Anger Over Housing for the Dis-Abelled
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Anger Over Housing for the Dis-Abelled

Last week, we covered the Ontario Municipal Board’s approval of a plan to build several condo buildings in the area of the Queen West Triangle. The plan has been controversial from the beginning, and has been strongly opposed by a residents group called Active 18.
One point that has some particularly saddened is the teardown of the structure at 48 Abell, a one time industrial building converted to lofts which are used as live-work spaces by artists and others. Now, there are a variety of issues around this development that bear discussion – whether the city’s planning process works, how to manage intensification vs. nimbyism, and the proper role and authority of the OMB, to name a few. That said, the Abell building is almost certainly not the right poster child for this particular cause.
Even a cursory look at the Abell reveals that it has serious problems. Ceilings and walls are cracked, floors have a funhouse slant to them, and any visible heritage the building ever had has long since seeped away. It looks like the place could collapse before the wreckers even get there, and according to a structural assessment undertaken last year, that’s not far from the truth.
The reason that the Abell building did not receive heritage status was because of the following assessment of the building,
“Planning staff recommended …that the staff report recommending designation of the property (as a heritage building) be withdrawn, because the cultural heritage value of the property did not justify the costs that would be involved in incorporating the structure into the development scheme.”
The language of the actual study is even less diplomatic, noting that “Both options that attempt to retain the existing structure or the existing façade are not viable due to the risk of damage to the existing building elements.” In other words, if you try to build around the Abell building, it will probably fall down.
Both of the above documents are available on the Active 18 website, so it’s not as though the anti-condo forces aren’t aware of them.
It looks like the Abell building is being used as a visual symbol to rally the troops, an excuse to throw poor old Jane Jacobs’ corpse on the “save the artists” bandwagon and march triumphantly to City Hall. The whole thing has a mock-epic, comic book quality — SculptorMan and PainterGirl have to rescue the Legion of Super Artists from the evil Condo Cranes, or Toronto will be powerless against the spectre of Big Money! Is the Abell building really the key issue, or is this just ego-theatre?
There’s also a tacit suggestion that the demolition of the building will deal Toronto’s creative community a crushing blow – come on, surely there are a few artists who don’t live in the Queen West Triangle? If not, maybe there should be.
The irony is that of the sub-projects that make up the proposed development, it’s this one that’s actually planning to guarantee units for families and low income renters, as well as affordable studio and living space for displaced artists. For whatever reason, this fact rarely finds its way into the “Save the Abell” rhetoric; perhaps a new building would lack the requisite squalor that ensures artistic integrity.
There’s definitely a need to look at reform for the OMB, and the way it interacts with the city planners. We need to find a more effective way of balancing the needs of neighbourhoods against the inevitable growth of the city, and to avoid having solutions imposed by an external group without input from those most affected. However, the Abell building is more of a red herring than a focal point to bring these issues into the spotlight.