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BICKERING IN PICKERING: Urban mix gets go-ahead – San Francisco by the Bay sets precedent in Durham

DAVID COOPER PHOTO /TORONTO STAR Ralph Del Duca of Chestnut Hill Homes with a model of the San Francisco by the Bay towers at the builder's presentation centre.

Dense, city-style development met opposition from locals, but market and OMB buy into suburb's transition

Tracy Hanes - Toronto Star

May 12, 2007 - A new Pickering development has weathered a storm of controversy to set an urban precedent in largely suburban Durham Region.

San Francisco by the Bay, just south of Highway 401 on the site where the Bay Ridges Plaza now stands, will become the region's largest new condo development and its first mixed-use, master-planned community.

A week and a half ago, the Ontario Municipal Board dismissed an appeal by the Pickering East Shore Community Association, clearing the way for San Francisco by the Bay.

The project will consist of 350 condominiums in 16- and 18-storey towers, as well as 121 townhouses.

The towers will share a two-storey podium with 25,500 square feet of retail and commercial space, including live-work units and have 12,000 square feet in amenities such as fitness facilities.

And although the project was opposed by many existing residents of the area, about two-thirds of the units sold during the first preview sales last weekend.

Part of the attraction probably is value for the money. Ralph Del Duca, vice-president, marketing for builder Chestnut Hill Homes, says the condo suites are priced substantially less than comparable units in Toronto, where cost is close to $400 a square foot, not including a parking spot. San Francisco by the Bay units run about $300 per square foot and include parking. Townhouses start from the mid-$200,000s and condo suites from the $140,000s.

"This is unique in Durham Region and it will be a self-contained community," Del Duca says. "The location is prime and the buildings will be really beautiful, green and beige with lots of detailing. It has a West Coast feel with a European twist."

While the "by the Bay" part of the development's name might be a stretch, purchasers of condo suites on the fourth floor or above will be able to see Frenchman's Bay from their units. Del Duca says some townhouse residents also should be able to view the water from their rooftop gardens.

The four-hectare site is diagonally across the street from the Pickering GO station, a stone's throw from Highway 401 and a 10-minute walk from Frenchman's Bay on Lake Ontario, where the waterfront area has been revitalized with townhouses, cafes and retail shops, a public square and a beachfront park. Just to the north, across the 401, are the Pickering Town Centre and city hall. The development will also be close to a pedestrian bridge the city is planning to build over Highway 401, linking the urban centre to south Pickering.

The development was vigorously opposed by the Pickering East Shore Community Association (PESCA), whose members objected to the loss of the plaza amenities and the density and height of the buildings. The group also expressed concerns about additional traffic flow.

"Contrary to popular belief, this is not a case of NIMBYism," says PESCA president Susan Carlevaris. "Our prime concern is that the density doesn't fit in with our neighbourhood. It takes away from the existing community."

She says the loss of a major supermarket and other shops in the plaza will be detrimental to seniors who live in the area but don't drive, seniors who have been counting on being able to walk to amenities.

The group also argued that not enough time was given for public consultation and that traffic flow and parking ratio needed more study.

Some of the plaza tenants are also unhappy about the development. Pasquale Maladrino, who operates Chique Hair Styling and is head of the Bay Ridges Plaza Tenants, says the plaza was economically viable before SR & R Bay Ridges Ltd. (affiliated with the development company and the builder) bought the property in August 2005.

He says after the development was approved by council, the plaza was not promoted or maintained. Five tenants remain who still have leases and have not yet reached an agreement with their landlord.

Maladrino, who has been in the plaza since 1994, has a lease that expires in October 2009, with two five-year options to renew.

"It is unfathomable to me personally how developers with such deep pockets cannot deal and settle with the existing tenants, who are trying to make a livelihood for their families, in a logical and ethical manner," he says.

"Instead, they leave us hanging to dry. We are open to all acceptable offers."

He says a provision in the existing tenants' leases providing for "quiet enjoyment" of their units is being breached, as signage for the development, the sales office blocking views of the plaza stores and construction all interferes with that enjoyment.

"One of the remaining tenant's bigger worries is if the developer applies to the city for a demolition permit within the rules of the building code, city council might approve a permit, regardless of our contractual agreements, which again interferes with the quiet enjoyment provision," he says. "We've had assurances from councillors that will not happen, but assurances are not guarantees. We are completely against any demolition until the plaza is completely empty."

Del Duca, meanwhile, argues that the area was already in transition and that most of the plaza tenants had left.

"Other buyers had tried to make a go of it," he says, "but a lot of big-box stores have opened in the area and it was not feasible to continue as a commercial venture. Some of the local residents were upset that Price Chopper had left, but that had nothing to do with us."

Del Duca says the development will "totally revitalize" the neighbourhood, which was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He says nearby residents will benefit from infrastructure improvements, such as a sewer line the developer will install and a new traffic light.

As well, many amenities such as a pharmacy, hair salon and veterinary clinic will open in the commercial space provided in the development, he says.

Pickering Ward 2 councillor Doug Dickerson acknowledges that the project has generated mixed feelings in the neighbourhood, "but 72 per cent of Pickering's land mass is controlled by the provincial and federal governments or part of the greenbelt, so if you're looking for growth, you have to look to redevelopment. Pickering and Oshawa are the only two designated growth areas in Durham under Places to Grow (the Ontario government's plan for future growth) and this development meets all the provincial guidelines."

Dickerson says the development represents 18 months of planning with city, regional and conservation authority staff, along with four months of resident involvement, "probably more than any single project in Pickering history."

San Francisco by the Bay will also enrich the city's tax base, Dickerson says; the plaza brought in $65,000 in taxes a year, while the new development will generate about $375,000 a year from condo and townhouse residents.

"There was a great symbiotic relationship between the developer/builder and municipal government. I believe between this and the development at Frenchman's Bay, we are seeing the flagships of what will the redevelopment of the area south of the 401."

Gardner Church, a former Ontario government housing minister and GTA minister, says the development fits well with the push for intensification. Church, now a public policy consultant advising local, provincial and national governments on issues such as urban policy and housing and building policy, worked as a consultant for the builder on the project.

As intensification takes hold in the GTA, Church says five characteristics must be considered.

First, says Church is transportation: "This property is kitty corner to the GO station and spitting distance to the ramp to the 401."

He says a site must be suited to intensification and this property can handle a "a very substantial development" he says, adding that with the mix of high- and low-rise housing, with four-fifths of the site area devoted to low-rise, "the response reflects the neighbourhood."

As well, he says, the development will be a positive for the environment, resulting in less traffic because of its proximity to the GO station. As well, the new sewer line will replace outdated ones and reduce the threat of sewer backup for residents in the area.

The fourth consideration is design, says Church, and "it's sometimes extremely difficult to design a new development to fit old development.

The old plaza was visually dull. In terms of positioning in the neighbourhood, there was the opportunity to open up a valley with a walkway. The GTA is an urban region of valleys, but we often hide them. This is not a huge or major valley, but it offers a nice little green vignette."

As for the buildings themselves, Church says, "the townhouse structure, the grid pattern of the streets and the commercial centre is quite a lovely design and is going to add considerably to the surrounding property values."

Church's fifth value is the ability to create change in a neighbourhood without creating instability.

"This is ideal  a family-oriented community, plugged into travel to work. There's great durability about it," Church says.

The condo towers were designed by Kirkor Architects and the townhouses by John G. Williams Architects, both Toronto companies.

The lobby, with its West Coast, mission-style motif and the model suite were designed by Mike Niven. The site will have a 12,000-square-foot amenity area with gym, indoor pool, party room, multi-purpose room and reading lounge. In the tower lobby, a concierge will be on duty.

The development will also have landscaped parkland and a playground at its centre, with another half a hectare donated to enhance the adjacent Douglas ravine.