An affordable housing proposal near Woodbine Beach calls for an 18-storey building. Some residents fear it will end up changing their neighbourhood
Aug. 10, 2021
The skyline may be rising in Toronto’s Beach area, as the city recently revealed plans for an 18-storey mixed-use complex just north of Woodbine Park.
The project at 1631 Queen St. E, which stretches to Eastern Avenue, is part of the city’s plan to boost affordable housing by leveraging the land it already owns. The pitch includes child care, retail and community spaces, plus 279 rental homes from studios to three-bedroom apartments.
Some of those units would be guaranteed affordable, the city says, which means they’ll hit or fall below average market rent. While the city says it wants half the building to be affordable units, the proposal includes a minimum of 33 per cent affordability.
It’s the kind of project that local Coun. Brad Bradford bills as critical to keep middle-income earners from being priced out of the city. But it’s also the kind of project that urban designers and planners say has historically been difficult to integrate into communities such as the Beach, where some residents fear that developments will change their area’s disposition.
“That is why we don’t have a lot more housing,” said Toronto-based urban planner Sean Galbraith. “Things like density and height restrictions and neighbourhood character are absolutely fundamental components in keeping housing deficiency prevalent in the city.”
The proposed height of the development has been a key point of contention. Some residents have pointed to a set of Urban Design Guidelines developed for Queen Street East in 2012. The idea, the guidelines said, was to maintain a “town-like feel.”
Renderings of the city's proposed mixed-use development at 1631 Queen St. E.
On Queen near Woodbine Beach, the maximum height outlined in those guidelines is 12.5 metres, which is roughly four storeys, or 18.5 m, which is roughly six, if the building slopes upwards within a 45-degree angle.
The city’s initial pitch was for eight storeys to be adjacent to Queen, which was since dropped to six. But the project’s height remains a heated issue, as the city also changed the Eastern Avenue side from 17 to 18 storeys. To achieve its plan, the city needs zoning and Official Plan changes. Its real estate agency, CreateTO, has filed an application to the city’s planning department, and a staff report on the proposal is expected in September.
Since the pitch emerged, postcards depicting a tall building baring teeth at smaller ones -- labelled “No skyscrapers in the Beach!” -- were distributed in the area. Some residents have admonished the pitched height in consultations, raising concerns from the new density adding parking congestion to worries over how “aesthetically pleasing” the height would be.
One resident also raised concern with a plan to relocate an existing community garden.
Uwe Sehmrau, a member of The Beach and East Toronto Historical Society, said his group’s concern wasn’t the single site itself, but a worry that allowing such height could muddle the design guidelines, and create a precedent for bigger projects elsewhere on Queen.
The proposal follows an approved Queen Street community housing redevelopment plan a few minutes’ walk west, just across the Leslieville boundary, which includes a 17-storey building.
Sehmrau noted the city’s efforts to set up the 1631 Queen project as an anomaly -- staff have pointed to the property’s 80-metre depth, its dual frontage on Queen and Eastern, and lack of adjacent lowrise residential buildings as unique factors.
“I feel (city staff) are doing their best to make sure this is a sound project that will not set a precedent, but … I just feel quite often this is taken out of the hands of the city, and they can’t do anything about it,” Sehmrau said, noting some cases are decided by a provincial tribunal.
It’s a concern that urban designer Ken Greenberg sees as legitimate.
“The city has a tremendous burden when they approve this to make a really, really strong case in planning arguments for why they’re approving it and what are the exceptional circumstances,” he said.
In a “rational world,” he said the arguments about depth and other factors would be enough. But he said the tribunal’s decisions could be harder to predict. The city needed an “ironclad case,” he said, if it wanted to withstand potential challenges.
Still, Greenberg said there was an “enormous need” for affordable homes in Toronto, noting that workers deemed essential during COVID-19 were being priced out. It was important to “unlock” development on main streets and arterial roads, he said, instead of cramming higher buildings into already-dense areas.
Though he hadn’t reviewed the proposal in detail, he sees Eastern Avenue as one such example. “Eighteen storeys, to me, doesn’t sound outrageous there.”
Not all area residents have opposed the pitch. At the June meeting, one local commended the inclusion of two- and three-bedroom units to make the project accessible to families, while another, James Gray, said affordable housing was necessary to “keep the city working.”
Bradford said he sees some shortcomings in the city’s approach to such projects -- calling for better and earlier engagement, and more responsiveness to concerns.
But while expressing confidence the proposal wouldn’t “open up the floodgates” for a wave of tall developments in the Beach, he said the city had evolved since the design guidelines were written. He sees 2021 as a “natural moment” to reassess how Toronto can grow.
“When you think about where the city is today, and the magnitude of the housing crisis we’re facing, 10 years ago Toronto was a very different place -- and so was the Beaches,” he said.
“There’s a difference between stability and static. Our city and our neighbourhoods will continue to change and evolve. We just have to do that in a thoughtful and considerate way.”