Jen Keesmaat's Big Idea
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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.