TORONTO – Pundits say they’re taken aback both by Margaret Atwood’s public opposition to a modest condo development planned for her upscale Toronto neighbourhood and the vehement social media backlash that followed it.
Atwood drew the ire of both Twitter users and certain local columnists when city reports revealed she had written a letter pushing back against an eight-storey, 16-unit condo building slated for construction near her home.
Atwood’s objections to the current proposal are muted compared with those voiced by others who spoke up, including her husband, Graeme Gibson, and grocery store magnate Galen Weston Jr.
They decried the proposed building as an “assault” on the neighbourhood known as the Annex and criticized its potential impact on privacy and community character, while Atwood largely confined her remarks to concerns about shared trees and urged consultation on the issue before approving the project.
All three came in for heavy criticism for their remarks, but Atwood was singled out as detractors assailed her perceived embrace of the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) philosophy that’s frowned upon in the progressive circles the celebrated author usually occupies.
Observers say the rush to condemn Atwood has eliminated much of the nuance from a necessary discussion on urban planning, but also say Atwood’s resistance to the plan is unfortunate and not in the best interests of the city.
Urban affairs columnist and blogger Matt Elliott said the situation struck a particular nerve in Toronto since the city is contending both with an increasing housing shortage and long-standing high prices for the properties that are available.
“I think there’s a really important point that needs to be made here about the knee-jerk opposition to development in neighbourhoods like the Annex and how unnecessary it is, especially when the city’s in a housing crisis,” Elliott said. “But absolutely this is magnified because of who’s involved. And sitting here now, it does feel like maybe there’s a bit of a pile-on going on.”
Much of the opposition to the proposed condo building came in letters local residents sent to the city clerk’s office in June.
Gibson said the plans as “hover close to a brutal and arrogant assault on a community that has been here since the 19th century.”
Weston and his wife acknowledged that urban development is “par for the course in downtown Toronto” and urged further consultations, but went onto decry the complex’s potential impact on noise, the local environment and the makeup of the neighbourhood.
Describing the building as too big and too close to surrounding homes, the Westons’ letter said it would “devalue all of the assets we currently love about living here.”
“(The neighbourhood) will no longer be the ideal place for our young family to grow up,” the letter reads.
Atwood’s submission, by contrast, raises concerns about privacy screens and potential damage to shared trees, citing past cases and city bylaws she deemed relevant.
When critics assailed her position on Twitter, she entered into lengthy conversations with many, expanding on her views.
Some of those conversations became contentious, but Atwood asserted she objected to the proposal on the ground that it would not address some of the city’s more pressing concerns.
A complex geared towards affluent families, she said, would make the neighbourhood less vibrant.
“Annex is diverse now. A millionaires-only development wld make it less so,” she wrote in a tweet. “Why not include some less expensive units instead of “glass gem?”
Atwood also offered an alternative proposal in another tweet.
“Let’s have multiple-family affordable housing +community centre in that space,” she wrote. “It’s right beside a rooming house. Why not one of those?”
Ryerson university housing markets and real estate professor Murtaza Haider said there are flaws in Atwood’s idea.
He said the developers of the condo project have put forward a building that is ideally adapted to the current conditions in the Annex neighbourhood, which is currently dominated by well-off families.
A 16-unit building, in which most condos would feature multiple bedrooms, is likely to attract the same demographic who could blend seamlessly with the existing community, he said.
Haider also said building affordable housing in an affluent area is easier said than done.
“Affordable housing is affordable not because it’s cheaper to construct, but because the land it’s built upon is cheaper,” Haider said. “Affordable housing would have never gone to the Annex, and what is being built is probably the right use of that land.”
Haider criticized those who levelled harsh words at Atwood, comparing the situation to when she was under attack from notorious Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his brother in 2012. The politicians took aim at Atwood when she emerged as a vocal champion of the city’s library system, which drew many to her side in solidarity.
Haider said the public is under no obligation to agree with Atwood’s position on the condo project, but urged civility in the discussion.
Elliott described some of Atwood’s language as “standard tools in the NIMBY toolbox,” but said she also did raise some valid concerns about protections for shared trees.
He added that he hoped the controversy could give way to some more productive conversation.