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Big boxes, cold shoulder

Big boxes, cold shoulder

Big boxes, cold shoulder

On May 18, at the Ralph Thornton Centre on Queen Street East, politicians, developers and Leslieville residents met under the stewardship of Councillor Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth) to discuss what many in the community had been fearing for months – namely, what one opponent called the “malignant” intrusion of big-box retail into their neighbourhood, Wal-Mart generally being the most feared tenant.

The proposed development by SmartCentres, an established developer of power centres, would include 655,000 square feet of retail and 1,900 parking spots on the current Eastern Avenue site of Toronto Film Studios in the heart of the Studio District. Though it owns 50% of the 19-hectare site along with Rose Corp., the area is currently not zoned for that sort of development, so an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) has been made.

“For 655,000 square feet of retail inside the city core and in an area that basically has been the heartbeat of the film studio district?” Fletcher asked rhetorically in response to the term “malignant” being used at her May 18 meeting. “I think that obviously my constituents are very good with their adjectives.”

Still in the preliminary stages and without all the technical studies completed yet, SmartCentres has planned for two-and three-storey buildings lining the streets with the multi-level parking garage hidden behind those. At the public consultation, last-minute attendee and company representative Tom Smith said the design is meant to fit in with the surrounding neighbourhood and that public input is welcome. The olive branch did little to change the minds of those opposed to big-box retail.

When reached for comment and a reaction to the community’s staunch opposition, SmartCentres spokesperson Flavio Volpe said, “The only point that we want to make at this time is change is difficult and we understand this.”

Community opposition stems from various fears, ranging from the loss of prime studio space and film industry jobs, to increased traffic and pollution, to the squeezing out of small businesses by big national and multinational chains.

“The fact is [the area is] not zoned for big-box retail,” Fletcher said. “And then my community is saying, ‘Well, if you’re going to have an employment district, City of Toronto, could you please establish what your parameters are for a land-use plan that calls for employment – and what kinds of employment? Is it employment that creates other employment?’ ”

With the matter before the OMB, there is now very little to be done on either side except wage a public relations war and prepare for the official hearing sometime next year. Though the oft-vilified OMB receives little love, a recent decision by the Board is an encouraging sign for Fletcher.

National Post
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Page: TO4
Section: Toronto: The City
Byline: Philip Alves
Column: Neighbourhoods: Leslieville