Markham and Toronto and the OMB, Oh My!
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Markham and Toronto and the OMB, Oh My!

A rendering of the proposed redevelopment, designed by Kirkor Architects.

The Shops on Steeles and 404, situated right at the corner of Don Mills and Steeles, is something of a suburban outlier. In addition to having a sort of unwieldy name, it was never designed with a movie theatre or huge anchor stores (the former Sears is now a Sears outlet), and so it instead became home to more homey independent stores serving the community, rather than just another collection of chain outlets.
But the Thornhill Centre occupies a big site, and it’s never been a particularly thriving enterprise. Add to that the province’s mandate to see more intensification and less sprawl in the suburbs, and you can see why the owners, and many residents, want it redeveloped. As so often happens, just what form that makeover will take has become a matter of dispute.
Markham, Toronto, and residents on both sides of the municipal border fought one plan for the site, but then the town and residents came to a deal with developer Bayview Summit over their proposal, leaving their southern neighbour holding the bag, and Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale) plenty PO’d. The unusual circumstances could see the two municipalities butting heads in front of the Ontario Municipal Board.

From Addington Highlands to Zorra, probably every municipality in the province has had some kind of tangle with the OMB. The board has the final say on development applications and tends to be regarded as favouring private developers over elected politicians. Toronto has had its fair share of prominent tête-a-têtes, including battles over the Queen West Triangle and the Minto towers at Yonge and Eglinton.
Fear of putting planning in the hands of the board has led to more than one pre-hearing “compromise,” and that’s what has happened with the plans to replace the Shops on Steeles with a “lifestyle shopping centre” along the lines of the Shops at Don Mills.
Unlike the Don Mills plan, however, this one has a large residential component. The initial development plan proposed seven towers, some as tall as thirty-two storeys, on the eighteen-acre site, but that deal died with the recession and then resurfaced with about eighteen hundred condo units. Though Markham has been at the leading edge of promoting anti-sprawl intensification, they weren’t looking to do it at this particular location, which is surrounded by residential neighbourhoods and awash in traffic thanks to the nearby 404.
(Have a gander and judge for yourself whether it looks like a prime intensification corridor.)
From Day One, residents were skeptical of the developer’s traffic studies, which showed minimal impact from adding nearly two thousand new residents. Nothing changed when the Don Mills LRT went up in a puff of smoke with the rest of Transit City. Markham and Toronto were staunchly against the scale of the plans, as were resident groups. A working group spent two years failing to find a compromise—so finally, inevitably, the dispute came to the OMB.
The hearing was set to start on March 7 and then, only days before, they reached a deal. Residents and the town agreed with the developer on plans that will apparently see building heights brought down into the twenty-to-thirty-storey range, and the number of units reduced from fifteen hundred to twelve hundred (more on that “apparently” in a second). They spun this as a victory while also admitting their local councillor (newly elected Howard Shore) and lawyers had told them they’d likely lose at the OMB.
Except no one asked Toronto, or so says Shiner. He’s been leaking unconfirmed details of the yet-to-be-finalized deal to the local press and getting Toronto council to agree to keep up the fight for now, even if no one else will. Because Toronto controls the right of way along Steeles—and, more importantly, the servicing capacity running beneath it—the City has a vested interest in what happens there.

The Shops at Don Mills, a similar development to the one proposed for the site at Don Mills and Steeles. Photo by AshtonPal from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Residents have always said they’d be happy to have the mall replaced with something snazzier and denser, while at the same time saying this plan just goes too far. But residents were also understandably wary of coming up with the hundreds of thousands of dollars you need to play with the big boys at the OMB.
And ratepayers groups don’t represent everyone, so many residents have been griping loudly about the decision their representatives made on their behalf. In an update sent out last week, Willowdale ratepayers group president David Slotnick said he’d received more than four hundred calls and affirmed his support for the deal: “We firmly believe this agreement represents the best possible outcome for both our communities and, most importantly, avoids the costly and lengthy process of a developer-centric OMB.”
But, at the same time, he said they would support reduced densities and heights if Toronto keeps fighting.
And, also at the same time, he expressed concerns that all the hullabaloo Shiner is raising will spur the OMB to toss the deal, costing residents their compromise. So it’s really only “the best possible outcome” in the same way it would be if you found yourself at a screening of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never – The Director’s Cut because the other twenty-nine movies you wanted to see were sold out when you arrived at the multiplex. “This is the best possible outcome (under the horrible, unfair circumstances)!”
As Shiner said, “I feel terrible for the ratepayers group that spent three and a half years working on this, thinking they have a victory … all that hard work to get nothing out of it. My stomach turns over.” What more do you need to know about how planning decisions get made in this province and the extent to which people fight for what they believe in versus what they think the OMB poobahs might grant, in their mysterious munificence?
Marcus Gee rightly argued last week that the OMB provides a counterbalance to NIMBYism, but it doesn’t change the fact that nowhere else in Canada has such a body, or the fact that a decision taken away from a local, elected government and given to an appointed board is, by definition, anti-democratic. (He is correct that the CRTC and National Energy Board are not undemocratic just because they’re run by appointees, but then they don’t overrule local governments.)
The OMB convenes April 7 to look at the deal, but Toronto wants that pushed back a bit so council can formulate a proper decision at its meeting the following week.