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Q&A with Daniel Rotsztain: The Man Who Used Art to Protest Toronto’s Condo Boom

Posted By Volunteer Toronto, January 9, 2017
Updated: January 5, 2017

Daniel Rotsztain Fake Development Proposal

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes


At Volunteer Toronto, we love to hear about Torontonians getting involved in their communities and taking action on issues they feel passionately about.

In fall of 2016, two local artists took the city by surprise when they launched “Development Proposal”, an art project that placed fake development proposal signs by some of Toronto’s most well-known landmarks. Can you imagine a 40-storey condo on top of the CN Tower? Or Old City Hall being transformed into a 90-storey condo and parking garage?

We interviewed co-creator Daniel Rotsztain to find out more about the project and how it made a difference.


Hi Daniel, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Daniel Rotsztain

I call myself an Urban Geographer and that means I’m an artist, writer and mapmaker. I’m really in love with places and am interested in our relationship to places that we live in. I’m especially inspired by Toronto, which is where I grew up and I feel really passionate about this place and in love with all the energy that I see other Torontonians putting into the city. I write for the Globe and Mail and NOW Magazine, and I’m an illustrator.





What kind of volunteering or activism have you done in the past?

My volunteerism started near my home. I volunteered for the local Out of Cold program at the synagogue by my house. I also helped at the kitchen at the Good Shepherd centre on Queen and Parliament. In university, I got involved in a lot of food justice activism and helped at a Pay What You Can vegan kitchen. Activism-wise, I’ve gone to all the protests and I’m currently planning on going to Ottawa to support the Chippewwa of the Thames case against Line 9.


What did you hope would happen after you put the signs up?

I’m not against condos, but because I grew up here I’m so energized that everyone wants to move here. Condos represent a relatively affordable way to live in the city but that doesn’t mean that I can’t criticize the “unbalanced-ness” of it.

I wanted to spark a conversation about the development process in Toronto, about who is part of the conversation and who isn’t. I decided on the ideas of fake signs as I wanted to critique the signs themselves so the best way to do that was to use straight satire.  With art you are given the opportunity to explore ideas about the future in a way that you can’t with politics and journalism. I also like street art as a medium, it’s the most democratic form of art. It’s not in a gallery…it’s on the street and accessible to everyone.  So putting a physical sign at a busy intersection in downtown Toronto was an easy way to launch our website and get lots of people to see it!


Fake condo proposal for the CN Tower  Fake condo proposal for the Toronto Island Ferry 
Daniel Rotsztain and Mike Stulberg Fake Development Proposals


I often set mini goals [for my work] to contextualize my work and motivate me, and I really wanted to see a little article on the CBC Toronto’s website. The sign we put up at Old City Hall was up for three whole days. We put it up on Friday and it was gone on Monday, but during that time every major news source covered it. BlogTO, CTV, City TV, Global News, The Star, The Globe and Mail all covered it. Some of the television newscasts had these wild segments where they showed animations of the fake condos that I had proposed, literally coming out of these buildings. I was quite tickled at that.


Was there anything you learnt from the project?

There’s quite an informed and engaged community about urban issues in the city especially on Twitter, and from them I learned that the problem really is that the official plan of the city protects neighbourhoods with single-family homes. People in those neighbourhoods can reject even nice, small four-storey condos because the plan says that these neighbourhoods need to be protected.

So what’s happening is it’s in the neighbourhoods that don’t have a lot of people protecting their interests like Liberty Village and Yonge Street, where there weren’t a lot of people living before that are receiving all of this massive development. That’s the real problem, I think.


Why did you choose this rather unusual approach?

I believe in art being about communication, and a lot of these issues are complicated. I’m interested in expressing them in a way that will get people thinking about them in a different way or realize something that’s happening that they didn’t realize before.


What surprised you about your campaign?

I did this project with a collaborator – Mike Stulberg – and we thought we would get some attention, but the torrent of attention was unexpected. It taught us that this is an issue that people care about and it reminded me that Torontonians do indeed care about their city and the development proposal process. The official plan needs to reflect that more because right now they do these public meetings and a lot of people don’t show up.

Another thing is that a project is an opportunity to start a conversation so I walked in thinking I knew what the issues were but I left knowing much more. That was really humbling.


What tips would you give to other Torontonians who are interested in taking a stand on matters they believe in?

I would say that in the city there are a lot of engaged people and there are events almost every night that are discussing issues from inclusivity to affordability to design. Show up at those events. Also, don’t be shy if you don’t know everything about an issue but you want to be part of it. It’s okay to ask questions and engage people in conversation without all the answers. That’s how we learn and that’s how we can support our communities.


To someone who is new to city building and activism where would they find these events?

Good question. NOW Magazine has lots of listings, and Facebook is really your best friend. If you’re on Facebook, there’s this group called the Yonge Urbanists League and it has just over 3,000 members. Every day people are posting events on it and that’s my go to source right now. It’s a super supportive community.


What do you have planned next either for the campaign or other civic actions?

I still want to explore urban planning and how people are left out of the conversation and who gets to be part of the conversation. I’m exploring the idea of hosting a mock proposal meeting and what alternatives are possible to engagement. I don’t know what form that will take but I have some ideas. I don’t want to say too much as I may do it in secret again!


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Tags:  Activism  Activists  City of Toronto Development  Daniel Rotsztain  Fake Development Proposals  Toronto Fake Condo Proposals 

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