Councillor Josh Matlow

Density Toronto: Could that condo’s courtyard be a public park?

November 26 2012

Toronto Star

Josh Tapper

The tiny courtyard appears exclusive enough, tucked next to the One Bedford condominium just north of Bloor St. Two square granite benches; a garden, neatly manicured but withering in the November chill; and two “No Smoking” signs.

To the average passerby, the unassuming space, which is owned and maintained by the condo, has many of the trappings of a private courtyard. There might as well be a sign: For residents only.

But then again, it isn’t.

“Most people here don’t know it’s a public park,” said Jennifer Ricci, the condo’s property manager.

The courtyard is one of many privately owned public spaces — colloquially referred to as POPS — hiding across Toronto in broad daylight. They are parkettes, plazas, squares and walkways, often in the vicinity of a condo or office complex, so inconspicuous that the public tends to think they’re off-limits.


And there are dozens, maybe hundreds, according to city planning staff.

After years of unsteady record-keeping by the city, Ward 22 Councillor Josh Matlow plans to file a notice of motion to council next week pushing for a planning report identifying all privately owned public spaces in Toronto. He’s also pushing for a separate report to look into mounting signs that would let people know they’re welcome to use those places.

“There may be sites right across the city that the public walks by, thinking that they’re not allowed onto, when legally it’s their space,” said Matlow. He points to roughly 530 POPS around New York City that have been visibly marked that way as inspiration.

Conversely, there may be lots of condo dwellers who mistakenly think the lovely little green space outside is theirs alone.

While it’s not clear how many POPS exist in Toronto, city planners have developed a working list of 27 sites created since 2000, covering about 1.3 million square feet — mostly in the downtown core, according to James Parakh, an urban design program manager in the city planning division.

In 1961, New York became the first North American city to amend its zoning bylaws to grant skyward-looking developers more vertical real estate, as long as they set aside part of their property for a privately owned public space. Toronto has issued similar density bonuses for decades, more recently through the Planning Act’s Section 37, which sometimes allows developers to pay cash to the city for permission to bypass parts of the zoning bylaws.

As Toronto grows denser, Matlow says the lack of awareness of POPS could become troublesome as developers try to infill land previously designated as public space. Parakh insisted there are “negotiations and discussions” between the city and developers with any project.

But in New York, which has had POPS signs since 1975, publicity has brought added scrutiny when owners try to regulate the private space or simply keep out people who wouldn’t use the space if it wasn’t marked.

“(Owners) will keep a space closed by keeping the gates locked when the hours require the space to be open, or management will come out and tell people it’s a private space,” said Jerold Kayden, a Harvard University urban planner and author of Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience.


“They’ve privatized what effectively should be a public space.”

Even now, since the city hasn’t set any POPS guidelines, developers and property managers are free to impose their own rules — as long they don’t post a “No Trespassing” sign, Parakh said. Whitestone property managers installed the “No Smoking” signs at One Bedford on Tuesday, after non-residents kept tossing their butts in the flower beds. The circular courtyard in front of the Pinnacle Centre condos, at 33 Bay St., has a private property sign banning dogs.

Ricci, the One Bedford property manager, believes visible signage would not sit well with her residents, who must pay for the courtyard’s upkeep and repair. She said she already gets complaints about non-resident loiterers, garbage and noise.

Parakh applauded Matlow for suggesting visible signage. For POPS to serve their purpose, people have to know they exist, he said.

“They are only a benefit if they are considered publicly accessible.”

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