UrbanToronto sat down recently 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. This is the second part of the interview. Part 1 is here.

With the current conditions at the City—nearly a hiring freeze, and a planning department that along with so many other departments has been forced to cut and prune, even prior to the Ford administration—can the planning department do the job we need it to do? Is it trying to do things it shouldn’t be, are there areas that it should be focusing on? 

I think that’s a good question. I’ve asked that question myself and there are other people asking the same question you just raised. Are we doing things that we don’t need to be doing?

The process of an application is really onerous. There are many divisions and departments that review applications, it is not a pleasant process. There are far too many hands and far too many opinions in the process. If there’s a way of reducing that I think that would be great for the planning process. I’m not saying that it should be faster, but there should be a streamlining to the process so that you know at the beginning what you’re expected to do, and not at the end when it’s finally given to someone in technical services and they decide you need a different loading ramp than the one that the planner thought you should have. There’s a real problem in the city in terms of the management of the application process.

We have interviewed a number of developers, and two in particular which are also developing in Montreal, Ottawa or Calgary, can compare the process in the cities. None of those cities have quite the intensity of development pressures that we’ve got. In Montreal the developers are told 'this is how high and how large you’ll be allowed to build' whereas in Toronto there are protracted negotiations—and we get some terrific Section 37 benefits from them—except that the length of the process here is driving some of the developers crazy. Should Toronto zoning be more realistic and more firm, so that developers know in advance that they can get x number of storeys, or is our negotiation process a good thing?

I think that’s a process that develops with the people that you’re working with. I think a new councillor needs a period of time to learn how the development industry works, how the planning department works, who to listen to in a residents association… and that takes time and it's not easy, and the actors change. When you get a better sense of how the process works you can use shorthand to make clear what you think is and is not possible. I don’t think it’s helpful being told no no no no and then feeling like you'll get a yes if you offer the right amount of Section 37 money. That’s not the right way to do planning. In fact, if you’re saying no no no to the developer there is no Section 37, unless it's in the final report so you’re prepared to defend the no at the OMB. And, if the OMB does support the project opposing the City, the developer should still be paying Section 37. Unfortunately in the last 10 years there’s been this growing practice at the OMB that if the City doesn’t approve an application but the developer gets approval from the OMB, then the developer doesn’t have to pay any Section 37… and that’s wrong. I think that smells. 

What has brought on that change in the last 10 years? There were some rule changes in the mid-2000s…

You had to have a complete application at the City before you could move forward, and if you came to the OMB you couldn't come with a new plan. That change happened maybe eight years ago. I don’t think that’s been a significant shift. Most developers didn’t bait and switch and come in with a new plan. I think the OMB is constantly being attacked. There are some projects that I worked on that wouldn’t have been built if it hadn’t been for the OMB. 

Kyle Rae, image by Jack Landau

Mostly the members of Council supported what I was doing in the Downtown, and it’s interesting that their perspective was more that it is the Downtown and that's where it should happen. Maybe they thought that if they approved it in the Downtown then the tall buildings wouldn't come to their ward. 'I won’t have to deal with tall buildings so long as we’re putting them in the Downtown.'

I never had a struggle with members of Council when it came to tall buildings in the Downtown; it was more the residents associations that were just not democratic and not representative. I remember being told by a resident who had attended a ratepayer's board meeting five years ago; he was asked by the ratepayers association if he was a resident ratepayer, ‘where do you live?’ and he said 'I live in an apartment on Hillsborough'. They said 'you’re not a ratepayer', and they removed him from the meeting because he was a tenant in a high-rise apartment building.

A ratepayers group in Etobicoke fighting the Humbertown redevelopment recently had a message on their website telling their members that attendance at a public meeting was mandatory. I’ve never seen a ratepayers association order their members to show up at a public meeting before. 

I’ve never heard that either! My experience over the 20 years I was on Council is that ratepayers associations are self-perpetuating clubs. They don’t speak for the neighbourhood. I used to have terrible fights with the Yorkville ratepayers association, and after 2003 and 2006 elections I checked the election vote. I’d won every poll. The people that had opposed and got angry were not representative. Somebody said to me once that given the format of planning's public meetings only people who oppose and want a confrontation come out to meetings. People who are positive about projects stay home. 

Ratepayer associations are successful in having changes made to projects, and often in fact.

Yes, especially through working groups. I loved working groups, working through the issues. Okay, let’s work the site plan, let’s work on how it works on street level, then density, then height.

So maybe it’s the milieu that makes the difference in how a proposal evolves? In the intimate setting of the design working group there’s time for constructive evaluation and response, whereas the town hall meeting can degenerate into a shouting match.

It used to be terrible. When I was councillor the Planning department started to change the town hall type meeting. Initially what happened, especially in Yorkville, was that you’d have one loud-mouthed angry asshole who would start the public comment section by saying "This is the most disgusting, outrageous, greedy, etc." and that would set the tone and the content of the evening... everyone else would fall in line. If you liked the project you were intimidated, 'we know where you live', and all that…

At one Yorkville planning meeting, the planner put a piece of paper on each seat which said 'no yelling or screaming, you will let everyone have their say, no swearing, you will let others voice their opinion.' This was for adults, for lawyers and for Bay Street financiers, and they had to be given a guideline as to how to behave in a public meeting. Something happened at work today, and we clearly needed to be your outlet—and that’s what we’re for? That’s how it began to feel.

100 Yorkville, image by Hariri Pontarini Architects

Time and time again I had to put up with that, and then the planning department said why don’t we try this? It was far more civil, more informative and people were able to ask questions and express their opinions without recrimination.

So things have improved, clearly. 

I think part of the problem for Toronto is that the planning regime is so antiquated and the standards are even more so, and what I mean by that is the old zoning bylaw in the city of Toronto is from 1986, and it was based on the 1976 Official Plan. So, in the old City of Toronto the zoning by-law in force is 40 years out of date. Think of it: the zoning by-law reflects a Toronto before the wave of commercial investment flowed from Montreal due to the Parti Quebecois election.

With the high land prices now, virtually every development has to apply for a zoning amendment to be able to build something that is economically viable.

Yes that's very true. However there were some cases, for example on Lombard Street in late 1990's when several applications had come in before I was elected and a couple after, and they were processed through the rezoning exercise. Then French Quarter Phase 1 went through that and then when it came to the French Quarter 2 I said to the planning staff this had to stop. With the previous approvals we had given Lombard a new characteristic – why are we dragging them through yet another rezoning on this? This should be committee of adjustment.

They agreed. I was shocked! There was some recognition that once a street had changed its character, why would you drag developers through a costly process when you’ve determined a new built form for this neighbourhood? I suspect that most residents wouldn't understand giving a developer that latitude.

So you’re saying by extension that Toronto has had development redefined through projects and yet our bylaws…

Our regulations are completely out of date. I think saying completely isn’t enough; they're disgracefully out of date. I think it’s a great shame, and I think there are two reasons why an updating hasn’t happened. The planning department doesn’t want to go through an exercise of reworking the zoning bylaw as they have just gone through a harmonization exercise that has been one of the most embarrassing exercises in the history of the City of Toronto. For Council to turf out a harmonized ZBL due to quibbling issues such as having to park a car behind the front wall of a house...Really!

Given Toronto's lack of appetite to be Manhattan, the Planning Department's best chance to effect this transformation is keep the ZBL ridiculously out of date so that applications can be approved at the OMB due to the antiquity and irrelevance of the ZBL.

Should we not be seeking an up-to-date harmonized bylaw nevertheless? You seem half pleased that it didn't pass, at least this time.

It was a flawed process to begin with. It was rushed. As Chair of Economic Development, I had to intervene on several occasions because the industrial commercial sector was given the bum’s rush by the planning department. They were taking away their existing development rights such as Committee of Adjustment decisions, and unilaterally eradicating them. There was no sensitivity at all as to what a business, like Campbell’s Soup in south Etobicoke, a major property owner, taxpayer and major employer would have to do to process an as of right application to expand on their property. The planners didn’t get it.

They were just aiming at appeasing residents’ groups—that was the problem?

The planning staff were utterly captured by the concerns of residents; and mainly because many of the councillors on Planning and Growth were obsessing on residents. In fact there were councillors that stated at committee that they were only interested in sorting out the side yard issues of north Toronto residents, but couldn't care less about the employers of Toronto. Unfortunately, I sit in on discussions where people talk today about about the new City’s zoning bylaw. BUT, it’s not new, it’s harmonized. For the old City of Toronto, it’s still from the 1970s with all its old baggage.

Part of the problem is that the planning department is reluctant to interface with the public on a zoning bylaw, but members of Council are also reluctant to go through the process of a new zoning bylaw. They don’t want to deal with their residents who are afraid to allow for higher as-of-rights in the Downtown in case they creep up into Rosedale and into Summerhill.

Trump International Hotel and Tower, image courtesy of Talon International

There are those fearmongers that don’t recognize they live in stable neighbourhoods that have always been recognized as low-rise residential, and which are not going to be visited by tall buildings unless it’s on a major avenue like Yonge Street, but they freak out. I remember when the Trump Tower was being approved that the only residents association that wrote a letter in opposition to the tower was the Summerhill RPA—and they’re north of the railway tracks—they complained. 


'It’s coming to us. You approve this here and it will work its way up Yonge Street.'

They weren't preoccupied by that Woodcliffe high-rise proposal at the Five Thieves?

Yes that was bad enough, but it came later. This Trump Tower menace… the thin edge of the wedge… They were the only ratepayer group that wrote a letter.

Was it taken seriously?

Not by me. The closer you are to the application site the more relevance I would give you, but for the privileged serene residents of Summerhill I didn’t think they had a leg to stand on. 

Might the councillors also be interested in preserving the bylaw as-is so that they’re able to prize more public benefits from the developers?

Be able to prize more money from developers for Section 37? That could well be the case with some, but I don’t think most of members of Council have focused on Section 37. Maybe four or five who have regular applications of significant intensification. The rest of them are unlikely to get a high building.

High building applications are concentrated Downtown, in Etobicoke’s Humber Bay Shores, and at Yonge and Eglinton…

Which is not enough to stymie the issue. I think preserving the bylaw has more to do with not having to deal with the public consultation. It would be too painful. People don’t think about the future of the city—they think about its past and what they’ve invested in today. They don’t think about whether or not their children will be able to afford to live in this city, and if you sterilize vast tracts of this city as San Francisco has with its heritage designations—which are so extensive in San Fran that it is very very difficult to intensify, so now people that are born and raised in the city are being forced to leave, the children have to leave—and I don’t want that to happen to Toronto.

San Francisco has become a museum, like we talked about Venice.

Like Venice—it’s a museum, it hasn’t changed, and I don’t want it to change because it is a museum, but there’s no one under 40 who lives in Venice now, there are hardly any schools, it's all retired people. I don’t want that for Toronto. There needs to be the ability to intensify and change. And the zoning bylaw makes it very difficult for the development industry because it means every application needs to go through this kind of exhaustive review, and it really never was meant to be like this. We’ve just allowed it to fester.

Council has enough problems to deal with, so they’ve put this to the side.

If the City says that it doesn’t have the resources or the will… then I’m sure there’s a planning group out there that would be glad to do the exercise.

Is the failure of the harmonization exercise indicative of the planning department having been starved by the City of the resources they need to properly serve it?

I think they could realocate necessary resources if they really understood what prioritization meant, but everything that comes in the door they treat the same and they create work for themselves. They don’t know how to fast track.

I have the sense—maybe I'm wrong, you would know better—the planner's job has become very reactive, the department can’t be very proactive because there are too many applications coming through the door and now they simply have no time for anything else.

They don’t have much time but that’s partly because they decide to nit-pick everything. Talk to developers and they feel they’ve hired a good architect, but the city staff and urban design decide to redesign the building, and that’s not their job. I remember when the developer came in with architect, Robert Stern, to discuss One St. Thomas. The planner on the file started to hum and haw about the height and the Part II and the… and I said "I do not want this design by Stern to be frustrated by the City Planners, leave it alone." It is a unique addition to the streetscape and skycape of Toronto and the City staff left it alone!

One St. Thomas rises over 77 Charles West and Victoria University, image by Craig White

Do you have a take on the Design Review Panels, the City’s or the Waterfront Toronto one?

I think they’re doing a great job.

But sometimes they redesign a building…

They will make comments, but I don’t know that they redesign. They do make some really harsh comments. I remember that about the Corus building. I don’t think that Jack Diamond would say they ended up designing it, but they did make recommendations that went back and forth. That I think is healthy. It’s painful, but it's healthy.

Let's dig deeper into the Tall Buildings Guidelines. What’s your take on it?

I think the study was partially generated by a planning department that feels overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do when it has residents complaining about tall buildings and it’s given them a rationale… a policy framework. Bureaucracies crave, demand and stain themselves on policy. If they don’t have a policy framework they’re at sea. They have no idea what to do and they feel lost and they need a security blanket, and policy gives them that. 

Since these are guidelines, and not new zoning regulations, is this more of a tool to be trotted out at the OMB more than anything else?

They trot it out right at the very beginning. Part of the problem is that you have some planners who think it should be treated like a zoning bylaw regulation when it’s not one, it’s a guideline. You’re constantly having to remind the moderator at a public meeting or the planning staff or the residents who don’t understand the force that this has that it’s only a guideline.

It is a way for the planning department to battle back on the increasingly frequent applications for intensification in the Downtown. They had no rationale to say yes or no and they wanted to be able to start saying no. The one comment I remember hearing from planners is that there’s a group of city planners who went down to New York City two or three years ago and they came back complaining about the narrow high-rise buildings being built in New York because you can’t build parking below 45th Street. That means the floorplates can be smaller because you’re not having to do the traffic circle inside your building.

Everything’s going car elevator on the tight sites these days.

In New York that requirement to not have parking meant that you could build taller buildings because you don’t need to worry about traffic circulation, and the Toronto planning staff complained about it: it allows for these tall narrow buildings. So it's like, 'when are you guys going to stop whining? This is a city of tall buildings, most applications in this city are now tall buildings, it is no longer a single family detached neighbourhood city.' Maybe they want that to happen, but I think it's reluctance on their part to deal with that, and to have to rationalize their approval.

Have the Guidelines had an effect on applications?

It’s being taken into account by members of the development industry and their consultants. It is always raised in pre-meetings. In meetings that I’ve had with developers about their projects it’s always raised as something to keep in mind. If you don’t take it into account the City will, and they will throw it at you. You need to be ready and have a rationalization about whether or not the balcony should be 20 metres separated from the next building.

Ultimately, can the Guidelines have a really significant effect unless land prices come down? Is that not the bottom line, that land prices that are driving the height and density increase requests?

It’s a built form issue, and it's whether or not you think that there is a suburban built form that can be adopted in the city centre, and I think that the 20 metre between balconies is more than you need. The separation across a street has been satisfactory in many parts of the city for many years. The old neighbourhoods in the Downtown have got 8 or 9-storey apartments which are across the street from each other, and there is not a 20 metre expectation. I think the planners really do try and massage things so they reduce the aggravation.

Kyle Rae, image by Jack Landau

We finish up with Kyle Rae next week. Come back next Thursday for Part 3 when we talk about some current Toronto projects.