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Tempers Flare at Community Consultation on Ossington Condos

A meeting between residents and 109Oz's developer devolved into a shouting match.

Rendering by Reserve Properties.

The proposed six-storey condominium development for 109 Ossington (see yesterday’s post) ran into a wall of opposition at a community-consultation meeting last night.

The meeting, promoted heavily via neighbourhood flyers, local announcements, and Ward 19 Councillor Mike Layton’s website, drew a capacity crowd to the Trinity-Bellwoods community centre. The overflow from the meeting room originally reserved for the event prompted a move downstairs to the gymnasium.

On hand were city planner Francis Kwashi, Councillor Layton, and several representatives from developer Reserve Properties, along with principals Sheldon and Shane Fenton. They were not especially well received.

The presence of some spirited neighbourhood opposition is a matter of public record already. Apart from previous debates over the size and scale of the proposed building, the tone for last night’s meeting was influenced by a loud outdoor party last Thursday at the site of the proposed development, where there’s currently a sales centre. That party prompted a number of noise complaints and fuelled local concerns about 109Oz (that’s what the proposed development is called) becoming a “party building.” While it may not be fair to assume that’s what will happen, it’s not hard to see how those perceptions were reinforced.

One observation about these community-consultation meetings, held under the aegis of the City’s planning division: their structure might bear some re-examination. Currently, the planner gets to speak, then the developer/applicant gets to make a presentation, and only then do members of the public get to ask questions or make comments. The time allotted for those comments means, almost inevitably, that people will have very little time in which to express themselves, especially compared to the applicants. The process is almost designed to make them look angry and irrational. The subsequent media narrative that paints them as loud unruly NIMBYs isn’t necessarily accurate, but it’s quite predictable—and very hard to shake.

That said, it’s hard to believe anyone came out of the meeting looking good. While there are plenty of flaws in the process, and plenty of reasons to be concerned about the 109Oz plan as it currently stands (disclosure: I live in the neighbourhood and share some of those concerns), it’s hard to see what was accomplished by letting the meeting degenerate into a shouting match. Do we really need to review the differences between spirited debate, on one hand, and hostility and name-calling on the other? Sadly, for some, it appears we do.

The scene at the consultation meeting.

Emotions were running high, certainly. And there were plenty of worthwhile questions raised about traffic, parking, the nature of the first-floor retail space and who would occupy it, the size of the units, and the demographics of the target market. And the developers and their team missed a couple of opportunities to build bridges by not providing satisfactory answers to some of those questions. (Case in point: one resident’s announcement during the Q&A: “I don’t want to walk by a big chain store. That’s not what Ossington is.” Much applause. No reassuring response from Reserve.)

There was more. There are planning guidelines applicable to Ossington, and it wasn’t clear that the 109Oz proposal falls within those guidelines. That’s part of the reason the developer is seeking a zoning amendment. But one of the things that kept cropping up during the developer’s presentation was a repetition, several times, of the expression “mid-rise.” While it wasn’t clear, amid the shouting, where low-rise ends and mid-rise begins, it was clear that the question of what form intensification along Ossington should take is very much centred on that divergence. The way the developer’s consultants were talking, it sounded a lot like that fundamental issue had already been resolved, and that a future of mid-rise intensification is a fait accompli. That was an obvious emotional trigger for many of the people in the room, who were clearly invested in what they see as Ossington’s current low-rise character.

Also an unavoidable part of the context: reports of vacancies in the City planning department that are going unfilled because of a hiring freeze. Fewer planning staff juggling more files means less effective oversight, and administrative bottlenecks. It’s difficult to see how that makes for good planning.

But surely these questions and others are better discussed in an atmosphere of calm and rational debate and mutual respect. We don’t have to agree with one another. It’s that civility thing.

Is there room for an ad hoc residents’ committee to negotiate changes with Reserve Properties? Is Reserve Properties willing to show flexibility? Maybe, and maybe not, but worth a try, surely?

Bottom line: collaborative is better than confrontational. If the Fentons took anything away from last night beyond a room full of angry people yelling at them, it’s hard to think what that might have been. Worst case, perhaps this will end up at the Ontario Municipal Board, but isn’t it in all of our interests to try and avoid that?

Photo by Sol Chrom.

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