UPDATE: The article below from a little over two months ago has become one of the most read items on UrbanToronto again, this time on June 19, 2013. The reason is that the trees which have been the subject of much discussion on the Daniels HighPark Condominiums property have just come down to make way for the building, and another article in the Toronto Star, by Joe Fiorito again, is making much hay of that fact.

Like I say below, I'm not happy that trees are coming down for this project, but the direness of Fiorito's tone strikes me as that of a manipulative tearjerker, amped up by emotion but unsupported by evidence, and replete with plenty of violins. In with all of Fiorito's violin playing, there is a particular contention in his current article that The Daniels Corporation say is simply not true, so I am adding this preface to give them a chance to respond. In question? The text of the kicker, just after the headline: 

The Toronto way: a small grove of black oaks, filled with nesting birds, has been cut down to make way for condos.

Explained later on in the article, Fiorito and U of T forestry student Eric Davies see a bird at the site land upon a wire. It holds a catepillar in its beak. Fiorito jumps to the conclusion that the bird's nest and its young have just been cleared away.

Daniels isn't quite the faceless monster portrayed in the article. If Fiorito had bothered to contact them he would have learned that the company had an ornithologist examine the trees three times to confirm that there were no nesting birds prior to the trees' removal. As there are many other trees in this neighbourhood, this bird is more likely a neighbour of this site, and not a resident. Give it a some years and the 36 native species trees that Daniels is planting on the site post-construction can provide homes for its descendants. Even beyond those three dozen trees, Daniels agreement with the City means the developer will plant another 90 trees around the neighbourhood.

There are some other arguable conclusions presented as fact in Fiorito's new article, like in his previous one, but the original text of my article below tackles them and more. It remains unchanged from our April publication. Give it a read!

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I grew up reading Asterix comic books. If you're familiar with them, you'll know that Asterix's best friend is Obelix, and that Obelix has a pet dog named Dogmatix, and that Dogmatix loves trees. The trio live in a village on the Brittany coast during the time the Romans invaded, 50-ish BC or so. Of the 32 stories, one of my absolute favourites is Mansions of the Gods, where Julius Caesar sends an architect to plant a Roman suburb in the forest surrounding Asterix's village. The architect and the new Roman neighbours are given a rough ride by Asterix and the other indomitable Gaulish villagers, and by the end of the story, the forest has retaken the land.

from Mansions of the Gods by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, copyright Les Éditions Albert René

If you've never read the books, well, they come highly recommended! They're perfect for reading to your favourite kid or to your inner kid.

I agree with the dog: I love trees. Who doesn't? Some people would have you believe however that a developer never met a tree they weren't happy to cut down. That's what Joe Fiorito seems to say in the Toronto Star today about The Daniels Corporation and their plans for a project on Bloor West called HighPark Condominiums. The truth isn't so simple however, and I should know, because while I'm a keen observer of the development industry in Toronto, I really got involved with this one. Time for some background…

* * *

New condos are a fact of life in Toronto: we are a growing city surrounded by a Provincially mandated greenbelt which limits the number of new tract subdivisions that can spread like cancer across former farmland. Thank goodness! As we can no longer continue to sprawl limitlessly outwards to meet housing demands, we have to intensify what urban land we have and build upwards.

That's not to say that condos will or should go up just anywhere in Toronto. The City wants them along higher order transit lines, typically found on the arterial roads that form the edge of a neighbourhood, and not in the middle of low-rise residential neighbourhoods. This policy keeps the neighbourhoods relatively stable, while providing critical mass for the transit routes that we rely on more heavily with passing each year.

Bloor Street across from High Park would seem an obvious place to build a condo: the location offers residents easy access to the subway, good shopping streets nearby, and great views. That's enough motivation to begin land assembly, and in fact that assembly was going on for years as WJ Properties bought homes in the block fronting Bloor between Pacific Avenue and Oakmount Road. A few years ago they purchased the last property on the block, and then entered into a joint venture with The Daniels Corporation to develop the site.

Daniels' High Park location, and High Park and apartment neighbourhood, looking west, image from Apple Maps

Daniels proposed a 14-storey building on the site, in line with the height of the existing 17-storey rental building immediately to the north (owned and managed by WJ Properties, seen above with the red roof), and shorter than the bulk of the approximately two dozen other apartment buildings that spread across the greater neighbourhood. Daniels started a process of community consultation, and held a number of public meetings—more than the number legally required—to get public input.

The Planning Department liked the plan, and recommended approval by City Council of a zoning bylaw amendment needed to allow the project to go ahead. At a January 2012 meeting however, Councillor Mammoliti sensed the community was not on board, and led a council revolt. Objections brought by locals included the common complaints of increased traffic, blocked views, and shadows, but also included some other concerns that we'll come back to. Daniels appealed the refusal of the zoning amendment to the OMB, but continued to pursue more community input on aspects of the proposal that weren't covered by the appeal, namely site plan and cladding concerns, through a Design Working Group (DWG).

Early version of Daniels HighPark Condominiums, image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects

Despite not being a resident of the immediate neighbourhood, I live close enough that I am a frequent visitor to and lover of High Park, and it was at this point that I got interested. I attended the community meeting which was called to set up the DWG. The meeting was attended by many who only wanted to talk about things that weren't on the table, mostly the number of floors, and those who wanted the building to have an old-timey look. Following the meeting I was amongst a dozen or so who volunteered to be a member of the DWG. I disclosed at the time to the City Planner and the ward Councillor that I was editor at urbantoronto.ca, and had a life-long interest in the park (my grandmother lived on Oakmount). I was told that they were happy to have me join the group as a private citizen but not as a member of the media, so I refrained from reporting upon the Working Group process at the time, which took place over 3 and a half weeks, exactly a year ago now.

Our Group considered the building in relationship to the park and to the neighbourhood. We heard from the Architect, and City Planning staff regarding traffic issues, pedestrian experience, and environment, especially as it concerned the birds and the trees. We asked for fancy iron-spot brick (and got it), limestone accents (and got it), and bird-strike attenuation measures (and got it). We were already pretty happy with the native species plantings and bioswale pits being proposed by the Landscape Architects.

Post-DWG redesign of Daniels HighPark Condominiums, image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects

Three of us deputed at the following Etobicoke and York Community Council meeting in support of the project. There were some members who still weren't happy that the project did not look like a Canadian Railway Hotel of the 1920s, and several were still concerned there wasn't enough being done to prevent bird-strike (more on that in another article), but the changes satisfied Council and they resolved to send staff to support Daniels’ zoning amendments at the OMB. Councillor Mammoliti even managed an apology to Councillor Sarah Doucette for his handling of the zoning amendment application earlier in the year. Only Councillor Doug Ford voted against the project.

That was May 2012. The early summer saw an OMB pre-hearing where parties and participants in the hearing were determined, and the hearing date was set for November to give everyone time to prepare their case for or against the project. Just shy of two weeks were required to hear all of the arguments. The OMB Decision came down in late January, and it allowed the project to proceed, with one caveat, that a full Natural Heritage Impact Study be completed for the site. That study is now done, and permits to proceed are expected soon.

* * *

This is where Joe Fiorito's article comes back in, because when the permits arrive, the three trees that he is worried about will come down.

Fiorito's concern stems from his conversation with Eric Davies, a U of T doctoral student in forestry. It's perfectly reasonable for Fiorito to pick up on a doctoral student's concerns, but it seems very odd that he has has not consulted with Dr. Derek Coleman, an eminent ecologist who was hired by Daniels to study the site. Fiorito dismissively fobbed him off as "the developer's tree expert" in the last paragraph of his article, but the man has a CV the length of your arm detailing more than 40 years of experience in environmental and ecological planning practice throughout Ontario and beyond, has penned many papers in his field of expertise, and is a frequent conference speaker. His testimony at the OMB left little doubt that he has a masterful knowledge of the subject, and none of the parties opposed at the hearing questioned any of his findings.

So let's clip Fiorito's statements and examine what he is saying—based on what I feel is a partial knowledge of the situation—and compare that with what Dr. Coleman, the City of Toronto's environmental planners, the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, and Ministry of Natural Resources have to say.

The [trees] I care the most about are on Bloor St. W. They are old-growth black oak, part of the rare and internationally significant prairie sand savannah that is High Park;

• The trees in question are not old growth in the sense of predating the original development on that land; they were landscaping trees planted in and around the Turn of the Century homes built on cleared land. They are not part of an oak savannah: portions of High Park which are oak woodlands are designated as an Area of Natural Scientific Interest (ANSI). The Daniels site is not within the ANSI. An oak savannah is characterized by a predominance of oak and a lack of invasive species. In ages past wildfires would clear these areas of the invasive species. As of 2000, Toronto began controlled burns in High Park which replicate the effect. (This year's will likely be during the coming two weeks.)

Controlled burn in High Park Black Oak Savannah, 2012, by Oliver Pauk

The trees on the Daniels site have never been subject to the burn effect that creates the savannah.

…the trees in question are also genetically important for the health of their neighbours just across the way.

• The Bloor Street trees are not genetically dependant on the trees in High Park. There is a large population of Black Oak trees in High Park that is from the same stock. High Park's Black Oaks are split up amongst several fragmented pockets, are healthier than ever since the prescribed burn program started, and none are threatened.

And that’s why this is a minor-league town; developers always cut down these trees over here, so that condo dwellers may see those trees over there.

• Toronto was one huge forest 400 years ago: every building here meant some trees had to go. Toronto is now very mindful of losing trees—it's the leading municipality in Ontario in protecting trees in fact—and everyone who wants to cut down a tree must make a case for it, developers included. Individual situations are assessed and decisions made on a balance of issues. This has occurred in this case following the exhaustively detailed Natural Heritage Impact Study (NHIS) tabled with the City and the OMB.

I am, of course, anticipating the slaughter of the trees because the matter is before the Ontario Municipal Board, and when has the OMB ever stood for the people, or the trees?

• Of course it's easy to diss the OMB and pretend that developers always get their way there, but that is not the case. Those concerned with the property and its trees (including Mr. Davies) were given the opportunity to present evidence to the OMB over a nine day period in November 2012, and their views were weighed in the OMB decision dated January 24, 2013.

[Eric Davies] showed me the results of a natural heritage study, required for the site; alas, the study contains no fieldwork and does not address the various flora and fauna across three seasons, as is required by the city.

• The NHIS conformed to the City’s requirements and was prepared according to an agreed Terms of Reference, which were approved by the environmental professional staff of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Toronto Region Conservation Authority and the City of Toronto.

All winter long, the roots of these old trees have held reserves of sugars, just as they have done for the last 200 years

• the trees are not 200 years old, as mentioned above;

An aside: a while back I bumped into the councillor for the area, Sarah Doucette. She is a chipper person, and the city’s tree advocate. I said it would be a shame to lose these trees, and their genes. She said it might be possible to save some of the seeds. She, of course, meant acorns, and she had better hope the old oaks are not cut down until the fall, because there are no acorns now, this being spring.

• The viable acorns from last fall will be sprouting soon and will be collected along with any seedlings from previous years. Daniels has committed to this in the Natural Heritage Impact Study. Daniels' landscape team will also be sourcing acorns and saplings from the Friends of High Park's annual sale of park-produced acorns and seeds for planting around the building. Only native species will be used. While most landscaping around the site will be in continuous bioswales which permit groundwater percolation, two pits in the courtyard in front of the building will be a full three metres deep to allow the planting of sizable specimens and an eventual 40 year growth. Daniels is removing two parking spaces in the garage below to allow for the pits.

Courtyard at Daniels' HighPark Condominiums with significant plantings, image by Jack Landau

Oh, well, if the City can’t or won’t do anything to save the trees, Eric has been busy. He prepared a study of his own; it has the endorsement of the urban forestry department of the university.

He was aiming for a blend of pragmatism and compromise. He identified three of the old oak for replanting nearby, and they are serious trees; their absence on the construction site would create some space, and their salvation would ensure at least some genetic diversity. It would also cast the developer as a saviour of nature. Eric did some digging and found a company in Texas that specializes in the replanting of ancient trees. The hitch? It would cost roughly $100,000 apiece to replant the three trees. Daniels isn’t interested.

• Dr. Coleman, through the Natural Heritage Impact Study, considered the transplanting of the trees and found that the roots of the trees had been growing between the foundations of dwellings. (Makes sense.) This means the trees roots are constrained and are not good candidates for capturing the large root system required for a successful transplant. Furthermore, the trees are in poor to fair condition and no guarantee of survival can be given. His assessment concluded there is a low probability of success, and that's why he did not recommend transplanting the large trees.

Transplant costs would be above the $300,000 sum which can be derived from the above, as utility relocation would also be required for electrical wire, and Rogers and Bell fibre optic services in the area. The image below is from a golf course, but it will give you an idea of why utility relocation would be necessary in this urbanized area. So, if you were having to spend over $300,000 to move three trees, you would want to be reasonably certain of both the chance of success and of the necessity of the move to ensure the species' survival in the area in the first place, right? Neither is true here.

This is why it costs $100,000 to move a mature tree: from the Natural Heritage Impact Study

A final note: according to the developer’s tree expert, “There is no direct interface between High Park and the subject lands.” Yes, and any person who holds that opinion is clearly unaware of how pollination happens among black oak trees; unaware also of the little junco that flitted across the interface and headed for High Park.

• I can't find that quote anywhere in the materials. To correctly quote the NHIS “there will be no potential direct impacts on the features or functions in (the ANSI within) High Park” from building across Bloor Street. That's a 27 metre right of way that has for well over a hundred years drawn the line between development and park.

So, that's my take. There's more to talk about this project, and some of it concerns that flitting junco from above, but I'm saving it for another day.

Related Companies:  Diamond Schmitt Architects, Isotherm Engineering Ltd., Land Art Design Landscape Architects Inc