Can you fight city hall?
Well, you can try.
above: artwork hanging in hallway outside the hearing room pretty much sums it up
At the OMB it is hard to “out planner” the entire city planning department, or the developers hired planners, as their resources and depth of knowledge is always deeper and they’ve been through the purgatory mill before.
Similarly, we didn’t have a Toronto lawyer who specializes in OMB and development issues.
So we put some effort into providing lay witnesses who could offer simple truths.
Our more nimble and articulate witnesses were “shut down” by ignoring them and offering minimal cross examination. Less chance to talk, that way.
But the local residents of the street shone brightly. When one gave evidence of the difficulty getting an ambulance to take his anaphylactic child to the hospital, everyone was leaning forward to hear the story. It was the most movement I saw the chair make in three weeks.
Some of the city and developer witnesses went on and on about things (remember that garage door location? or the architectural merit of the building?) that were not issues to us. We didn’t cross examine that testimony because it wasn’t relevant to our complaint. Nonetheless, in the decision the chair complained loudly that we didn’t cross examine that testimony.
Some peripheral issues got taken to town. The City throughout the original planning exercise claimed the Taggart property was vacant.
It wasn’t, and isn’t.
We pointed out then, in writing, that people were living in those houses and businesses were in the commercial properties. The city refused to change the description as “vacant”.
They repeated that claim to Planning Committee.
And then to Council.
Then at the OMB appeal, they again and again characterised the lot as “vacant”.
There must be a reason for this, but I’m not sure what it could be. So at the hearing we produced photographic evidence and testimony from neighbours that the houses were occupied, which was even then contested, though the landlord – Taggart – was sitting in the hearing room and collecting rent on the properties. It added a surreal element to the process.
above: not Perry Mason. Or even a good witness.
The OMB hearing wasn’t like Perry Mason or TV show trials.
It was much pettier.
Scoring points came from discovering a witness hadn’t ridden the OTrain recently so how could he possibly understand how transit-oriented this building was?
Or claiming blighting land uses in the area included not just car repair garages, but their conversion to architects’ offices.
Or objecting to the use of word in a casual way that isn’t strictly to the definition the city gives it in some obscure appendix residing in Dante’s seventh circle, although in those cases I suspect the interruption was more aimed at breaking up a flow of testimony or throwing someone off track rather than being strictly on a point of law or clarity.
The games lawyers play !
A month after the hearing, the decision came down from the Chair.
We lost, on all accounts.
What about our argument that the front door of the building is inaccessible to para Transpo, fedex, UPS, and other vehicles unless they use the sidewalks or homeowners’ property to turn around? The chair put his faith in the transportation consultants who state the proposal will not result in undue transportation impacts.
What about the nine storey building being the only one on 10 stub end streets, making it exceptional?
Nope, the exception is that there is any low rise zoning in Little Italy at all.
What about the 695 sq foot amenity space on the roof? Does it constitute a tenth floor?
It’s a non-countable projection, says the OMB. My guess after this no builder will put a meeting room, exercise room, or party room within the zoned-for or approved floor space within the legally developable height limit, but will always put it in an extra floor, err, sorry, projection, on the roof, provided it is less than 200 sq m (2100 sq ft). Why waste sellable space?
The OMB process wasn’t without its good points.
Like all disasters, it was an educational experience.
It wasn’t exactly a bonding exercise with the city planning department, more like a bondage exercise, with local residents on the rack.
The city, after all, gets to write up the rules, and tell the story of the process, and spin it all so it looks so legit, glossing over the machinations and missing terms of references and transcripts that gloss …
It writes the Plan itself, and I suspect somewhere in a cubicle some planner has a list of weasel words he is obliged to sprinkle through every document so that developers and big bosses can later point to those particular words and say “see, the Plan envisioned this [insert latest travesty here]”.
On the positive side, a bunch of neighbours became better friends and allies.
We all became better educated about the treacherous planning process and learned that nothing in a Plan actually means what it appears to mean.
We had a lot of shared beer nights and food at local restaurants in Little Italy.
And I would recommend the egg salad wrap in the City Hall cafeteria.
above: yet another celebration at a supportive local business. While the saints may not have blessed our case, we were still uplifted.