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Design Review Panel: Another Half Solution?

Last night I attended a public meeting held by the City Planning Dept to discuss the possibility of a Design Review Panel for Toronto.

In a nutshell, the Panel, made up of design and planning pros, would be another step in the approval process for new building/developement projects. They would review and provide expert advice and opinion (not make final decisions) on proposed buildings and other major public projects.

As I sit here listening to 2 hours worth of meeting audio being digitized though, I realize there was much too much repetition and running in circles to make it worth making a podcast of. So instead of subjecting myself (and you) to that kind of editing torture (especially on Valentine's day)... let's get right to the heart of it. (oh! the puns!)

First off, the idea of having a Design Review Panel is not new. It has been a meaningful part of the planning process in numerous other cities, including Vancouver, where it has proven itself to be a force of positive change in the architechtural landscape.

Ideally, yes, having design experts look at developer plans and suggest ways to improve exterior design (right down to the sidewalk alterations) before approval would lead to more well thought-out design plans and better, more beautiful, more community-integrated developments.

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At the same time, as Frank Gehry pointed out in his speech at the AGO today, we may be getting into the game quite late. We've already seen the construction of so many bland, skyline polluting buildings that it's hard to pull such a sharp u-turn at this point.

Still, we must try to make advances, right? Better late... than never?

Abslutely, but we'd have to get it RIGHT this time.

The concerns of citizens who attending the meeting were quite harmonious. Everyone had their own slightly different opinion to throw in, but they were all singing a tune of community dissatisfaction:

1) The community needs to be integrated into this process and needs to have a stronger voice.

People are tired of 'experts' having a monopoly over opinion on aesthetic and what is 'good' for the community. Communities are built by the people who inhabit then, and that expertise (if we might be so bold as to call it that) needs to be valued. At the very LEAST, this kind of panel should have to visit the community in question, if not consult with memebers.

2) The disconnected approach of Toronto planners has already given us such a bleak lanscape that adding another level to the process isn't going to change much.

Dissatisfaction with current planning seemed unanymous, but one concerned citizen's argument, in particular, stood out to me. She pointed out that a number of guidelines are set in place to protect our various cultural and historic communities: how they function, are structured, go about business, etc. At the same time, planners routinely allow exemptions to these rules in order to allow new profitable developments to take place.

If that is acceptable, than we, as Toronto citizens, are left with no power to protect the communities we value... and so then, what the hell is the point of adding another layer to the system that already doesn't function as it should?

What's the next step then?

Let's go head with the Panel 'cause we could use the help, but make sure that the community has a chance to be heard directly by Panel members. The project is in Scarborough? Then Panel members need get on the RT and see the community as it exists beyond the pages of city plans.

And while they are busy with that, let's come up with a better strategy for the Planning department, so that the Design Panel won't be exposed to so many horrendous bleak proposals in the first place.


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