Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ossington: the Draft OPA and Public Input

Picture of Ossington Avenue, by Kerry Prunskus, copyright 2010 the Toronto Observer.

 Last Thursday, Ossington residents and city planning staff met to go over the neighbourhood working group's final recommendations, and to hear a proposed official plan amendment (OPA) from city staff. This was what might be the final step in the public consultation process in regards to the upcoming change in the Ossington neighbourhood. As readers might recall, this whole process began roughly with the application known as "109Oz", a six storey building that was proposed on the strip, which the developer has recently appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). As the focus of the meeting was about the OPA and not 109Oz, I want to give a few comments about the process and the OPA itself, but I will end with some observations that might affect the 109Oz decision.

For those unfamiliar with the various levels of planning documentation in the City of Toronto, there are two basic ones that govern land-use planning (if I might generalize): the zoning by-law (ZBL), and the official plan. Zoning by-laws tend to be very specific about what can/cannot go on a particular property, but they're also very malleable. Many of Toronto's ZBLs are out of date, still existing largely because of a lack of resources and the need to standardize them in the wake of the city's amalgamation back in 1998. It's been over ten years since, and the city is still in the process of trying to harmonize them. The planning framework has changed a lot since ~1986, and that makes many ZBLs a very weak defense against proposed development.

What has changed - largely in step with the changing planning environment - is the introduction of official plans, which tend to broadly direct growth in the city. Unlike ZBLs, OPAs are more difficult to get amended, and coupled with the study that goes into them, are much stronger at enforcing a standard of zoning than a 25 year old ZBL. The official plan tends not to be overly specific in regards to development, but when necessary, it can be. The proposed OPA on Ossington would be an example of where the city tries to create some "teeth" to the legislation, in order to prevent growth that might be considered "bad".

The meeting on Thursday was the last of three meetings, where written notes and surveys were compiled and a draft decision as to how the OPA might look was presented. I think huge props are in order for both Councillor Mike Layton for organizing all of this, and to city planners Thomas Rees and Deanne Mighton; there was a lot of work that went into this, particularly given the high amount of feedback and consultation that was done. While I know not all the Ossington residents are thrilled about the draft OPA as it was presented, it appears to me that community got 90% of what they wanted, so I would chalk the draft OPA up as a "win" for the community. Myself, I find the OPA a bit too conservative, but I will address that below. But first, some brief context.

The Ossington Strip (referring to the piece of the road between Dundas W and Queen W) is a largely mixed-use community that is likely to see some change in the near future. A six storey development was approved on 41 Ossington this year. The same developers purchased a string of adjacent properties (103-111 Ossington), with a desire to put another six storey development on the site.

The neighbourhood, led by the Ossington Community Association has largely opposed this development, wishing to keep the entire strip low-rise (i.e. four stories or less). I am simplifying their position here, but it's perhaps the best one-sentence description I can make. With Mike Layton's help, a string of community consultation was pushed forward in order to help clarify what future development on the strip can or may look like.


The Draft Official Plan Amendment

Diagram of the "Two Areas" proposed in the Draft OPA.
 
The draft OPA can be roughly summarized as follows:

1) A maximum retail floor space of 400sq m. Previously, there was no maximum.

2) A stepback from the third floor, to give a consistent "cornice" line. There is no such consideration in the 2012 amalgamated ZBL, but it should be noted that the Avenues and Mid-rise guidelines would suggest a stepback from about the fourth floor.

3) Two "areas" that set the maximum height of the 14m and 20m respectively (see image to the right). I'm not sure if that includes a mechanical unit; normally ~5m is allowed on top of the maximum for one. I'm seeking clarification on that.

There is more to it than that, but I think those are the three most important changes that the OPA would make.

The first proposed change is, in the abstract, a no brainer for the neighbourhood. The area truly is defined by smaller stores, and this change will prevent larger stores (with the possible exception of what occurs at 109Oz, which came in before this draft OPA) from coming here, preferring to keep them either on Dundas or Queen. The 400 sq m. maximum is (as the planner admitted) a bit aggressive. Some of the businesses currently on the strip (including a Home Hardware) would become legal non-conforming uses, so perhaps some tweaking here is in order. The general intent is a good idea however.

The second proposed change, the creation of a "cornice" line, is not something I'm particular gung-ho about. It's biggest effect would be to reduce the amount of "space" a building has to work with, which would make five and six storey buildings difficult to "fit" in on many properties. This was one of the big concessions to the neighbourhood opposition; I'm curious as to whether (with the addition of other guidelines) if any meaningful increase in density over the existing ZBL can be achieved.

The third proposed change, splitting the area into two "Areas" that govern the maximum height, was the second big "concession" to the neighbourhood. Now, I admit that I haven't studied the neighbourhood in great detail, but I wonder if having two zones is really necessary. I know the Ossington Community Association is gearing up to fight the proposed "Area 2", but in my mind Area 2 is a good thing, and would be better applied to the entire area.

The rationale for keeping the rest at 14m or lower had largely to do with the lot depth of many properties (which fall near or just short of the 30m that one would want to create a six storey building) and potential rear lane access (which might cut into the remaining lot depth). In the absence of an existing rear lane, a building would need roughly 39m of depth (30m for the building, 7.5m for the laneway, and 1.5m given to the city to expand the Ossington right-of-way). Given that the need to respect the angular planes and lot depths that often fall several meters short of the "sweet spot", many properties will find it difficult (or impossible) to reach the 20m limit.

Having both the strict angular planes and a height limit therefore seems somewhat redundant. I think leaving the window open for a developer who might come along with a clever site design, or one who might buy up some of the residential behind (to create a "deeper" lot) would be preferable, particularly on some of the corner lots that would have less traffic and shadowing issues. But I'll bow to the research that City Planning has done here. 


Implications for 109Oz, and some comments on community input

Since the meeting, I know that the Ossington Community Association has begun to gear up to fight this proposed "Area 2". Some of its members wish this draft OPA to apply to the 109Oz site, but given that the OPA is a good nine months from being officially approved, the chances are quite slim that the Ontario Municipal Board would give it any weight. 109Oz will likely be approved (or not) on its own merits, rather than on the principles that are guiding this OPA.

If the Ossington Community Association Facebook group is any indication, they're not happy with Area 2 allowing potentially a 20m building. They would prefer a blanket "Area 1" (i.e. 14m) over the entire neighbourhood. One of the criticisms from the group I'm seeing is that the planner is somehow ignoring the community's input by allowing this "Area 2" to exist.

I find it a hard argument to swallow for two reasons. The first is that as far as I can see, the draft OPA is more than concessionary to the neighbourhood's viewpoint. The planner stated that about 7/8ths of the neighbourhood (with its four storey height restriction) is covered under Area 1. With the addition of the third storey cornice line, reaching a economically profitable six stories in Area 2 is going to be difficult. Secondly, such a viewpoint dismisses the other inputs that a professional planner has to take into account. There must be consideration to evidence, professional opinion, planning law, policy, and private property rights. As planners, we'd of course prefer our opinion to overlap with the opinion of the residents (we do work for the public good after all, no matter what side of a development we sit on!), but that doesn't always happen. This does not necessarily indicate a failure in public participation!

Venn diagram from Planning Staff's presentation last Thursday showing the various inputs that determine recommendations.


Imagine an example of where an imaginary neighbourhood fears a proposed development would cause undue shadowing on adjacent residential properties (note: I am not talking about 109Oz here. Despite shadowing concerns popping up, from my conversations with them they've indicated that shadowing is no longer one of their bigger concerns with the proposal). The residents keep repeating to the city planners: "we fear the shadows created will negatively impact us and our neighbourhood, do not approve this building because of the shadows it creates." Now, the planners have a shadow study, and guidelines that have been applied elsewhere that have been tested that significantly reduce or outright eliminate any concern that shadowing will be a problem. Which should they bow to?

I do believe that the planners involved with both the Area Study, OPA, and 109Oz have heard loud and clear what the residents concerns are. That the planners at the city have deemed this section of Ossington potentially fit for 20m building is not surprising; I wrote as such back in September, and other planners I've talked to have expressed the same opinion that six stories sounds appropriate for the site given it's context (it's part of the reason I'm surprised that "Area 2" is so small)! I don't think the Ossington Community Association has yet to find a very convincing argument - from a planning perspective - to deny six storeys on the 109Oz site, and that likely spells trouble for them at the OMB.

As an example, the Ossington Community Association has been vocal about traffic concerns that six storey development would bring, yet that must be weighed against a traffic report that was independently conducted for the 109Oz development. That the councillor, planners, and developers would likely all be on board to reduce the number of parking spots in the 109Oz development makes the argument somewhat hollow.

This is the hypothetical situation I see playing out in regards to the 109Oz application: the city - given that they appear receptive to six storey buildings in the segment of Ossington the proposal is under - will likely try and settle with the developer before the OMB hears it. As mentioned earlier, they did this before at 41 Ossington with the same developer, where they approved a six-storey building. I'm not privy to the negotiation of course, but I imagine (in regards to the original application) that the city's biggest issue was the angular plane at the rear; it began 3m taller at the rear than what the city would normally prefer. If they can figure out a compromise there, I suspect the city would be willing to support it rather than challenge it at the OMB.

This would leave the Ossington Community Association in a tricky situation; if they continue to reject six storeys outright (and there is no indication they will change their position here), then they might end up in a situation where both the city and developer have settled, and therefore be fighting the application alone. I probably don't need to tell you this, but neighbourhood associations tend to have a extremely difficult time "winning" at the OMB against a developer, especially one that has the support of city planning.

There is some hope expressed by opposition that this draft OPA could be used against the 109Oz proposal, but the chances of that happening are slim. The city's policy is not to "change the rules" on developers, meaning that the environment they submit into is the one their application is judged under. The OMB has, in the past, sometimes (although rarely) applied "new" policy when it appears that the developer has been "dragging their heels" in getting an appeal heard, but this doesn't appear to be the case yet. Certainly, a study is a study is a study, but all the feedback given (including over a 1000 strong petition to keep Ossington low-rise) has spoken primarily to resident fears, rather than any solid evidence that a six storey building at 103-111 Ossington would destabilize the neighbourhood. The draft OPA, as is, seems to offer little to their cause; perhaps that is the biggest reason for their opposition to it.

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