leslieville big box rejected

Boxed Out: OMB Dismisses Big Box Development in Leslieville

The Ontario Municipal Board has backed the City Council and rejected plans for a massive retail complex in Leslieville. The decision wraps a near five-year fight between the developer Smart!Centres and the city and community developers. A 56-page report from the OMB sided with the city, saying the proposed development didn't provide a positive use for the vacant lands and would likely 'destabilize' the area's employment.

SmartCentres planned to build 700,000 square foot retail complex - rumoured to be anchored by a Wal-Mart - on the piece of land occupied by the Toronto Film Studios on Eastern Avenue between Carlaw Avenue and Leslie Street. Part of the plan would incorporate around 1,800 parking spaces.

The community had other ideas. Locals groups criticized the proposal, saying it would increase traffic in the area, tear apart small business, and create low-wage jobs. In its report, the OMB focused on this last point.

The area in question is designated as an "Employment District". Part of Toronto's official plan calls for maintaining these 'employment districts'. One of the city's policies is to ensure that these districts, "create and sustain well-paid, stable, safe and fulfilling employment opportunities for all Torontonians." Wal-Mart fails on almost every one of these requirements.

But I think the face-off between the community and the developer highlights a major problem facing cities across North America. Mainly, how do city leaders handle the migration of major, 'suburban' retail chains into urban centres? As the housing market continues to cool, and retail operators have largely reached a tipping point in suburban or retail expansion, the next obvious move is to look towards city centres.

Local officials and community activists fear that as major retailers move into our cities, they'll rip apart small businesses, turning our cities into 'suburbities'. They also think the low-page, benefit-less jobs offered by retail giants aren't a viable or healthy alternative to traditional working class employment.

But I think both sides are being a bit short-sighted. On the one hand, the well-off residents in Leslieville can simply get in their cars are drive to the suburbs when they want to bargain hunt at places like Wal-Mart. The poorer residents may not have this option. So, they're stuck in the neighbourhood they may have been living in for more than 10 or 20 years, lacking the consumer opportunities offered to their wealthier neighbours.

It's great that middle and upper class residents don't want to return home from shopping in the suburbs, only to drive by a replica retail complex. But actively taking this opportunity from other, less fortunate residents, doesn't seem like a positive way to build a community. Plus, if a Wal-Mart did open up, how many unemployed workers would be lining up to hand in their CV?

But those in favour of the complex have to concede that the jobs being offered by places like Wal-Mart and Home Depot are low-quality. Filling your cities with massive retail complexes while watching corporate headquarters relocate to the suburbs is hardly considered good planning. Small businesses also employ thousands of residents in the city. Allowing corporate behemoths to come in and price out local shopkeepers will destroy the vibrancy of a city.

City officials and community activists may have won this case, but they would be silly to think the war is over. Like it or not, corporate retailers are going to continue with their quest to expand their operations in cities across the country. Finding a way to incorporate them into the fabric of city life is going to be a major challenge for both city officials and developers. But it's one they're going to have to face.

Photo by of blogTO Flickr Pool member archoneus

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