McMansion Wars: Inside the nasty neighbour-versus-neighbour feuds of Forest Hill
In the spring of 2009, 212 Vesta Drive—a four-bedroom 1930s Tudor on a 40-foot-wide lot—went up for sale. It was a pretty house with green trim that had been, in the words of the Forest Hill listing agent, “lovingly maintained with original charm and character.” The list price was $1.1 million, and cars full of eager bidders lined the street on offer night. There were 13 bids. Carmela Serebryany-Harris and Geoffrey Harris, a young couple with one child and another on the way, presented the winner at $1.25 million.
They said they loved the old house and planned to make some renovations, which Carmela’s father, Boris Serebryany, would oversee. Boris is the owner of Fiera Foods, a wholesale baking operation that supplies bagels and pastries to supermarkets—Loblaws, Safeway, Metro—and fast food chains like Tim Hortons. (The company claims to be the largest croissant baker in North America.) Boris had already built himself a house nearby, on Russell Hill Road at Hawarden, a dwelling so big that it took up almost the entirety of its corner lot.
In September 2009, Carmela obtained permission from the city to build an addition. A couple of months later, the house was gone. The neighbours were shocked. There had been no demolition permit. The owner of number 210, a woman who’d lived next door for more than 30 years, looked out her side window one day to see concrete footings about a half-metre from her lot line.
The house was far from the first teardown in the area, but it became a catalyst for neighbours unhappy about the size and style of the replacement homes. They created an informal residents’ association to fight some of the new builds. While east Forest Hill (the dividing line being Spadina) had had a rate-payers’ group for years, west Forest Hill had gone largely unrepresented. Individual homeowners went to the city’s committee of adjustment—whose job is essentially to balance the rights of property owners against the concerns of neighbours—to oppose certain variance applications, but their efforts were mostly futile. Each new and bigger home became a precedent for the next, and by 2010, applicants could point to several massive houses on each block that constituted a new normal.
Carmela and her husband, perhaps sensing the growing opposition, began canvassing the neighbours, knocking on doors armed with pastries or challah and an apology for not having explained their plans sooner. Boris, a gregarious Russian with a head of snow white hair, was often out on the street chatting with neighbours. But the charm offensive was short-lived.
As with most of the new builds at the time, the main point of contention was density—the gross floor area of the house relative to the size of the lot. On June 23, 2010, Carmela’s lawyer went before the committee of adjustment seeking permission to increase 212’s density from the allowable 60 per cent to 89 per cent. According to Carmela, Robert Brown, a member of the committee, seemed not only familiar with 212 Vesta but aggressively opposed to the application (a claim Brown denies). Brown tabled a motion to reject it, and the rest of the panel agreed. Carmela appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, the quasi-judicial tribunal that is the final arbiter of property disputes in Ontario.
Meanwhile, the west Forest Hill residents’ association had grown to nearly a hundred people, and they met by the dozens to discuss new builds and opposition strategies, with special attention paid to the Serebryany-Harris house, which continued to go up despite not having the proper approvals. In July, the building department issued an order to comply, citing alterations to the house that had not been in the drawings submitted to the city. At one point, neighbours observed workers installing heating coils under the driveway. They dug up the sidewalk too, installing coils under the city-owned property. Once finished, the cement sat lower than it had before, creating a slight valley and, oddly, a stretch where the snow always melts. A neighbour contacted her councillor, who sent an inspector to check it out, but nothing was done.
On August 31, 2010, Boris Serebryany was at the property when he saw Robert Brown, the committee of adjustment member, on the road taking pictures of the house. Boris, who says he didn’t immediately recognize Brown, asked him who he was and why he was taking pictures. Brown noted that the house was being built despite having what he understood to be a stop work order against it. Boris claims that after a brief, heated exchange, Brown told him to “go fuck himself” before getting in his car and speeding away. Boris went after him and found Brown photographing another house on a nearby street. He approached him again, asking why he was taking pictures and had spoken in such a rude manner. It was at this point that Boris recognized Brown from the committee of adjustment. When he said as much, Boris claims that Brown responded, “We put a stop work order on your house. The city is supposed to enforce it, and you’re not supposed to do anything on this house. You’re fucking building the house without authorization.” (Brown agrees that there was a verbal exchange but does not admit that he used the language Boris alleges, nor that he was acting as a member of the committee of adjustment at the time.) According to Boris, Brown issued more threats, then snapped a picture of Boris’s car, jumped in his own and took off.
Then things got even more complicated. On October 6, Carmela appeared before another committee of adjustment panel (one that didn’t include Brown), again seeking variances, including the one for density. This time the application was approved. The city appealed to the OMB, and both cases were heard over several days that December. Seven neighbours participated in the hearing. One couple complained that 212 was one of the largest homes on one of the smallest lots in the area. Others described it as “a fortress” whose size was out of proportion with the rest of the neighbourhood. By then, however, the house was already built, making the hearing an exercise in frustration and futility. Mary Spring, who lived at 216 Vesta, asked, “How could the city let this happen?”
The answer is, as the OMB noted, it didn’t. Carmela and her husband had simply done as they’d pleased. In one baffling exchange, the expert planner they’d hired in support of their case noted under cross-examination that, while the new dwelling was indeed tall, it had been the owner’s responsibility to ensure the house was built in accordance with the drawings.
In its January 2011 decision, the OMB dismissed Carmela’s appeal, saying that the house “neither respects nor reinforces the established character of the existing neighbourhood.” They noted that while the expert planner had denied the dwelling was “a McMansion,” it appeared that way to the neighbours. Technically, the OMB can order a non-compliant homeowner to tear their house down, but they seldom do. The stakes are too high, the issues too thorny. In late 2011, Carmela again appealed to the OMB, and in March 2012, a different tribunal retroactively approved the house.
The story of 212 Vesta, while strange and convoluted, is but one of hundreds of tear-down-and-rebuild sagas happening throughout the city. The pace and prevalence are most extreme in Forest Hill due to its green leafy streets, large lots and proximity to downtown. While the practice of tearing down old housing stock is to be expected—the average life-span of a Toronto house being roughly 70 years—what replaces it can be highly contentious. And when everyone involved has both time and money to spare, the fights can be epic.
Densification—packing more people into tighter spaces—is the biggest buzzword in urban planning today. The trend is not only necessary to accommodate growing urban populations, but it’s more economical, environmentally sustainable and, to a growing number of urban dwellers, desirable (among global aesthetes, there’s a trend toward smaller, more meaningfully designed spaces). In downtown Toronto, laneway houses are all the rage, townhouse construction is on the rise and the average new condo size is now 797 square feet. One of the by-products of densification, of course, is less outdoor space, and Torontonians are continually finding new and creative ways to maximize their limited landscape—designing parks under off-ramps and sharing green roofs atop condo towers.
Neighbourhoods like Forest Hill and Lawrence Park, on the other hand, are undergoing an opposite evolution: building taller, wider, longer houses that maximize interior space at the expense of the land around them—a trend you might call the SUVification of personal space. Maximal living is fuelled by the conviction that the best way to preserve the value of pricy lots is through more square footage—that, and the imperative to have it all. In vogue are multi-car garages, elevators (more common than you think); combined kitchen–family rooms; combined family–living rooms (a.k.a. great rooms); his and hers (or hers and hers, or his and his) home offices; nanny suites; home gyms and spas (sometimes on the roof); basement recording studios and wine cellars. Basement theatres are becoming passé (why would you go sit in the basement when you can watch a movie on your 90-inch screen in the family room), as are libraries, since nobody reads actual books anymore. And backyards are quickly disappearing.
The tear-down-and-rebuild craze has given rise to a whole new style of architecture called Transitional. Houses in this style are appearing all over the city, and are especially common in Forest Hill, Don Mills and Lawrence Park. They have a neo-traditional exterior—Tudor, say, or French provincial, but usually stone either way—combined with a modern interior (10-foot ceilings, wide doorways, open concept, and so on). The idea is that the exterior will fit in with its older neighbours, which doesn’t always pan out. The good ones have a clearly discernible style, good proportions and traditional detailing; the bad ones are a mash-up of styles with disproportionate features and poor craftsmanship. When several bad ones pop up on the same street, it starts to look like a subdivision on steroids.
So who are all these people who can afford to buy a $2-million-plus house, tear it down, and then spend another $3-million-plus-plus-plus building a new one? Double-income professionals? Hedge fund managers? Rich foreigners? The progeny of wealthy boomers? They are all of the above, and they’re now the main drivers of our unstoppable real estate market. While year-over-year sales of detached houses were up 10.6 per cent in Toronto in 2014, the upper stratum (in the $1-million to 4-million range) increased by a whopping 38 per cent.
But it’s not just wealthy homeowners erecting their dream houses. Today’s market is increasingly dominated by professional builders looking to flip. In Forest Hill, a cozy ecosystem has emerged wherein local real estate agents will notify builders about a property before it’s listed so the builder can submit a bully offer. Once the old house is torn down and a new one is in its place, the realtor gets the listing all over again.
For years, the biggest name in Forest Hill rebuilds was Gordon Ridgely, a temperamental perfectionist who specialized in neo-traditional Georgian architecture. Ridgely died a year and a half ago, but his houses are all over east Forest Hill. The neighbourhood’s ongoing building boom has been good business for a number of other well-known architects, whose signs can be seen plastered on the ubiquitous construction hoarding. Dee Dee Taylor Eustace, a principal at Taylor Hannah Architects, once worked for Ridgely, and she’s done a couple of dozen high-end homes (mostly renovations, but some new) in the area. Joe Brennan is a builder-designer known for his refined (and repeat) work for clients like the Rogerses, Eatons and, in Rosedale, Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman. Wayne Swadron crafts large-scale neo-traditional homes in east Forest Hill.
Lorne Rose is one of the leaders of the Transitional style. He’s 50 years old, with curly hair, a reddish complexion and an unflappable manner. Rose has been working in the area for 20 years and is in the process of building an office in the village. He and Richard Wengle, a 55-year-old architect also known for the Transitional style, have between them designed roughly 100 residences in Forest Hill. Their ubiquity has made “Rose” and “Wengle” dirty words in the minds of old-guard, development-averse Forest Hillers. It doesn’t help that their designs are being replicated, often in cheaper knock-off versions, by builders eager to get in on the action.
As everybody knows, an architect is only as good as his or her clients, and in residential architecture, what the client wants, the client gets. A big part of Rose’s job is mediation—assuaging the concerns of irate neighbours while trying to reason with obdurate clients. Sometimes he even invites people into his home to try and work things out, as he did one night in December, when he hosted 10 angry neighbours for several hours in his Lytton Park living room.
Concessions don’t always come easily. “A lot of clients have a long wish list, and we do our best to get all of their criteria in,” he says. “Sometimes they push me harder than I prefer to go—for more density, more height, more house—and they’re my clients, so I have to fight on their behalf. I don’t care if you have a 40-foot lot or a 120-foot lot. You’re going to have to compromise.”
The Toronto–East York committee of adjustment receives a yearly average of 885 variance applications—which is essentially a request to break a rule—and 12 per cent of their decisions get appealed to the OMB. The committee meets twice a month at city hall, where they will spend the day hearing from a long list of applicants and any neighbours on hand to contest the requested variances. (At a recent meeting, when Rose took to the podium, the chair said, “Well, there’s a familiar face.”) The committee prefers that the parties work their differences out themselves. To that end, before each meeting the chair will ask if there are any opponents in the room, then send the parties out into the hallway to negotiate. If a compromise isn’t reached, the committee will make their decision, and the losing party then has the option to appeal to the OMB. At $125, appeals are all too common, and disputes cost the city millions in legal and planning fees every year, a financial burden borne by taxpayers.
Often an opposing party will settle with a developer who promises to redo their driveway or build them a new fence or pay for landscaping. Sometimes a neighbour will offer co-operation if the builder buys their house too (at a premium, of course). And sometimes an angry neighbour will yell and threaten to punch the builder in the face, as once happened to Rose outside a committee of adjustment hearing. Some neighbours just want to make the process as difficult as possible for the builders by delaying the project and running up carrying costs and legal fees. They know they’ll probably lose, but at least they can land a few kicks.
For years, the most famous opponent in east Forest Hill was Brian Maguire, a resident of Dunvegan Road who grew up in the neighbourhood and eventually became the head of the Forest Hill Homeowners’ Association, a position he still holds. For a time, he appeared so regularly at the committee of adjustment that people began to think he worked there. I tried multiple times to reach Maguire, and when I finally did, he was reluctant to speak. I later found out that he’d recently moved out of the city, having sold his Forest Hill house to a developer.
Driving the winding streets of Forest Hill—Burton and Glenayr in the west, Dunvegan and Russell Hill in the east—is like navigating an obstacle course. During the day, roads are jammed with cement trucks, backhoes and bulldozers, perpetually forcing cars to the side of the road to allow oncoming traffic to pass. A near-constant echo of saws and hammers bounces off the houses. Around noon, a lunch truck circulates through the streets, blaring its horn outside the various sites, calling workers out for a sandwich and a coffee.
This is probably what it was like in the 1920s, when much of the neighbourhood was built. Forest Hill didn’t officially join Toronto until 1967. Before that it was a village, and before that it was one of Toronto’s first suburbs. Members of the Baldwin family, who’d moved from Ireland in the great nepotistic land grab spearheaded by John Graves Simcoe, originally settled the area during the 1830s. Toward the latter part of the century, the land was sub-divided, and Torontonians seeking a bucolic refuge from the smoke and grime of the rapidly growing city to the south began building homes there. The area was then called Spadina Heights, and it included everything north of the Davenport escarpment. Unlike Rosedale, Parkdale and the Annex, early suburbs that were swallowed up by Toronto around the turn of the century, Spadina Heights remained a separate entity, and the northern section (bordered by St. Clair, Bathurst, Eglinton and Avenue Road) was incorporated as a village in 1923. It was named Forest Hill, after the summer residence of one of the area’s settlers.
The neighbourhood quickly became unabashedly upscale, a place of exacting standards. In the ’30s, the village council imposed strict zoning bylaws, one of which was that all new homes had to be designed by an architect. Drawings were submitted to the works department, and if they weren’t up to snuff they were passed to a board of architects who could either alter the plans or create altogether new ones. The result was a tightly controlled community with an unusually high proportion of architect-designed houses—mostly Tudor, Georgian, French colonial and old English. (Even the façade of a hydro substation on Spadina was modelled after a two-storey Georgian house.) Houses were solidly built and designed for the times: grand living rooms (usually long and low-ceilinged) for entertaining; multiple bedrooms to accommodate large families; relatively small kitchens tucked away in the back (kitchens being largely the domain of staff). Local bylaws prohibited any Forest Hill house from occupying more than 35 per cent of a lot, and the area became known for its large, well-manicured, heavily treed gardens—the “forest” in Forest Hill.
The goal was to build a model municipality, one with a superlative school system, a high level of community involvement and zero discrimination—which partly explains the migration of wealthy Jews up Bathurst Street. By 1961, nearly half the residents of Forest Hill were Jewish, and the population remains high today. Councillor Joe Mihevc observes that a good number of the new homeowners in west Forest Hill are the children of Jewish baby boomers who moved north along Bathurst to Thornhill, and the kids are now drifting back downtown and building Thornhill-sized houses on Forest Hill–sized lots.
After Forest Hill joined the city, the architectural guidelines fell by the wayside, and, apart from the odd historically designated house, there has been no concerted effort to preserve the old homes. Some architects and builders insist that many of them aren’t worth saving. People who tear them down argue that they’re inefficient and costly to maintain. Renovating them to meet today’s living standards can be just as pricy as tearing them down and starting anew.
The teardown craze in Forest Hill began roughly around the time that North and South Rosedale became Heritage Conservation Districts. These designations came about due to protectionist residents committed to defending the neighbourhood’s “clearly discernible character as a picturesque suburb with varied architectural styles” (as stated in the group’s heritage guidelines). It’s now next to impossible to build a new house in Rosedale, unless you’re willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars at the OMB. Real estate agents and builders actively discourage their clients from buying there. As a result, anyone looking to build a new home in a wealthy neighbourhood close to downtown heads west. Over the past decade, 171 new homes have been built in Forest Hill; in Rosedale, 38. One high-end Toronto builder tells me Rosedale’s historical designations have backfired, particularly in North Rosedale. “The guidelines aren’t creating better streetscapes. They’re saving a lot of houses that aren’t worth saving.”
Why doesn’t Forest Hill have a similar preservation policy? For one, blanket historical designations are hard to come by. They’re also controversial, since anytime a new house is proposed, the taste police are called to the scene. Few of the Forest Hill residents I spoke with seemed interested in such a drastic measure. As one of them put it, “I don’t believe I have the right to tell someone what they can and can’t build, just because my taste is different from theirs.” She quickly adds, “But really, how much uglier can it get?”
Welcome to Mordor,” says one well-turned-out resident, a black-clad 60-something woman with dark-rimmed glasses who greets me in the foyer of her elegant home in east Forest Hill. Her adult son nicknamed their neighbourhood after the darkest part of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional world, and she now uses the term with only a hint of sarcasm. She’s surrounded by construction: there are two builds underway on her street and two were recently completed. One of her neighbours tore down two houses and built a massive new home buffered by a large side garden. The side yard trend—residents buy a neighbouring house, tear it down and convert the property into a yard—is prominent in Forest Hill. One of its originators was the former head of McDonald’s Canada, George Cohon, on Forest Hill Road. His neighbour Ira Gluskin did the same thing. So did the late Joe Rotman a few houses down, and the list goes on. A friend of mine calls this “vibe insurance.” If you want to continue to enjoy the good vibes of your multimillion-dollar mansion, you’d best protect it, lest someone come along and build a monster home next door.
That’s precisely what happened to Beverly Creed, who has lived in her 4,500-square-foot, 115-year-old Arts and Crafts–style home on Heath for nearly 35 years. She and her husband, Jack, who runs the dry-cleaning company Creeds, raised four kids there. When she heard that a new house was being proposed next door, at the corner of Heath and Forest Hill Road, she didn’t pay much attention. Then construction started. “It’s not like renovating, where the noise is inside,” says Creed. “It’s outside. And the dust is flying everywhere. We only get a few months of nice weather in this city, and we can’t go out and enjoy our gardens?” At one point the neighbour was digging down beside an old tree in order to put in a cement barrier wall to protect it from his new in-ground pool, and the drilling lasted for two days, shaking the foundations of her house. “There was no warning, no apology afterward—zero consideration,” Creed says.
While her predicament isn’t likely to draw much sympathy from downtowners packed into condos like sardines, by Forest Hill standards, Creed’s case was extreme: the resulting house next door is known in Forest Hill as Mini-Versailles—an ornamental extravaganza of columns and cornices and wrought iron detailing. The architect was Richard Wengle, and the design was apparently modelled after a house the owners saw in New York. It’s not uncommon for clients to gather pictures of a house they’ve seen abroad, or even on their own block, and ask their architect to replicate it. Sometimes the process can go awry, as evidenced by houses that are a patchwork of styles. As one Forest Hiller observed with barely hidden disdain: “These are people who flip through design magazines and pick out everything they like, then ask someone to pull it all together, and that’s what’s built.”
The mother of all teardowns was the Ardwold estate, the 50-room mansion built by Sir John Craig Eaton in 1911. At the time, the hill above Davenport, with its expansive views down to the water, was a premier location for the Toronto elite. Henry Pellatt built Casa Loma, the most pretentious house in the country, around the same time, and the Nordheimer and Austin estates (Glen Edyth and Spadina House respectively) were right nearby. But the impressive Georgian that was Ardwold would only stand for about 25 years. After her husband died in 1922, Lady Eaton moved to her country estate in King City, and Ardwold was eventually demolished. The house was so big and so solidly constructed that it had to be blown up.
The Eaton land was subdivided, and, through the ’40s and ’50s, a collection of smaller homes were built on it. Now known as Ardwold Gate, it remains a coveted address, home to a disproportionate number of well-known Torontonians, including the former finance minister Michael Wilson and the clothing magnate Joe Mimran. It’s also been a construction zone for most of the last decade, as its residents take turns one-upping each other in new builds.
First, Mimran hired Gordon Ridgely to extensively renovate a Regency-style house at the south end of the street overlooking the city. Then came Jeffry Roick, the successful event planner who, rather fittingly, moved onto the street after having brought the Eatons’ Carlu back to life. Then Lawrence Bloomberg, the legendary Bay Street financier who started First Marathon. Bloomberg, a lover of modern art and architecture, tore down 70 Ardwold Gate and proceeded to build a Hariri Pontarini–designed modern home, rumoured to have cost close to $25 million. (Bloomberg recently took out vibe insurance and bought the house next door, expanding his yard.)
The neighbours took Bloomberg to the OMB and lost. (One complained that allowing him to build so close to the street would give him an unfairly advantageous view of the parkette in the middle of the street.) No sooner was Bloomberg’s house completed than the private equity titan Newton Glassman tore down the late St. Clair Balfour’s International-style house (next to Mimran’s) in order to build a modern take on a Château Loire mansion. The house, which dominates the south end of Ardwold, has been under construction for two years and requires so much power that the city had to tear up the road in order to bring in extra hydro lines. The end of the road is constantly jammed with contracting trucks, which have little room to move or turn around. A real estate agent tells me he watched one irate neighbour, a man in his 70s, run screaming from his house after one too many trucks had driven up on his lawn. He picked up one of the parking cones meant to mark his driveway and began whacking it against the truck. Now neighbours are bracing themselves for the next teardown: Patrick Dovigi, the CEO of Green for Life, the waste management company that landed the lucrative city contract, has bought the house next to Glassman’s and will soon begin building his own home.
Councillor Mihevc says that a good deal of his time is spent dealing with issues around home development in his ward. “Obviously the city has no opinion on people knocking down homes and building new ones,” he says. “It’s part of the neighbourhood revitalization process. The issue is: how big is big enough?” In 2012, the city passed a bylaw designed specifically for his ward, one that acknowledges the new reality of bigger houses but tries to cap them. Ward 21 now allows coverage of up to 65 per cent, and the committee of adjustment will consider variance applications up to 79 per cent. Anything over that, however, is almost always rejected. That doesn’t mean builders won’t continue to test the limits. Mihevc says the term most favoured by architects pushing for more coverage is “this is an iconic home on a unique lot.” “When I see those words, I want to vomit,” he says.
Over on the west side of Forest Hill, the residents’ association has dissolved, and most of the neighbours I spoke with are resigned to the new reality. It wasn’t all for naught, though, says one: their efforts helped mitigate the size of a couple of dozen houses. Another resident tells me there’s concern over a new build on Dunvegan. It’s registered to a numbered company whose corporate director is general counsel at Fiera Foods, Boris Serebryany’s croissant company. The city refused the proposed front yard setback, and the company appealed. The two parties settled in late 2013.
Meanwhile, back on Vesta, Carmela Serebryany-Harris and her neighbours maintain an uneasy peace. Carmela declined to talk to me about the protracted battle, saying only that the experience was extremely painful and she didn’t want to open old wounds. She said, however, that the ad-hoc approvals in the committee of adjustment process push neighbours into an adversarial relationship. “If there was a particular ideology that was consistently applied to every new house under construction, that would be one thing,” she says. “But there’s no consistency. I’m a live-and-let-live type of person, and it was not a great process we went through. It affected us deeply.” After losing their first OMB appeal, Carmela and Boris Serebryany launched a $400,000 lawsuit against the city and Robert Brown, the committee of adjustment member, over Brown’s “aggressive” and “unjudicial” behaviour, and what they allege to be his inappropriate interference in their variance applications. Once the Serebryanys finally won at the OMB, they upped their civil claim by another $400,000 to cover the cost of their appeals. The matter is currently before the courts.
As the story of 212 Vesta demonstrates, homeowners and the city will go to great lengths to argue what exactly constitutes “desirable” development in a given neighbourhood. And the bloodthirsty battles between neighbours at the OMB may become even more pitched: the latest building permit data in Forest Hill shows that 2012 and 2013 had the highest number of new home builds in the last decade. If the trend continues, expect chilly neighbourly relations for the foreseeable future. New homeowners should rest comfortably, however, safely ensconced in their fortresses.