When the term first arose sometime in the 1980s or early 1990s, NIMBY—“Not In My Backyard”—signified opposition to the kind of noxious development that nobody would want to live with (i.e. prisons or landfills). Increasingly, though, NIMBY has taken on a more pejorative connotation, becoming a word that symbolizes selfish, irrational or arbitrary opposition to any development—even the sort that could benefit the community or city at large.
In most cities, it’s not hard to find cases of pure, unadulterated NIMBYism. In Montreal, Concordia University has long been planning to build a new high-rise business school on a vacant lot at one of downtown’s busiest intersections. Nearby townhouse owners complained that the building would be ugly, block their sunlight and be out of scale with the area. (One owner added that the lot should remain vacant because it was a nice place to walk his dog.) But the townhouses are only three stories tall—any new building would block their sunlight—and the new Concordia building will in fact be shorter than many of the high-rises already surrounding the area. The project’s opponents did not enjoy broad support in the neighbourhood—many of the residents are Concordia students who live in apartment towers, not owners of renovated townhouses.
Most of the time however, the line between honest community activism and self-interested NIMBYism is less clear-cut. Can NIMBYism actually be good for the city? It’s certainly a pertinent question in Toronto, where a debate is currently raging over the future of Saint Clair Avenue. Running east-west like a belt across the belly of the city, Saint Clair is at once the hopping main street of several neighbourhoods and a major transportation artery. The streetcar line that runs down the middle of the six-lane avenue carries more than 30,000 riders per day. In 2002, with the streetcar tracks in dire condition and needing to be replaced, the City of Toronto decided it should go one step further and install a streetcar-only right-of-way lane down the middle of the street. Different ROW visions were presented and debated during a lengthy environmental assessment, but the final version called for a two-lane right-of-way raised six inches above the rest of the street, with a lane of parking and a lane of moving traffic on each side. Left turns would be allowed only at marked intersections.
Almost from the beginning however, the plan met with strong opposition from some residents and business owners along the avenue. Margaret Smith leads that opposition. In 2002, she founded Save Our St. Clair (SOS), to fight the plan for a right-of-way. SOS’s struggle came to a head early this month when they won a court challenge that, while allowing for track replacement, prevents construction—for now—of the ROW. Reached over the phone, Smith pleads her case in a friendly but firm manner. “Many of us weren’t opposed at the beginning, but as we got into it and many of us raised our concerns and realized we weren’t being listened to, we got pretty upset,” she says. “It was clear that the [environmental assessment] was a ‘decide and defend’ process. The proposal [the city] had in 2002 was not substantially different from the proposal they had at the end of the environmental assessment.” Smith insists that the streetcar right-of-way will reduce parking, increase traffic congestion, hurt businesses, make the pedestrian environment unwelcoming and restrict emergency vehicle access. Sidewalks will be narrowed, eliminating restaurant patios and street trees. And the only benefit of the ROW for transit users, Smith adds, will be a mere one to two minutes shaved off their total transit time.
But many right-of-way proponents, including the bulk of Toronto’s media, have accused SOS of being anti-transit. A recent Toronto Star editorial lashed out at the group, dismissing it as “a small group of area residents and shopkeepers worried about loss of parking space and too little room on the road for cars.” Smith insists that isn’t the case. The proof, she says, is in SOS’s alternative vision of St. Clair, which she describes in detail: wider sidewalks, priority signals for streetcars at intersections, reserved lanes for streetcars during rush hour—restricted left turning, too—bike lanes and more streetcars per hour.
Joe Mihevc, Toronto’s transit commissioner, long-standing St. Clair city councillor and the ROW’s most ardent supporter, is critical of SOS’s alternative vision. “We examined that option during the environmental assessment and [it] simply will not work. It’s worse for cars—it will restrict them to one lane during rush hours—and it’s not good for public transit because, whether you like it or not, people will use the centre lane [when they’re not supposed to].”
He briskly addresses SOS’s concerns: emergency vehicles would be able to hop the ROW’s six-inch curb, he says, giving them an unrestricted path down the middle of the street. Sidewalks would be narrowed by a small amount only at signalized intersections, to accommodate left turn lanes, while mid-block sidewalks would retain their width. Street parking is already eliminated during rush hour, and any loss of parking caused by the ROW will be compensated by new off-street parking near the commercial strip. Finally, public art would be commissioned and the ROW would be lined by trees. All in all, an additional $30 million would be spent for “neighbourhood improvements” along with the $55 million already slated for right-of-way construction and track replacement.
Mihevc insists that SOS is blind to the bigger picture. The Saint Clair ROW is just one step in a plan to build a denser, more sustainable Toronto, he says. “Over the next generation, we’re expecting another half-million to a million people in Toronto. Where we’re going to put them is along transit-oriented arterial roads, [which] we’re looking to redevelop in order to minimize car use. On Saint Clair, there are a number of development applications in the pipe. The intensification is happening; you can feel the city pressure. The current traffic is only going to get worse unless we take the longer-term view to give people better alternatives.” In other words, the Saint Clair right-of-way is part of a much larger city-building project, one aimed to reduce car use and make for a greener metropolis.
When asked about SOS’s complaints that the city’s public consultation process was arrogant and opaque, Milhevc grows impatient. “When you can’t win on the content you attack the process,” he snaps, adding that the Saint Clair environmental assessment was the most extensive public consultation process in the history of Toronto, with more than fifty public hearings.
Both Smith and Milhevc claim a large majority of Saint Clair residents on their side but without any way to accurately measure neighbourhood opinion, it’s impossible to say for certain who’s right. SOS raises a perfectly valid point about the need for extensive and transparent public consultation when it comes to urban development; on the other hand, some of their criticisms against the proposed ROW are either inaccurate or needlessly alarmist.
Whether the controversy over the Saint Clair right-of-way is a case of NIMBIES railing against change or heroic community activists fighting for the survival of their neighbourhood is another matter altogether. It’s worth noting that Joe Milhevc has often been labelled a NIMBY himself—recently, he led a Saint Clair residents’ revolt against a proposed drive-through McDonald’s on the urban street. But labels like NIMBY only serve to poison the debate. As long as all parties agree that cities must be allowed to grow and evolve, there’s nothing to lose from thoughtfully considering all points of view.
Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve’s urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.