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A 51-storey condo tower proposed for densely populated St. James Town has residents concerned

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Hassan Awadh says the last thing St. James Town needs is a 50-storey condo tower.

“I look out from my balcony and all I can see are highrises,” says Awadh, 50, who has lived in the area with his wife and four sons since 2008.

There are already huge lineups for TTC buses in the area, the local Food Basics and FreshCo supermarkets are overflowing in the evenings, says St. James Town resident Hassan Awadh.
There are already huge lineups for TTC buses in the area, the local Food Basics and FreshCo supermarkets are overflowing in the evenings, says St. James Town resident Hassan Awadh.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

There are huge lineups for TTC buses in the area, particularly on Wellesley St. just west of Parliament St., and the local Food Basics and FreshCo supermarkets are overflowing in the evenings — signs of how tightly packed the community is, Awadh says.

In fact, St. James Town is considered one of the most, if not the most, densely populated neighbourhoods in Canada.

That’s a key reason a new development application by Greatwise Developments Corp., calling for a 51-storey condo highrise, four townhouse blocks and two midrise buildings including a 10-storey rental building — 890 new units in all — has local residents, service providers and city planners nervous.

“I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me. There’s not enough services in the area for the people who are already here,” says Vickie Rennie, 61, who has lived for 48 years near the 4.3-hectare parcel of land at the northwest corner of Wellesley and Parliament Sts. where the proposed development would unfold if approved by the city.

There are four rental highrises there already — 240, 260 and 280 Wellesley St. E. and 650 Parliament St., all dating from the late 1960s.

St. James Town seen in the 1960s when it drew a hip young crowd who enjoyed the amenities, such as the outdoor pool.
St. James Town seen in the 1960s when it drew a hip young crowd who enjoyed the amenities, such as the outdoor pool.  (Norman James/Star library)

An Aug. 21 fire at 650 Parliament displaced more than 1,500 residents, forcing them to local community centres, hotels, relatives’ homes and other Greatwise buildings in St. James Town.

The blaze caused “catastrophic” damage to the building’s electrical and mechanical system and the building owners recently said it will take at least six months to complete the repairs.

Corporate records indicate the proponent behind the development application, Greatwise Developments Corp., located at 333 Wilson Ave., is administered by Samuel Grosz.

Records show the buildings on the property are owned by a variety of entities including Parwell Investments Inc. and Lilsam Inc., all listed at the same Wilson Ave. address.

The application doesn’t call for the demolition of the four aging buildings.

The project is similar to the “reurbanization” of Parkway Forest, a subdivision near Sheppard Ave. E and Don Mills Rd. in North York. There, hundreds of new rentals and thousands of new condo units spurred by the Sheppard subway line are springing up alongside 1960s-era towers.

A photo of two children playing in St. James Town in 1969.
A photo of two children playing in St. James Town in 1969.  (Dick Darrell/Toronto Star)

Toronto’s planning department has sought input from local residents and community groups on the Wellesley-Parliament project, and the height and scale of the 51-storey condo tower has been mentioned as a key thorn.

Planning staff have suggested to the landowner that the height should come down.

“Our comment was fairly preliminary in the context of the existing buildings on site. They are in the range of 20s up to 32 storeys,” says Thomas Rees, a city planner on the file, who notes 51 storeys is almost double the existing buildings on site.

“That one is really going to stick out,” he adds.

But in a statement from Greatwise on Friday, spokesperson Danny Roth said the company believes the height will have a “minimal” impact on the pedestrian experience.

“Its height will fit into the range of heights that have recently been approved in the neighbourhood, particularly along Sherbourne St. and Bloor St.,” Roth said.

There will be other challenges for the landowner.

Prompted by the recent blaze at 650 Parliament, the planning department is demanding that before the new application can be approved, Greatwise do a health and safety audit of the existing towers on the parcel, including 650 Parliament.

The audit would cover items including the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems in the buildings, Rees says.

“We’re asking the developer to provide a building safety audit … to identify what needs to be fixed, and then we want that to be subject to a peer review to ensure it’s accurate and not missing anything,” he says.

The city wants to find ways to secure necessary improvements to the buildings as a condition of development, Rees adds.

The proposal calls for a 51-storey condo highrise, four town house blocks and two mid-rise buildings including a 10-storey rental apartment — 890 new units in all.
The proposal calls for a 51-storey condo highrise, four town house blocks and two mid-rise buildings including a 10-storey rental apartment — 890 new units in all.  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

Density issues raised by the application are also on the city’s radar, the planner said.

On behalf of the ownership group, Greatwise said it’s proceeding with an application “we believe meets existing policy frameworks, including the city’s official plan and the Growth Plan for the (Greater) Golden Horseshoe.”

The statement added that “more than just from a policy perspective, the applicant’s proposal brings reinvestment to a community that has seen little to no change since it was built in the 1960s.”

St. James Town is actually a larger neighbourhood bounded by Wellesley, Sherbourne, Bloor and Parliament Sts.

The four buildings in question are part of a cluster of crumbling highrises in the area — 19 in all — that are home to about 17,000 people, many of them new arrivals in Canada.

When first built, the ’60s-era towers became a magnet for hip young men and women who enjoyed the amenities, including an outdoor pool.

But the buildings have since fallen into disrepair.

In April, Greatwise submitted a joint official plan amendment and zoning bylaw amendment application for the Wellesley-Parliament project.

“The proposed development will allow us with hindsight to correct many of the site’s existing challenges including the current lack of public road connections through the site, undefined open spaces, an abundance of surface parking and outdoor garbage storage areas, and the monotony of the prevailing architectural forms, among other issues,” Roth said in his statement.

Proposed features include a new supermarket, a network of new streets and a new 0.1-hectare public park, though the city says the applicant’s park allotment needs to be bigger.

The developer also plans to take out the Food Basics discount grocery store on Wellesley and replace it with another unspecified supermarket.

The fear among local residents is that the new one will be a “high-scale” store, which is not appropriate for a low-income community, said Hanna Ahmed, who has lived in the neighbourhood for eight years, in an interview while shopping at Food Basics.

Resident Hanna Ahmed fears a "high scale" store will replace the discount grocers if the development is approved.
Resident Hanna Ahmed fears a « high scale » store will replace the discount grocers if the development is approved.  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

Rees, the city planner, notes the Wellesley-Parliament application comes at a time when St. James Town faces enormous density challenges.

For example, a school in the catchment area, Rose Avenue Junior Public, is already over capacity.

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The Wellesley-Parliament project and other residential developments approved or close to being approved along Sherbourne, Howard and Bloor Sts. mean the school will have to contend with many more students.

“We’re working with the school board to see how we’re going to deal with this. I don’t know what the answer is, but to me it’s a big concern. We don’t want to force kids to be bused when there’s a school right behind them,” Rees says.

Housing developments in the school’s catchment area since 2016 — within or near St. James Town — include a 32-storey tower already built at 28 Linden St.; another at 555 Sherbourne St. that is 43 storeys; two highrises — 38 and 46 storeys — under construction at the north end of Parliament St.; and two others on Sherbourne above 50 storeys each, at various stages of the city’s approval process.

Construction is nearly complete on the Selby, a 50-storey residential rental building also on Sherbourne.

Niv Balachandran, an executive member of the St. James Town Service Providers Network, a coalition of organizations serving the community, says residents feel their voices are being drowned out by a powerful landowner.

“Resident feedback has been that the process has been disenfranchising for people who want to be engaged, but do not feel they are on an equal footing to have their voices and concerns heard,” Balachandran says.

Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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