Drab city

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 9, 2005

Toronto is a drab city. Its residents make it so. Frank Gehry is among the world’s best architects, certainly he is the world’s most celebrated, following his soaring success in building Spain’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. But he’s not good enough for many at the Grange, the Toronto neighbourhood in which he grew up and site of a $200-million Art Gallery of Ontario renovation.

“It’s the poor who are being screwed in terms of the impact on the park,” Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, a local resident and leader of the Grange Park Preservation Association told the press before Christmas, in explaining that users of the public park adjoining the AGO property should not be forced to endure a Gehry design. “There are 1,000 units of public housing in this area and the people who live in them depend on the park for sanctuary. Unlike the property owners of the area, they do not have their own private gardens.”

To spare the downtrodden the discomfort of gazing on his edifice, Gehry and the AGO made numerous design concessions to appease the neighbourhood zealots. But they didn’t make enough. After the zealots failed to convince Toronto City Council to stop the project, they took their case to the Ontario Municipal Board, an independent regulatory body that has the authority to delay or even kill projects. Had the protesters succeeded (they subsequently backed down), visitors to the AGO would not only have been denied the experience of entering a Gehry building, they would have been thwarted in seeing the extraordinary new art collection that the Gehry building will house – a $300-million, 2,000-work collection, donated by Ken Thomson, that includes such masterpieces as Rubens’s recently rediscovered early-17th century masterpiece, The Massacre of the Innocents.

The AGO, now housed in a lacklustre, unfinished building on a major Toronto thoroughfare, has been through this before. In the 1980s, the same Ceta Ramkhalawansingh led a battle to save the neighbourhood from Barton Myers, another internationally renowned architect. Following a delay that cost two years and scarce funds, much of Meyers’ original concept – including a sculptured outdoor terrace, a canopy, and his choice of size and colour of brick – went by the boards. The dollar-store critics living in the Grange won their design preferences, everyone else lost.

Neighbourhood opposition groups do not vent their rage against showcase projects alone. They can diminish virtually any development that attempts anything out of the ordinary because Toronto’s planning rules enshrine indiscriminate public participation, giving neighbours outsized opportunities to object on any number of grounds – social equity, architecture, privacy, safety, sunlight, disruption during construction, increases in property values, setbacks, or simply the satisfaction of settling an old score with a disliked neighbour. Opponents will often seize on grand-sounding causes, such as “protecting public spaces” or “maintaining the integrity of a neighbourhood,” when they are really looking out for their personal interests.

Ceta, for example, fears that the Gehry addition will attract “weddings and noisy social events,” disrupting the tranquillity she prizes. Others might object because the project could raise property values, and thus the property taxes that they must pay. Others still object to the disruption that accompanies any construction project. But Toronto already has laws that prohibit unreasonable noise at unreasonable times, and society is generally welcoming to newlyweds who want to seal their vows in splendid public places. Objectors abuse the regulatory process when they impede a project, claiming planning grounds, when their underlying motives involve frivolities that cannot be legally adjudicated.

In truth, such neighbourhood activists often betray a hatred for downtown living, opposing all manner of developments that might disturb their leisure, whether sidewalk cafes, neighbourhood schools, or entertainment complexes. The most common objection to new projects, evident in upwards of 90% of cases, involve parking and traffic: Residents resent additional traffic on local streets that may impede their own vehicles, even for a minute at a time, and they resent outsiders using the free street parking available in most city neighbourhoods. The concessions that they generally foist on developments – even small infill projects involving a handful of townhouses or condominium units – almost always substitute asphalt for green space. To spare themselves some inconvenience, neighbours demand that developers put in more parking spots, wider driveways, more internal roads, in effect trying to bring suburban auto standards to the city, despite the cost to urban design.

Toronto is not all drab – a metropolis approaching Chicago in size can’t help but have some outstanding districts, some outstanding architecture. But Toronto architecture does not belong on the same map as a Chicago or New York. The city’s pandering to squeaky wheels has been a force for uglification – architects know not to even try to show verve when accepting a commission in the city. The AGO project shows Gehry at his most restrained, and his most resigned. As he told The New York Times, “It’s a little bit much to assume that I will remodel a building that has already been remodelled before and that will change Toronto.” The building may yet shine – Gehry, even restrained and in Toronto, will stand out. Particularly when judged against other compromised architecture that has passed muster with opposition groups.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute; www.urban.probeinternational.org.

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