We’re Engaged! – Ward 33 E-Blast September 14th

It’s brainstorming time all over Ward 33 for our annual Participatory Budgeting Process, but we’ll get to that later. First, I want to talk about another form of participatory decision-making that is playing out in and around Ward 33: petitioning.

The most famous petition you may have heard of recently was signed by Margaret Atwood and her surrounding neighbours, to stop an 8 storey building from being developed downtown on Davenport Road. Living, as we do, near the Sheppard Subway, we could easily dismiss Canada’s most famous living author as being deluded to think that 8 storeys is too much for downtown. When I took a closer look at the city report on the 321 Davenport Rd development that Ms. Atwood and others were protesting, I found some matters to justifiably oppose.

The proposed condo building at 321 Davenport Rd.

The Davenport community petitioners’ wish to have no development did not succeed, but their pressure resulted in some changes in building height, reduced massing on all sides, automated parking stackers to reduce the amount of real estate dedicated to cars and a commitment to work with the community to better address tree protection.

The controversial development is headed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The city planning department will speak in favour of the development in its current form. There is no question that the petition and community voices did act as leverage for the city to be able to insist on a better final product for the site. The OMB will see an application from the developer that is much improved and includes a solid commitment to work further with the community on outstanding issues around trees.

Petitions don’t have a lot of impact on members of the OMB. The appointed OMB members are too arms-length removed from the community. Increasingly, however, Toronto City Planners try hard to effect some compromise between development and community needs and wants before OMB hearings. Then they can go to the ultimate hearings speaking in favour of the finished product, and maintain some control over outcomes. As tempting as it might be to think that we should simply camp out in front of the bulldozers, Ontario’s tiered system of planning approvals doesn’t permit that as an option that could achieve results.

When the planning system reforms proposed this spring by the Provincial Government take effect, we will have more local control. Toronto City Planners are trying to function in a way that is as close to the proposed changes as possible. That’s why an early petition and community conversation is already having an impact on a report in Ward 33 that is still a month away from Council approval.

The last block of buildings in Parkway Forest, known as Block C, is almost ready for public report. The developer’s request for additional units has been met with petitioning in the Henry Farm community. Because developer El Ad has had their project before the OMB for many years now, they have the right to ask for and receive additional units and a neighbourhood petition can’t take that right away. The Henry Farm petition has had an impact on El Ad and the review of their request, however. We will see a reduction in the number of additional units when it comes forward next month, while preserving the community wish for a grocery store site and some offering of affordable home ownership. The details are soon to be worked out and the community will see the results next month before it goes to North York Community Council and I cast a vote as your councillor.

Petitions can be 100% effective when they deal with local matters more squarely in the city’s jurisdiction, especially when we all work with professional staff in developing the right proposals for improvements. Hobart Drive is a case in point. My office has brought staff and residents together over the past couple of years to make sure that solutions to traffic, parking and speeding issues represent good traffic planning. Then residents took the results door to door via clear petition questions. A speed limit reduction went into effect without local fuss. This year, we will prohibit parking in an area along Hobart. Community members went to work gathering neighbours’ signatures so that city staff can be sure that the parking changes are welcome.

Working together to be sure a petition asks for something specific and achievable is always the best method. It saves steps, saves confusion, and for the most part, keeps neighbourhood peace. We will also be working on some urgently needed parking prohibition on the eastern streets in Henry Farm. Far too often these streets have become filled with the parked cars of construction workers and subway commuters.

My team reached out to city staff as soon as we knew the changes were proposed by the community. We were pleasantly surprised when staff supported the local suggestions and even proposed expanding the areas to be prohibited based on their own observations. The local residents’ association will be circulating the petition.

Whenever there is a knock at the door and you are asked to sign a petition, remember you can ask as many questions as you want. If you don’t know the parties doing the petitioning, it’s okay to say no thanks, or ask for more time. Always feel free to call my office during regular business hours to ask what we know about the petition or if we have helped develop it.

It is never my job to tell you what side to take on a petition. What my team and I can tell you is whether or not that document proposes something legal and whether or not we helped the authors get advice from the city. More and more often, we are partners in developing the petition question. It is just another form of direct, participatory government and you know how much we love that in the Ward 33 office.