Councillor Josh Matlow

National Post: Development battle brewing at Yonge and Eglinton

Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow stands at the corner of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue

by Peter Kuitenbrouwer

A consortium of developers has a plan to build two condo towers, one of them 60-storeys high, at the corner of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, and at first glance it appears North Toronto is girding for a new epic development battle, akin to the Minto Midtown melee that felled a sitting councillor eight years ago.

“I don’t intend to allow developers to get their way,” says Josh Matlow, the loquacious, feisty rookie councillor for Ward 22, St. Paul’s, nursing a mocha at Starbucks, just east of the corner on Tuesday. “This will not end up being taller than Minto. If the developers insist on going as far as they have proposed, they are going to have a fight on their hands.”

In the opposite corner we have Ed Sonshine, the gum-chewing, pugnacious chief executive of RioCan, one of Canada’s largest shopping mall developers, whose firm owns 50% of a parcel of land assembled on the north-east corner of Yonge and Eglinton. (Metropia, controlled by developer Howard Sokolowski, owns 25% and Bazis, the Kazakhstan-based development company, owns the other 25%.)

“Why don’t you ask him

[Mr. Matlow] what the f— he’s going to do about that?” thunders Mr. Sonshine from his roost on the fifth floor of the RioCan tower on the northwest corner of Yonge and Eglinton. His accusing finger points down at the long-abandoned TTC bus barns, just west of the intersection, a sprawling site Mr. Matlow acknowledges “looks like the set of some horror film.”

But beneath this tough talk, it appears both sides are working hard to make sure that this does not evolve into Minto II. In that dark development battle a decade ago, city staff opposed a plan for two towers, one of them 54 storeys high just south of this intersection; Anne Johnston, a longtime councillor from a neighbouring ward, supported Minto in a last-minute deal, the towers went up, and the voters turfed Ms. Johnston onto her keister for her troubles.

Frankly, when it comes to this corner, a tower couldn’t make things any worse. Young and Eligible is a charitable nickname for this intersection, which, despite its central location in our urban consciousness, is an awful spot. The wind whips through here, making it about five degrees colder than anywhere else. It never gets any sunshine. The sidewalks are too narrow for all the crowds.

In 1968, in permitting the 30-storey tower above the Pickle Barrel, on the northwest corner, the City of Toronto insisted developers leave a square out front. The city neglected to acquire the square, though; it has remained an ugly, bench-free and lifeless place. Now RioCan, which owns it, plans to replace it with a three-storey shopping plaza, an idea the city blessed last year. (RioCan also plans to add seven storeys to one tower here and five storeys to the other.)

RioCan, Bazis and Metropia have agreed with TD Canada Trust that it will sell them its site at Yonge and Eglinton in exchange for a marquee bank in the new tower on the northeast corner. They also own the Burger King site east of Yonge and, north of the corner, the site currently housing What-A-Bagel, Town Shoes and Black’s Camera.

“What a ratty block of what I consider to be one of the premier addresses in the city,” says Mr. Sonshine. “We basically control the back end of the lot to Roehampton. We may try to buy the rest of [Yonge] street [to Roehampton] but the owners have all got stars in their eyes. We are having discussions with the various owners.

“We want two storeys of retail anchored by the TD Bank and two point towers, one sitting on top of TD. I was told by my guys it’s going to be 50 or 60 storeys, with a second tower on Roehampton.”

Mr. Matlow says he does not oppose a tall building on the corner. Indeed, as local school trustee, he was the driving force behind a deal that saw the historic North Toronto Collegiate Institute demolished in favour of two tall condo towers and a spanking new high school, just northeast of here.

Still, he has a rule: If any developer wants to come to him with a proposal, he will insist that local resident groups join him at the table.

A few weeks ago Mr. Matlow sat down at City Hall with representatives of the team that wants to build the tower. However, Tuesday he was surprised when I told him of RioCan and Metropia’s involvement, noting, “it’s strange to me that Bazis haven’t been forthcoming.”

He adds, “Any new development should work in concert with the new underground LRT and the Eglinton subway. I intend to see my residents be part of the design process for that. I am going to be organizing a meeting in the next couple of weeks. This is all pre-application: I want to make sure the representatives of all neighbourhood groups are engaged.”

Mr. Sonshine suggests that his side, too, has plenty of talking to do before it submits its application for rezoning on the site. (The permitted zoning on the site right now is for 21 storeys.)

“We are talking to residents, talking to the councillor, talking to the TTC, talking to Metrolinx. We are still at the talking stage. We are nine months away from filing a proposal. We don’t want to surprise anybody. We don’t want to have problems like we had here,” he adds, a reference to community opposition to the three-storey mall RioCan will build on the northwest corner, starting next spring.

All told, there is a fair amount of common ground at Yonge and Eglinton today; Mr. Sonshine said he is even open to an easement to ensure that any space developers leave open on Eglinton (by stepping their project back from the street) can remain publicly open and accessible into the distant future.

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