SmartCentres' plans to build a 700,000 square foot retail complex on Toronto Film Studios lands south of Eastern Avenue has been rejected by the Ontario Municipal Board.

"The city considers this to be a total victory," said city lawyer Brendan O'Callahan in an interview Wednesday March 4, after poring over the 54-page decision from the OMB nixing the plans. "SmartCentres couldn't prove that they would not destabilize the remaining employment area. The employment area is too sensitive to allow such a large parcel to go predominantly retail. That's a total victory."

The complex, which was expected to include a Wal-Mart as well as other large retail establishments, was massively controversial in Leslieville. City Council was on record as opposed to the proposal, as was a large element of the Leslieville community.

SmartCentres, a developer known for establishing big-box retail complexes in suburban neighbourhoods, tried to sell the project as a new kind of urban retail experience - and took the fight to the Ontario Municipal Board, which has the power to overrule or uphold local councils' land use planning decisions.

The parties squared off in an epic, 26-week hearing that sprawled over spring, summer and fall of 2008. City lawyers argued the SmartCentres plan would destabilize the employment lands in south Riverdale, while the community worried the retail would draw business away from Queen Street and replace higher-paying jobs with low-paying retail jobs.

Lawyers for SmartCentres argued a job is a job and maintained the use filled a demand for suburban-style retail in the residential communities of the city's east side.

In the end, the city's arguments prevailed, even though through much of the lengthy decision, it seemed as though SmartCentres was winning on points.

Board vice-chair James McKenzie rejected any notion the retail uses were somehow lesser-valued employment, an argument he called "a red herring" and was highly critical of measures Toronto Council and local councillor Paula Fletcher took apparently to block the redevelopment of the Toronto Film Studios lands by SmartCentres.

The board found, he wrote, "the city (planning) instruments represent a panicked response to an unwanted development scheme and are neither measured nor rational response. They are not the product of a bona fide planning initiative - they are not appropriate, practical, workable or achievable and they do not represent good land use planning."

But finally, it appeared to be a site visit to inspect other uses in the area bounded by Leslie Street, the Don Valley Parkway, Eastern Avenue and Lakeshore Boulevard that convinced the board the redevelopment would destabilize the employment area.

The news was greeted with jubilation in the community. Fletcher acknowledged the criticism of her and the city, but made no apologies for her handling of the issue.

"We didn't do anything the community didn't ask for. The community came forward many times and asked us to pursue this in many different directions," said Fletcher. "This basically reinforces the importance of the employment district. The incursion of big box retail would destabilize this very important employment area."

Kelly Carmichael, of the East Toronto Community Coalition, was at the table during much of the hearing, fighting the proposed development. Reached at home, the Leslieville resident admitted she was "in shock."

"It means a new day for the community to decide what to do on those lands, and that's what everybody has been saying since the beginning," she said, admitting the experience has been "crazy."

In a written statement, SmartCentres Vice President of Corporate Affairs Sandra Kaiser wrote: "All the voices have been heard, and we lost. While disappointed, we respect the process and the decision of the Board. At this time we have no immediate plans for other development or use of the property and will assess all available options to us."

What those options are remains to be seen. Kelly said the community would like to embark on a process to find other, better uses for the site, perhaps revisiting earlier, mixed-use ideas for the lands.

And Fletcher said the jury is certainly not out on other retail development elsewhere in the city.

"I've always said that my argument is not with SmartCentres, it's with retail on that site. The argument is where it should go. The employment district is not a place where it can be contemplated. But I'm willing to work with retail in other sections that are zoned for retail in the east end of Toronto, including in the portlands."

Toronto Community News
March 05, 2009 2:20 PM