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Toronto John Tory’s housing plan could benefit from some thoughtful design

A detailed plan for Mayor John Tory’s housing policy, dubbed Housing Now, goes to city council for consideration on Wednesday. It proposes development of about 10,000 homes on 11 city-owned sites – 70 per cent rental, and half of that “affordable” – through partnerships with private developers. This, in theory, is an excellent idea: leveraging the city’s land assets to build more mixed-income housing.

But the devil will be in the development. The process of getting a new building done in Toronto is excessively, ridiculously complicated. And while the plan before council promises to cut through red tape, doing so will not be simple.

What’s new here – and this is welcome – is that the city is actually pursuing social goals. “This is a dramatic shift,” said Sean Gadon, director of the city’s Affordable Housing Office, who is steering this policy. The city’s land-management agency, CreateTO, “had had a mandate to maximize the city’s return on its real estate assets. That approach would’ve seen these 11 sites sold, essentially, for condo development. This is something else.”

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Indeed. But this is uncharted territory. And what happens when Mr. Gadon’s efforts and Mr. Tory’s rhetoric run into the complexities, both technical and legal, of making development projects?

The 11 sites vary dramatically in size and development potential. A few are huge. A 13.8-acre site near Kipling subway station is the largest; city staff estimate 2,300 units here. Two other large sites are an eight-acre works yard near the 401 and 404; a parking lot at Wilson station is of similar size. The smallest is a sliver of land at the corner of Eglinton Avenue West and Allen Road. Here staff are calling for 70 units.

Each one of these, large or small, will almost certainly require a zoning bylaw amendment or official plan amendment. These are needed for any sizable project in the city, because development in Toronto is incredibly tightly regulated.

These processes trigger different kinds of public consultation and scrutiny from city staff, department by department. All this routinely takes three to five years. It can be helpful, and it can be death by a thousand cuts.

And yet Mr. Gadon predicts the projects will begin construction “between two and five years from now.” That is ambitious.

The staff report coming to council on Wednesday asks the city planning division to “expeditiously” pursue planning rules. It also would create two temporary dedicated positions within the division to deal with these applications. Mr. Tory has promised, in his restrained way, to knock heads together.

But the city cannot shut down the neighbours who will, surely, complain about that Eglinton project, regardless of its scale. Or the people in the townhouses next to a proposed development site on Warden Avenue. Toronto’s highly consultative and inclusive planning process works against speed. It also routinely makes buildings smaller than they ought to be.

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Mr. Tory has promised to build 40,000 affordable units over the next 12 years, and, Mr. Gadon says, “there’s a lot more to do.” That’s true. And none of it will be easy.

What’s more, as John Lorinc pointed out in Spacing magazine last week, this is not an easy thing to sell. These projects will not be coherent; they don’t have a brand name, or even the same mix of units and social benefits, or the same developer. Each one will encounter pushback from NIMBYs and the people who will lose their commuter parking lots. These comments will be duly noted at endless public meetings. It’ll be messy.

All this could be fixed with a different approach: Just spending public money. But Mr. Tory is not willing to do that.

Or, perhaps, the city could make a point of articulating something wonderful and distinctive. Why not make a design competition part of each project, so that each neighbourhood knows it will get new buildings that contribute beauty, a rich public realm and a sense of place? Why not require award-winning architects and landscape architects to be part of the team? Affordable housing is a crucial issue, but thoughtful design might be the floodlight that cuts through the procedural fog.

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