Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star: La Carnita’s private patio on public space angers condo owners

La Carnita isn’t the only business that has recently been accused of encroaching on a public plaza.


August 16, 2016

Jeffrey Vendeville

The Toronto Star


Andrea and Vince Frisina own a condo in front of La Carnita. Frisina says she was not allowed to sit in the space although she paid fees to have it built when she bought her condo.

Andrea and Vince Frisina own a condo in front of La Carnita. Frisina says she was not allowed to sit in the space although she paid fees to have it built when she bought her condo. (MARCUS OLENIUK / TORONTO STAR)


A downtown Toronto restaurant owner feels he’s “been thrown under the bus” after the city gave him a permit for a patio on a public plaza — and then told him to remove it.


A public outcry led Andrew Richmond, the owner of the Mexican restaurant La Carnita, to agree to take down a fenced-in terrace along John St., south of Adelaide St. W.


“I feel like we’ve been thrown under the bus and demonized,” he told the Star Tuesday. “All we do is try to bring culture to the city, through art, music and food.”


He was issued a building permit that included the “proposed reshaping of outdoor patio,” unaware that the plaza is a privately owned publicly accessible space, or POPS. He says no one told him La Carnita was not allowed to put up an enclosed terrace until after the fence was built.


La Carnita has agreed to remove the patio within the next 48 hours. “I want to get past it. I want to get back to making good food,” Richmond said. “I’m willing to work with everyone to figure this out.”


A spokesperson for the developer and landlord, Pinnacle International, said it didn’t intervene because its tenant, La Carnita, had a permit from the city to build the terrace.


“It’s very difficult for us to tell them to take it down when they already have documentation from the city,” said Anson Kwok, Pinnacle’s vice-president of sales and marketing, last week.


Andrea Frisina and her husband Vince were among the residents of a neighbouring condo tower who complained to the city about La Carnita’s terrace. But the furor over the patio only started in earnest after Jake Tobin Garrett, the manager of policy and research for the advocacy group Park People, noticed La Carnita had claimed the plaza and sounded the alarm on his personal blog.


“We have so few public spaces, in the downtown especially,” Garrett told the Star. “We need to protect all the slivers of public space we can carve out for people.”


As he noted, the plaza is one of more than 100 POPS across Toronto. They are courtyards, parkettes and other spaces that are privately owned and maintained, but where anyone can stretch their legs.


At least, in theory.


La Carnita isn’t the only business that has recently been accused of encroaching on a POPS.


The city has received complaints that an Aroma Café, in the northwest corner of Yonge and Eglinton, has put out tables and chairs in a public space, along with a sign saying seating is reserved for customers, city staff in the planning department said.


Coffee shops are welcome to build terraces, but they shouldn’t “usurp” open space, said Terry Mills, a community activist who lives in the neighbourhood and made the complaint.


The café didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.


As for La Carnita, the property developer, Pinnacle International, agreed to create “a publicly accessible landscaped open space” on John St. as a condition for the building’s approval. In exchange, the city cut Pinnacle some slack in terms of height and density requirements, under the controversial Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act, to build a mixed-use tower.


Frisina, the building resident, was glad to learn the fence will be taken down.


“It’s too small a space to have a dining patio and a public retreat for residents of Toronto to sit and enjoy,” she said on Tuesday.


When she moved in last year, the plaza had granite blocks and fountain for all to enjoy. Less than 12 months later, the area was closed to everyone but customers of La Carnita and a sign read, “Please do not sit on the rocks.”


Frisina was irritated because she says her condo purchase price included a fee paid by the developer worth thousands of dollars per unit for the open space.


These fees are assessed under Section 37 of the planning act. It means the city can negotiate with a developer for community benefits such as a POPS. In exchange, the developer can get approval for a building is taller or denser than allowed by zoning bylaws.


Frisina, the condo owner, is angry with the restaurant, the developer Pinnacle and the city, for not acting quickly enough.


“As far as I’m concerned, the permit was wrongly obtained, so I don’t understand why this has taken months,” she said. “It seems it has only happened since the negative media attention.”


A business licence was, in fact, issued to La Carnita endorsing a patio on private property, but it must still obey zoning regulations and other conditions, said city planning spokesperson Bruce Hawkins. The city has added signs to avoid any confusion about POPS locations, but the plaza outside La Carnita pre-dated the change.


“A POPS is sometimes an invisible line that you can’t see, in terms of where it ends and where it starts,” said Kwok, the spokesperson for Pinnacle.


Ward 22 Councillor Josh Matlow, who sponsored the motion to identify and protect POPS in 2012, said public open spaces are not a landlord’s to give away.


Open spaces “are critical to our basic quality of life, for recreation, for relaxation, for breathing room in the midst of Canada’s largest city,” he told the Star.


“We don’t want to see Toronto turn into one large wind tunnel full of glass condos.”


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