Understanding the Controversial South Etobicoke Zoning Change that Could Undermine SmartTrack
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Understanding the Controversial South Etobicoke Zoning Change that Could Undermine SmartTrack

Against the advice of City staff, John Tory and his allies backed a zoning change that could have serious implications for regional transit.

Item PG12.8 did not receive much advanced media attention before Council debated it in June. After all, the Mimico-Judson Secondary Plan is not particularly sexy, and so it did not lead the evening news or make a big public splash. But it should have, because it has serious implications for transit and land use planning.

At that June Council meeting [Torontoist liveblog, item starts June 8 at 10:04 a.m.], City staff advised Council that it was a bad idea to re-designate industrial lands south of Judson Street in south Etobicoke to become residential. Doing so would undermine the future of SmartTrack, which is a priority of Council’s and the mayor. Metrolinx, as Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat pointed out, had already spent $100 million on the rail yard to the south, and anticipates the need for future expansion to accommodate increased train frequency. It was also not an appropriate place for a residential development, as it would be so close to a noisy rail yard.

Despite this, a majority of Council was unmoved by City staff’s expert advice. In a 21-15 vote, they chose to approve a conversion to residential land in the area, a vote Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) called “one of the dumbest planning decisions I’ve seen in my career.” Metrolinx is now in the process of appealing the City’s decision to the Ontario Municipal Board. The City will be forced to hire external expert advice, as it went against its staff recommendations.

How did Council come to such a decision? There is much to sort out.

Let’s start with a bit of history to understand the context of the area.

Since 1967, GO Transit has stored and maintained its rail fleet at Willowbrook Yard, located in south Etobicoke, on the Lakeshore West corridor. In fact, there has been a major rail yard here for more than 100 years. It was once the main Canadian National Railway freight classification yard before it moved to Vaughan in the early 1960s. As the regional transit authority expanded, so has its operations at the site; VIA Rail has a major train storage and maintenance facility immediately to the south. Today, dozens of GO, VIA, and Amtrak trains pass through this area daily, and without Willowbrook, GO Transit simply wouldn’t be able to function.

Willowbrook Yard is important to the region’s transit development as GO Transit transforms from a commuter rail service to a regional rail network; Metrolinx, an agency of the Government of Ontario and the organization responsible for GO Transit, has plans for significant expansion. John Tory’s SmartTrack plan, which is closely tied to GO Transit’s Regional Express Rail plans, is also dependent on Willowbrook Yard to accommodate increased train capacity.

This increased rail activity is at odds with proposed residential development to the north of the rail yard.

Train yards are noisy places: brakes are tested, locomotives are left idling, train consists are broken up and put together, and much of this work can only happen at night. Light industrial and commercial uses, like the ones on the south side of Judson Street to the north side of Willowbrook Yard, act as buffers between noisy and potentially noxious uses. For these reasons, City staff, including Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, recommended against Dunpar’s proposal and the rezoning on Judson.

Judson Street is an east-west roadway just north of GO Transit’s yard and west of Mimico GO Station at Royal York Road. On the north side of Judson, there is a long-established residential neighbourhood of single-family homes; on the south side, several industrial buildings provide a buffer between the rail yards and the homes. Yet Dunpar Homes, an Etobicoke-based mid-sized developer, wants to build townhouses and commercial units on these industrial lands, which would eliminate this buffer.

Local Zoning

The industrial lands on Judson Street were designated as part of the Mimico-Judson Regeneration Area in 2013 [PDF]. The secondary plan that covers the Regeneration Area is intended to retain local employers and employment areas, protect the continued operation and expansion of Willowbrook Yard, and support new mixed-use development. While there have long been homes on the north side of Judson, zoning did not permit residential development on the south side of street.

Zoning decisions are made within certain parameters to identify what makes for an appropriate use.

There were four guiding principles for this particular area:

  1. Retain and expand business through land use certainty and flexible mixed-use
  2. Unlock underutilized lands for transit supportive mixed-use development
  3. Protect and support existing operations and future expansion opportunities at the Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility
  4. Foster a connected and complete community

In the appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, Metrolinx emphasized the third principle: to protect and support its operations at Willowbrook.

In emails to Torontoist, Councillor Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) made it clear that he believed the Dunpar proposal satisfies all four principles.

Dunpar’s Proposed Development

The Mimico-Judson Secondary Plan boundaries (in blue) and the locations of the Dunpar lands (in red) and ML Ready Mix lands (in yellow) on Judson Street.

Dunpar Homes is a reputable mid-sized builder, specializing in townhouse developments in Etobicoke, Vaughan, Mississauga, and Oakville. Last year Dunpar purchased properties at 49, 53, and 55 Judson Street. It proposes to build 72 four-storey town houses on the site, as well as 28 three-storey commercial units at the rear of the parcel, adjacent to the Willowbrook Yard. Previous businesses on the site include a print and design shop and an industrial equipment supply company.

Dunpar’s application [PDF] required both an amendment to the City of Toronto’s Official Plan from Regeneration Area to mixed-use, as well as a rezoning from industrial to employment and residential uses.

Di Ciano, who represents neighbouring Ward 5 and who sits on the Planning and Growth Management Committee, pushed to recommend a change to the Official Plan to allow Dunpar’s development to go ahead by designating the south side of Judson Street as a mixed use area at the PGMC meeting held on May 11, 2016. That recommendation was approved by a 4-2 vote.

Video of the May, 2016 PGMC committee debate on the issue

In a letter to the City of Toronto dated August 8, 2015, Leslie Woo, chief planning officer of Metrolinx, stated that the transportation agency is interested in “protecting [the land] for Willowbrook’s ongoing operations and future expansion.” With continued service expansion (the number of trains stored and serviced at the site will increase to 72 from 52 by the end of 2017) and the introduction of frequent, electrified GO RER service, the Willowbrook Yard would become a busy, 24-hour operation. Woo stated that “[Metrolinx] would have serious concerns should residential development on the south side of Judson Street be considered.”

In response to questions posed by Torontoist, Di Ciano defended the decision, stating—correctly—that the City approved other residential developments near active rail corridors. He pointed out that the study accepted a noise report that compares the unmitigated conditions on Judson Street to mitigated conditions adjacent to the Bathurst North Yard, a GO Transit layover facility near Spadina and Front streets in downtown Toronto.

He also argued that GO Transit’s Willowbrook facility, which services passenger equipment, is unfairly compared to major freight yards like those operated by Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. He insists that “…the Willowbrook Yard is not a ‘freight rail yard’ [and] is a coach yard, with passenger trains, not freight trains.” The argument here is that commuter trains, particularly if the rail line gets electrified, are less noisy, and that this is manageable for residential concerns.

He remains “extremely confident” that the OMB will uphold the city’s approval of the rezoning on Judson Street.

Metrolinx disagrees with Di Ciano’s arguments. Lawyers acting for Metrolinx note that City Planning recommended that the Judson Street Lands (Block F of the Judson-Mimico Regeneration Study) be designated a core employment area in order to mitigate Willowbrook Yard’s impacts to the local community and protect the potential need for expansion. They say this plan, not Council’s amendment, represents good planning. Metrolinx further claims that the rezoning to allow Dunpar’s development on Judson Street runs counter to municipal and provincial planning policies, including the City’s own Official Plan, and are appealing to the OMB on those merits.

ML Ready Mix

ML Ready Mix operates a concrete batching facility adjacent to the Dunpar properties at 29 Judson Street, but it uses part of 49 Judson Street, now owned by Dunpar, for truck parking.

Cement plants and batching facilities are unpleasant but necessary land uses that service construction sites. They require locations that are close to highways and near development sites and infrastructure projects, but away from residential areas. 29 Judson Street was previously railway property; CN sold the land to ML in 2001, and the plant has been in operation since 2007.

Because of noise, traffic, and dust pollution, the plant has been a nuisance for nearby residents. The City of Toronto and the Ministry of Environment have laid charges against ML due to noise, traffic, alleged construction without building permits, and pollution; but, as the plant is a legal non-conforming use allowed under older zoning regulations, there is only so much the City can do. The City of Toronto imposed restrictions in 2013 to limit cement trucks entering and exiting the plant to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.; trucks are also banned from Judson Street west of ML Ready Mix’s facility. In a 2014 letter to Etobicoke York Community Council, ML’s legal counsel contends that the company has been “singled out for unfair and punitive treatment.” ML claims that previous attempts to move to North Etobicoke were not supported by local councillors, and it welcomes expropriation.

Di Ciano tells Torontoist that “the community deserves to rid itself of a toxic, non-conforming concrete batching plant located directly across the street for homes” and that it would be an “exchange for 21st century jobs and desperately needed family-size housing units, all within the radius of the Mimico GO Station as per City and provincial growth policies.”

Council’s June 2016 debate on the issue.

Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) and John Campbell (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre) argued that the Dunpar development would replace the batching plant, but these are actually two separate parcels of land. Unless ML Ready Mix moves, the proposed townhouse development would be between Willowbrook Yard and the batching plant. Local residents proposed that a park be built on the ML property instead.

29 Judson Street was one of the properties re-zoned to allow residential development, but it is not part of Dunpar’s proposal. However, according to the Toronto Star, Dunpar has made a conditional offer to purchase the ML property, subject to zoning approvals.

Site plan for townhouses and commercial units at 49-55 Judson Street submitted to the City of Toronto

In PG12.8, motion 2, Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) put forward a motion to revert to the staff recommendations on the Mimico Judson Secondary Plan. This would have the effect of preserving the zoning south of Judson, rather than converting it to residential. The motion lost 17-19, with the Mayor and his allies voting against it. The item as amended passed 21-15.
Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 10.59.57 PM

In this case, City Council should have rejected the Dunpar application, and heeded the advice of City planning staff and Metrolinx. Given the importance of Willowbrook Yard to GO’s continued operations and expansion projects, including SmartTrack, it does not serve the City’s longterm planning. The OMB may save Toronto from this planning decision, but it shouldn’t have to come to that.

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