Imagine this scenario. A genie, concerned with Toronto’s housing crisis, grants the city a wish: She will create 35 hectares of empty land on the edge of downtown. A third must be parks and the rest can be a new neighbourhood. There are no neighbours to complain about tall buildings.
Now forget about magic. Toronto’s three levels of government have created such a place for real: the newly built Villiers Island in the city’s Port Lands. It’s a huge opportunity to build a dense, sustainable neighbourhood packed with below-market housing.
However, there’s a real danger that governments will miss the opportunity – building too-small buildings for too few people. That is, unless the plans for the site are changed in the next few months.
Villiers Island is an area east of Cherry Street, where the Don River currently empties into Lake Ontario. Until recently it was part of the underused wasteland around Toronto’s port. Once the $1.25-billion Portlands Flood Protection Project finishes in 2023, surrounding Villiers with water, it will have streets, bridges and an expanse of high-quality waterfront parks. This is visionary.
But the land-use plan for the area is not. It was completed in 2017 under the direction of the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto, the public agency that’s managing the district. That plan is being taken to a more detailed phase this year.
And it should change because for now the planned Villiers neighbourhood is nowhere near dense enough. Planners have imagined a dozen blocks of midrise buildings punctuated by a few towers up to 25 storeys. Recent drawings reveal a very modestly scaled neighbourhood, while 60-storey towers scrape the sky a short distance away.
The Villiers plan calls for about 4,900 homes, one-quarter of them below market, and 2,900 jobs. If you include the parks, this is about one-third as dense as Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.
Why is that the right scale? Why not double? Why not bigger buildings, which would house more people and jobs – and subsidize more below-market housing for their neighbours?
The main answer: Planners believe this scale of neighbourhood will feel good. Christopher Glaisek, chief planning and design officer for Waterfront Toronto, says the urban design was shaped by an idea that this island “is a special place.” Keeping the district “a lower scale than the rest of the city,” he says, “was a way to celebrate that.”
In the context of a crippling housing shortage, that approach needs to be questioned.
Toronto deputy mayor Ana Bailao thinks so. With Villiers, “I want to make sure we will fulfill as many city-building objectives as possible, including affordable housing,” she says. “You need to be ready to accommodate more density.” Ms. Bailao is on the board of CreateTO, Toronto’s real estate agency, which is now involved in planning the district.
“Sometimes,” she says, “having half an hour less of sun on the sidewalk – but being able to create another 20 units of affordable housing – is worth it.”
Another key point is that the Waterfront LRT line needs to be built, and quickly, says Tim Kocur, executive director of the Waterfront BIA, which represents the area. “We strongly believe that the city should maximize its opportunity here,” he says. “And the LRT needs to be built right away, so that people in the neighbourhood get used to living with transit and using transit to reach their destinations.” That line would reach into Villiers island; it is partly planned but not yet funded. More residents and offices here, as he points out, would create revenues to help fund its construction and operation.
So why not go bigger? Toronto city planning has historically been allergic to high density. Their urban design ideas favour wide public streets. They like mid-rise buildings that don’t cast shadows on the street.
This aesthetic has real costs, in a lack of housing, jobs and tax revenues. It also doesn’t work very well. See the new West Don Lands neighbourhood, near the Port Lands and largely shaped by the city’s planning orthodoxy. It mixes mid-rise buildings, as you would see in a major European city, with very wide streets, which you would not. The result is short on people, sterile and a bit unfriendly. Various professionals involved in its construction have told me they are dissatisfied with the results.
It would be easy to make that mistake again. But not acceptable. The city owns most of the land on Villiers. The more it builds, the more public good it can accomplish. And if the sidewalks are busy, and it’s inconvenient to drive your car there – well, that’s a city. We could do a lot worse.
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