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 final part of the interview. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
We've been going through years worth or your concerns from when you were a Toronto City Councillor. You are now teaching City Politics at Ryerson University and you have a development consultancy, so you're still involved with this city's growth. Let’s catch up with the present and talk about one of the most significant proposals to hit Toronto in decades. Mirvish+Gehry. This is huge, potentially the greatest landmarks offered to the city since the CN Tower, and probably the trickiest rezoning application to hit the city in the last decade. How should the planning department and City be receiving this?
Well I know how they will deal with it given the way they’ve dealt with other applications in that neighbourhood. They’ll say you can’t be taller than Metro Hall. That is the refrain in the planning section.
It took forever for Festival Tower to negotiate for a little more height than Metro Hall.
It was embarrassing. Imagine choosing a building from the 1980s as the measuring stick by which to judge other new projects in this city.
It’s a rather banal post-modern aggregation.
And it’s now heritage. Members of council at Metro were able to convince council that it should be a heritage building because they sat in it. That’s ridiculous.
With Mirvish+Gehry objectively in another league, maybe it will break free from the shackles of that kind of thinking? Not to say that there aren't many things to consider in Mirvish+Gehry's regard. On UrbanToronto there are both those rallying around the proposal and those lining up in opposition. It certainly drove traffic on our site through the roof.
Is the traffic evenly split Pro versus Con?
It is mostly pro, the comments we’re getting are probably 75% in favour. Many have questions, it's a small minority in complete opposition.
But your readership is reasonably pro development…
Most not blindly.
It’s a rarefied group.
It certainly includes a rarefied group…
I would say your readership tends to be very supportive of new design and intensification. They understand that blithely — that that’s the future.
Yes, I agree with that.
And so I’m not sure how representative the UrbanToronto response is, but that’s certainly where my feelings lie.
Hard to say how representative it is or isn't. I’ve heard people — non-UrbanToronto types — spit out the words "It’s just more condos," so who knows… But the group of people who are going to be testing the proposal now are also a rarefied group: planners, politicians, neighbourhood activists…
There’s a battle going on already over King Street's Restaurant Row; that will be putting your toe in the water to test to see how bad or well this will go.
People will tell you this is not the Restaurant Row per se…
But it’s kitty corner. I think that first of all there’s going to be a very difficult process with the planning department. They have planted their flag in the soil, "You shall not pass!" Gandalf, right?! Although they haven’t said anything about this application, I worked with TIFF on their project — although it wasn’t in my ward — I did work on it, and then Olivia Chow, whose ward it was in, left City Council and it floundered a bit. So I watched the planning department poke them in the eye and say you can’t be taller than Metro Hall. Utterly bizarre concept: it’s something they do in other parts of the city, they take an existing building and use that as a measure. So that’s the first thing they have to get past is that mentality engrained in that neighbourhood.
There’s also the skyline tapering policy, peaking at First Canadian Place in the Financial Core, and descending gradually to the west… but these towers would extend that same height to the west without dropping.
And just who is the keeper of the golden string? Who holds it at this end of the city? Who decides where that magic string should cut?
That’s a fair question. Has [Toronto's new cheif planner] Jennifer Keesmaat just been handed the string? Has she got Gandalf’s wizard hat on now?
I think Jennifer is a vision person. She’s not going to be trapped by the specifics of a site-specific application. I think she’ll look bigger and beyond what people tend to do in the planning department. There may well be a gap between what the planners who are given this file and the leadership in the planning department will do.
Will there be more people in on the planning meetings on this than for a typical application?
If you put more people in the meeting it's more likely to grind to a halt. The problem at the City is that if you fill the room with City staff they each will think they have veto power. That’s the disturbing part as to how this bureaucracy works. You need to keep the personnel in the planning process as nimble, open and thoughtful as possible, and when you get more and more people in the room, that tends not to happen and it leadens the discussion.
So then let's get down to the nitty gritty on this one. What would you do with this application?
I’m having trouble with this one, visualizing three 80-storey buildings on that part of the block, all between King and Pearl. It doesn’t run to the south side of Adelaide. There’s a concern. I’d want to see how that works.
I like the designs of the buildings. One of the things that concerns me is that there have been problems for people dealing with that tectonic design because it really adds to the cost of the project. The pipes running through it, having to shift, elevators, construction is complicated by it being hard to determine what ceiling is the floor of the unit above because of floor-to-floor shifts. It creates some architectural expense that’s added to these projects.
I’m concerned about that because sometimes when that happens, the person who ends up designing it is not necessarily the person who ends up having to build the development, and the details can fall off the table... so I’d want to make sure that you secure those design elements that people are really pleased to see, so that they are secured up front. They need to be in the Section 37 for materials as well as for design.
Part of the problem with this project is that you’ve got two stars. Torontonians tend to not like stars. If this were Menkes or Tridel with Gehry there might well be a different reaction. Two stars seem to get Torontonians aggravated. I’m not sure what Mirvish's goal is… a museum for his collection or is it the condo development? There are those that are characterizing this application as a trade off of gifting a museum in return for condos. That is an unfortunate characterization but understandable given the press announcement. I think it would advance the project to allow the museum to stand free of the condo portion. I don’t think people are really embracing that collision of condo and museum.Thomson provided a similar gift to the AGO and he didn’t put an 80-storey condo on top of it.
Thomson was a little higher up the Forbes list.
I think there’s a problem. Just because you have an art collection doesn’t mean you need an 80-storey condo on top of it.
Maybe it’s Gehry that has to sell the 80 floors, and Mirvish has to sell the rest. I'll be frank and declare that I’m buying the idea.
I’m just not… the piece that was shown of the first 10 floors with the toilet paper… I think it has not been well presented… or received.
It is a bit of a leap for many people to make—to transfer those concept maquettes into a built form—it's not obvious how that will all translate.
I’ve been to Bilbao, I’ve seen the transformational work that Gehry’s done there, and I trust that he can do it. On King Street opposite Metro Hall? It feels like it might be lost on the neighbourhood. There’s something odd about its location. People raise the concern that Adam [Vaughan] had been very clear on securing the height regulation on Queen Street West in the Queen West Heritage District. Heights there are restricted so that there isn't shadowing on Queen Street. I’m wondering what kind of shadowing these three buildings will have on Queen.
I give Mirvish credit for rising out of the misery of One King West and being prepared to come back with a condo.
It’s my take that the Mirvish+Gehry proposal has created a tipping point, focusing enough public attention on transportation to the Downtown that finally the Downtown Relief Line, [a proposed subway] that has been bubbling under for years, certainly during your time at council, is now understood by council to be vital for Toronto. Finally we may get a new line to re-route people downtown more quickly, instead of having the TTC spend a billion dollars just to rebuild Bloor-Yonge station to handle increasing crowds.
They spent millions there, I can’t remember how much, to widen the Yonge line platforms at Bloor. Whatever it cost, it was a lot.
I’m not sure that it’s the Gehry project so much as the Oxford Place project that generates the concern about a need for the DRL. There’s going to be the employment factor there, two office towers, the huge hotel, perhaps a huge casino.
It was probably the two huge announcements in as many weeks that tipped the balance. Meanwhile, there are at least as many condo units already under construction and in sales in the area as there are proposed for Mirvish+Gehry, but people just don’t realize it. I think the Mirvish proposal’s 2700 unit total in one place galvanized people: now they know we have to increase our transit capacity.
I was with an architect this afternoon, and we were talking about how between 1989 and 1998 there were no condos being built in the city, there were only co-ops and non-profits being built because the market had collapsed. When people talk about the rapid condo development now, part of it is just catching up to the demand created by a decade of failure to provide that kind of housing.
What I came out of the conversation with that was interesting is that there have been a significant number of new office buildings built in the Downtown in the last five years, and there has not been one peep of protest about it, whereas prior to 1989 the City Council would be in tears, gnashing its teeth over what to do about the Scotia Plaza application, what to do about Bay Adelaide? How do we get people down there? Those debates on Council were fractious, almost violent. People came out of those meetings in tears. Now, we can approve all of these towers Downtown and no-one says a word. No-one bats an eye.
Is that because we have so much more pedestrian commuting now with so many more people living Downtown? Or that we can jam more people into the new subway trains?
I don’t think that the subway really is part of it. It used to be that the city did not believe that it was a city. In the last decade we have come to realize that we are not a city that builds single family detached houses anymore. We are a city that builds intensified residential opportunities. That is a tremendous leap, and I think that is why there is a silence—an utter silence—when all these office towers get approved. Another reason is that, for example down at the Southcore, all the new buildings surrounding PriceWaterhouse etc. are residential, so there’s this coexistence that people have come to realize has to happen.
So I like to think that’s we’ve fully grown up in the last decade, but really? What’s happening right now with the bike lanes on Jarvis is an indication that we’re still just juvenile.
Is another sign of our juvenility the continued pitting of suburbanites against downtowners? Most city councillors are telling their constituents now that the DRL isn’t about downtowners, it’s about getting better transit for suburbanites.
Not another service for the Downtown… Well, I think it’s actually true. Most people who live in the suburbs want better access to jobs and entertainment and shopping Downtown. They should have those transportation choices.
Agreed, but do we need to pit suburbanites against downtowners to get the DRL built?
To get a popular consensus you have to have leadership from members of council, but all to often they recede into anti-downtown rhetoric or snub-the-suburbs, which has gone back and forth for many years. It’s part of, perhaps, the failure to grow up. Unless members of council start thinking more about the greater city and less about just their own constituency, then the insularity and separateness of our communities will just be reinforced.
Back when I was first elected in 1991 the TTC was still in the hands of Metro, and they didn’t pay any attention to the members of City Council. They’d only listen to Metro. And then in 1998 with the amalgamation came the de-coupling of the TTC and the province, in terms of its mandate and in terms of its funding. From ’98 until today the TTC has been obsessed with maintaining its rolling stock and delivery of its existing services, and very little time has been spent building for the future, until recently.
Does that have to do with the slow fiscal strangulation of the TTC?
It is the fiscal strangulation, and it is only now changing a bit as the provincial and federal governments have thrown some one-time money at the problem. Inconsistently from the feds, but more significantly from the province. They both realized they needed to get back into the game, and now the TTC is beginning to think about the future.
For most of the time I was on council, either I was not a player, because members of City Council were not involved with the TTC at all, and secondly after amalgamation the TTC got nailed financially by the province walking away initially. Do you remember all these stories back at the time about what a great job David Gunn is doing? ‘He takes a bus off the road and scraps it and salvages all the parts to rebuild other buses!’ Same thing with the streetcars and subways. It was all about ‘let’s fight the second world war all over again’.
That was a decade. The DRL came up infrequently, but really what the problem was that we were focused on glueing together the bus system with Lepage’s glue, because we had no money.
So are we going to get anywhere with this now? City council decided in the past month to move the DRL to the top of the find-funding list. In July it was the East Harbourfront LRT that was at the top of that list.
I don’t have much faith in city council to get anywhere with this. It’s been the province charging Metrolinx with coming up with a funding formula… that we have yet to see. And it was the province that got us the $8 Billion we’re spending now on Eglinton, but if you don’t have the cash it isn’t going to happen, and the CIty of Toronto doesn’t have the cash.
As a development consultant now, do you find that your clients are talking about the transportation situation in this city?
Very much, I’ve had clients who own property on Eglinton East, and they know what’s coming and they see the opportunity to intensify. Let’s just hope the councillors are prepared to meet the demand to intensify to help pay for the rapid transit lines. Not just the capital costs—the operating costs. You have to have density.
Tell me more about your consultancy, PQR Solutions, and how you’ve taken your experience at the city into it.
I’ve formed a partnership with Chris Phibbs who worked most recently for David Miller—she was his special advisor on planning issues for five years, prior to that she worked for Artscape, and before that from 1991 to 2003 she worked for me as my executive assistant—so she had a lot of experience dealing with planning, development in my office, the mayor's and at Artscape. So we formed this partnership, we’re sharing the experience of working on the planning file but in a different way. We’re working with developers before they go in to see the city councillor or planning department and helping them with the planning application prior to that meeting so that they are closer to meeting the city’s expectations before they go in.
…So that they understand the landscape.
We outline what we think will fly with the planning department after our experience working with planners over the years. We help them do a better application and presentation to the planning department as the process begins. I think that’s helpful and useful for them because the application of a developer is very rarely negotiated: you’ve got the developer expecting to achieve x and an architect trying to achieve that x often resulting in a built form where everyone says 'Why? No, we don’t want that'. It’s trying to balance the architect’s expression of the developer’s expectation, we try to help manage that.
On UrbanToronto I believe that people see developers’ first application as a fishing expedition, and that they’re usually willing to have some height and density lopped off by the city.
I experienced that many times from applicants who come in who deliberately overreach because they know they will be chopped. So depending on the planners and the applicant I would say good luck with that or give the advice to not do that. Let’s be realistic, it’s easier to argue in favour or make changes to an application which is more realistic. If you’re off the map then you’re wasting your time.
So the public's perception that they’re always asking too much is not true.
No it’s not. It’s not true.
Beyond PQR, you’re also lecturing at Ryerson.
Yes! I don’t know how long it will last as I think someone is just on sabbatical, but they needed someone to teach local government and so I ended up with 160 students and I really enjoy it. They are for the most part right out of high school, first year—120 first year planning students in two separate courses—then there’s a third course, a Continuing Ed course, that’s the same subject matter.
It’s interesting dealing with people right out of Grade 12; they’re 19 years old and they’re in the planning school. I’m in the politics department teaching them local government, so in the back of my head I’ve got to keep trying to relate, and it's really easy for me to do this—to relate the politics of local government to the planning process and to the planning issues—although the first part is more about history, establishing the federal government and provincial government in relation to the city and then how cities work. Now we've gotten into dealing with the budget and processes of the city… less historical and more current and thematic now. It’s very interesting to go through that with them.
We'll interview one of your students at the end of the year! Thanks very much for sitting down with us!