UrbanToronto recently sat down with former Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae, now a lecturer at Ryerson University and a partner in development consultancy PQR Solutions. We wanted to get Kyle's take on the changes in Toronto's development scene over the last 20 years.

You were elected to City Council as Toronto’s first openly gay councillor, where you ushered in many equality rights advances for gays and lesbians.

I’ve been active in that area in Toronto since 1981, ten years before I was elected.

You were a community organizer during that time.

I was, organizing against the province, the police. The gay bashing hotline I started in the summer of 1990, I co-ordinated the first annual pride in 1981. I’ve got old connections with the community. 

During your time as a Toronto City Councillor you became known for your assertive moves regarding development in Toronto.

When I first got elected I was very much interested in maintaining sound, neighbourhood integrity. That probably came from the period of David Crombie, and Jane Jacobs — the city being a series of communities and neighbourhoods — all of which had to be protected. This was what made us different from the rest of the world. That kind of talk was really popular in Toronto back in the '70s and '80s.

I entered politics with that notion in the back of my head, that we need to be protecting neighbourhoods. When I was elected there was very little pressure to amend that perspective on that city. I was first elected at the beginning of a recession; from 1991 until 1998 there was very little being built in the downtown, and if there was something being built it was an affordable housing project, a co-op or a non-profit.

Kyle Rae, image by Jack LandauKyle Rae, image by Jack Landau

Affordable Housing had a very different series of issues than condos. People didn’t want those people living in the neighbourhood. I can remember my greatest frustration—well, my second greatest frustration — with the Bob Rae NDP government, was that I would argue with my constituents in supporting an affordable housing project on Charles, Isabella, or somewhere in the neighbourhood, and I would get it through City Council, and then the Province would fail to give it an allocation. All of that fighting with the neighbourhood and have it go nowhere.

My greatest frustration with the provincial government was with Bill 167 which the province failed to pass — the equality of rights for gays and lesbians — and they screwed that up. On second reading it failed in the legislature in 1994; that’s when I left the NDP.

So from 1991 to 1998 I had very little development pressure aside from affordable housing (in 1993 and then in 1995 the federal and the provincial governments got out of affordable housing). Just as that happened the development of condos started to reemerge, tending to be small unit condos, the beginning of testing the waters to see if there was a market coming back. 

One of the first projects was Opera Place at Bay and Wellesley, the cancelled Ballet-Opera site. That was the first project of any substance that came forward after years of only non-profit housing. The condo boom grew from that time. I looked at Opera Place plan in 1996, and it looked so much like the Euro-loaves that were built in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood back in the early 1980s. There hadn't been any growth or diversity from the developers in terms of design, we were really just replicating what we had done. Today the St. Lawrence neighbourhood has grown into this fabled neighbourhood of amazing affordable housing, great for co-ops, non-profits and condos, but there is a regularity to it, there’s not much punctuation down there. It’s the same over and over again. I represented that area at the time, and I was a little frustrated that what we were doing in 1996 was really just replicating what had been done for years. 

I went to the AIDS conference in Vancouver in 1996. I saw all these False Creek buildings and I was amazed by these point towers with really interesting landscaping at grade. They were really successful experiments that Vancouver was working with. I think it was four years later in 2000 when I had the first struggle with that kind of built form in Toronto.

It occurred with the planning department over Great Gulf’s project 18 Yorkville at Yonge south of Davenport. That was the big battle with the department because they would not support a tall building; they wanted to re-create the Euro-loaf, a 16- or 18-storey building from lot line to lot line that would have cast a shadow over to the reference library. I’d just seen these buildings in Vancouver. I thought, you know what, why don’t we turn this building on its end, and then it won’t perpetually shadow the neighbourhood.

The shadow from a point tower sweeps around, like a sundial. 

The planner would have nothing to do with it. They presented it at Community Council, and I got Community Council to refuse the staff report and directed them to go and revise the report in the direction that I was suggesting and that the applicant had suggested. They went off and did that but they were furious.

18 Yorkville by architectsAlliance for Great Gulf Homes18 Yorkville by architectsAlliance for Great Gulf Homes

There’s another piece to this, too. From the time I was elected until the late 1990s I had dealt with three different precinct plans for the railway lands. These lands are built out as dense as they are because back in the 1980s they had been approved and zoned for office use. They were going to be office towers.

That had evolved out of the former Metro Centre plan?

With the collapse of the development industry in 1989, office towers were emptying out and offices were moving to the suburbs. The developers had come back wanting to build residential, and the city failed in their attempts at the Ontario Municipal Board to get the densities reduced from the office densities that had been approved, so they were kept the same but for residential use. If anyone complains about what the City did in the railway lands, the problem was the owners of the property were successful at the OMB in saying, “We were given two million square feet of office space here,” and subsequently they got two million square feet for residential. It created a built form that was like the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, but on steroids.

There was so much density that had to be allocated in these blocks of the prevailing built form of short, fat, squat buildings. It meant they were no longer so short, they became taller and more daunting, far more dense. Not one developer would buy and develop the site under these conditions. The City kept imposing this built form and the industry kept on saying, "We’re not going to build that because no one is going to want to live in that." It may have worked if it was going to be an affordable housing program, that would have incentivized people to live in it, but not as a condominium.

Then Concord Adex came forward and said, "We will buy this but this is how we’ll build it." Councillor Dan Leckie and I had to deal with it; Dan was not big on development and planning, he was a leader in public health policy, but he was the councillor for Ward 5 at the time. He turned to me and asked what should we do and I said, "I’ve been dealing with this for almost 10 years, and Jack Layton had before me, and this needs to be developed. I don’t think what the City wants is viable." No one wanted to build it, so I was quite prepared to work with this developer. That’s what happened.

Who owned that land prior to Concord Adex coming in?

It was CN and CP (Marathon); they both owned it. So they were the ones who went after the rezoning for residential together, and then tried to shop it around, but no one wanted to build it. The city kept on trying to do these plans that were imaginary, exercises in futility. To this day I have a great deal of suspicion when I see a precinct plan.

The City gets to do very little of them now that planners are stuck doing application after application, although the planning department did generate the new Tall Buildings Guidelines. Do they make sense for Toronto now?

Well, I’ve looked at them and my concern is that they are trying to appease people's fears, and that’s what seems to be the context of that whole exercise; how do we reduce the anxiety? Since when is life without anxiety and why should it not be a part of the rebirth of the Downtown? When I got elected there were very few people living in the Downtown in 1991, and now it’s absolutely exploded, and that’s a good thing. People have this weird attitude about when they buy property. They want it to stay the way it was when they moved in, until they die or the sell, and they think that it shouldn’t change. That really should not be indulged. It’s a fantasy. I don’t think we should be indulging people’s fantasies. Go ahead and dream it, but I don’t think people should be living in it.

One tends see themself as the most recent member of their community, but anyone newer is an outsider and suspect. 

You know one of the things that I really resent the most about the chattering classes in Toronto is their attitude towards people that live in condos and high-rises. They seem to think that we don’t care about the neighbourhood or don’t know our neighbour, but quite frankly that is the same condition that happens in residential low-rise neighbourhoods. You can talk to people about their neighbour and they can say, "Well, I don’t know who that is. They leave at 7 AM and come back at 9 PM and I never see them."

It’s easy to single out a condo dweller, and especially a renter. They live in a box on the skyline, supposedly disconnected from the street life in the neighbourhood.

One of the things I find fascinating is the number of people that I would have arguments with who hate a proposed development and oppose it at the OMB, and then when the project gets built, they like it and then move in. What’s that about? It’s a bizarre thing.

Mistrustful human nature, will never believe something until they see it?

That’s what I started tuning out. The ratepayer groups will say how awful I was because I didn’t listen to them. I heard them, but I didn’t necessarily listen to them. I gave them their time but I started tuning that stuff out because I said that’s not how you build a city. You can’t be beholden to that kind of attitude when it comes to your neighbourhood or your community. That’s making it frozen in time. Venice is frozen in time and it’s dying, down to a quarter of its former population, most Venetians are over 60, there are very few schools, kids have to go to the mainland, if you’re going to shop you go to the mainland. I used that often when I was in meetings with residents and say. “Do you really think this is a museum? Do you think this neighbourhood merits that sort of museum character that Venice has?” I got really tired of it. 

Meanwhile people often look at Downtown Toronto and compare it to what they remember from x number of years ago and say, "It's so much more vibrant now." Yet no one’s attributing that improvement to any particular project, although any number of projects were considered the end of the neighbourhood at the consultation stage. 

It’s just amazing. I love the shock and horror some people express when they can actually see the new Four Seasons tower from the Don Valley. "Isn’t that awful? What a shame!" I think it’s a beautiful, elegant building, yet you have people who are just freaking out that they can see it from their backyard. As if their backyard should be immune. I don’t know where that comes from. I grew up in the suburbs and the moment I could, I got out of it. Unfortunately, there are a large number of people in Toronto who think they’ve been able to buy a part of the suburbs in the downtown, and they’re deceiving themselves. It’s inevitable that this area is going to change, and it needs to change. 

Four Seasons Toronto from across the Don ValleyFour Seasons from across the Don Valley, image by Drum118

One of the biggest changes during your years as a City Councillor was here at Yonge and Dundas; the square, the building just to the north. How did this all come about?

That was a really interesting experience. That was my second term on council, and I was getting a lot of heat from the Toronto Star because of the downturn in the economy and how seedy Yonge Street was, as if it hadn’t been seedy for the previous 15 to 20 years. There had been a downtown business council, which ended up being an association of all the property managers of all the tall office buildings, and they didn’t pay much attention to the street as they were more interested in what was happening at-grade in their area or below in their food courts. I was thrust into trying to deal with this problem, and the Toronto Star argued that there should be a new business council. I argued and said 'No, we need to bite off what we can chew rather than trying to make over the whole of the city. Let’s try to figure out what to do with the problem that you’ve raised, and that is Yonge Street.'

At the same time I had both small and large business complaining about the condition of Yonge. I had small business owners on Yonge — Barberian’s Restaurant, the Senator, Sam’s — they were all complaining about the drugs, prostitution and violence. I had TD Bank, the Eaton Centre, Delta Chelsea, the Atrium complaining about the same thing, and yet they wouldn’t talk to each other because the small businesses were resentful about what Eatons had done to Yonge Street. I forced them into a meeting together and said I’m not dealing with two groups, I’m dealing with one. You sort this out and then I’ll help you.

So they formed the Yonge Street Business Association and I brought in David Crombie to host three meetings, back in 1995 or 1996, and he hosted them with all these businesses — must have been about 40 at the table — and I got a proposal through council that said if the business association were able to raise $150,000 we would match that and help them hire someone to do the review.

So that’s what happened, and they put their money in and we hired Ron Soskolne who had worked with the City as a planner and then with Olympia and York on Canary Wharf and the World Trade Centre, so he had a commercial knowledge, not just planning, and he ended up doing a review of Yonge Street. He didn’t do a planning review because we didn’t need that — he did an opportunity review. We weren’t looking to how do we could make this more difficult. We had to figure out how to change the character of this street.

Soskolne was involved with the Official Plan in the '70s — I think he was the Central Core manager — and had to defend it to the OMB back in the late '70s, and he recalled that there had been a concept plan for having a square put in at Yonge and Dundas but it had never gone anywhere. He pulled that out, looked at it and reviewed it and he saw that there were no heritage buildings adversely impacted by it. So he took it to the business association and they loved it.

I brought it to council and I think they unanimously supported it. This was in 1997, and then the amalgamated council approved it in 1998. It took its time in being built mind you.

I think Dundas Square works as we wanted it to work. It’s like what they call in theatre a 'black box'; as sparse as possible so you can do just about anything you want, it’s not cluttered. I can’t believe the number of people that use it. I sit down there and have lunch now and it’s packed. 

There’s been a perception that nobody uses it, but that's from people who never come down and see that it's grown to the point where it’s constantly busy.

I find that people who drive past it don’t have a clue what it is. You have to walk it, get on the sidewalk and walk it. 

That’s true about so much of the city isn’t it?

That’s right. People who drive have far too much to say. They are drive-by commentators, and quite frankly I’m not interested in a drive-by commentator. I’d rather walk and experience the city than drive-by it, thank you very much. I’ve never had a drivers license, never owned a car. I believe in the pedestrian experience, and I think the square has worked fantastically. When you think what was here—and if you were in Toronto in the 80s you’ll remember what was on that, it was an eyesore, the violence and the drugs were a problem—and it’s transformed. Ryerson has transformed as well.

Sheldon Levy has turned Ryerson into a local architectural activist.

Both Claude Lajeunesse, the previous president, and Sheldon Levy the current president were interested in building out the campus. Each had their particular strengths: Claude was more administrative and was able to find the funding for six projects. Sheldon has been far more visionary and has been a great public voice for the downtown.

Maple Leaf Gardens when the Loblaws opened, TorontoMaple Leaf Gardens when the Loblaws opened, image by Dumitru Onceanu

I went to the dropping of the puck at the new Mattamy Athletic Centre, and I don’t think there’s anyone in this city in the last 10 years that deserves a civic triumph as much as Sheldon Levy and Loblaws. That is a triumph, a personal one for him, and a triumph for the city. I’m spellbound by it.

There was whining and carping, you know, people wanted me to save the original hockey rink… but it’s private property. The City didn’t own it, Maple Leaf Entertainment did. What do you think I can do about the use of the building? The Heritage Act can save a building but it can't impose a use in that building. It got really frustrating having to deal with the likes of John Sewell and Maple Leaf fans who thought it should always be their shrine in Toronto. It’s like 'Fine, then you go and talk to Maple Leaf and get them to do what you want John'. The problem was that people think hockey is a public right; they forget that they had to pay to go into the Gardens and watch the games.

As knowledgeable as the readers of UrbanToronto are there are times when we also see comments on our site where a new project is announced which is replacing an existing structure and someone will say 'Well why can’t they build this down the street where there’s just a parking lot?', while another member will respond 'They don’t own that lot, they own this lot'. There’s a public perception that with planning we should be able to dictate growth to the private sector.

I think we have failed in our attempts to educate the public on planning. I tried, and I worked really hard trying to take people on the journey I was on. There was a project up in Yorkville, and the residents were all up in arms about there would be more traffic in the neighbourhood. That’s what they were upset about, more traffic. I said okay, how many of you have got a car? And they all put their hand up, and I said each one of you is the problem. I just made them face their own involvement in the problems they complain about.

Kyle Rae talks with Craig White, image by Jack LandauKyle Rae talks with Craig White, image by Jack Landau

Getting people look at themselves and look at what they’re wanting, demanding and look at their reasonableness is a very hard exercise for a councillor and for planning staff. So they sit and they get berated. They are not prepared to deal with the difficulty of being a change-agent. I now have 2 classes of planners to whom I’m teaching local politics at Ryerson and we spend a third of the class in seminar because I want them be thinking and talking and debating about planning issues. Planners are change agents, and you can’t do that talking to yourself. You have to do that with the public, the residents association, the planning department, the applicant, and you have to learn how to communicate, and so I’m going to get them ready. 

We have a lot more to talk about with Kyle Rae. Come back next Thursday for Part 2.