Hypocracy: Making the Case for 48 Abell

Tear down an artists community to build an artists community? Why?

This is the long and short of the ongoing story of the potential destruction of what's know as The Queen-West Triangle - the area that includes properties to the south of Queen West from Gladstone Avenue to Dovercourt.

In particular, the plans to "re-develop" the site includes tearing down the historical factory cum artists haven known at 48 Abell, to be replaced a with low-income, high density tower aimed at, you guessed it, artists.

This story has received a lot of press lately, including articles in Eye Weekly, Global, Spacing Wire, The Torontoist, and CityNoise to name just a few.

"This big question seems to be 'why are the developers interested'? To us, the only answer seems to be money. To say that you want to create some artist environment [and] beautify the neighborhood, just sounds like a lot of marketing dogma". Says Matt Wyatt, one of the founders of the group Model 48, who's mission it is to try and save the building. "The irony is they are going to be tearing down artists' spaces that have organically developed in a way that they'll never be able to supplant".

And the story gets worse. Enter everyone's favorite supra-legal body, the Ontario Municipal Board. After the the proposal for redevelopment of the site was voted down by Toronto City Council; the three developers that have laid claim to the site (Baywood Homes, Veridoc Developments and UrbanCorp) appealed to the OMB, which overturned the city's decision and approved the destruction of 48 Abell.

"This was a totally unusual OMB case." says Model 48 member Sabrina Saccoccio. "There was a lot of cultural evidence presented - this neighborhood being culturally one of the most important in Canada. The judge didn't really hear any of it, and the decision was so bad that it has really called attention [to the fact that] the OMB is a failing system that doesn't represent what people in Toronto really want."

This most recent decision comes on the heels of negative press, and public calls for the building to be saved by local Councilman Adam Giambrone and Mayor David Miller.

"The decision was incredibly frustrating and disappointing," says Giambrone. "Not only for me, but for the community and City staff who had worked very hard on a strong case for the OMB that included park space and protection of the cultural producers and artists already in the neighborhood, among other things. Generally, people agree that some sort of development, including residential, is appropriate in the Triangle. But the decision gives the developers too much, and will overwhelm the neighborhood--especially when you consider that the three sites constitute only 40% of the Triangle, and we know more applications are on the way."

Giambrone has been a stanch supporter of the residents of the building, "I'm lucky to represent at City Hall a community that is so resourceful and engaged. They really set the bar for constructive engagement. Even when there hasn't been complete consensus between the City and the community groups, they had an enormous positive hand in contributing to the City's plans. I know it's been exhausting for them, but they've helped lay the groundwork that should help shape the community for generations to come."

He's even introduced a motion to have the building designated a historical site, thus saving it from the wrecking ball. While support for the motion seemed to be overwhelming, at the time of the actual vote, a number of key supporters were strangely absent from the room.

"Of course I can't speak for every Councillor, but I tried very hard to persuade them, with lots of community emails pouring in to all members of Council to back me up. I had really hoped that they understood the historical importance of the building, but clearly they didn't."

Draw your own conclusions.

The province has not been unaware of this issue either. Tony Ruprecht, MPP for Davenport, also opposes the decision and the clout the OMB swings. "This is the second time within a year that the OMB has thumbed its nose at the legitimate aspirations of our community in this case by destroying 48 Abell Ave. It is high time the city uses it's recently given powers to establish it's own appeal board board or appoint architectural review panels in order to stop monstrous developments."

But all may not be lost. It was indicated to me an during the interview that a new group of interested parties, from architects, scholars, city officials and more people of some import from all over the city has been formed to help raise awareness about the recent turn of events. It has also been rumoured that this group will push for Mr. Giambrone to re-introduce his motion to have 48 Abell designated a historical site.

This is clearly turning into a bell-weather event. We are seeing clearly divided lines between culture and cash. The outcome of this decision could set a new precedent in Toronto: one where the views and passions of a community can win out against the blind march of maximized profits; or one that proves no matter who you are, you can't stop "progress".

Because no one on either side is backing down.

UPDATE: I've just been informed by Mr. Giambrone's assistant and members of Model 48 that city council has voted to take the OMB back to court to appeal the decision. The council voted last night (February 6th, 33 to 9 and 42 to 1) to:

1. Appeal the OMB decisions to the Divisional Court if leave is granted by the court
2. Request that the OMB review its decisions
3. Authorize the Mayor to request a Minister's Zoning Order from the Province
4. Direct staff to continue to have discussions with the owners about settlements.

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