Letter to the Editor • The Annex Residents’ Association speaks up

Last year I had the pleasure of co-editing a book called Local Motion, a collection of essays about “The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto”.

It was the first time that I’d ever been involved with the production of a book, and I quickly learned how complex the exercise can be.  One of the most interesting parts of the process was trying to unravel the intricate working relationship between all the different people involved: three editors and thirteen writers.  My big question was ‘Whose voice should come through?’.  Knowing that my name would be on the cover, I wanted to ensure that the content of the book was aligned with my own politics, and that it was something I could be proud of.  At the same time, what is the point of asking people to write essays (each of which has their name on it), if I’m going to turn around later and re-write the piece to make it my own?

For me, one of the most important parts of the book is this paragraph, on page 4:

The opinions expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect those of the editors or Coach House Books.

It was a new skill to learn – to let go of the desire to micromanage the content and be a control freak.  And to be clear, I wasn’t able to completely let go.  There were certain words, phrases, and ideas that I insisted be removed.  But there were also many parts of the book which I had concerns about that were not changed.  In some cases, I expressed my preference or concern, but allowed the writer to decide.  After all, if I want to write my own book – I should.  But If I want to ask 13 other people to write a book – well, I should let them write the book.

And of course, there were two other editors as well (Alana Wilcox and Christina Palassio), both of whom spent endless hours working tirelessly on this project on a very tight timeline.  It would be absolutely impossible for all three of us, and all thirteen writers, to agree on all the content.  The only way to actually end up with a final product on schedule was to let go, and let the voice of the writers shine through.

I received a ‘Letter to the Editor’ over the holidays, from the Annex Residents’ Association, in response to an essay in the book by Bert Archer.  In the essay, Bert directly references the ARA, describing them as a “conservative force”, whose members “often behave in ways that are self-serving and small-minded”.  He suggests that the ARA exists “primarily to to give people an outlet to oppose homes they don’t think are annexy enough.”  (My spell check does not like the word ‘annexy’). He goes further to say that the ARA has “opposed much that ultimately made Jane Jacobs and much of the rest of the city such fans of the neigbourhood”.

For the record, I like the ARA.  I think they do a lot of positive work in the community, and they seem to be an open organisation that encourages residents to get involved – precisely what Local Motion preaches and promotes.

I encourage Annex residents to join the ARA.  If you don’t like what they’re doing, you can be a part of the group’s growth and evolution by making yourself an active part of the organisation. (Board meetings are open to the public and are held on the 2nd Thursday of every month (excluding July) at 7:30 at the Annex Retirement Residence, 123 Spadina Road.) Download the membership form here.

As for Bert, I like him too.  We need shit disturbers.  I’m a shit-disturber at City Hall, and Bert’s a shit-disturber on the pages of our newspapers, magazines and books.  He puts forward unexpected views that challenge the reader (and the editor!).  I think our literary world would be boring without writers like him.  Although, there are occasions where he could be way less bitchy.

I’ll let the ARA speak for themselves (below) and I invite Bert to write a response too if he’d like.  I want to thank Frank Cunningham for taking the time to write this letter.  It is well written and informative.

And next time, I’m writing my own book.  ; )

December 2010

Dear David Meslin,

This letter concerns your recently published book, Local Motion, in which you include a contribution by Bert Archer where he includes comments about the Annex Residents Association (ARA), of which I am a board member and Co-chair of its Planning and Zoning Committee. It is from this position that I write to express our Association’s extreme disappointment with the inclusion in book of a contribution with false, indeed slanderous, and unsubstantiated accusations directed at the ARA. In addition to the bad press, we are puzzled about why you, with whom we feel an affinity regarding our orientation toward the City and the need to enhance citizen participation, would allow this to go through.  If the piece appeared in a news letter, journal, or blog, freedom of the press would militate against insisting that the author remove false and slanderous assertions, but the same does not apply to an edited collection, and especially one that is meant to play a positive political role.

It occurs to us that you may not think Archer’s comments false and slanderous; so let me make a few comments to set the record straight.  First, Archer has got the history wrong. As documented in Jack Batten’s recent The Annex: History of a Neibhbourhood, among other sources, the Annex Rate Payers Association was not born (early in the 20th Century) to prevent business establishments in the Annex but to block the opening of a Catholic School.  This was, in fact, worse than trying to block businesses, but it was not done by us.  As active leaders in the Stop Spadina Expressway movement (Jane Jacobs, Allan Powell, Jim Lemon, and several other prominent residents of the Annex were among these), residents renounced the narrowly selfish policies of the Annex Ratepayers Association and replaced this group with the very different Annex Residents Association, thereby also welcoming renters into the Association and in general adopting much more socially-conscious policies than the earlier Association.

It is certainly true that the Association supports neighbours who find their properties threatened by developments that, usually in violation of City by-laws, do such things as weaken local infrastructure, cast shadows over back yards and gardens, clutter lawns with front yard parking, or degrade heritage buildings.  However, as complaints from some neighbours attest (as in a recent opinion poll we conducted), the Association does not automatically support all home owner requests for support, but evaluates each on its merits with respect to the integrity of the neighbourhood and the city generally.  Far from trying to stop business development in the Annex, the Association works with local BIA’s to encourage commercial spaces, as along Bloor Street, and more recently Dupont Sreet.  In keeping with the strong wishes of residents of the Annex, we wish to promote such things as small businesses, restaurants, shops, etc. and prevent their displacement by condominiums (such as One Bedford Rd.) which either denude the area of businesses or makes only expensive and large-scale establishments possible.

During my tenure (of about three years now) as Co-Chair of the Association’s Planning and Zoning Committee, my experiences do not at all reflect Archer’s accusations.  For example, and typically, we are currently involved in two appeals to the OMB in support of the immediate neighbours of what we see as destructive developments. One of these would greatly increase the size of a house-cum-coach house to:  kill a 100-year old tree leaving no space to plant a new one; build a two-car garage coming to within about two feet of the windows of a neighbouring house; and enlarge and deepen a basement that will threaten the foundation of that house and, as in the case of a close-by basement project, could adversely affect the area water table. (We would like to protect against these sorts of things by cooperating with City Works, but for reasons you are an expert at laying out, communication with city bureaucracies is very difficult.) The other project  is a suburban style three-car garage – one of only two in the entire Annex – that, in addition to eliminating a lot of green space and killing a tree, prevents a neighbour from gaining access to a driveway he is supposed to share.  This garage was built in clear contravention of city by-laws, and the owner is seeking retroactive permission for having done so. Our decisions to support these neighbours were made after careful deliberation and are by no means the sort of knee-jerk reactions suggested by the chapter in your book.

The only actual Association action alluded to in Archer’s chapter concerns alleged ARA opposition to the demolition of a false Tudor house.  The only episode anyone can remember to which this allegation could refer is a project by some architects in the Fall of 2007 to replace just such a house on the SE corner of Admiral and Bedford Roads with a much larger, modern building. The Chair of the ARA’s Heritage Committee was worried from the drawings of this building that it would stand in dramatic contrast to the architecture of the rest of this part of the Annex and could set a precedent that would threaten the neighbourhood’s heritage identity. She therefore several times requested an informal meeting with the proposers of this property to ascertain exactly what they had in mind and to see whether there was room for mutual accommodation.  Such meetings have been encouraged by the Association, even before Adam Vaughan began implementing them as regular events, with generally successful results.  The owners did not respond, so the Chair wrote a letter to the Committee of Adjustment, not to oppose exempting the proposal from the several by-laws it violated but to defer a decision in order to provide (quoting from her letter to the C of A) “the opportunity to meet with the neighbours and the owners of 63 Bernard to discuss their plans.”  You could have discovered this as well as the other matters raised in this letter by contacting me or any other officer of the Association.

Such investigation would have been especially appropriate since in recent years, much, if not most of the activities of the Association have involved just the sort citizen participation your book is meant to encourage:

• We worked very closely with People Plan Toronto to force citizen debate and discussions with the City Planning about its harmonization of the City’s by-laws.  (You can ask Cathy Macdonald about our role if you wish.)

• The ARA worked for the better part of a year to produce a Bloor Street Visioning study, and succeeded in getting most of it through as a replacement of the City’s plan (which Adam Vaughan described as the “Bay-street-ization of Bloor St.”). Our study supports high-rise development at subway nodes with mid-rise buildings in between (in short, the Bedford plan), and it calls for inclusionary zoning regulations for new residential development on Bloor St. to provide for family and lower income occupancy.

• The Association has since successfully lobbied with the City (with the help of the Counselor) to do a local area study of Dupont Street between Bathurst  and Avenue Rd. similar to the Bloor Street study, and, again, not leaving this entirely to the mercies of City Planning, the ARA is also conducting its own study, which will form the basis of our interaction with Planning on this matter.

• The Association, this time mainly through its Parks and Trees Committee, worked with people living close to Taddle Creek Park to develop a plan for the park’s restoration. This was conducted in full consultation of its users, including those who do not live in the Annex, but pass through it on the way to and from work. This is essentially the plan that is currently being acted on, though not without intervention on the part of neighbours and the ARA to prevent the City (which in the interim had gotten section 37 money from 1 Bedford Rd. for planning of the Park) from implementing a dreadful alternative. Again a lot of effort was put into this campaign.

• When Adam Vaughan requested that Ward 20 neighbourhood associations support the efforts of his office to expand the highly successful “Report Card” and “Neighbourhood Mapping” exercises applied in the King/Wellington area, the ARA enthusiastically agreed and provided some funds for the mapping exercise.

All these are initiatives of which I have direct knowledge.  If you wished a fuller account, you could get one from earlier heads of the ARA or chairs of its relevant committees.  They will also paint a picture of an Association you should, given your stated values, want to work with, not attack.

Sincerely,

Frank Cunningham
For the ARA

3 responses to “Letter to the Editor • The Annex Residents’ Association speaks up

  1. I agree that if you don’t like the way something is run, and the organization is open to join, then get involved and make a change.

    I live at the Bain Co-op, a large housing, member-run co-op in Riverdale, and things were happening here that I didn’t like. For example, the co-op is generally a beautiful place (almost 100 years old now). Recently they installed these ugly hand rails, and instead of complaining about them (or perhaps along with complaining about them), I joined the co-op’s Property Committee and now I’m helping make decisions about how we’re developing the property for the future.

  2. Dear Frank,

    tl;dr

    Signed,
    former resident and Annex division board member of Campus Co-op

  3. I tried to get involved with the ARA a few years ago, but quickly became disillusioned. I was under 30 and was not a homeowner, and in conversation I felt like I was treated poorly by other members for these reasons.

    After attending several planning meetings and expressing my views (which were different, but not radically different, from the ARA) and actually getting in an heated argument with a member, I left. I got what Bert was saying in his chapter. I felt and still feel the ARA is not open to listen to anyone who has slightly different views than theirs.

    I’ve thankfully found other groups and outlets for my time.

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