Local wrote a feature about the Quarry in our third ever issue. There we covered the plans of The Conservatory Group for high-rise towers.
Here we focus on the recent plans submitted by Build Toronto for the City of Toronto controlled side of the property. With the City poised to move ahead first apparently, it is very important that the community get involved and pay attention to the site. Particularly with rumours of a Big Box store replacing the beloved driving range.
It’s time to tune in.
STORY: SARAH DANN
PHOTOS: KATRINA FYFLE
FOR YEARS BIRCHCLIFF HAS BEEN KEEPING AN EYE ON DEVELOPERS’ PLANS FOR THE QUARRY LANDS. NOW IT IS THE CITY OF TORONTO AND BUILD TORONTO THEY HAVE TO WATCH.
Anyone who has followed the potential development of what is commonly referred to as “The Quarry” realizes the fate of that land raises complex questions and has been doing so for over 50 years. The Quarry Lands consist of about 40 acres of land that lie roughly between Victoria Park and Warden; north of Gerrard (which becomes Clonmore east of Victoria Park); and south of the railway tracks. For many people who drive by the site, it goes unnoticed, but for those who live nearby or who interact with this tract of land, it raises passionate debate. And for good reason. The Quarry Lands were zoned back in the 1950’s when the Scarborough Expressway, a highway that was to be an extension of the Gardiner Expressway, was planned to cut through the area. The area, now a thriving family community, is zoned for high density development – this could include high-rise towers, condominiums, or other high-density options. For years, the neighbourhood has been on watch.
Traditionally, the focus of the debate has swirled around the developers who control the eastern part of the site, The Conservatory Group. A few years back, their plans to build seven twenty-seven story towers created an uproar in the community. A rally attended by nearly 1000 concerned citizens was held and while the number of towers and their height has apparently been scaled back, as far as anyone knows, the Conservatory Group still plans to move ahead with towers on the eastern side of the site.
Currently, however, the debate has been stirred up by the City of Toronto. Essentially, the City of Toronto owns the western side of the site and the developers own the eastern side. Over the past few years, the City of Toronto has been examining its portion of the land more actively and recently, this resulted in Build Toronto, the City’s arm’s-length development corporation, being given the mandate for development of the portion of the land previously owned by the City of Toronto. Title was recently transferred to Build Toronto. This is an important point because it means the City technically does not own the land anymore, Build Toronto does. It is important to understand the relationship between the two groups and Build Toronto’s mandate to create value. At a meeting on October 3rd, Build Toronto revealed a rough plan for what this development might be.
Over the 50 years that The Quarry has lain dormant, the land has turned into what is mostly a meadow. Tall grasses fill the middle portion of what is essentially a park. The northern perimeter is the railway track and all along the tracks run an old-growth stretch of forest. The southern edge of the land has several commercial properties including the Quarry Car Wash, the Quarry Mall and two gas stations. Between those properties are a large marsh land and two substantial grassy fields. The western side of the lot has housed the Beach Fairway Golf Range for the past 15 years and prior to its arrival that land was also park and marsh. There is one central spot on the site that is paved and a series of pathways go around and through the site. These pathways have been created by the dog walkers, naturalists, cyclists and neighbours who make use of the Quarry. Many locals enjoy this large field as a park and recreation space.
Prakash David, the Senior Vice President from Build Toronto who gave the presentation to those who had been lucky enough to find out about the meeting on October 3rd, stated that this is a “very large block of land.” In fact, Build Toronto controls 20 acres. They had 17 but over the past few years bought a 3-acre parcel on Clonmore from yet another developer who owned the land between the two existing gas stations. He mentioned that The Quarry is a “very challenging property to develop,” and went on to say that “developers like squares and rectangles” but the shape of Build Toronto’s mandated 20 acres is irregular. He mentioned that “A substantial investment of money will be required to clean up the site and added that the hope is that “an environmental clean up will be beneficial and will make the land programmable.”
For those who have used the site for years, it is difficult to hear someone talk about making the site “programmable”. Kim Holman and her husband Brian Jacobsen have been running the Beach Fairway Golf Range on the site for nearly 15 years and have had 60,000 visitors annually to their seasonal business. They can certainly argue that they have managed to make the site “programmable” and recently, 7500 of their clients and supporters signed a petition in a struggle with the City to keep the range in business. This effort failed and there is ongoing anger within the community about this. For those who enjoy the wide variety of birds who both live and migrate through the site, it is tough to see why it is worth spending a substantial amount of money to clean up the site only to build 200 residential units and a retail space almost the full size of the current driving range.
“It is heart wrenching,” Kim Holman tells me at the meeting. Their business had operated because the City of Toronto leased the Driving Range the land. However, the lease was not renewed this year and on Thanksgiving Monday Kim and Brian held a farewell party for their business and their customers. It was a bitter ending.
“There are two processes that have to happen here.” Gary Crawford, the City Councillor for Ward 36 Scarborough Southwest, in which The Quarry is located tells me. “There is the planning process that the City of Toronto will undertake once Build Toronto files their application in November or December. And there is Build’s process for environmental remediation of the land that they want to start as soon as possible. They want to get in there and get digging.” The digging component was what spelled the end of the golf course.
Gary Crawford assures me that even though Build Toronto is planning to start digging right away, the planning process will take a few years. “We are by no means done with this. It is a long process.” And listening to Rod Hines, the City Planner who has taken the lead on The Quarry project for the past many years, rhyme off the almost ridiculously long set of procedures that Build Toronto’s planning application will go through before anything is approved, explains why this is the case. At the community meeting it took him over five minutes of solid talking to go through all the steps and it was a miracle to me that he could remember them all.
“Once they put the planning application in to the City it takes it out of their hands and makes it a City planning process,” says Crawford. Essentially what this means is that there will be consultation with all City Stakeholders such as the Board of Education and Traffic Planning, with Market Consultants, and with the Community. Now is the time for the community to get involved.
The meeting the other night was a key first step and one that Councillor Crawford and the other key player in this process, the Concerned Citizens of Quarry Lands Development (CCQLD), were happy to make happen. “The fact that Build Toronto came out to speak to the community when there was nothing mandating that they had to do so was a good step,” says CCQLD President, Mark Brender. “We really needed to get community feedback about the sort of things Build was thinking about.”
Both Mark Brender and Gary Crawford, refer to Build Toronto simply as “Build” in conversation. This gives you a sense as to how much they have had to discuss Build Toronto’s role vis a vis The Quarry. Gary Crawford has worked closely with CCQLD since coming into office two years ago. His predecessor, Brian Ashton was well known for his work with the Quarry over many years. Ashton also worked closely with CCQLD who formed around 2003 in response to a planning application submitted by the Conservatory Group that started the community down a similar city planning process. One that didn’t really lead anywhere in the end but gave CCQLD, and the community, lots of practice with the City’s planning process. CCQLD is a not for profit organization whose membership has fluctuated over the years but whose Board has stayed largely the same, mostly due to the fact that few others have stepped in to fill their roles. CCQLD is not a particularly large community organization but they have been a very active one and it is arguable that having had them constantly putting pressure on the City Councillors has kept the development conversation alive if nothing else.
“CCQLD has been a very strong advocate in the past,” says Gary Crawford. “If they had not been involved, this meeting with Build would not be proceeding.” Both Crawford and Brender are adament that the key now is to get more community involvement. “Having that active, engaged community is critical,” Gary Crawford says. And Mark Brender goes further to say, “It is very important that if people are interested, anyone that cares needs to get involved and engaged NOW.”
So what is CCQLD an advocate of? In a nutshell, CCQLD has always been a proponent for development of the Quarry Lands that is in keeping with the neighbourhood. They have always been against the high-rise towers that the high-density zoning allows for. Gary Crawford takes a similar view. “Proper and good development needs to happen on that site,” he says. “It has to fit in with the community.”
Given that these are their parameters, the recent draft plan presented by Build Toronto at the community meeting represents a positive step because it offers a low-density residential option. “It’s the first time we felt there was anything worth bringing to the community’s attention,” Mark Brender mentions to me about the current Build Toronto proposal. Previously, as recently as two years back, Build Toronto was talking about a higher density option. Gary Crawford says, “They have zoning for 1100-1200 units and chose to go with low density.” The trade off for the 200 low-density, residential units in the proposal seems to be the large retail development. “25% of the site is retail. 25% is park and 50% is low-rise,” explains Prakash David.
At the community meeting, much of the concern expressed surrounds the retail space. Fear of big box stores and concerns about whether ANY more retail space is needed in the area seem to top the list of concerns. Concerns about a possible big box store may be more than mere conjecture it seems and this could be very bad news for local businesses and is something to watch closely as the planning process unfolds.
The proposed park is another area of concern. Build Toronto say they are giving back 100% of the park land; however, many see the entire Quarry as park space. According to City Planning designations, only 4.5 acres of the Build Toronto owned Quarry Lands are designated park space. The rest are what they call reclaimed lands. Reclaimed lands in City of Toronto terms are essentially “dirty” lands that are not up to environmental standards. Often these were previously industrial lands.
This is the case with The Quarry, which was literally used as a Quarry by a Brick Company in the 1930’s and was used as a landfill site following that. For many years landfill was not regulated and there have always been very significant concerns about what exactly is buried under the Quarry. Over and above the environmental concerns, there are parts of the site that are literally unfit for development since the infrastructure underground is unsound. This is particularly the case on the Conservatory Group’s section of the land. Build Toronto’s first step in seriously investigating their lands is to remediate, or investigate the environmental condition of the lands so they can evaluate how expensive it will be to clean them up for development. As Prakash David said, this will be a costly undertaking.
All this leads many locals to question why Build Toronto and the City of Toronto want to develop the site at all. And while many folks believe that at least low rise housing will assist in keeping the development in the style of the neighbourhood, others have serious concerns about traffic in the area, the number of children who will fill local schools, and these are only the first few concerns. The area immediately north of the Quarry and in particular several sites around Warden and Danforth, have seen significant population growth and many of these home owners use Clonmore to access the city. One woman at the meeting stood up to say that it takes her “10 minutes just to leave the top of her street”. She lives on Clonmore between Warden and The Quarry.
And all this conversation is now only about the Build Toronto lands. No longer is The Conservatory Group part of the conversation. Build Toronto unsuccessfully attempted a land swap over the past few years. At last report, The Conservatory Group was planning to build four multiple-story towers. All told, development on the site is going to have a massive impact on the community.
“Whatever happens will change that area of the city forever,” says Gary Crawford. Both he and Mark Brender of the CCQLD are painfully aware the recent meeting only spoke to one half of The Quarry Lands site. They hope that if Build Toronto moves ahead with what they consider to be a positive development – one in keeping with the community, it will put pressure on the Conservatory Group to do the same. Not everyone is this optimistic. “It was not for the City-owned lands that we came together,” says Brender. “This is still just one side of the site, and in many people’s eyes it’s not the biggest one.” It may be where the community has the biggest impact.
“We need to engage the entire community,” says Gary Crawford. “CCQLD is one component but the consultation will begin to be much broader.” Mark Brender says, “We need more people who have a strong opinion and a strong voice to get involved.” He notes that one option is to join CCQLD but also invites people to join the group’s email list so that at the very least they are kept in the information loop, even if they don’t completely agree with the group’s objectives. “This has been going on for 40 years,” says Brender, “And it may not go on for another 40. We had 1000 people out to a rally before and if we need to get them out again, we will.”
The community is ready to engage. The meeting with Build Toronto on October 3rd was held at very short notice and drew ~ 100 people. CCQLD will hold their annual general meeting in January and hope to increase their numbers there. (www.gerrardclonmore.com)
There is an exceptionally wide range of public opinion about The Quarry Lands. Diana McLaren, a resident who lives close to the Quarry spoke to me and says, “there are some who worry about property values and some who feel the Quarry is the lungs of the community.” She spoke up at the meeting about her feeling that looking at a mix of retail and residential and park is short sighted. She says, “We need to see planning where real community needs are in mind and not just home sales.” She alludes to the poverty along Kingston Road and the need for affordable housing. She speaks to the overwhelmed Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre at Birchmount Community Centre and cites the need for public meeting and cultural space as well as front-line health care services.
“There is a mistaken notion that this is ‘up to them to decide’,” she says. “The them is us. This is public land. This is a public asset and a public trust. This is a tremendous public opportunity to have holistic planning and to look at the needs of the entire community, not just affluent homeowners. They are selling a 1950’s suburban vision. This is too big an opportunity to take a narrow view. Where can you find a parcel of land like this that is publicly owned?”
As Gary Crawford said to me, “We are by no means done with this. It’s going to be a long process.” Perhaps it is not quite time to kiss the Quarry goodbye but it is definitely time to get involved in the process. “We have not endorsed the plan but what we have endorsed is let’s get out to the community and have this dialogue,” says Gary Crawford. “Whatever we end up doing at the end of the day, there will be challenges and hopefully by having the dialogue we make the plan better.”