The Entertainment District was back in the spotlight this week through a series of public consultation meetings on recently submitted and existing proposals in the pipeline. Monday evening, December 10, Councillor Adam Vaughan hosted the first of two meetings, this one focusing on the projects at 263 Adelaide Street West by Neilas, as well as a newly submitted proposal for the properties at 40 through 58 Widmer Street brought forward by Greenpark. Leading up to the presentations themselves, the city planner for 263 Adelaide spoke about the guidelines which the City uses to evaluate new proposals in the area, including adherance to both City and Provincial policy statements. Interesting numbers to note in the City's Official Plan, which provides for a framework to accomodate the growth targets set by the province, includes provisions for the City to accommodate up to 3.8 million residents and 1.64 million jobs by 2031. 

We start with the proposal for 263 Adelaide Street where the five-storey Purman warehouse building currently sits. Most of the early development pressure in the neighbourhood has focused on redeveloping underutilized surface parking lots and derelict low-rise structures. With the majority of those sites already spoken for, pressure is now increasing on neighbouring properties with existing warehouses, buildings which have defined the district's unique style for decades.

263 Adelaide West Toronto existing warehouse building. 263 Adelaide West existing warehouse building.

Architect Stephen Teeple spoke about the design and layout of the proposal. The developer proposes to build a 37-storey tower on top of a 5-storey podium, intending to incorporate the heritage facade as part of the podium. The proposal is looking to house commercial uses within the podium: retail at the base as well as 4 storeys of commercial office space above, followed by the residential tower itself. 

263 Adelaide West Toronto render viewed from the north west. 263 Adelaide West render viewed from the north west.

263 Adelaide West Toronto render viewed from the north east.263 Adelaide West render viewed from the north east.

A few cross section and aerial renders to put this project in perspective with neighbouring projects in construction, as well as with the Mirvish+Gehry proposal for reference. 

263 Adelaide West Toronto cross section render263 Adelaide West, cross section looking south through Adelaide.

263 Adelaide West Toronto aerial render263 Adelaide West, aerial render of neighbourhood from the north west.

The architect wants to minimize the impact on the historic facade. In early drawings they have a vehicle entrance on Adelaide Street for both residential and commercial traffic, with servicing within the interior of the building. They are currently negotiating for the possibility to remove all traffic access from Adelaide entirely, but that raised concerns from the owner of two adjacent properties to the south that share the laneway with this proposal. 

In discussion, councilor Vaughan brought up an interesting suggestion to alleviate laneway traffic problems. He is interested in exploring the possibility of negotiating for a joint excavation and joint parking structures for both this and the adjacent Pinnacle proposal to the west. This would result in one point of entry for both buildings and the potential for better managed traffic flow into and out of both sites. For this project, five levels of parking is proposed, with 108 residential and 8 commercial spots in total.  

263 Adelaide West Toronto site plan263 Adelaide West site plan.

The neighbouring building to the west is expected to open up diagonally along the street corner, which will create a new public space anemity in the neighbourhood. The podium portion of that building is being negotiated to match the same height as the existing building at 263 Adelaide, thereby creating a consistent mid-rise street wall. The mid-rise treatment of that proposal will minimize the setback issues on the west side of this tower. Setback issues were still brought up with respect to the properties immediatley to the south and southwest of the site. 

Commercial floors will maintain the same floor space and heights of the existing building, and the following is a typical commercial floor plate layout. 

263 Adelaide West Toronto commercial floor263 Adelaide West typical commercial floor.

The amenity space is divided into both commercial and residential spaces, both housed on the 6th floor podium rooftop. 

263 Adelaide West Toronto podium amenity space263 Adelaide West top of podium amenity space.

The tower is setback 4m from the facade, steps in on both sides, but those details are curerntly in discussion with the city. A total of 328 units including 32 three-bedroom units. The following are two typical floor plates proposed. 

263 Adelaide West Toronto typical tower floor plate263 Adelaide West typical tower floor plate.

263 Adelaide West Toronto typical tower floor plate263 Adelaide West typical tower floor plate

A unique consideration with this property deals with the City's rental housing bylaws. Currently there are at least 6 residential rental units in the building. The developer would be required under the bylaw to replace those with a similar number and size in the new building, along with provisions to maintain a similar type of rent. Relocation and assistance programs would also have to be made available to the existing tenants, as well as the first right of refusal on those new units. 

Councilor Vaughan got some tough questioning from the Toronto Entertainment District Residents Association co-founder and nearly turned into a heated head-to-head open debate about overall development pressure in the neighbourhood. Serious concerns were raised about lack of infrastructure, servicing to accommodate growth, fire and hospital, police, hydro, elimination of tourist-based destination and local small businesses, increased traffic congestion, and other environmental factors due to construction, along with no clear plan for development as a whole. On numerous occations throughout this exchange, Vaughan was asked why he simply couldn't put a stop to development until these issues could be addressed.

The councillor was also questioned on the merits of approving so many units while the Bank of Canada recently issues warnings about the possibility of oversupply and the possibility of a price correction if the units coming onto the market in the next 12 to 18 months aren't absorbed by the market. Vaughan had to stress that it's neither his, nor the City's position to make judgements on the marketability of condo units. If developers really didn't think that they could continue to sell units in the area, then they would likely take their proposals out of the marketplace. Pointing to the proliferation of office proposals in the area, Vaughan strenghened his argument that people want to continue to live and work in the area. Citing RBC's decision to build a second office tower as an opportunity for them to "raid talent" from the other banks because of the continued influx of highly skilled young people moving into the area. 

With respect to planning and approvals, a few of the residents in the crowd felt that the questioning unfairly portrayed Vaughan as simply condoning the level of construction, and that there was a basic lack of understanding about the challenges and limitations that the councillor has had to deal with under a provincial system where the OMB can overule a refused proposal on appeal. Vaughan characterizes the current system as either deciding between fighting a bad building all the way to the OMB, with the inherent high risk of loosing based on recent precendents, or taking the next best approach and negotiating for a less bad building. Even after negotiating for substantial public benefits, this still puts him in a position to eventually have to say yes to a proposal that he still may not not entirely like. Vaughan characterizes the OMB as a crude and insensitive way to deal with neighbourhood decisions, and when forced into an impossible situation, then the next best option is to negotiate with the developer for as many community benefits as possible.

Vaughan's position was supported by a community member who experienced one of the early cases taken to the OMB. He spoke briefly about the experience, and urged those in the audience who were all to eager to criticize Vaughan, to actually go to the OMB and give it a try before hammering the councillor. He characterizes the entire process as a 'kangaroo court' that was far more difficult than he expected. 

On construction and staging, Vaughan pointed out that the City actually has little capacity to regulate the way in which the city permits construction staging, but has moved at Community Council to try and tighten regulations. He is also exploring New York City's method, which requires that all construction management and staging remains within the building property line and not spill out into public right of ways.

The owner of the two properties immediately to the south also spoke about their concerns with the lack of setbacks on the south side of the tower, saying that the plan seemingly exports future setback requirements onto their properties, and unfairly constrains their future redevelopment potential. 

Attention then turned to commercial taxation in the area, with Vaughan airing concerns that rising property values are putting pressure on provincial assessments to increase property taxes, but which are having the adverse effect of forcing out small businesses. He cited a heritage building which was recently reassessed from $8 million to $23 million, essentially overnight. The building was designated as heritage, but under provincial rules they still seemed to view the property having the potential to become a 40-storey condo tower because of other neighbouring property values. Even though the councillor and the owners tried to reason with the provincial agency that the property was designated heritage, and redevelopment would be highly unlikely, they still couldn't get the assessment changed, and you simply can't pay that kind of tax with the kind of rent you generate from a 4 or 5-storey warehouse building. 
It seems that infrastructure and transit might be least of the neighbourhoods worries. If little is done to address the property tax issue, this could be the linchpin issue that slowly pushes out a thriving small business and technology industry. Much of the area's viability is directly linked to the oft-quoted $2.5 Billion dollar technology and startup industry that has centred around the district. Those businesses rely on low rents to remain viable during their early startup years, and to continue to attract the highly skilled workforce that wants to live and work close by. 

It's becoming increasingly clear that development is putting immense pressure on this particular area. Community members have serious concerns about keeping up with necessary city services and infrastructure on the one hand, while trying to maintain a level of livability during construction and into the future. The meeting did however highlight a basic misuderstanding of the various parties that have a role in the planning process, as well as the limitations the city really has to chart its own course unlike many comparable cities throughout Canada and the States. 

What do you think of this project, and the discussion that ensued? Please leave us with your comments below, or in the discussion thread for this project. Check back next week as we bring you the second half of this public meeting, dealing with 40-58 Widmer Street.