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Meet City Councillor Peter Milczyn, Toronto's urbanist from Etobicoke

The first theme much of the media drew out of the recent Toronto municipal elections was the split between the urban and suburban vote Derivative and intentionally provocative red-and-blue map were splashed across pages and screens showing the new mayor had won all of the outlying areas and none of the old City of Toronto. Concerns were bruited about Toronto becoming a suburban city with suburban values. The elimination of the vehicle registration tax and Don Cherry's blubbering about cyclists seemed to prove the point.

But look at one of Mayor Ford's signature issues: subways. Whatever side of the Transit City debate you're on, and it seems like one can be on several sides at once, subways are profoundly urban.

But the best sign that Toronto is not on its way to becoming a Los Angeles of the north is the new chairman of the Development and Planning Committee, Peter Milczyn. Councillor for Etobicoke South, Milczyn's appointment may have initially frightened downtown dwellers. Etobicoke, while no Mississauga, is certainly not a paragon of urban planning. In fact, it's pretty spectacularly suburban, once you get away from the Queensway and Kingsway.

But listen to him for more than 10 minutes, and urbanites, you'll hear you have nothing to fear.

"There has to be a shift in cultural attitudes that it's all right to raise kids and grow up in a high rise," he says in his rudimentary office in the Etobicoke Community Centre, "that the ideal of growing up and raising children in a single, detached house isn't necessarily the only ideal. Kids can grow up in any number of situations and as long as they're clean and they're safe and there are amenities there, it's fine."
That said, he also thinks the condo boom may have taken a couple of wrong turns.

"I personally have some issue with height across the city," he says. "The same densities could have been achieved with lower heights. 3.5-times, 4-times density could be achieved with 10- and 20-storey buildings, not 25-, 30-storey towers. That's something that, through lack of a cohesive vision, has been allowed to happen."

Milczyn's talking about something very similar to the Parisian seven-storey ideal many urban theorists still tend to favour: regular, centralized density, not so high as to be alienating, but not so low as to necessitate sprawl.

"There are certainly areas where tall buildings are appropriate," he says, "but there are other places where it's not necessary to achieve that density. I think that leads back to some of these planned neighborhoods from the 70s and 80s, there could have been more intense development with shorter buildings focused on courtyards, but that ship seems to have sailed a long time ago."

Milczyn's also interested in architecture, which may be encouraging to those who worry about Toronto's aesthetic identity. "I'm a modernist," he says, making it clear that "m" is lower-case. "I like modern architecture." When I ask him about one of my pet peeves, that though we have employed many stellar architects, they always seem to bring their B-game. Take a ride up the CN Tower sometime and tell me if you can pick out the Norman Foster, or the Frank Gehry. We're a long way from the land of gherkins and Guggenheims.

"Generally, is there a greater timidity in Toronto about design? Yeah, I think there is," he says. "Look at the addition to the ROM. Whether you think it's good or it's bad, it's certainly bold; OCAD, good or bad, it's bold, and I don't think people in Toronto like bold buildings. I think it's everybody, it's a social problem if you like, going from communities to property owners, developers, probably the bankers that finance these things, all down the line."

Milczyn sees his primary goal as chairman to, in his words, "try to make the city a more beautiful place."

How does he plan to do it? It's difficult, he says. "You take the opportunities that you're handed to do it. I'm very proud of what we're doing in Nathan Philips Square, I know it's controversial, people balked at spending the money, but it's a terrific statement by the City of Toronto saying public space is really important, and we're going to make an investment in it, and were going to seek out the best design we can get.

"Torontonians go all over the world and they marvel about fabulous buildings they see elsewhere and the fabulous subway systems they see elsewhere and they come home and it doesn't really fit here, we don't want to pay for it."

It's as he discussed how he'd like to pay for it that you see what Ford saw in him. He's a big fan of selling city land. "I don't think the city should be a developer," he says, and includes the very land we're talking on, Etobicoke's former city hall, which he says he'd like to see sold off to the right developer sooner rather than later.

He'd like to encourage development along the subway lines by lowering development charges rather than raising them, and instituting site-specific development charges, so that he can charge more for a developer who wants to develop a greenfield.

He's also a fan of the relatively new design panels that have gotten some play on the Waterfront, and hopes the new chief planner, whom they'll be hiring this year, will be able to use the new Planning Act and the Harmonized Zoning Bylaws (which he has always opposed as being put in place more for city staff convenience than for the good of the city's development) to exercise more control over how the city continues to develop.

"I'm hopeful because Mayor Ford, as a populist, has as one of the key foundations of his administration accountability and transparency in government. That raises issues about the planning application process, but also the outcomes, and strengthening the city's ability to control outcome and making the city tougher on the type of redevelopment that occurs. Tougher in the sense of stricter, not to say development shouldn't occur, but if the vision for a community is 10 storeys, don't come in asking for 30.

"I think that official plan review is going to give us some opportunity to focus on key areas, whether they're avenues or centres or other neighbourhoods and really put in place a strong vision of what the areas are supposed to look like and really strengthen what the policies look like. Give more teeth to the urban design guidelines and tall building guidelines that we have to give them some more import when it comes to reviewing development applications."

Bert Archer is Yonge Street's development editor.

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