Mr. Christie’s Bakery workers at centre of fight to keep industrial land from condo developers

The Mr. Christie's Bakery plant in south Etobicoke is due to shut down next year, laying off 550 people.
Peter J. Thompson/National PostThe Mr. Christie's Bakery plant in south Etobicoke is due to shut down next year, laying off 550 people.

Mr. Christie’s Bakery workers, facing a fight to save their jobs, used themselves as Exhibit A on Wednesday in a bigger battle to keep industrial land from being gobbled up by condo development.

The plant in south Etobicoke will shut down next year, laying off 550 people. Its owners want to rezone the lucrative real estate, local politicians say, and have floated the idea of turning it into 27 condos. It’s one of about 80-odd proposals to convert “employment lands” into some other use, in many cases residential, and is indicative of the kind of tension that exists in a city with a hot housing market that is also trying to maintain a diverse economic base.

Usually, a no from the city to change employment lands means no.

But it is “municipal comprehensive review” time, a once-every-five-year window that gives any property owner the power to appeal its land designation to the Ontario Municipal Board — and the flood gates have opened.

“It is a growing issue,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, “because the hot commodity from a market perspective is residential in the city… The problem is, if we blanket our city with condos, we don’t have anywhere to work.”

That, in turn has implications for congestion, she said, if people are forced to travel further to make a living. That’s where city policy comes in. A report before the planning and growth management committee outlines ways to promote growth in certain sectors, and protect lands.

It describes employment areas — which contain about 30% of all jobs in Toronto — as a “finite resource” and argues that most should be maintained.

“If council were to loosen the reins, so to speak, and make the policy framework more fluid, all hell would break loose,” said Ms. Keesmaat, adding that the city should keep a “really firm grip” on its employment lands.

“Christie’s isn’t a one-time phenomenon,” said Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade. She believes it’s time to take stock of land use policy. “Toronto has been somewhat unique. Residential and commercial and industrial and entertainment have all been in balance and worked well together. The concern is if it starts to go too much in any one direction, is that good or bad for the city?” The city report says that Toronto has enough lands designated “employment areas” to meet demand until 2031, “but we will run out of land in our Employment Areas for the permitted business functions between 2031 and 2041.”

Staff are rejecting a proposal to turn a tract of land on Sterling Road from employment to residential and commercial. The nearby Nestle factory has been opposed to the plan, according to local councillor Ana Bailao, but she said the parcel of land is in need of “regeneration” and she wants to bring jobs to the area. “I don’t think it’s fair to put it to the community, it’s jobs or condos. That’s not what we have in front of us. We’re not rezoning Nestle’s land, we’re not even rezoning all of that piece,” said Ms. Bailao, adding that many residents are in favour.

In the case of Christie’s, for years the company fought alongside the city against land conversions around its edges and lost at the Ontario Municipal Board. Now it’s surrounded by condos and condo construction. “Christie’s used to say, ‘sooner or later, you’re going to push us out’,” said Councillor Peter Milczyn, chair of the planning and growth committee, although he doubts that is the impetus for its decision. “I think they’re just making an economic decision, we’re sitting on a piece of land that’s now worth a fortune, let’s take our cash,” he said.

Stephanie Cass, a spokeswoman with Mondelez Canada, which owns the Christie’s plant, said the “business” decision was made because the operations are no longer “viable” and will not be affected by the city’s decision on the land. As a result, James Vicheff, 52, a baker who has worked at Christie’s for 29 years, says he is “screwed”.

“I’m going to lose my house,” he said. “Unfortunately when you’re thrown into something like this, like I said, it’s like somebody telling you you’ve got cancer and you’ve got 10 months to live.”

National Post