Toronto neighbourhood residents need to embrace idea that densification "has to happen," says urban planner Sean Galbraith.

Galbraith spoke to Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's Metro Morning following the Ontario Municipal Board's decision to partially block a townhouse development project near Eglinton Avenue East and Mount Pleasant Road, after residents, city planners and a local councillor mounted a campaign against it.

Matt Galloway: What is behind this Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) decision?

Sean Galbraith: What the OMB said is that neighbourhoods are not protected from intensification, but there is a line that can be crossed when a project is too big in a neighbourhood. The decision tried to sort of split the difference. It tried to say that you can have some modest intensification — which I think a townhouse represents, even in a neighbourhood of detached houses — but it has to respect the prevailing sort of general built-form of setbacks and its relationship with the street, its relationship with rear yards. The decision was also the first that I remember that said the trees in the neighbourhood was a special condition and removing them would be a problem, which the building in the rear that was eliminated in the decision would have had to do.

Sean Galbraith

Planner Sean Galbraith said he thinks 'gentle' development, such as semi-detached homes and townhouses, are a better way to densify areas where residents are concerned about neighbourhood character. (CBC)

MG: Local residents were concerned about 'density creep' — what does that actually mean?

SG: I guess it means that we're doing what is kind of a good thing in planning: we're adding more people to neighbourhoods. But because it's density creep, it's not density firehose, we're adding it in a gentle way by modestly increasing the density and the number of units in the area. I think that's a good thing.

MG: The residents didn't think it was gentle.

SG: And neither did the board. The board thought that particularly the building in the rear was too much, that crossed the line. I tend to agree with that decision. There's something in the decision for everyone to hate, so it's probably along the right lines.

MG: What do you make of the idea of people who already live there saying, 'We're closing the door and other people who want to get in [the neighbourhood] can't?'

SG: The neighbourhood was saying, 'We want to close the door on anything that isn't a single detached house that isn't already there' … so they're losing as well because they are getting 40 new units. I feel bad for the people who invested in this project and they're losing the house that they wanted. Perhaps the developer shouldn't have sold all of the units until they actually had zoning permissions to build what they were selling. That's a concern.

MG: How do you go about striking a balance between adding density to a neighbourhood and preserving the character that people bought into in the first place?

SG: I think a good chunk of the city is probably overprotected from density. There's something like 40 per cent of the city where the only thing you're allowed to build is a single detached house. That's probably too much. We could do with a lot more semis, duplexes, you know, gentle increases in density in built-up neighbourhoods.

Density Creep Save Our Streets

A poster from the neighbourhood campaign to stop the development near Eglinton Avenue East and Mount Pleasant Road. (densitycreep.ca)

MG: There are many people who would say the OMB acts like a sledgehammer, that it overrules decisions and its an unaccountable body that rules over the city. Should we do away with the OMB?

SG: Definitely not. There was a report that came out recently from the association of chief planners in the GTA. It's not calling for the ending of the OMB, it's advocating for fairly modest reforms to make the process work smoother, and to ensure fewer applications end up at the board to begin with. Right now, it's probably overused.

MG: How do we build the city up so that people can afford to live here, but at the same time avoid enraging people already here?

SG: Part of it is being sensitive to existing communities while still being almost forceful that neighbourhoods need to adapt and change and accept that change has to happen. Toronto is not the same city it was when its planning documents were originally written 50 years ago that are largely still in use today. And it's okay to make neighbourhoods slightly less protected in the interest of the city as a whole. It's good that we have more people moving into neighbourhoods. By adding more modest density, that can really help.

With files from Metro Morning