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Toronto City Council will approve a 'secondary plan' this week for a large portion of the eastern downtown, running east from Jarvis Street.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

What defines the downtown of a big city? Skyscrapers.

But not in Toronto, apparently. This week City Council will approve a new “secondary plan” for the King-Parliament area – a big chunk of the eastern downtown, running east from Jarvis Street – that generally limits new buildings to 30 metres, and at most 90 metres or about 27 floors.

This follows an unfortunate and familiar pattern. Toronto has been growing fast; it faces high rents and a huge housing shortage. Developers are eager to build homes and offices. (The pandemic barely slowed things down.) Yet even now, city planning treats development like a blight.

Even downtown.

The east side, including the Old Town where the colonial city originated, was gutted by deindustrialization in the late 20th century. Since the current boom began in the late 1990s, it has been relatively slow to grow. It’s got a significant number of heritage buildings (and the city is going overboard to protect every third-rate heap), but it’s also got a lot of parking lots.

Some towers have already gone in, including The Globe and Mail Centre. Now the Ontario Line subway is likely coming. This seems like a good place for a lot of change: There are half a million jobs in walking distance and a spectacular waterfront steps away. Plus Ontario policy encourages “intensification” in existing neighbourhoods and places with mass transit.

This new secondary plan claims to do that. But it speaks from both sides of its mouth. It lays on restrictions that will put serious brakes on growth. There are height limits, setbacks, angular planes – all sorts of urban-design tools that can shape, and kill, new development. Buildings now in the approval process are in jeopardy.

The city’s chief planner, Gregg Lintern, adamantly disagrees with this characterization. “We’ve made real concessions by allowing new growth in [King-Parliament], and generally by accommodating change in specific growth areas,” he said in an interview.

Senior planner Melanie Melnyk, who worked on the secondary plan, explained: “Our job has been figuring out how to maintain the qualities that made a neighbourhood attractive while also creating significant growth.”

But there’s the rub. What does “significant” mean? And how much growth is actually good for the city as a whole?

The lawyers will fight this out. Ontario policy requires the city to allow “significant” growth, with specific targets that must be hit. “And those are minimums, but the city seems to treat them as maximums,” said Mark Sterling, a private planner with clients in King-Parliament who teaches in the urban design program at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty. “There’s no urgency about optimizing the use of the land, or allowing the growth of the city to continue organically.”

Look at the numbers. City planning prepared a major new plan, TOCore, in 2015. In doing so, they set targets of job and population growth in the downtown core by 2041, and assessed how many of those people can fit in each neighborhood.

The eastern chunk of downtown got off light. Starting in 2015, the area covered by this plan was supposed to add, in total, about 25,000 people. That’s in a large area that – even now – has acres upon acres of parking. Across town, the much smaller King-Spadina area has been transformed by development, using provincial policy to override city plans. It’s poised to end up with twice the population density of the east and a lot more jobs. And it’s an incredibly popular place to live and work.

Why is King-Parliament so sleepy? The biggest factor here has been aesthetic: Toronto City Planning doesn’t like a lot of tall buildings, especially when there are heritage buildings around.

First there was the West Don Lands, the neighbourhood that began 2015 as an athlete’s village for the Pan Am Games. This was provincial land, so the city and province had total control. The Liberal government didn’t push for density, even when it came to affordable housing. Its buildings top out around 12 storeys. It resembles a quiet suburb of Copenhagen, but with more cars.

The anti-height bias has carried forward in more recent planning, reaching north and west into the historic core of the city. The King-Parliament plan emphasizes the “character and feel” of the Old Town, as Mr. Lintern put it to me: It says new building plans can be altered “to conserve the scale and character” of heritage properties. No 40-storey towers; 15-storey ones instead, because those have more of a heritage-y vibe.

What about the housing shortage? What about the opportunity to put lots of new residents in a place where they can walk to work? “Good planning is not an exercise of density for density’s sake,” Mr. Lintern said. “Not every part of the city is the same. And I don’t think the answer is a monoculture of 40-storey buildings.”

But this isn’t any part of the city. It is downtown Toronto. It is the best place in the entire region to add a lot of homes and jobs where people can enjoy great public space, live car-free and find economic opportunity. If the plans don’t recognize that – the responsibility, and the opportunity, to make a denser central city – the plans need to change.

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