Saturday, September 18, 2004

A Tale of Two Cities.

Now Melrose Ave in North York is not necessarily a tourist hotbed, but it - and the rest of south North York - stand as a truly horrific oddity which all of us with a planning mindset should take note of. Easily obtained demolition permits and permitted below grade garages (the only place in the GTA) have turned these once quaint residential streets into something on the other side of obscene. Deep pits leading to multi-car garages and thin, tall self-important houses with doors sometimes 7' above grade (to accommodate the garages of course) line both sides of streets for entire blocks at a time.

The boundary between the old cities of Toronto and North York should be undetectable. This mere political boundary cuts through neighbourhoods, lots and sometimes houses as it weaves its way through the neighbourhoods of Midtown. Yet, one knows exactly when they pass from one to the other. The forested, stately communities of North Toronto give way to the barren crassness that is North York in the blink of an eye. The tree canopy ends and the sight of undercarriages of SUVs become the norm as they sit downsloped in canyons leading to ugly cookie-cutter houses with their asses stuck straight up in the air for the entire neighbourhood to see.

The problem arises from the former city zoning by-laws which are still in force. While amalgamation has been on the books for over six years, the process of consolidating zoning has been a long and arduous process as planners grapple with how to fuse the diverse nature of a metropolis into one regulatory document. The interim has resulted in regulations which are stuck in time and have exasperated problems and flaws.

Contrary to North York, the old city of Toronto tried to maintain community character. Obtaining a demolition permit in the old city requires applicants to get city council approval. This onerous requirement has resulted in builders and homeowners restoring and enhancing existing facades and building non-intrusive additions. All North York requires is a mere submission to the building department.

While the Toronto by-law outlaws below grade garages, North York almost requires them on smaller lots. Toronto also required the protection of trees on private properties and the former city invested heavily in boulevard plantings. North York has no private tree protection and long ago quit planting trees on boulevards.

While never the sexiest topic in planning, zoning regulations play an immensely important role as an implementation tool in preserving - or obliterating - the stability and quality of residential communities. Their influence should never be underrated or dismissed as is so common in planning circles.

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