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Jen Keesmaat’s Big Idea

Let developers build what we want them to build, and help them do it faster.

Photo by {a href=""}DdotG{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

If you’ve been paying attention to the battles over urban planning in Toronto over the last year, you may have noticed a slight shift in the debate: while tensions over sky-high towers continue unabated, some of the most notable fights in neighbourhoods around the city are over the more modest “mid-rise” developments—ones in the 5-10 storey range—that have, until now, made up a smaller share of development.

Toronto’s still-relatively-new chief planner, Jen Keesmaat, would like to change that. Keesmaat told reporters last week that she wants to see the City change zoning regulations to automatically allow mid-rise development along Toronto’s “avenues”—a specific list of designated arterial roads, like St. Clair and Danforth, which form the spines of residential neighbourhoods but themselves are already somewhat built up. The goal is to accommodate Toronto’s growing population by increasing density while maintaining more moderately scaled neighbourhoods, distributing some development across several main streets rather than concentrating it only clusters of giant towers. Avenues, in particular, are generally streets that already have infrastructure (most notably, transit), which is what makes them good candidates for this scaled growth.

Officially, this has been one of Toronto’s planning goals for quite some time. One key problem: the City’s own zoning rules don’t currently support that vision.

The problem is a conflict between two key documents: our Official Plan (a big-picture vision, in which a municipality sets out its planning direction and a strategy for managing future growth) and our zoning bylaw, which lay out the specific rules about what a developer is allowed to build at any given location. Paul Bedford, one of Toronto’s former chief planners, distinguishes between zoning and the Official Plan simply: “the Plan is about vision, the zoning bylaw is about precision.”

Zoning determines everything about a building, from the uses it can be put to (residential, commercial, etc.) to its physical shape: its height, how much of the lot can be occupied, how much parking it needs and where on the parcel of land that parking goes, and so on. Despite the vision articulated in the Official Plan—which explicitly calls for growth along the avenues—most of the city, including large portions of those avenues, isn’t currently zoned for mid-rise buildings.

Eglinton Avenue—one of the targets for increased density in Toronto. Photo by {a href=""}Tom Podolec{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Because obtaining a zoning amendment for large changes is arduous (as opposed to an easier-to-obtain variance, for smaller matters), it effectively tilts the playing field towards big developers: the ones asking not just for small changes in height or use but for substantial ones, ones that they think will maximize the profit (including covering the trouble of going through this amendment process in the first place).

This is what Keesmaat is hoping, specifically, to change. The idea is to get to the point where mid-rise construction wouldn’t need to go through the time-consuming zoning application process at all, enabling a developer who wanted to build mid-rise on an avenue to simply apply for a building permit and go, able to construct mid-rise “as of right” (i.e. without needing special permission). “We would essentially take out a whole layer in the process, which is quite time consuming, and for developers quite costly,” Keesmaat told us last week, when we asked for more details about her plan.

This doesn’t mean developers will necessarily build mid-rise (they can always try to ask council for a amendment to build a high rise), but streamlining the bureaucratic process for mid-rise construction is one way of encouraging developers to build the more modest forms. Some avenues have already been “up-zoned,” and Keesmaat would like to see the process streamlined further.

Bedford was Toronto’s chief planner in 2002, and helped write the Official Plan that formally committed the city to development along the avenues. “I totally support what Jen is aiming for,” he told us. “We have to accept the reality that Toronto is growing, and that’s a good thing.”

But wait. If the City’s Official Plan was adopted in 2002, why are we still talking about this in 2012? Why weren’t Toronto’s zoning by-laws synchronized with the Official Plan years ago?

Bedford, speaking with the candor that a former civil servant is allowed (but gets a current one in trouble), says there are a number of reasons why councillors aren’t eager to allow developers more zoning freedoms.

“Councillors love to have the ability to get public benefits out of Section 37 through the rezoning process,” says Bedford, and proactively up-zoning gives away that opportunity. “Also, councillors are key in the rezoning process. They’re kings and queens in that process. And I think they like that.”

Photo by {a href=""}Lychee_Aloe{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Keesmaat stresses that if this new process is implemented, residents won’t be cut out of the consultation process entirely. Rather, instead of piecemeal consultations for each individual development—which is what happens now, and how we end up in so many battles about individual building proposals—City staff, councillors, and the community would engage in a consultation process for an entire avenue at once.

Avenue studies aren’t new to Toronto, but this larger-scale approach is something we’re still exploring. The City began conducting one for Eglinton Avenue in 2011: it’s designed to help plan and manage the changes along the forthcoming LRT route. An examination of 20 kilometres along that transit line, the scale of this study is unprecedented in Toronto. It’s this Eglinton study, and the wide-angle lens it brings to city planning, that Keesmaat wants to emulate in other parts of Toronto.

Keesmaat hopes that the corridor-wide Avenue Study process will defuse some of the local antagonism to developers. “I think it’s better for consultation to happen in the context of the study, because you get less parochial interests then with a specific application.”

Mid-rise developers are, predictably, excited about the possibility of a shorter, less onerous process. Shane Fenton, vice-president at Reserve Properties (developer of 109OZ, among other buildings), says the current process actually causes more disruption than a more permissive one would.

“Someone who wants to build six storeys has to go through the same process as someone who wants to build 30,” says Fenton. “A lot of developers look at that and think, ‘why is it worth my time and money’?” Fenton estimates that it takes anywhere from one to two years to get approval for a mid-rise project, and that’s assuming that there aren’t any major disruptions: Reserve’s development at 1960 Queen Street East had its first application filed in April of 2011, was unanimously approved by Toronto-East York Community Council in May of 2012, and will now go to the Ontario Municipal Board on February 5, 2013. (Queen Street East is now the subject of a Visioning Study, a less robust form of examination than an Avenue Study, in part because of the community reaction to Reserve’s and other development proposals.)

There are other obstacles to mid-rise development: there are a limited number of “soft sites,” as Bedford calls them—places that are particularly well-suited to this form of development. While he was still working for the City he and planning department staff estimated that there is room for 120,000 units along our avenues.

Fenton adds that mid-rise buildings, while less disruptive to neighbourhoods than monolithic towers, do come at a premium: units in these buildings are more expensive on a per-square-foot basis, mostly because smaller developers can’t capture the economies of scale that large towers can.

But with planners inside the City and out warning that the earliest, easiest sites for tower development have all been filled, the question may no longer be whether mid-rise is preferable to towers, but whether it’s preferable to nothing at all.

CORRECTION: 4:24 PM As pointed out by a reader, we originally conflated some terminology (regarding zoning variances and amendments) in this article, which we have since corrected.


  • silver

    I think Jennifer Keesmaat is going to do great things for this city!

    • Paul Lloyd Johnson

      Jennifer Keesmaat for Mayor!

  • Laura

    Please be careful with the distinction between a minor variance to the zoning by-law and a zoning by-law amendment. A variance is a far less arduous undertaking (and far less costly – in the 100 of dollars range vs the tens of thousands for an amendment) requiring a trip to the Committee of Adjustment whereas a zoning by-law amendment must be approved by Council.

    • TorontoistEditors

      Entirely right. We’ve issued a correction and cleaned up the terminology – thanks for calling our attention to this.

  • Sal Morejo

    Ya sure, and Council back in the 1990′s killed Main Streets because the right wing of Council (read, the 2013 equivalent, suburban councillors) were not interested in dealing with medium sized development because of ratepayer opposition about set backs, shadow, garbage collection, loading zones for the commercial ground floor, and noise. Jenn is on the right foot but the Department and especially the Council will not facilitate it. Let our fabulous low rise neighbourhoods slide into the abyss of anachronism without the interfering inevitability of the intensification, no matter how modest it may be.

  • Canadianskeezix

    “…mid-rise buildings, while less disruptive to neighbourhoods than monolithic towers…”

    That’s certainly an unfounded over-generalization. A badly-designed mid-rise building could easily produce far more adverse impacts than a tall building. Depending on the context, a slim tower may be preferable to a bulky mid-rise. Tall buildings have their place, and there are certainly many places where they should not be located, but there is no planning principle that says more height is automatically more disruptive. All too often planning in Toronto is focused too much on height, to the detriment of other important planning considerations. We end up with crap buildings too many times in this City because we fixate on height and ignore everything else.

  • SonjaRuth

    It would be useful to add per sq meter employment requirement on retail properties to prevent the kind of large footprint, minimal employment that neighbourhoods get from the likes of Shoppers Drugs – one story suburban style – retail.

    • Canadianskeezix

      There are limits on what a municipality can accomplish under the Planning Act. While the City can regulate the type of uses that are permitted on a site (e.g. retail store of a certain size, a single-detached residential house, etc.), the courts have tended to slap down attempts by municipalities to use their planning power to regulate how such uses operate (e.g. employment rules, who can live in the house, etc.). I’m not even sure that the City’s powers under the City of Toronto Act would enable it to tell Shoppers Drug Mart (just to keep using the example you mentioned) how to staff its store.

      • tomwest

        However, they can still limit average and/or maximum unit size for retail. Smaller stores tend to employ more people per sq meter anyway.

        • Canadianskeezix

          Well, yes, which is precisely what I said above (well the part about controlling size). Municipalities prescribe store sizes, both maximums and minimums, all the time. Usually it is linked to an actual planning rationale (e.g. big box centre
          limited to larger format stores to avoid stealing tenants from
          downtown/nearby mall, smaller stores to limit parking/traffic impacts, etc.). But if they did so solely to try and control staffing levels, with no other planning rationale, I would imagine the OMB would toss it out pretty quickly.

          And there are plenty of examples of buildings where a municipality has limited the size of stores, and it has not resulted in more or better jobs, as the result has been marginal retail tenants.

          There are sometimes very good reasons to control the size of retail floorplates, but micromanaging the businesses of particular tenants is not one of them.

  • fouronesix

    I’d like to add that the Eglinton Planning Study has its own dedicated website:

  • Jessica Wilson

    In general, this is one of the best—most nuanced and most accurate—articles I’ve read on the topic of mid-rise development in Toronto, and as prez of the OCA (fighting the overly large mid-rise that the Fentons are trying to install on Ossington—see for a taste of the disproportion here) I’ve read ‘em all.

    As McGrath notes, Keesmaat’s plan aims to efficiently implement the Official Plan’s call for mid-rise intensification on the designated Avenues (listed on Map 2 of the OP)—broad, long, transit thoroughfares with the width and potential for growth to sustain larger buildings. What often gets lost in the discussion of this issue is that this plan doesn’t apply to Ossington, for Ossington is not a designated Avenue; among other things it is 8ft below the minimum width for a designated Avenue.

    This is important. The OP (and hopefully Keesmaat) wisely direct intensification to occur on streets that are wide enough to handle it. The large opposition to installing a 21.5m (26.5m, with mechanical “penthouse”) building on 17.5m Ossington is of a piece with the OP’s sensitivity to intensifying only in areas that can handle the impact without inducing destabilizing negative impact on residences, infrastructure, business, traffic, culture, and the like.

    I only wish that McGrath had not given so much airtime to Shane Fenton, since there is again potential for readers to incorrectly assume that in resisting 109OZ, members of the Ossington community are resisting the plan endorsed by Keesmaat and the OP—again, we aren’t; the issues here are entirely separate. Oh, and speaking of 109OZ, did you know that the Fentons bypassed dealing with City Planning, Community Council, and the Community and skipped directly to an appeal at the OMB only 5 months after completing their application? Nice.

  • Jessica Wilson

    This is one of the best—most nuanced and accurate—articles on the topic of mid-rise development that I’ve read, and as prez of the Ossington Community Association (fighting the overly large 109OZ proposal—see to get a sense of the disproportion here) I’ve read ‘em all.

    As McGrath notes, Keesmaat’s plan aims to efficiently implement the Offical Plan’s call to intensify on the designated “Avenues” (listed on Map 2 of the OP). What often gets lost in the discussion is that, in opposing 109OZ, members of the Ossington community are not opposing this plan. For Ossington is not a designated Avenue: among other things, it is 8ft below the minimum Avenue width. Opposition to 109OZ is of a piece with the OP’s wise aim of directing growth to areas—e.g., broad, long transit thoroughfares such as Dundas, Eglinton, and other “Avenues”—that can handle intensification without inducing destabilizing negative impact on affected residential, business, and other (e.g., school, bikepath) communities.

    I only wish that McGrath had not given so much airtime to Shane Fenton, since an unsuspecting reader could inappropriately infer by this inclusion that the Fentons are somehow trying to conform to Keesmaat’s/the OP’s plan, against the opposition of the community. Not so: here it is the community, not the developer, that is in line with Keesmaat and the OP. Oh, and did you know that the Fenton’s have skipped City Planning and Community Council, filing with the OMB for a decision only 5 months after their application was complete? NIce.

    • mjb

      Contrary to your limited view of Toronto, there are other citizens of this city that support this project and are tired of selfish NIMBYs who think that they should decide what gets built on someone else’s private property. The developer of 109OZ deserves as much air time as anybody else – particularly when it comes to THEIR land. It is unfortunate that they have no recourse but to go to the OMB…but this is why we need the OMB. Too many Torontonians think a city’s or a neighbourhood’s evolution stops when they move in.
      You’re getting hung up on minor details with respect to Ossington. This project is entirely appropriate for that site and I can’t wait to see it built. It will in no way destabilize that neighbourhood but will improve it and give some more people the opportunity to live there.
      Kudos to Jen Keesmaat for saying things need to change so that mid-rise projects can get built without facing these constant NIMBY obstacles.

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        Torontoist published two articles related to this building back in June, setting off quite the discussion. Lots of interesting things said here and here.

        • mjb

          Thanks for the links.

    • wish_I_lived_on_OZ

      109OZ is hardly what I would describe as overly large. it is perfectly suited for ossington, and is well served by two street cars and a short bus to the subway. I would have bought there in a minute. Getting rid of a crappy old used car lot and garage is hardly going to have a negative impact on the area.
      I’m with MJB on this, this is exactly the kind of development toronto, and Ossington in particular, needs.

  • John Duncan

    “Councillors love to have the ability to get public benefits out of Section 37 through the rezoning process,” says Bedford, and proactively up-zoning gives away that opportunity.

    And there’s the rub. Faced with a system in which the City is literally forbidden from setting Development Charges at a rate where development pays for its associated costs, what motivation do councillors have to speed along (much-needed) changes that remove their ability to obtain funds through Section 37 agreements?

  • Don B.

    All of this would, maybe, be great. Except that we need to get rid of the OMB. We can put lots of great ideas in place but the OMB usually sides with developers. If Toronto could be master of its own house. If we could be free of the opinions of the know-nothing OMB then we would have a chance. Sad that our council is so tied up with theatrics and a mayor who only seems to care about a race to the bottom that council does not have room to actually move the city forward.

    • Canadianskeezix

      “the OMB usually sides with developers”

      I’m not sure what evidence you have to back that claim. When a municipality is backed by planning principles and policy, the OMB usually backs the municipality. When the municipal politicians are playing politics, the OMB usually backs the appellant. The OMB is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. I’ve sat through hundreds of community council and council meetings, and through hundreds of days of OMB hearing, and usually sadly the latter involves the better examination of the actual planning evidence and policies. As you said, the former tends to all be about theatrics, unfortunately. The City needs to rethink how it does planning. It needs to empower the planning department, it needs to expand the scope of the design review panels and it needs to follow the Vancouver model in terms of reducing the role of politics in the process. Once Toronto starts making decisions on the basis of good planning, as opposed to good politics (which is how it is done now), I think we’ll find that the OMB will naturally fade into irrelevance.

  • tomwest

    “why are we still talking about this in 2012?”
    It’s 2012 ???