Amidst the clamor of construction along Bay Street there's been one site that has been eerily quiet for all too long; 11 Wellesley Street West, located between Bay and Yonge on the south side has been a relative eyesore for two decades. Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is hoping to change that, with an important motion being put forward at City Council tomorrow, July 12. UrbanToronto had the opportunity to speak with Councillor Wong-Tam who explained her motion in greater detail.
The land has some history of course. Covered with a mix of low-rise buildings, the provincial government donated the 2.10-acre site in the 1980s for the construction of a new ballet and opera house, a grand post-modern plan designed by Moshe Safdie. That project was cancelled during the recession of 1991, and a large portion of the land has remained undeveloped since, other than functioning for a brief stint as a skateboard park. Most recently the site was owned by Morguard, which had approvals to construct mid-rise buildings, but which never built. The site subsequently passed into provincial hands.
The valuable plot of land has now been listed for sale by CBRE on behalf of the province, meant to appeal to developers as a potential commercial/residential tower complex as seen in the rendering below. Sales materials speak of there being 319,210 square feet buildable amongst multiple towers. The motion being put forward tomorrow will ask for the opportunity to negotiate the City's acquisition of the land from the province.
Councillor Wong-Tam has been working closely with MPP Glen Murray, both of whom would ideally like to see the site transformed into a park. Wong-Tam noted that there is also the possibility they would support a small portion of the site set aside for condominium development which could help pay for the park, although other funding models are preferred. Of particular note was the fact that Ward 27 contains the tallest buildings in Canada and has seen the heaviest recent residential development within the city, while it continues to contain the lowest percentile of public space. Most developers choose to pay cash-in-lieu of donating land for park space with each of their developments, and that has resulted in a sizeable land acquisition fund, one from which the city has thus far made no substantial purchase.
While paying the province in cash for the land would be the most straightforward way of acquiring the site, the reported $58 million price tag is more than daunting. Councillor Wong-Tam proposed that the city could in lieu of direct cash payment work out a land swap agreement; the city owns tracts of lands along the waterfront that the province might be interested in developing for the PanAm Games or for waterfront regeneration.
There are other funding models which can be explored as well, such as what has happened at two notable public spaces that have been developed in Toronto in the last decade which contain revenue-generating parking garages. Dundas Square is the most obvious example, where a public square has been built above an expansive parking garage. The just opened and highly-publicized parking garage at the Harbourfront Centre is another example, where a park space conceals skylights that better illuminate the underground garage, without sacrificing the public amenity. Beyond revenue generation, a parking lot on the Wellesley site would solve the huge loss of on-street parking that will occur on Wellesley following the construction of separated bike lanes, mitigating area-businesses' fears, and ensuring adequate public access for the future.
These attempts to find a way for the city to acquire the land underscore the fact that whatever the city might be able to pull together, it will be difficult to compete in dollars with what a deep-pocketed private developer could offer. Councillor Wong-Tam was straightforward however in her conviction that the province must recognize that Toronto has lived up to its side of the bargain in regards to densification as mandated in Ontario's Places To Grow plan, stating that a solution can be reached, so long as "..the province is not overly greedy, and not only thinking of dollars and cents. The City has complied with and far exceeded the province's growth targets, 20 years in advance."
We can't help but agree with Councillor Wong-Tam in this regard; while there's no doubt that we as a city benefit as we grow and build vertically, we have sacrificed breathing space along the way as a result of such rapid growth. A reinvestment by the province in the form of much-needed public space would not only benefit the surrounding residents but the city as a whole, not to mention forging a stronger tie between a city and a province that often fail to see eye-to-eye.
Wong-Tam's motion has been seconded by councilor Paul Ainslie, and will require two thirds of council to vote in agreement if it is to move forward. If you have an opinion, let your City Councillor know. If you are interested in watching the proceedings we encourage you to sit in on the council meeting Thursday morning. We'll be sure to follow the motion, and hope City Council agrees with Councillor Wong-Tam on the matter. For all the background information regarding this storied site, check out the associated project thread here.