St. Basil's development touches a nerve

  • May 21, 2008

{mosimage}The residential towers now sprouting up across downtown Toronto regularly rouse the ire of citizens. People don’t like these structures for all kinds of reasons: because they cast long shadows, because they increase local traffic, because they make bad fits with the often low-rise neighbourhoods that surround them. But until now, I’ve never heard people objecting to a high-rise development because it threatens to eat up a parking lot.

That appears to be a central objection by clergy and parishioners at St. Basil’s Church, on the campus of St. Michael’s College, to the condominium complex slated to stand on the site of the above-ground parking lot they now enjoy. It’s not hard to understand their reasoning. St. Basil’s serves Catholics who drive in from all across the Greater Toronto Area. The church is busy year round, with frequent weddings and funerals and with several Masses each week day and on Sundays. While parking will continue to be available in a private lot across the street, the space may well be inadequate for far-flung parishioners and visitors who can’t conveniently take the TTC.

But the criticism of the tower scheme is hardly limited to the parking problem it will cause. Aggrieved clergy and parishioners at St. Basil’s have been offended by what they took to be the disregard for their opinions by the college and the city. And they have raised doubts about the esthetic worth of the project. Fr. Paul McGill, pastor at St. Basil’s, told a reporter that the proposed towers, 45 and 55 storeys respectively, would be “sterile” and “monstrous.” After city council approved the plan, a parishioner at the church said: “We have to look at our options, but it’s definitely not over.”

Whatever the merits of the parishioners’ argument that they were given the brush-off by city and college officials, it’s clear that several nerves have been touched by this development of the north side of St. Michael’s campus. We should take these hurt feelings seriously. But I think that, before advancing their campaign to stop the project, the people at St. Basil’s might give some thought to the powerful, and not altogether bad, urban dynamics at work in their situation.

One dynamic has to do with parking lots. Due to soaring land values and development pressure, all above-ground parking lots in downtown Toronto are doomed. Owners of these low-earning spaces (such as St. Mike’s) can hardly be blamed for letting them go, for handsome prices, to developers. But along with the economic lure, there’s also pressure coming from city hall. Our cash-strapped metropolis reaps fat fees from builders of residential towers, and these developers, as they are required to do, provide financial support for much-needed community projects, parks and other amenities.

But there are good public-policy reasons why we should be glad to see the end of parking lots. They are environmentally unfriendly eyesores, bleak expanses of gravel or asphalt that disfigure the urban fabric. The convenience they provide for drivers is far better handled by underground garages. And parking lots unfortunately encourage people to drive into our congested downtown, and discourage use of public transit — which, incidentally, serves St. Michael’s College and St. Basil’s Church very well.

On the esthetic argument coming from St. Basil’s, I find Fr. McGill’s opinions about the proposed architecture extreme and beside the point. The structures are being designed by the prolific and talented Toronto architect Peter Clewes, who has given Toronto some of its best recent examples of austere and elegant modernism. Renderings suggest Clewes’ buildings for the St. Michael’s campus will be very fresh reworkings of his familiar design ideas, and works of art that will make good architectural neighbours for lovely old St. Basil’s. We have seen entirely too many mediocre high-rise condo buildings go up in Toronto. The city needs public beauty of the kind Mr. Clewes can deliver, quite as much, if not more, than it needs surface parking.

I hope the parishioners and the towers learn to co-exist peacefully. Toronto will be a better place to live and worship in if they do.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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