There was a good discussion on Twitter this morning about small-scale commercial uses in residential neighborhoods, like the coffee shop shown above on Shaw Street. In most residential neighborhoods in Toronto, this kind of commercial activity is not permitted if you were to try and initiate it today. The small convenience stores and bodegas that remain are often legal non-conforming uses. And while generally considered desirable in their current confirm, if you were to try and make a change, you could get caught in some municipal red tape where your grandfathered status suddenly no longer applies.
That is exactly what happened in the case of the above coffee shop and, from the discussions that happened on Twitter this morning, it is a problem that is not unique to Toronto. Alex Bozikovic wrote about this coffee shop and this project in the Globe and Mail over seven years ago. Getting it approved and built was no easy task. And my friend Jeremiah Shamess — who renovated a similar and formerly commercial corner building in the area — ran into the exact same challenges.
But let’s consider the other side of this argument for a minute. It’s easy to look at a great and well-designed neighborhood coffee shop like this one and say to yourself that it is obviously a desirable use and that we should be encouraging more of them in our residential neighborhoods. But what if it was a noisy late-night bar, a nail salon, or a massage parlor? Would your opinion change? Would it change if you were an immediate neighbor? It is perhaps easy to see why the fear of the things we don’t want has led us to sterilize our neighborhoods to the point where we no longer allow the things that we may in fact want.
And herein lies the immense frustration that many of us have with our land use policies. There are countless examples of obviously desirable uses and built forms that are exceedingly difficult to execute on because of the barriers that we ourselves have put in place. Whether it’s a cool neighborhood coffee shop or new affordable housing, there are far too many examples of these sorts of projects being stuck in some kind of planning ether — sometimes for decades. We say and know that we want these things, but then it is frequently the case that we can’t get out of the way so that they can actually happen.