Monday, 11 June 2012

Residents' Groups: Friend or Foe of Toronto?

Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods. We've all hard this countless time. It's all a part of the Toronto brand. And though this point may have been driven home a little too much at times, it's true! In fact, we are becoming increasingly more splintered into a greater buffet of neighbourhoods. And I think that's a pretty amazing thing.

Even neighbourhoods that have never existed before have sprung up in the last 10 to 15 years with a new identity and a group of residents that are proud to be a part of their little village in the big city. There's the Junction Triangle, Liberty Village, and even the Distillery District that just didn't exist as identifiable neighbourhoods not too long ago. 

And what makes these areas successful are the people who live there. They form residents groups, condo boards and business improvement associations. They encourage fresh businesses to come to a given area. They bring in farmers' markets. They go to derelict land and plant pretty gardens. They make you walk through your neighbourhood with a feeling that things are getting better, that life is getting better, and that you should have pride in living in your neighbourhood. And for all of that, I give kudos to the residents' groups of Toronto. 

But it's not all flowers and farmers' markets. These groups can be quite powerful as well.  They can shut down some of the biggest developers in the city.  When a developer was planning on putting in a massive Smart Centre south of Eastern along the southern boundaries of Leslieville with a Walmart as it's potential anchor, the neighbourhood rose up in revolt and stopped the development in its tracks. In this case, the villain, Walmart, is an easy target as the bland, box store that could decimate any distinctiveness a little neighbourhood may have. So, it's easy to cheer on the residents' group here. 

For the most part, I am thrilled that neighbourhood assoiciations exist to keep developers in check. Still, I've seen neigbourhood associations get crazy. And strangely, it often happens in more established neighbourhoods where the residents don't want any thing to change. A classic case of NIMBYish (Not in My Backyard). So, at at time when the Beach could use a bit of an overhaul on it's tired commercial strip, the residents association rises up and shuns the idea of a condo being built, a condo that is mid-sized, and will bring in more residents to the area, and in turn, more people to support better businesses. 

I don't want to weigh in too much here on this particular debate, but I do want to make a point: The problem with some residents groups is that they want to block every thing. Keep their neighbourhood from changing in any way. There's no doubt we are living in a city where there is going to be more densification in every corner of Toronto. So, get used to denser living. Dense living does mean we may have less privacy, and more traffic, but it also means better businesses and more vibrant commercial hubs because there is a larger base to support the businesses. I've witnessed some interesting condos get turfed for the wrong reasons by the power of a residents group. I've also witnessed the same group block a really bad condo idea. Developers do need to be kept in check, and even shut down at times, but I think it's wiser to come to the table with some creative ideas on how to make change work, not screaming: No way! Not in my neighbourhood! And hopefully this will lead to the right kind of change in your corner of the city.  

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