Reduced to six new stations, there are limited development opportunities at most of the sites.
SmartTrack as currently proposed. Map by Sean Marshall.
When John Tory introduced Torontonians to SmartTrack in May 2014, the promise made was of a “London-style surface subway” that could whisk commuters between employment centres in downtown Toronto, Mississauga, and Markham. Using existing rail corridors, it could be built in seven years, and all on a TTC fare. SmartTrack, the campaign pitch went, would offer quick relief to the overcrowded TTC subway. As an extra bonus, the project could be funded using Tax Increment Financing (TIFs), which could shield taxpayers from the costs of construction.
Critics pointed out the many flaws in Tory’s plan: the City of Toronto already sold off lands along Eglinton Avenue West for residential development, something that SmartTrack’s backers failed to take into account. Critics also pointed out that Metrolinx, the provincial transportation agency, was already working on GO Transit Regional Express Rail (RER), which also called for frequent electric rail service along much of the same route. And they pointed out that TIFs—projected tax revenue fostered by new development attracted by SmartTrack service—wouldn’t be able to finance the transit infrastructure on its own.
The critics were right on all counts. SmartTrack went from 22 stations—including nine already served by GO Transit—to 16. Stations cut from the proposal include three stations along Eglinton West—replaced by a western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT—as well as stops at Spadina Avenue, Queen Street East, and Ellesmere Road. Within the City of Toronto, only six new stations are planned—far from John Tory’s promise of 13 new stations—and of the remaining development opportunities to generate TIFs are limited by the Official Plan and existing development.
At this point, it is difficult to accurately estimate the revenues collected through TIFs, but we can have a look at the surrounding land uses of each station to determine the development potential at each stop.
St. Clair West
St. Clair West station offers several important local transit connections, including the 512 streetcar and five nearby bus routes (41 Keele, 89 Weston, 127 Davenport, 168 Symington, and 71A Runnymede). Big-box retail complexes to the west might be attractive for mixed-use intensification, so there are some opportunities for transit-oriented development at this location. However, much of these lands are designated as Employment Areas, and there are still some noxious land uses (including active slaughterhouses) in the area that could limit the type of new development that could be situated here.
The proposed Liberty Village station is located north of King Street. Technically it’s outside of the neighbourhood, but it’s adjacent to the 504 King streetcar, the busiest surface route in the TTC’s network. Most of the lands north of King Street—designated as Regeneration Areas in the Official Plan—have already been developed with high-rise condominium towers. To the south, the west side of Liberty Village remains designated as employment lands, which could limit residential development. Given these constraints, there isn’t much opportunity to capitalize on new development to finance a station here.
East Harbour is the proposed location of both a SmartTrack station and a stop on the Relief Line Subway. First Gulf, owner of the former Unilever plant at this transit-starved location, proposes to build 11 high-rise office towers and several smaller commercial buildings that would collectively host as many as 50,000 employees; First Gulf has been one of the strongest proponents of SmartTrack. The station could also be a hub for transit, serving the Port Lands to the south and providing connections to streetcar services on Queen Street East and Broadview Avenue.
A station at Gerrard would provide another connection with a potential Relief Line, as well as the 506 Carlton streetcar, the 72 Pape bus, and potentially a connection with a re-routed 505 Dundas streetcar. The Employment Lands to the south have largely been redeveloped as mixed-use work/live lofts or new condo buildings, though the No Frills located at Carlaw and Gerrard and Gerrard Square provide opportunities for residential intensification. But otherwise surrounded by low-density neighbourhoods protected by the Official Plan, redevelopment opportunities near Gerrard station are still quite limited.
Lawrence East station is currently the location of a Scarborough RT stop of the same name. Strip malls and empty fields nearby might have the potential for high-rise development, but the existing RT station hasn’t exactly fostered transit-oriented development. For example, next to to Lawrence East station is Mike Myers Drive, a townhouse complex built only a decade ago. Interestingly, this station might be subject to further delay as the proximity of the existing SRT stop makes building a new rail station here more difficult. Only when the Line 2 extension to Scarborough Centre is complete, and the SRT decommissioned, might work begin on this SmartTrack station.
Finch East, located on the north side of Finch Avenue, offers a connection to the busy 39/199 bus service, but it is currently surrounded by single-family homes to the south (protected from redevelopment under the Official Plan) and strip malls, small office buildings, and warehouses to the east and west. There are some opportunities for redevelopment here, but these are also employment lands.
With the exception of East Harbour, where First Gulf is ambitiously pursuing a major office development, development opportunities surrounding the six proposed SmartTrack stations are limited. At most stations, however, commuters will be able to benefit from surface transit connections if train service is frequent enough to make the transfer attractive. Of course, to make this work, fare integration is crucial.