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For decades, parking policy in most North American cities has been designed to satisfy drivers, who wanted lots of it and wanted it cheap. But in the face of a housing affordability crisis, an increasing number of cities are deciding that some of their parking lots are better sites to build new homes than provide spots for cars.

Toronto is set to join this trend in a major way. City staff were given provisional approval last Thursday to study the conversion potential of 74 public parking lots – about one-quarter of the city’s total. If given the green light by full council later this month, staff plan to report back by the end of the year with a list of the most suitable sites, and timelines for conversion.

Similar moves are underway or eyed at sites across Canada. A 38-unit condo is planned on a golf club parking lot in Windsor, Ont. Formerly homeless people are living in small buildings on the parking lot of a shelter in Vancouver. Rental housing, including affordable, is planned for a church parking lot in St. Catharines, Ont.

“It’s a philosophical change, definitely, and a political change,” said Mark Richardson, with the Toronto-based advocacy group, HousingNowTO. “A surface parking lot is an incredibly wasteful use of high-value land.”

But in some places, the trend has faced push-back from local residents and merchants who argue that less parking hurts neighbourhoods. A committee of Hamilton city council voted recently not to convert several dozen parking spaces into affordable housing. And Toronto’s changed philosophy about parking goes only so far.

At last week’s meeting of Mayor Olivia Chow’s executive committee, Toronto deferred until later in the year a council vote on whether to implement a city-wide levy on all commercial parking spots.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a worldwide reckoning over how much space in urban areas has been given over to parking. Tony Jordan, president of the non-profit, Parking Reform Network, says there’s “a growing popular awareness” of how cities have been hurt by traditional parking policies.

“We’ve made a mistake,” he said, speaking, appropriately, from a parking garage in Austin during a housing conference.

“We’re not all agreeing on how to get out of it, or how bad it is, I guess. But I think more and more, it’s pretty hard to justify what we’ve been doing once you really look at it critically.”

Parking imposes fiscal and environmental burdens on cities, many of which have declared climate emergencies. And Toronto’s willingness to consider its approach to parking comes after years of soaring housing costs.

“The shift away from parking accommodation to housing and community service accommodation at these parking lots could provide a significant pipeline of city-owned lands to meet the city’s housing and other goals,” wrote David Jollimore, Toronto’s deputy city manager for corporate services, in a staff report.

City media relations staff were not able to provide details on which lots were among those being examined for conversion or how many parking spaces they include. The amount of revenue these lots currently generate has not been part of the analysis to date, they said.

In a separate Toronto city staff report calling for a commercial parking levy, chief financial officer Stephen Conforti argued that it could raise money while “reducing congestion and positively contributing to climate action by encouraging Torontonians to use transit or other means to travel.”

As proposed, the levy includes all employee and customer parking, paid or unpaid, with the exception of sites such as hospitals, school and religious institutions. Downtown parking spots would be levied approximately 50 cents a day, while ones elsewhere in the city would be charged half that amount.

Staff, who say in the report that the levy would raise as much as $150-million annually, will lay the groundwork for a council vote on it by doing public consultation through the year.

However, previous attempts to implement a parking levy were opposed vigorously by mall owners and the hospitality industry. Local merchants often argue that off-street parking is crucial to their success.

“Retail is still recovering from the pandemic in this city, and office vacancy is at a 30-year high,” said Michael Brooks, chief executive officer of the commercial real estate industry association REALPAC, at Ms. Chow’s executive committee meeting.

“Many of the downtown businesses are suffering, many have closed, and yet under this system higher prices [are] proposed downtown. I don’t get this, it’s not the time to do this.”

Asked during a recent media availability whether she supports such a parking levy, Ms. Chow did not answer directly. She said she wanted to consult first with the public. On Thursday, she told reporters that she recognized the concerns of downtown businesses, saying the city was “proceeding with caution.”

How-Sen Chong, the climate campaigner with the activist group, Toronto Environmental Alliance, said it was overdue for the city to move ahead with the policy. He noted that it’s common in cities around the world.

“The experience of those cities basically shows that this entire ‘war on car’ rhetoric is kind of ridiculous. Because if it works for them, it should definitely work for here. It’s more than time that we actually implement one,” he said.

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