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Jane Jacobs fights to preserve Yorkville

The Future of Neighbourhoods!


The Village of Yorkville and Jane Jacobs entered their glory years in the same era, the 1960s. And so it seemed entirely appropriate that their paths crossed recently on a memorable and dramatic evening at the Heliconian Club on Hazelton Ave.

The occasion: a meeting of distressed local residents preparing to make a last stand against a proposed development that has been billed as signalling the end of Yorkville.

Why had she gone to the trouble of going out on the night of a snowstorm and bone-rattling temperatures?

"I just don't want to be accessory to a murder," she quipped.

She was referring to what she perceived as the assassination of midtown Toronto's most famously quaint and charming neighbourhood.

Jacobs discovered Yorkville when she moved to Toronto in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.

That war was undoubtedly one of the most calamitous events of the 20th century, but it did Toronto a lot of good. This became the destination of choice for dissenting Americans. Many of them brought a jolt of energy and passion to a town that had only recently begun to come alive.

During that era, if you wanted to meet some of the dissidents who had moved northward, Yorkville Village was a good place to hang out.

No one arriving from the U.S. did more for Toronto than Jane Jacobs, who had already shaken up New York and published her groundbreaking book The Death And Life Of Great American Cities by the time she moved here along with her husband and two sons. The reason they came: Jacobs and her late husband were determined not to sit around while their sons were drafted into the U.S. military machine.

The Vietnam War has been over for 30 years, the Jacobs boys are long beyond draft age. Jane Jacobs could have moved back to the U.S. decades ago, but she fell in love with Toronto, and would never dream of leaving.

Which explains why this legendary woman who rewrote the laws of urban planning, stopped Robert Moses from turning Manhattan into a city of expressways in the 1960s, and helped Toronto summon the courage to stop the Spadina Expressway in the 1970s was on the podium along with novelist Margaret Atwood and Massey College master John Fraser.

No one would have blamed her if she had begged off. At 87, Jacobs has difficulty moving around (she uses a walker). Instead of a hearing aid, she uses an idiosyncratic sound amplifier, made of green papier mâché.

Yet she remains relentlessly and passionately committed to her vision of what a city and a neighbourhood should be and proud to be known as one of the "elitist troublemakers" and "marginalized screwballs."

Except she seems a lot less marginalized after Toronto's Nov. 10 election. Her crucially important support of David Miller made her more of-the-moment than ever. Miller followed her lead in making opposition to the island airport bridge the key issue in Toronto's election, and that's how he wound up being elected mayor.

Now, once again, Jacobs is trying to help her adopted city come to its senses and desist from committing an act of blatant self-destruction.

A lot of people at the meeting emphasized that the development in question on a vacant lot on the north side of Yorkville Ave., between Bay St. and Hazelton Ave. is 18 storeys high.

"We're dwelling too much on the height and not enough on other things," said Jacobs. "What this is about is putting a suburban mall in the middle of that block. If we want the city to be suburbanized, this will set a great precedent."

The project involves 191 condos in two towers (one of 18 storeys, the other of eight storeys). It includes six townhouses, 30,000 square feet of retail, laneways connecting Yorkville Ave. and Scollard St., plus underground parking for 355 cars.

To fight the project, Jacobs warned, it may be necessary to develop new tactics. And the fight requires money at least $60,000, mainly for legal costs.

As Atwood and others noted, council's decision to approve this development goes against everything in the city's official plan concerning Yorkville. "Why bother having an official plan if you're going to ignore it?" asked Atwood.

Indeed, the neighbourhood has been designated by the city for 15 years as an "area of special identity" to ensure that anything built has a height and mass designed to fit with adjacent developments within the context of the area (mostly three-storey structures).

But the city does not seem to take that commitment seriously.

"The planner's report was outrageously unprofessional and arrogant," says Jacobs. "Before the (Ontario Municipal Board) even considers the proposal itself, it needs to look at the circumstances. We need answers to a lot of things that have been kept secret like who exactly is behind this development."

Barclay Grayson is the name of the development company.

Is there anything Toronto's new mayor can or will do to stop it? "I know he is very troubled about it and wants to see if something can be done," says David Crombie, one of Miller's key advisers.

Right after Miller's election, Jacobs warned: "Our wonderful new mayor has a terrible legacy that was left to him all kinds of monsters. And it's going to be quite a job to slay them."

Why would anyone want to destroy the character of Yorkville, which, among other things, is one of the most reliable tourist attractions in a city that has spent a decade destroying its tourism industry?

As Jacobs sees it, this isn't just an issue for local Yorkville residents. This is not just about developers, it's about how the city operates, and the future of neighbourhoods.

Of course, some say it's too late. This project was approved by city council, 24 to 6. It goes to the OMB on Feb. 16 and that will be the last chance to stop it. (However, the OMB hearing might be deferred to a later date.)

"Every fight starts with the statement that nothing can be done and it's too late," she told the Yorkville defenders who packed the hall on Hazelton Ave. "It is fatal to negotiate. You never negotiate. You turn it down. There's only one way you can lose by giving up."

The thing about Jacobs is: She never gives up.

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