Last week, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, along with other high-profile residents, took a NIMBY-style battle stance against a proposed development in the Annex neighbourhood, sparking backlash on social media and response from the city's urban-issues columnists. (Rendering courtesy of Giannone Petricone Associates Inc.)
In 2015, Trolleybus Urban Development was seeking approvals for a four-storey, 80-unit townhouse project on Keewatin Avenue, in midtown Toronto, when its proposal was met by a small but noisy group of area residents opposed to the project.
Coining a new phrase for their opposition, the group called itself the “Density Creep Neighbourhood Alliance”.
The group did what scores of NIMBYists had done for years — they reached out to the local press, assuming the Toronto Stars and CBCs of our media market would blindly accept their David versus Goliath narrative, and join with the chattering classes to condemn yet another new neighbourhood development project with the temerity to build somewhere other than downtown.
And while the Star did devote headlines to the cause, the resulting article prominently quoted members of this neighbourhood alliance and their on-the-record comments, comments that exposed NIMBYism’s hidden rationale: self interest.
“I’m really concerned about my property value going down,” said one “stay at home mother of two” to the Star’s reporter. Adding, “Right now all the houses are $1.1 to, say, $2.2 million but they’re (the developer) looking at putting in places that are only $500,000.”
The reaction was swift, and while not unexpected, it was still shocking to those resigned to the perceived sanctity and unassailability of the neighbourhood’s views on new development.
Following the article’s publication, a series of columns and editorials followed, including one by the Star’s Edward Keenan, who poignantly encouraged concerned neighbours to question the decision to publicize their “patently absurd, petty, small-minded, entitled whining …” (Keenan, The Toronto Star).
The episode was seen by many to be the long-anticipated dressing down of those whose Pavlovian response is to fight proposed development, often with the tacit encouragement of pandering local politicians, uttering grand pronouncements, perverse planning rationales and scare tactics, each meant to obscure their very real — and really selfish — reasons for saying “No.”
For many of us who believe in urban density, a mix of housing in neighbourhood housing, and a desire to see more affordable housing woven into established — and frankly overpriced — single-family communities, the mockery of the density creep movement and the public shaming of the NIMBY philosophy at the time seemed like something to celebrate.
We hoped it foreshadowed a coming movement; a transformative re-evaluation of the way residents, planners, politicians and the media would thereafter view new neighbourhood developments.
Alas, the moment was far more transient than transformative, and Torontonians’ NIMBYesque leanings have continued, unabated and relatively unopposed.
Need evidence of this? Then look no further than to last week’s Toronto development furor and associated Trump-esque Twitterstorm, which captured so much attention.
I refer to the oh-so-familiar media-baiting efforts of an anti-development faction from the city’s austere Annex community, a group who sought succor for their opposition to an 8-storey, 16-unit proposed condominium at 321 Davenport Road in the embrace of the Toronto Star.
Margaret Atwood. (Flickr photo)
The article cites the opposition of notable Torontonians to the development, highlighting the efforts of literary giant Margaret Atwood and others including Galen Weston Jr. and Cleophee Eaton, who, according to the article, have been writing city councillor Joe Cressy about their outrage to the proposed scheme.
Atwood, Eaton and Weston … oh my.
But unlike the mother of two who was upset about the Keewatin development in the 2015 Star article, Atwood didn’t leave her comments simply to those in print. Instead, she went all new-school, unleashing a digital torrent. Faced with criticism on Twitter — and lots of it —she, incomprehensibly, made the decision to use her inimitable writing talents to respond to seemingly every tweet.
And she wasn’t just engaging with Joe and Jane Twitter.
Nope, the author took exception to the considered online comments from such notable urbanists as the Globe and Mail’s Alex Bozikovic and the Star’s Shawn Micallef (who she accused of being a “shill” for the developer), and her fight became very, very public.
I don’t know how many people watched the Governor General’s Award winner’s Twitter display through the night, but I’m guessing it may have been more people than watched The Handmaid’s Tale movie with Natasha Richardson.
So why does the public NIMBYist position of some of Toronto’s leading citizens (or perhaps more aptly, leading citizens of the Annex) matter?
But what hopefully matters more is the reaction to the self interest they displayed, self interest that was cloaked in the common good.
The reaction on Twitter and in the media coverage that followed was strong. It was articulate. It was appropriate. It was much like the reaction in 2015 to the neighbourhood’s opposition to another midrise development.
The only question is will Torontonians’ outrage to NIMBYism matter more now than it did then?