In the summer of 2016, Robert Ulicki bought a building in Cabbagetown, an iconic enclave of Victorian residential architecture in Toronto.
His 120-year-old red-brick property stands in the heart of a downtown neighbourhood whose residents have long warded off developers. By the mid-2000s, they had convinced the city to designate much of the community a heritage conservation district under Ontario law.
Renovations to the exterior of buildings need a heritage permit, and no detail is too small. Even the addition of a blue awning to shade a splash pad in 2015 caused handwringing about the colour’s suitability.
A 55-year-old money manager, Ulicki presented the neighbourhood with an altogether different challenge. He wants to open a daycare.
His proposal has unsettled a normally peaceful urban oasis, where the lush serenity of its Necropolis in summer lets you imagine that even the dead are happy. After months of disagreement, the polarized community is headed for an all-or-nothing showdown.
Ulicki has taken his plans — a private, for-profit daycare for 80 children — to the Toronto Local Appeal Body (TLAB), which makes binding decisions and will next hear the case Dec. 7. In the end, the sound and fury might come down to whether four street parking spots can be used for the morning drop-off and afternoon pickup.
The daycare has perhaps as many local supporters as detractors. And the long battle has left some questioning a process where opportunities for compromise, or discussions about neighbourhood needs, never came to pass.
“Only one group will come out a winner, and that’s not the right outcome,” says Kristyn Wong-Tam, who will become councillor for the new Toronto Centre ward, which includes Cabbagetown, on Dec. 3.
Wong-Tam wasn’t involved in the debate. She represented a neighbouring ward before they were redrawn. She told the Star Ulicki should “call off the dogs” by requesting a delay in appeal board hearings and trying to negotiate a compromise.
Ulicki makes clear that’s not the message he received when he recently spoke with an official from her office. In any event, he proudly proclaims an obstinate disposition.
“I am extremely stubborn and principle-driven,” he says.
A few residents, including Blaine Pearson, have started trying to bridge the two camps. Pearson opposes Ulicki’s plan and is loath to fuel perceptions of a neighbourhood divided. But she notes how at one point even interactions on the Cabbagetown Moms & Dads Facebook group had become “vitriolic.”
“It was beyond the pale, the name calling and general insanity,” says Pearson, a 38-year-old mother of two children, who owns a communications agency and lives directly across from the proposed daycare. “What this has done is stirred up a huge amount of controversy.”
The instigator rides a motorcycle and calls himself a self-made man of “comfortable” means. He assumed his proposal would get widespread support, didn’t consult the community until battle lines were drawn, and then fed off the backlash.
“There are a lot of people who think I’m a villain, and I laugh at it,” says Ulicki, sole owner of Clareste Wealth Management Inc., a portfolio manager that invests private funds into stocks and bonds but not, Ulicki stresses, into real estate.
“What I do enjoy is a good fight. I don’t get intimidated by it, I don’t lose sleep over it — it is mentally very stimulating.
“That’s why I’m not bitter about this,” he adds, noting opposition has kept his building empty since he bought it. “Is it costing me money? Absolutely. If I lose, am I going to be pissed? No. Disappointed? Yes. But as far as I see it, I am complying with the rules.”
If approved, Ulicki would turn the facility over to a daycare operator. It would be his first daycare.
His building is in perhaps the most charming part of the neighbourhood, the area that runs south from Wellesley St. E. to Gerrard St., and east from Parliament St. to Bayview Ave.
A growing number of young families are moving into the hood, and the citywide dearth of daycare is a constant worry. There were 37,000 spaces in the city in 2017, enough for only 31 per cent of children under 4.
“There’s a clear need for more daycare,” says resident Alexandra Conliffe, 38, who is on waiting lists at five daycares for her 10-month-old son. “It’s very stressful trying to figure out where your kid is going to get in.”
“It’s not sustainable to keep (Cabbagetown) as a quiet, sleepy neighbourhood,” says Jennifer Stam, a resident and corporate lawyer, who has a 3-year-old son and supports Ulicki’s proposal. “The houses are selling for millions of dollars. The people who are going to be buying those houses will often have children, and if we don’t have adequate daycare or adequate public schools — that’s a huge issue.”
Opponents of the plan have been better organized and therefore more vocal, sometimes to their detriment. A few have complained that “noise” from children at play would disturb their work, reduce their enjoyment of the neighbourhood, or even lower property values — sentiments that led to some media reports offending residents with portrayals of whiny, privileged NIMBYs.
“I still can’t believe people would say that the sound of children playing is offensive, or that strollers (on the daycare’s front porch) offend the heritage character of the neighbourhood when they’ve got their BMWs parked outside — I mean, please,” says Kate Steinmann, a board member of the Cabbagetown Residents Association, who adds that local services create walkable neighbourhoods.
“I thought of Cabbagetown as having a progressive quality to it, but I’m not so sure how progressive it really is,” adds Steinmann, who moved to Cabbagetown in 2016 and has a 2 1/2 -year-old son. “It has also the more NIMBY reputation — I don’t want to dis the elderly — but among certain older residents.”
Few would dare describe Barbara Hall as either elderly or a NIMBY. As Toronto mayor in the mid-1990s, she rezoned two downtown areas — around King St. and Spadina, and King and Parliament — allowing vacant industrial buildings to be used for residential purposes. It laid the groundwork for citywide intensification.
She bought a home on Amelia St. more than 30 years ago, when Cabbagetown was gentrifying after decades of being dismissed as a slum. She lives half a block from the proposed daycare.
Hall supports intensification of Cabbagetown with laneway housing, for example, and initially backed Ulicki’s plan when she assumed it would serve about 30 children. But its scale — 80 children and 16 staff — became the main concern for her and others.
Ulicki’s building is at the corner of two one-way streets, Sackville and Amelia, where parking is only allowed on one side. Opponents insist the traffic would create unsafe bottlenecks during drop-offs and pickups.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard they wanted to put all those spaces in there,” says Hall, who also led Ontario’s Human Rights Commission. “It just seems like a massive change for the neighbourhood, without what I consider appropriate consultation and addressing legitimate issues.
“I could see major gridlock during rush-hour times,” she adds. Hall wrote the city’s committee of adjustment, which in April examined Ulicki’s request for “minor” zoning variances to allow for the daycare. Ulicki believes her opposition tipped the scales.
Hall and others note that garbage trucks, delivery trucks and contractors already block traffic, all the more when snow piles up. Emergency vehicles are a concern.
“You see a fire engine or an ambulance on the street and you sort of think, ‘I wonder who that is?’ because people are aging and often need those kinds of emergency services,” Hall says.
Another longtime resident, in a letter to the committee, calculated how daycare diapers might aggravate traffic.
If half the children are in diapers, and each uses an average of two or three over eight hours, it will produce “approximately 400-600 dirty diapers weekly, not to mention the associated wipes,” wrote Patricia Brubaker-Poulin.
“And how will these diapers be picked up? If by City of Toronto garbage disposal, then this will mandate garbage trucks at the curbside of the site for prolonged periods of time to empty all the bins, thereby further endangering children being dropped off/picked up.”
Daycare rush hours are Pearson’s main worry as well. She has lived on Amelia for nine years and has watched the stop sign for cars heading south on Sackville become “stoptional” over time. When her 2 1/2-year-old daughter was 6 months, a car slowly rolling through the intersection hit her stroller, luckily without causing injury, Pearson says.
In April, she and a neighbour used their cars to simulate pickups and drop-offs at Ulicki’s building. On Sackville, they parked on the street near the front entrance, and traffic quickly backed up, blocking the intersection. On tighter Amelia St., they half-mounted their cars on the sidewalk, completely blocking traffic, and unloaded their children onto the street.
“It became so quickly crazy,” Pearson says, describing the attempted escape manoeuvres of blocked drivers.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘We’re putting in a daycare and anyone who is against daycare is a bad person,’ ” Pearson says. “But for me, this is a safety issue.”
Ulicki scoffs at Pearson’s simulation, describing the mounting of cars on the sidewalk as illegal and irresponsible.
Still, when Pearson presented photos of her simulation at the packed committee of adjustment hearing April 11, committee chair Michael Clark called it “a very valid and very good presentation.” Opposition arguments were bolstered by high-profile municipal lawyer Jane Pepino, who represents three residents, including her daughter, Pearson.
The committee chair described the pickups and drop-offs as “the elephant in the room,” not least because Ulicki showed up without a traffic study.
The city’s building and planning departments confirm they told Ulicki he didn’t need a “site plan,” which includes a traffic and parking study. But the transportation department took a different view. In a March 15 email to the committee, the department’s Matteo Severino said existing parking regulations will “make it very difficult” for drop-offs and pickups on Amelia or Sackville. It recommended Ulicki hire a qualified consultant to conduct a study.
Jennifer Wing, the city’s senior communications adviser, says Severino’s email was posted, following “the standard process,” on the city’s “application information centre” webpage, searchable for information about planning and variance requests.
Ulicki was not directly notified. He says he never saw the email and his architect, Lea Wiljer, says she learned of it only a week before the committee hearing.
By then, Ulicki says it was too late to get a traffic study. He discussed postponing the hearing, but says he was told a new date could be up to six months away.
“This building is vacant,” Ulicki says. “Every month costs me money. So I turned around and said, no, I’m not going to adjourn it … I’ll take my chances.”
The committee unanimously rejected his application, stating he failed to show how peak-hour traffic could be managed safely.
Ulicki appealed to the Toronto Local Appeal Body. If he wins, he will still need to meet regulations for a provincial daycare licence.
In May, city council authorized the city solicitor to negotiate with Ulicki. Failing a deal, the city would oppose the daycare at the TLAB.
The city won’t say what was discussed and declined to make Matthew Longo, its solicitor, available for an interview. Ulicki says Longo offered nothing on the daycare, proposing instead to guarantee approval for four rental units, a zoning the building already has.
A preliminary TLAB hearing was held in August. Alexandra Conliffe, a director at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Development, left “fuming” at the “hyper-local nimbyism” she says she heard from some residents.
While on maternity leave, she took daily walks on Sackville and Amelia, keeping a log of traffic and available parking spots, of which she consistently found several. She used Google maps to pin the addresses of the 83 residents who wrote to the TLAB opposing the daycare and the 60 who wrote in favour. Opposition was heavily concentrated on Sackville and Amelia; support was spread out.
Conliffe then joined Jennifer Stam to launch a petition of support, collecting 79 names on Thanksgiving weekend. Stam became active after contacting Ulicki.
“I believe that he is just trying to do something good,” says Stam, a Cabbagetown resident for a dozen years. “He’s not looking to make his fortune off of this. It’s something he’s doing that’s community-minded even though it’s not his neighbourhood. And I think the backlash has been unfair.”
A common complaint is that Ulicki never reached out to residents. Jason van Bruggen, Blaine Pearson’s husband, described his only interaction with anyone linked to the property in a letter to the committee of adjustment.
Pearson had just given birth and Van Bruggen was driving her and their baby back from the hospital. Parking on Amelia was full, so he says he pulled into Ulicki’s parking pad.
“The lead contractor immediately yelled at us,” van Bruggen wrote. “I explained the unusual circumstances to him (and) mentioned that I would be five minutes … He remained rudely adamant that I could not stop there, as per the strict instructions of the owner. While integrity is hard to measure and quantify, this struck me as a particularly un-neighbourly act.”
Ulicki’s only consultation with the community was in early February. He met in a pub with board members of the Cabbagetown Residents Association and Kelly Sather, who represented Lucy Troisi, who lives in the neighbourhood, and was the local councillor at the time. He described his plans for more than two hours, saying he was available for clarifications. He never heard back.
A day before the April hearing, Troisi sent a letter to the committee of adjustment. She said she had consulted the community and couldn’t support the daycare because of its scale, adding: “The protection of this delicate neighbourhood is imperative.”
Ulicki, who so far has had no heritage complaints about his renovations, shoots back: “Excuse my language, but what the f– does delicate mean?”
Ulicki comes across as tough and methodical. He lives near the Rosedale Golf Club in North York, a neighbourhood starkly different from the Montreal one where he grew up.
“Every house we lived in we had cockroaches and mice,” he says. “One house had rats.” His father was a painter who died in the early 1980s, leaving a $750 inheritance for Ulicki to split with his two siblings.
He earned a commerce degree at McGill, financing his studies with painting jobs. A chartered financial analyst, he worked at the Canadian Bond Rating Service and BMO Nesbitt Burns. In 2010, he co-led a revolt of shareholders and became chair of Unique Broadband Systems Inc., a telecommunications holding company, which had made massive payments to insiders in the wake of an asset sale.
Ulicki and UBS were then each sued for $10 million by a former director claiming wrongful dismissal. Ulicki and the company lost an initial legal round but the Ontario Court of Appeal eventually ruled in their favour. The legal battle lasted five years — a testament, Ulicki says, to his perseverance.
He’s had plenty of opportunities to exercise that temperament with a daycare proposal that hit roadblocks at every turn.
He and his wife bought the Cabbagetown building from the Free the Children charity for $2.15 million. Records show they took on a $1.6-million mortgage.
The charity had bought the property in 2007 and used it as a multi-unit residence before leaving it vacant. It has two addresses — 459 and 461 Sackville — and consists of a main three-storey building with a two-storey extension. Floor space covers about 6,000 square feet, including the basement.
Initially, Ulicki wanted to create rental units. But a neighbour suggested it would make a great daycare, so close to Wellesley Park and Riverdale Farm.
When he floated that at the dinner table, it struck a chord with the younger of his two daughters, who is 17 and “has strong views with respect to the advancement of women.”
Ulicki learned that provincial regulations would allow 80 children in a building that size, concluded it was economically viable — private daycares charge about $100 a day — and began his request with the city in the fall of 2016.
He assumed the property was zoned as residential. The city told him it wasn’t, and left it to Ulicki to dig through city archives, where he found a 1960 record describing it as a “store and lodging house.”
After some negotiation, the city designated the property as a “2 1/2 mixed-use building containing four dwelling units and two retail commercial units.”
That flagged the first potential problem: bylaws allow day nurseries in residential areas if they’re in buildings “originally constructed” as detached or semi-detached “houses.” Ulicki would need to get the designation of his mixed-use property changed.
Other problems included the lack of soft landscaping in the backyard where kids would play, and encroachment issues with neighbouring lots. More serious was the requirement for two parking spaces on private property, which Ulicki doesn’t have.
What he does have is a parking pad with three spots on city land along Amelia St. The permits cost him $1,000 a year. But he can’t count on them for his daycare application because he needs to change the designation of his building. If approved, he would then have to reapply for the parking pad permits, with no guarantee of getting them.
“It’s a Catch-22,” Ulicki says.
In early 2017, he requested a permit for a basement exit to the backyard and to underpin the basement, increasing its ceiling height to eight feet. City officials balked, arguing those depended on his daycare being approved.
Ulicki’s proposal would indeed see infants under 18 months cared for downstairs. The ground floor would be for toddlers, the second floor for preschoolers. But he argued he needed those renovations regardless of the daycare outcome. After months of wrangling, he got the green light to underpin, but the basement exit was rejected.
“The city shoots from the hip,” Ulicki complains. “It’s full of inconsistencies.” He started digging in August 2017.
With a city permit to renovate two retail spaces and four apartment units, Ulicki has stripped the building’s interior down to the studs. In October 2017, he applied for “minor variances” and was rejected six months later.
Ulicki is better prepared for the Toronto Local Appeal Body. He’s hired planner David Sajecki, who will argue the daycare proposal satisfies the intent of the city’s Official Plan and zoning bylaws, and benefits the neighbourhood. There are only two daycares, totalling 50 spaces, within 500 metres of the site, Sajecki says.
Transportation engineer Michael Tedesco conducted a traffic study for Ulicki, which says almost all the drop-off and pickup traffic could be accommodated with four street parking spots — three on Amelia, one on Sackville — reserved during 2.5-hour peak periods, beginning at 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
The traffic consultant hired by the city, The Municipal Infrastructure Group, estimates that a similar number of temporary parking spots — from three to five — during peak hours would be enough. But it insists street parking on Sackville is at capacity and, therefore, on-street drop-offs and pickups are “not suitable for the proposed facility.”
Blaine Pearson argues Ulicki’s plan would take parking away from residents on crowded streets and “offload the developer’s commercial enterprise onto the community.”
Ulicki replies the city has made temporary parking available at several other daycares in Toronto, so why not his? “What’s more important, daycare for children or parking so that residents can store cars on the street? That’s what this comes down to.”
He adds that many residents have laneway parking and, if he loses at the TLAB, the rental units he’ll instead build will result in at least four parking permits for new tenants.
TLAB plans four days of hearings, the last Jan. 25. Few residents are looking forward to them.
“I wish that we had a better mechanism to look at our neighbourhood holistically and say, ‘What are our needs? What would be best for the community? What are the tradeoffs we should look at?” says Conliffe, who laments the “confrontational,” all-or-nothing TLAB process.
Kate Steinmann and Blaine Pearson, on opposing sides, came together in late September to create a group searching for a third option — a local daycare at a different site, perhaps St. Martin Catholic School on Salisbury Ave., which is practically empty.
“I just got overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people on both sides kind of shouting at each other,” Steinmann says. “And I realized that particular (Sackville) location is really fraught … It would make so many people unhappy for so many reasons, some of which I find very fair.”
Some residents are already preparing for the healing that will be needed.
“There are a lot of people even on my block that are not supportive of the daycare, and whether the daycare goes forward or not they’ll continue to be my neighbours,” says Jennifer Stam.
“So I’m not going to end relationships over this. We have to remember we’re still a neighbourhood.”
Sandro Contenta is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @scontenta
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