Sunday, June 20, 2010

The best laid plans of people and patios

One of the elements that make for vibrant streets in cities is the boulevard patio. King Street West between Simcoe and Spadina, for example, is a perfect example. In the summer, patios allow restaurants to showcase their menus to passers-by and it caters to a near universal desire to get outside and enjoy the good weather. For visitors, it makes the streetscape more attractive and gives people a reason to get out of their cars and walk. For municipalities, a more successful business district means higher property values, investment and a more successful city overall.

Now, in Toronto, boulevard patios are governed by Chapter 313 of the Municipal Code for the old City of Toronto and the Vibrant Streets policy document, and approval requires that there be a 2.13m pedestrian clearway between the curb and the patio. In other words, the application will be denied if either the curb or a piece of street furniture is less than 2.13 m from the patio. This is a reasonable limitation, as a patio that takes up the entire sidewalk is counter-productive to the goal of vibrant streets. But, the next part of the Code causes things to get a bit squirrelly.

(More after the jump)

The Code requires a 14-day public consultation period where the public can comment on the application, and that polling of the adjacent neighbourhoods be done if the site abuts a residential area (a restaurant at the corner of a main street and a residential street, for example). Again, this is a reasonable limitation. But, the Code goes on to state that:

"Where the Commissioner determines that the application does not comply with this chapter and the policies of Council, where the results of the poll taken under Subsection B(4) are that the majority, as defined in ยง 90-2G, are not in favour of the application, or where the Commissioner receives one or more letters of objection in response to the public notice posting set out in Subsection B(5), the Commissioner shall refuse the application."

One letter of objection.


As a city, I'm sure that most residents would agree that we need businesses to thrive. I'm also sure that most businesses would agree that they intend to be good neighbours and not offend those who live nearby. But, I question why it only takes a single objection to have the application rejected. Of course, the applicant has the right to appeal to Community Council where the merits of the objection can be judged. But, why is it so easy to force a hearing?

There's no question that informed and respectful public input can lead to a better solution, but the law swings the axe too far. As written, the Code makes it far too easy for a lone wolf (and there will always be a lone wolf) to delay what can be a good thing. An objector with a personal grudge against the process could easily send application after application to Community Council for no good reason.

Case in point, the application of the The Keg's new location on the Esplanade just east of Scott Street. The restaurant is located in the podium of the new London on the Esplanade condominium tower, and the single objection came from a resident of the tower concerned about noise. The Esplanade between Yonge and Church is home to three existing patios (The Old Spaghetti Factory, Bier Markt & Fionn MacCool's), and these tend to serve the financial district and the Sony Centre and the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Encouraging people to stay downtown after work and to combine dinner with a show are two things which have made King West so successful, and more choice will only lead to that same prosperity. Directly across the street from the proposed patio is a large residential building and a hotel (Novotel), and it does not appear that any complaints were received from these buildings.

Don't get me wrong, the objection is a valid one. There will probably be an increase in noise, although not to the level of a frat-boy bar. This is The Keg after all. Regardless, this post isn't a debate on the validity of the objection. This post is about a law which allows a single objection to block an undertaking which will benefit the community as a whole. I don't know what the magic number of objections should be, but in my opinion the municipal code sets the bar far too low.

The appeal will be heard before Toronto and East York Community Council on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010.

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