DEVELOPMENT Leave us alone, Humbertown residents say

Article from the Globe And Mail, Friday Oct 19th, 2012

Residents of the Humber Valley Village community attend a community meeting to discuss a proposed new development in Etobicoke, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen /The Globe and Mail)


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Oct. 19 2012, 8:40 PM EDT

Last updated Friday, Oct. 19 2012, 8:46 PM EDT

In the affluent Humber Valley Village neighbourhood, density is a dirty word.

A proposed development at the site of the Humbertown Shopping Centre has met with furious opposition from local residents, who have staked their lawns with “Save Humbertown” signs and flooded two community consultation meetings. On Thursday evening, area residents spent more than two hours in an Etobicoke high-school auditorium grilling the plaza’s owners, First Capital Realty, over what they see as an assault on their suburban lifestyle.

The proposed development would transform the aging shopping plaza with a slew of apartment units, townhouses, retail space, green space and underground parking. The development would feature three residential buildings, 654 apartment units and 28 townhouses. No element of the plan escaped the scrutiny and scorn of local residents.

In many ways, the neighbourhood is confronted with the challenges facing much of the rest of Toronto: How to accommodate an ever-increasing population, how to make the most of limited land and how to provide affordable housing while prices climb.

So far, the local response to these questions has been a resounding, “Leave us out of it, and leave our neighbourhood alone.”

“People that live in Humber Valley Village … live there because they want more of a suburban lifestyle,” said Humber Valley Village Residents’ Association president Niels Christensen, who believes neighbourhoods should be able to remain low-density indefinitely. For Mr. Christensen and the residents who voiced their opposition to the project on Thursday night, the area is defined by its single-family homes, quiet streets and low-rise buildings.

Or, as both Mr. Christensen and local councillor Gloria Lindsay-Luby put it, the development is too big, too tall and too dense. It will change the neighbourhood’s character and bring increased car traffic.

Jodi Shpigel, vice-president of development for First Capital, takes issue with the characterization of the development as something one would find in downtown Toronto. The development’s floorspace index – its total floorspace compared to the site’s total size – is 2.2, which Ms. Shpigel called “modest.”

“We don’t view this as a high-density development,” Ms. Shpigel said.

Mr. Christensen, who drew a standing ovation after addressing the crowd Thursday, noted that his group is not opposed to development. The residents’ association is currently working on an alternative proposal. He said more than 90 per cent of the group’s membership opposes any buildings above six storeys.

One of the few people to disagree with Mr. Christensen on Thursday evening was Robert Ruggiero, a 23-year-old with a masters degree in urban studies. Stepping to the microphone, Mr. Ruggiero introduced himself as a lifelong resident of nearby Robin Hood Road.

“The population of this area, of this census tract, has declined 2 per cent in the last census, and it has declined 2 per cent in the census before,” Mr. Ruggiero said. “And unless we have change, and unless we have new life in the neighbourhood, our neighbourhood will suffer.”

Mr. Ruggiero’s comments were met with heckling from fellow residents. When he said new apartment units may be the only way that he could afford to live in the neighbourhood, a man yelled at him to get a job.

But Mr. Ruggiero is not alone. The site is designated as mixed-use land by the city, and the province’s policy statement on land use and development generally supports intensification.

Sandeep Agrawal , a professor at Ryerson University’s school of urban and regional planning, described increased density across urban centres, including in areas such as Etobicoke, as “inevitable.”

Mr. Agrawal said that people need to be educated on the benefits of density, like improved public transit, as well as some of the drawbacks. “Land supply is very limited. Even [in] the most suburban municipalities … you would see higher-density development,” he said.

But if higher density is, as Mr. Agrawal said, a truth of 21st-century life, that may have either been lost in communication or simply drowned out by the opposition. Nigel Terpstra, a 26-year-old urban planning graduate who contributes to the website Urban Toronto, lamented the state of the discourse at Thursday’s meeting.

“It becomes so underhanded and so about emotion that all the issues get lost,” Mr. Terpstra said.

Michael Hynes, senior planner for the city of Toronto, will now analyze and weigh the city’s official plan, public opinion, provincial guidelines and studies submitted by the applicant before presenting a report to community council.

Mr. Terpstra also accused the residents association of artificially inflating their own opposition numbers by saying on their website that attendance at the meeting was mandatory. And fliers distributed on Thursday featured an outdated image of the proposal under the headline, “Is This What You Want?” As well, the image had been altered, with the proposed green roofs having been blacked out, according to Christine Fang-Denissov, of Urban Strategies Inc., a firm responsible for the project’s planning and urban design.

Councillor Lindsay-Luby lauded the nature of the community discussions and said a September meeting was far more raucous. As for any people of lesser means looking to move into the area, the councillor responded: “That’s never been the demographic for that area.”