Blog

Part 2: Engaging the Community

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This is the second of a four-part blog series chronicling the proposed redevelopment of Mirvish Village.

Often overlooked, community consultation is a critical component of urban development. Perhaps it should not be surprising that Torontonians feel development fatigue at times – the only thing more ubiquitous than cranes are the development placards affixed to buildings, fences, and plywood walls separating pedestrians from construction sites. Moreover, until recently development placards were difficult to understand, or worse yet, contained little information other than the proposed height and use, and a time and location for the city facilitated community consultation – consultations which are held at City Hall at times not convenient for all citizens to attend. Contemporary planning literature has much to say about this model, critiquing its efficacy around democratic participation.

In an effort to curb this trend, and in a Toronto context rewrite the script, consultation initiatives around the Honest Ed’s redevelopment were literally brought to the community. Shortly after Westbank purchased the land formerly owned by the Mirvish family, they hired Brook Pooni + Associates, a planning firm from Vancouver, to begin crafting a consultation strategy. Rather than waiting until 2015 to begin engagement, they coordinated several events with the public in an attempt to draw out the desires of residents and stakeholders.

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In 2014, Westbank developed a set of ideas for the project and tested them in preliminary meetings with local groups and organizations, including business improvement areas (BIA), residents associations, and the Centre for Social Innovation. It was there that initial feedback started to shape the aspirations for Mirvish Village which would include a public market, mixed use, heritage retention, unique retail opportunities, and sustainability initiatives.

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One of Westbank’s commitments to City building centres on sustainability, environmental and social. This, combined with the community’s noted importance of green initiatives prompted Westbank to hold a sustainability workshop, drawing on the expertise of leading industry professionals and concerned residents. By way of this workshop, it became clear that environmental, social, and cultural sustainability interventions were heavily desired.

Taken in concert, these initial meetings shaped the guiding ideas which were presented to the community at the first open house in June of 2014. Residents were given a summary of the initial consultation feedback, in addition to the nascent aspirations developed as a consequence of previous workshops. Residents were invited to provide feedback on these early concepts and ideas, which helped to concretize the direction for the design of the redevelopment.

Importantly, the architectural firm for the project was only retained after initial consultation events, ensuring that the resultant design reflected the desires of the community at large. Feedback is reflected in all corners of the project, from the public market and micro retail, to the partial pedestrianization of Markham Street and the retention of many of its character buildings.

Following meetings with project partners, city staff, and a second open house, new consultations initiatives commenced. This primarily took the form of boots-on-the-ground outreach via informational kiosks. It was at this point in the timeline that I became involved as a member of the street team.

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The street team is comprised of a number of students and professionals, all tasked with bringing consultation to the public. We have attended several community events this summer, including the Christie Pits Film Festival, the Mirvish Village Sidewalk Sale, the Bloorcourt Arts and Crafts Fair, and the Evergreen Farmer’s Market. The overarching goal has been to provide information to the community and to procure all feedback, both positive and negative, in order to ascertain the temperature of the community towards the redevelopment.

This, for me, has been the most refreshing part of this consultation model. Residents are given the space to voice their opinion in a one-on-one context, rather than at a microphone in City Hall. It has meant that frustrations around change and height and density, and excitement for the purpose-built rental, public market, and cycling infrastructure, have been given a meaningful platform to be heard at a point in time when feedback can be addressed by the developer.

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The most rewarding part of this process has been the intense and in depth conversations I have had with citizens, demonstrating that people care about the future of their city. It has also provided space for healthy debate, pushing me to think more critically about not only this project, but urban planning in general. I have also been treated to stories about Honest Ed’s from ex and current employees, face licks from countless dogs, and even an erotic poetry reading. Overall, it has confirmed for me the fact that there are myriad types of people, with equally varying concerns. And that is precisely why new models of consultation are needed – to meaningfully engage with citizens to ensure the future of the city aligns with desired outcomes.

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The next phase in the consultation process began this past Saturday with the opening of Markham House, a city building lab located on Markham Street in Anne Mirvish’s old studio. The space is shared with Curbside Cycle and Spacing, in addition to a gallery space with rotating exhibits. It also houses the model of the redevelopment proposal, along with posters, pamphlets, and feedback forms which seek to continue the depth of public engagement that began almost 18 months ago. Markham House will be open to the public beginning September 29th, 2015, operating Tuesday to Saturday from 12:00-7:00. Check the project’s website for further events and updates.

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If you are keen to have your voice heard about this project, pop on over to Markham House the next time you stroll past the flashing lights adorning Honest Ed’s.

Photo credits: photos 1, 3-5, and 7 by Corey Bialek; photo 2 by Loozrboy (via Flickr CC); photo 6 by Westbank (via Facebook).

A budding urban planner, Corey Bialek is entering into his second year of the Master of Science in Planning program at the University of Toronto. His primary interest is located at the intersection of urban design and social policy, tapping into his passion for design that is equal parts aesthetically pleasing and socially equitable.

In an effort to achieve full disclosure, Corey works for both OpenCity Projects and Brook Pooni, the planning firm responsible for conducting public consultation and outreach for the Honest Ed’s redevelopment.

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