T.O. real estate experts on whether the city is losing its character

16th Annual Real Estate Roundtable: the spring market update

We asked design expert Brian Gluckstein, placemaker Jay Pitter, former chief city planner and Markee Developments partner Jennifer Keesmaat, condo king Brad Lamb and dragon on Dragons’ Den Michele Romanow on how to balance the need for housing with the preservation of the city’s history as part of our spring market update with the Rotman School of Management. Here’s how that conversation went.

STREETS: Jay and Brian, there’s a concern that, with all the new development, Toronto might be losing its charm and character. How do we build more housing and preserve the city’s history?

BRIAN: Well, we’ve got some problems with architecture in this city. I mean, it’s unfortunate. We won’t get into that one. But one comment I want to make. We have a client that is worth many billions of dollars and started off very poor. And her parents, you know, rented a house, and then they bought a house, and they rented every room, every room. I’m talking the living room, the bedrooms, everything.

She said to me, “We were so excited when we moved into the house of my parents.” The father was a tailor. The mother worked in a dry cleaner. And she said, “My sister and I were so excited because we finally got our own room.” She said, “Years later, we realized it was the hall.”

But as far as the charm of the city, one of the problems we’re doing in our city is we’re building almost at zero lot lines. We’re building towers that are assaulting us at the sidewalk and we’re not setting them back. There’s no … you know, you go to Paris and you go to London and you have … I mean, the cafés, we won’t talk about the cafes on the street. But that’s another story. But there are trees and setbacks and charm and parks and things like that.

And it seems like right now we’re building walls of towers down the streets. And every time I see one go up, I’m like, “What are we thinking that we’re building these 15 feet from the curb?” The problem is, so much of the product coming on the market is investor-driven.

Investors don’t care what the building looks like. Many of them don’t even live in the city, let alone care about it. You want to build 80 storeys? Well, your site allows 50 storeys. We’ll give you 10 more, 20 more if you push it back, build more green space, schools, daycare centres, retail that’s not fast food chains and dry cleaners.

JAY: You know what’s terrible for the charm and the character of our city? The unaffordability. That’s not charming. People who are unhoused. That’s not charming. People trading sex for rent. That is not charming. And so, I think that if we’re really invested in protecting the charm and the character of this city, we would resolve those structural issues and really advance intensification in neighborhoods.

The second point that I’ll make is that a lot of heritage planners are actually weaponizing this diversity language, saying that, you know, we need to maintain the character of Indigenous places and places where racialized people live. To be clear, heritage planning doesn’t give a sh** about racialized people and Indigenous peoples. Most of the character that is recognized in the city is linked to cultures that are European.

Using the argument of maintaining character in this moment to block housing development is insidious and disingenuous. And if you ask most people who are racialized if they prefer to have a plaque or keep a building in place or if they would like shelter over their heads, I’m pretty sure that 10 out of 10 or 100 per cent of those individuals would say that they would like housing.

JENNIFER: So I’m gonna pull an Odeen move here and try to bridge what Jay and Brian just said. It won’t be easy, but I’m going to try, because, on the one hand, we want great places with great investment and material quality, and we want a beautiful tree canopy. We want to be Paris, we want to be western Europe. And on the other hand, I think Jay’s point should be well taken: that seeing people living in tents, let’s talk about character. Nothing destroys the fabric of this city more than knowing that our fellow citizens simply don’t have a roof over their head, are cold in the winter, are stuck on the streets and vulnerable to the weather in a winter city. There’s this phenomenal kind of tension between those two spaces of wanting more housing built more quickly. One of the reasons why housing doesn’t get built more quickly is because we’re fussing over things like what Brian was asking for, setbacks and the tree canopy, and ensuring that we’re getting geothermal into our buildings, which is two thumbs up and very good, but it adds time delays, it adds cost delays, it impacts the affordability of housing.

So the question really is, is there some kind of space that we can occupy in between, where we are recognizing that the way we design and build the city is a long-term legacy that we leave our children, but on the flip side, we’ve done a bunch of things very wrong? We know that, because there are people in our city who are unhoused, and I’m glad that Brad acknowledged that.

BRIAN: OK. I really object to the idea that you can’t have a green city, a lively city with good architecture if you want affordable housing. There should be no compromise. If you are building affordable housing, it should be good architecture. We should have green space, we should have a more lively neighborhood.

JAY: May I just say this very quickly? There’s no such thing as placemaking or city building without negotiation and compromise. So we absolutely do have to compromise. And I’m going to come in the middle where Jennifer is because I’m not saying that we should build affordable housing without thinking about design. It is imperative that, when we’re building affordable housing and all housing, especially when we’re talking about the context of intensification, we do have to be thinking about things like green space, like active transportation. These are things that directly impact population health and the safety of communities. And so, I don’t think it’s either/or. I’m just saying that in situations where people are blocking developments based on their beloved single-family building or home, that is not a good enough rationale, and that people weaponize this idea of character to block housing development.

MICHELE: We need to focus on what matters here. Heritage shouldn’t matter if people cannot afford a place to live. And I’m sorry, guys, this is not Paris outside. This is a slightly different city than that. And so I think we can do things with lots of design, but you kind of have to decide that that is what we are going to do as a city.

And I think that is a lot toward the government too. We haven’t built a subway stop in 30 years. We fight over things that don’t matter. We have prices going up, we’re pricing ourselves like we’re Paris, but we’re actually not behaving like it.

This is an excerpt from Post City’s 16th annual Real Estate Roundtable in partnership with the Rotman School of Management. Click here for more excerpts from the panel. Special thanks to our incredible sponsor The RE/MAX Collection.

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