Planning Study has been ongoing since 2012, and the LPOA supported the principle of transit-related intensification along Eglinton. However, in 2014 when the Implementation Reports proposed townhouses west of Hanna, and mid-rise Sutherland to Laird, the LPOA wrote and deputed at Committee with concerns, and called for more community consultation. At that time Councillor John Parker moved a motion requiring the City to conduct public consultation specifically in Ward 26 (as the meetings had always been held elsewhere). This was passed by City Council, but the local consultations never occurred, and subsequent attempts by the LPOA to negotiate changes to the OPA and ZBA with the City were met with unsatisfactory responses.

After six (count em!) pre-hearing conferences over the past two years, the two Leaside appeals ultimately became the first Eglinton Connects appeals to go to a full OMB hearing (the RioCan’s Sunnybrook Plaza appeal was recently settled by the LPOA and the City without going to a full hearing). An important part of a hearing is the opportunity for residents to speak. Here, there were six residents who spoke on the townhouses amendment (five opposed, one in favour) and two who spoke on the mid-rise amendment (both opposed). Hanna Road residents spoke to a couple of major issues: the impact on the streetscape and concerns about the laneway required for access to the development, and its proximity to Eglinton, especially given the wide angular configuration of Hanna at Eglinton, which allows eastbound traffic to enter Hanna while hardly slowing down.

The recent tragic death of a 62-year-old woman at the Hanna and Eglinton intersection served to demonstrate that the safety concerns at that intersection are all too real.

Hanna Rd. resident Thomas Gehring, who also happens to be co-chair of Leaside High School Parents Council, was able to enter as an exhibit an email from Jeannette Plonka, principal of Leaside High School, showing the school’s absence of notice, not to mention input, into the townhouse amendment.

John Lorimer, who lives in one of seven subject properties and who with his wife supported the OP amendment, spoke about the difficulty of getting out of his driveway onto Eglinton (and later a Hanna Rd. resident in his testimony confirmed that indeed, Lorimer frequently parked his car on Hanna Rd!).

Similarly, two Donlea residents spoke about the shadowing impact of a 7- or 8-storey development on their properties, and the role of the existing lane in servicing the Donlea-facing houses (not just the Eglinton commercial properties). Donlea resident Phil Oliva explained that residents were not opposed to mid-rise development, but said it needed to be at a “kinder level”. He recalled an earlier proposal in 1994 for mid-rise development on the same block, when over 30 people attended East York Council to express their views. The difference was that the affected owners were individually notified by the Borough of East York (unlike this case where “at large” public meetings were held).

The LPOA testimony focused on neighbourhood concerns. In the case of the townhouses, the issue is the change in the character of the area, which is designated “Neighbourhoods” and is integrally connected with similar housing north and south of Eglinton. It would act as a precedent for change on other sites and lead to “townhouse creep” along Eglinton.

The unique character of this part of Eglinton, though recognized by Eglinton Connects studies, has, in effect, been dismissed by the planners in the drive for intensification at all costs. In the case of the Sutherland to Laird mid-rise, the concern is not about mid-rise per se, but more about the height and massing on the north side of Eglinton. On the south side, Suomi Koti, the Finnish Canadian Seniors Centre, has already introduced mid-rise development to that stretch of Eglinton.

In the end the issue is that planning must take account of context and scale…..development where required, and appropriate, not just where possible.

What happens next? The OMB chair reserved his decision, so we await his ruling with interest.