SFHRA battles Armel over future of Forest Hill Village

Developer argues there’s no money to be made in a low-rise

It’s a cold, bright March, Sunday morning in Forest Hill Village. Despite a thermometer reading of about -12 Celsius and a wind that makes it feel colder than that, business is brisk at What A Bagel on Spadina Road. A patient lineup of brunchers make their way past offerings of bagels, cream cheese and lox to salads, pastries and coffee, the cash and out the door into the cold again.

Business at the other stores open on Sunday is likewise brisk.

Business brisk but the Village needs saving

But looks are deceiving. A sign on a lawn on the west side of Spadina Road, the Village spine, warns: “Don’t let this happen! Get involved!” It shows a white structure towering over a neighbouring, khaki-coloured building, and pleads: “Save Our Village!”

From what? The heading at the top of the sign makes it clear: the proposed development at Montclair and Spadina Road south of Lonsdale. Developer Armel Corporation – total market value of assets owned: $250 million – wants to build a nine-storey condo building there.

The chunk of land at the heart of the struggle is known municipally as 390 to 398 Spadina Rd.

Most of the stores there have been deserted for over a decade as the developer waited patiently for the right time to launch its project.

“The problem,” explains Mona Kornberg, secretary of the South Forest Hill Residents Association (SFHRA), is that “the nine-storey building proposed for the site has 10-foot high ceilings, which amounts to a 12-storey building in an area zoned for four storeys.”

Kornberg warns that allowing the development would “set a dangerous precedent that would destroy the character of the Village.

“It would be the beginning of the end.”

A ‘hidden enchantment that resembles small-town Ontario’

 Forest Hill was incorporated as a village in 1923. According to Wikipedia, Bathurst Street was its western boundary; Upper Canada College its eastern limit with Lonsdale and a part of Montclair on the south.

With the original municipal offices on Lonsdale Road, a market, Bilton’s, a hardware store, Akenhead’s, and a theatre, the Village Theatre, as well as a bookstore/lending library, and the inevitable banks, it’s easy to see how the area soon came to be the commercial heart of the area surrounding it.

Writing in the Toronto Standard in 2102, Justin Robertson called the Village a “tiny cluster of stores” that gave the area “a hidden enchantment that resembles small-town Ontario.”

Problem is that these little businesses and many that followed them are memories.

Saving the vanishing Village

Low-rise, brown and beige buildings on both the east and west side with small storefronts are still there. They set the tone for the old Village.

But the west also has large, wide-block buildings and vast expanses of glass on the Lonsdale to Thelma block that seem out of place. Only the Scotiabank on the corner and the Village Market inspire nostalgia.

The Village had a watering hole, the Village Idiot pub. But no one’s hoisted a pint there since 2012 when it closed. It’s one of the locations in the Armel plan.

Some urge patience

Robertson reported that the Forest Hill Business Improvement Area (BIA) was looking to raise $12 million to cover the cost of a revitalization plan that called for stronger street lights, larger patio spaces and trees along the sidewalks.

Long-time resident Brian Maguire, then secretary of the Forest Hill Home Owners Association (FHAO), told Robertson he saw nothing wrong with the big chains coming in.

“People needs change through time,” reasoned Maguire. He urged residents to be patient. After all, the Village was in transition.

“Things will change. People will still come to the village to shop or just grab a coffee. It’s just that it won’t be from an independent store like we used to have (more of) in the past,” Maguire said.

Peter McClelland, the chair of the BIA conceded the state of Village retail needed improving. He told the Globe and Mail’s Barry Avrichin in 2014 that of particular concern was excessive rents that drove away “bespoke retailers.”

McClelland offered no solution only patience.

“We have to be patient, find the balance and be realistic. This Village is in transition. Things will change.”

The development guidelines versus the Armel plan

Early in 2014, City of Toronto Council asked its planning staff to develop urban design guidelines to “protect the small town feeling of this distinctive district” and others like it while allowing for future development.

The guidelines submitted February 2015 favoured new buildings that blended in with “earthy” tones of existing buildings and small storefronts to maintain the character of the area.

The guidelines also favoured “newer building attempts to mimic these articulations and rhythm,” such as the ones housing What A Bagel and the Royal Bank.

They frowned on newer styles – the buildings that house the LCBO, Starbucks and the HSBC – with “bigger expanses of glazing” and storefronts that were wider than their neighbours.”

Armel submitted its application for rezoning April, 2015.

According to Urban Toronto.ca, the proposed development consists of 46 residential units including 18 1-bedroom units and 28, two-bedroom units with 694 square metres of commercial retail space on the ground floor on Spadina Road.

City planning staff: application ‘constitutes overdevelopment’

With a proposed structure that looks very much like a nine-storey building mounting a three-storey one, and wide expanses of glass, the response from City planning staff was preordained.

On May 22, 2015, City planning staff replied Armel’s application was not acceptable as it “constitutes overdevelopment” and needs to be revised.

The building has one thing in its favour: its three-storey portion blends reasonably well with its neighbours when it came to colour and height. But Kornberg warns that anyone hoping that the street floor of the Armel building will be a cradle for creative little shops is going to have their hopes dashed.

“Rents are going to be sky-high,” she warns.

Residents get organized

Kornberg says that when residents learned of the Armel’s development plan, they wondered why the FHAO didn’t object to the proposal. Fearing that no one would speak up, they formed the South Forest Hill Residents’ Association in the fall of 2015.

Kornberg says the SFHRA now has over 500 members.

Later that fall, about 100 members of the association made their opposition known at the first public meeting held to discuss the plan.

The Town Crier community newspaper reported that City planner David Drieger told the meeting the area’s height limit is four storeys. The proposed building is nine storeys high.

The developer insists it can’t make money with a four-storey building

 Speaking for the proposal, architect Ralph Giannone said abiding by the guidelines would have been unprofitable for Armel.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to rebuild a building and build a four-storey building,” he said. “That is my client’s observation.”

At the meeting, the Forest Hill Village BIA refused to take a position on the proposal, saying Armel had not given the BIA details of its plan before the meeting.

The Town Crier reported that not one resident, save Giannone, spoke in favour of the proposal.

The SFHRA wins a victory

The SFHRA won a victory when, with the help of area councillors Josh Matlow and Joe Mihevc, the City of Toronto Council rejected the proposal in July 2016.

As expected, the developer appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board.

The battle moves to the OMB

Kornberg says that over 50 members of the SFHRA attended the first pre-hearing on March 1 when the association registered as a participant.

Also registering as a participant was the FHAO.

But the March 1 pre-hearing was a disappointment.

“The developer said over a year ago at the meeting with the community that they would come back with a revised sketch that addressed the concerns, which they haven’t done,” Kornberg says.

Armel makes a concession

But the lawyer for the developer said that Armel would have a revised plan at the next prehearing.

On the strength of that, OMB member Heather Gibbs adjourned the prehearing to Aug. 8.

The association is playing its cards close to the vest when it comes to talking about what it would accept by way of a compromise. But Kornberg insists that the SFHRA is not opposed to development.

“What we want is development that protects the quality of the Village, especially to the storefronts these developers have neglected and left derelict for over a decade.”

Still, the OMB is an expensive battleground. To be taken seriously, Kornberg says the association needs a lawyer and planning experts. That costs. The association estimates it will need to raise $65,000 to take on Armel.

Village Stories emailed the BIA to ask what had become of its proposal to raise $12 million to help revitalize the Village, and the association’s position on the development plan.

The association’s rep said in an email that she was too busy to reply.

Village Stories also emailed Armel Corporation and the FHAO for comments, but received no replies.

To learn more about the South Forest Hill Residents’ Association, visit https://www.facebook.com/SouthForestHillRA/. To contribute visit shttps://www.gofundme.com/save-forest-hill-village.