Toronto is on the verge of unveiling a sweeping proposal to restrict density on a long stretch of Queen Street West, the key downtown strip that for decades has showcased the city’s most eclectic art, music and fashion.
Queen has long been an urban magnet, its appeal surviving changes in consumer tastes and an increasingly gentrified city. But those same pressures – including the westward march of chain stores – have also changed the street. A new staff report focused on balancing preservation with change is expected within weeks, and at least one major developer is concerned that the proposed solution is too restrictive.
The plan will cover the part of Queen between Bathurst and Roncesvalles, a 3.5-kilometre strip that takes in West Queen West and the former Parkdale Village, establishing new zoning policies while also seeking to protect the area under heritage rules.
According to a draft city document, new and renovated buildings would be limited to six storeys, up to 20 metres in total, with the first three storeys allowed adjacent to the sidewalk and the remainder set back. But the proposals go further, including design guidelines and a slate of changes – around pedestrian mobility, road safety, parking requirements and landscaping – that get to the heart of neighbourhood livability.
“There is a certain feel for pedestrians walking along Queen … and your building form has to reinforce that feel,” said city Councillor Gord Perks, whose ward includes the westernmost part of the area. “So the overall height [limit] isn’t the only thing we’re trying to capture. It’s the pedestrian experience, the look, the rhythm of doors.”
Mr. Perks said that protection is necessary because the booming real estate market is threatening the area. He argues that the plan would still allow change, as long as it is modestly scaled and enhances what is already there. But one of the most prominent faces of Toronto’s condo boom says the city would be shirking its duty to facilitate more housing.
“I would not advocate the wiping out of the charm of the Parkdale Village,” developer Brad Lamb said. “But I think we have to pick our spots where we’re going to allow density, and we should allow more density [rather] than less density.”
Queen Street dates to the 18th century and has gone through multiple evolutions.
Housing replaced farms. A college east of Ossington decamped and the site eventually became Trinity Bellwoods Park. The factories gradually closed. By the later 20th century, Queen Street was a counterculture destination, the hipsters following later.
While Queen remains a popular place to skate, paint graffiti and hang out – a grittier retail strip than Bloor Street – the gentrification pressure has been rising in recent decades, particularly east of Bathurst.
The Horseshoe Tavern, a legendary live-music site, is now flanked by a MAC cosmetics store and a fast-food outlet. Another old-school watering hole and venue, The Beverley Tavern, which helped launch the band Martha and the Muffins, became a boutique hotel.
Change has not been as profound farther west, the area the city is seeking to protect. Although the appliance-repair outlets have gradually disappeared, and there are growing numbers of international brands and coffee outlets, independent retailers maintain a stronger presence.
Robert Sysak, neighbourhood director of the business improvement area for West Queen West, says this area is helped by the narrowness of its typical lots. Their scale makes it harder to assemble land for a large store, for example, or a condo development. The galleries for which this stretch was once famed have dwindled, though, as rents rose.
Farther west again, historic Parkdale has a similar scale, with a streetscape featuring a wide range of commercial uses. There is also a greater presence of marginalized people, which has helped spur neighbourhood pushback against gentrification, development and particularly the conversion of rooming houses to private residences.
Development pressure has been building on western Queen Street, which has long been included in the city’s “Avenues plan” aimed at encouraging mid-rise density on key arteries.
As an avenue, developers could be reasonably sure of getting approval for eight storeys, and likely to ask for 10 to 15. However West Queen West and Parkdale never had their own area-specific zoning and development has been erratic. Taller buildings were approved in some spots while height was more strictly limited elsewhere.
City staff have been crafting a formal approach for this area as it weighs the desire for development against an interest in preservation.
Among the dozens of tactics being proposed are maximizing the repurposing potential of old buildings by not requiring additional parking when their use changes, discouraging the consolidation of property lots and encouraging the retention of existing live-music venues. Queen Street itself “will be modified over time … prioritizing the safe and efficient movement of pedestrians, cyclists and transit.”
The full suite of proposals is expected to go before the local community council early next month, and then to full city council. While any new rules would remain subject to appeal at the province’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, enshrining them in a formal planning document could help strengthen the city’s hand before that tribunal.
Mr. Perks said there is no desire to freeze the area in time. He points to a glass addition on an early 20th-century library a few kilometres north, on Bloor Street, as the sort of change that can enhance a building without mimicking its historic form.
But Mr. Lamb says the development economics won’t work under the new rules for western Queen, arguing that this is an attempt by planning staff to stop any change.
“You can’t buy a three-storey and renovate it and add three floors and make any money,” he said. “They know those buildings will never sell, and they’ll just lock down [this area] forever at three storeys.”
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