Usually, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) acts in developers’ interests. It routinely ignores city council decisions and rewards developers with projects that can befoul a city’s essence or wreak havoc on the environment (in a report summarizing the outcomes of 71 “natural heritage” cases heard before the OMB between 1996 and 2003, “defenders of natural heritage had a 30% success rate in appealing to the OMB, and development interests had a 70% success rate”)
So it surprised many when the OMB killed plans for a $220 million Big Box store centre proposed for southeastern Toronto, near the Lake (an area called Leslieville).
This story started to unfold in 2004 when the current occupants of the land, Toronto Film Studios, was getting ready to head to its new location in the Portlands. SmartCentres saw an opportunity to turn 700,000 square feet of land into a jumble of homogenous buildings, devoid of aesthetics, offering McJobs, and possibly anchored by a Wal-Mart.
Advisers hired by the City to fight the SmartCentres application said that Big Box stores would increase the market value of adjacent properties, putting mom-and-pop shops in the area out of business. Toronto’s fight was strengthened by local activists, the East Toronto Community Coalition, who launched a serious of vocal campaigns against the developers.
Also, the City, taking a page from its beloved rock star academic Richard Florida, wanted the land to continue to be dedicated to the film and media industries; that is, the “creative industries”.
The OMB, in a 55-page ruling said that the Big Box stores are not good land use planning and “would probably ‘destabilize’ the designated employment district south of Eastern Ave.”
It seems that a city, backed by citizens forming a strong urban social movement, can indeed win fights against developers who couldn’t care less about community and city identity.