Stephen Denning is standing in the middle of his half-built home in the heart of Kensington Market on a recent afternoon, contemplating how it will look once the walls are set and the large, square cut-outs finally become windows.
“It will be big, bright and open,” he says. “I think this is what anyone would build if they had the chance.”
Perhaps. But not ‘round these parts.
As Toronto descends further into a housing crisis, communities are getting caught between the need for increased density and the struggle to maintain neighbourhood character — and Kensington Market is no exception.
In the last three years, since Denning, an entrepreneur, and business partner Michael Jewett, a physician, decided to build in this quirky downtown neighbourhood, their project has become a flashpoint in the community. Even though the men, their future neighbours and area residents came to an agreement two years ago enabling them to build, new fights have erupted and tensions continue to simmer.
According to Coun. Mike Layton, the triplex is going up according to approvals in its Nov. 8, 2017 Ontario Municipal Board decision. Though, he understands the frustrations all around as everyone wants what is best for the neighbourhood.
The City of Toronto will likely designate the market a heritage site in the new year, he said. The hope is it may help set limits on heights and setbacks, taking the guesswork — and fighting — out of living and developing in the area.
That’s something Denning and Jewett are dealing with as neighbours and residents groups’ say their building currently under construction is a lot different than the one they agreed to and, according to neighbour Shamez Amlani, who lives just two doors north of the construction site, it feels like a “bait and switch.” Bigger and more menacing, they claim it juts out farther on the lot than it is supposed to.
They also say the men aren’t consulting neighbours on the building process, as they had promised. Su Alexanian, chair of the Kensington Market Action Committee (KMAC), the area’s official residents’ and business association, said that is what she finds most shocking. “They’re going to be neighbours here forever,” she said, of Denning and Jewett. “Do they think everyone is going to forget about this? It’s so weird.”
For now, Denning and Jewett, longtime fixtures in the market, say they are doing their best to ignore snide glances from neighbours. Denning, who is on-site everyday, said the idea that they’re flouting an agreement is “utter nonsense.”
Not only are he and Jewett building according to the agreed-upon plan, but, Denning said, what was “agreed to in front of a judge.” Plans have been available on the city’s website for a long time and city site inspectors come by regularly, Denning said. The front of the triplex lines up perfectly with the home two doors to its north. It was configured, and agreed upon, that way to create the appearance of a “streetscape.” From the start, Denning said, he and Jewett were willing to collaborate with the community and even invited them to come by. But no one has, he said.
“We did what we could.”
When Denning and Jewett bought their property in 2016 for around $475,000, it was by no means cheap but a steal for downtown Toronto. That’s because of its quirks. Landlocked, this bizarre patch of land is an island adrift in other people’s property and accessible only by right-of-way. When construction is done, the only passage to the lot will be through a garbage-strewn laneway that cuts between a bar and a vintage clothing store.
Since 2007, when fire razed the cottage on 12A Kensington Ave., this 3,500-square-foot lot, nicknamed “the pit,” has sat vacant, save for a few years when neighbours planted a community garden.
Denning and Jewett never imagined they would encounter such resistance when they decided to turn the pit into their home. “Boy were we wrong,” Denning said.
At first, it was the City of Toronto that pushed back.
The men hoped to erect a four-unit townhouse — a home for each of their families and two rental units, but their request was turned down. Since the lot didn’t front on a street, the city said, according to Denning, it was “no longer applicable for development.” Not yet defeated, the men went back to the city a few months later, bringing with them a professional urban planner to argue on their behalf. No dice. The city still wasn’t having it. For their third attempt, the men hired an architect who drew up a rendering of their proposed multi-unit home. That seemed to crack an opening in the city’s door. A staff planner said he wouldn’t object if they took the drawing to the Committee of Adjustment (COA).
“We were feeling slightly less ill at that point,” Denning said. “We bought something we weren’t allowed to develop and if we couldn’t, we would have to walk away, declare bankruptcy or something.”
As they were preparing their arguments for the upcoming hearing, so were a lot of others. Once KMAC got wind of the men’s application to the COA, Alexanian immediately filed off a letter voicing KMAC’s opposition, telling the Star the men didn’t reach out to KMAC to talk about it. “I never spoke with them about it,” she said.
Denning, however, has a different version of events, saying he engaged KMAC and the rest of the community right away after getting the go-ahead to take the matter to the COA. He and Jewett invited their neighbours and the residents’ associations into their planning process, because without their blessing, he said, “we were guaranteed to fail.”
But as the men took their seats in a Toronto City Hall hearing room on April 19, 2017, they watched, mouths agape, as dozens of Kensington community members, including Alexanian, representatives from the market’s other residents’ group, Friends of Kensington Market (FOKM), and even the fire department filed in and sat down. “We didn’t see it coming,” Denning said.
Alexanian described the men’s proposed building as a “monster home” and said the minor variances the men wanted didn’t seem minor at all. The sheer dimensions of the “small apartment building” the men proposed, she said, would threaten the spirit of the neighbourhood’s petite scale, with its narrow homes and even narrower “workers laneways.”
Safety was also an issue. Most homes in Kensington are made of wood — one hastily tossed match could easily ignite a conflagration that consumes the entire neighbourhood. Fire trucks are too big to fit down many of its laneways and are often forced to shoot water from streets nearby. Amlani, who has lived in the market for nearly 14 years, stood helpless outside his home two doors to the north for parts of the night in 2007 when a blaze flattened the cottage on 12A Kensington Ave. Trying to sneak past firefighters to rescue his cats, he watched as they worked through the night, finally extinguishing the fire before it reached Amlani’s home, but not before it charred off his neighbour’s roof.
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That house, right next door to Denning and Jewett’s construction site, was resurrected a few years ago. An architectural marvel built to the precise specifications of the one before it, Amlani holds it up as an example of what all new developments in the area should aspire to.
“That house is in the spirit of the neighbourhood,” Amlani said. “Nobody fought that house at all.”
Predictably, Denning said, he and Jewett lost at the COA that April 2017 day and immediately appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to try and get a Hail Mary pass to build their home. “It did feel like everybody … (was) out with the pitchforks,” he said. “Nobody was saying they would support us.”
A few months later, just weeks before the OMB hearing in the late fall of 2017, Denning and Jewett met with several Kensington residents in the KMAC Community Centre on Baldwin Street. Sunken, just below ground level, the meeting space beckons to passersby with large, brightly coloured papier mache costumes and sculptures often sitting in its giant windows. Alexanian, Amlani and others smiled politely. The tension was palpable, even though a deal was finally in the offing.
After back and forth meetings with their immediate neighbours and KMAC, Denning and Jewett agreed to shrink the building, drop from four units to three, reduce its footprint on the lot, outfit the entire home with sprinklers to safeguard against fire and to continue to consult with neighbours going forward. They agreed to build the front of their home flush with their immediate neighbours.
The agreement was made. Hands were shook. And a few weeks later, Alexanian withdrew KMAC’s opposition to the project, paving its way forward. The Nov. 8, 2017 decision said the negotiation process was “collaborative” and the triplex “consistent” with the neighbourhood. It also mentioned that Alexanian requested that Denning and Jewett continue to consult neighbours and that the men “reaffirmed” their commitment to do so.
But barely two years later, their immediate neighbours, watching as the house rose from the pit beside them, felt that parts of the triplex were built too far forward. The neighbours, who did not want to be named, emailed Denning and Jewett in September asking them to remove the part “that was never agreed on,” telling them “we think that you can do better as neighbours.”
Four days later, Denning and Jewett replied: “We appreciate your concern,” their email said. “We have been and will continue to be willing to work with you to reduce our design impact on your property. We look forward to meeting.”
On a recent afternoon, the snow gave way to warm drizzle that pelted the city, spitting through the cut-outs in Denning and Jewett’s construction site. Denning was standing on the second floor, right at the eastern edge of the triplex, the wall he agreed to build flush with his neighbours’ homes.
He squints and moves his hand as if over his front wall and theirs to show they are all in line.
“See,” he says. “It’s flush. As agreed.”
When completed, Denning said, the home’s exterior will be outfitted in the same red brick that covers so many homes in Kensington as well as industrial-looking windows that will fit, seamlessly, with the vibe in the area. Since neighbours reached out in September, Denning said, he has made changes to the triplex to preserve his neighbour’s privacy, but can no longer move the front of the home.
“I’m sorry,” he said, noting yet again that the triplex is being built according to the OMB decision.
“We’re not doing anything wrong,” he said. “We don’t think that what we’re building is controversial.”