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opinion

Toronto’s original subway route, the Yonge line, is heading north. Plans are firming up to extend it eight kilometres from its current northern terminus at Finch Avenue. That would take it all the way to the 407 toll highway in the suburban community of Richmond Hill.

Naturally, developers are panting to build along the line. They can demand a higher price for homes and offices placed next to a subway that will whisk people right into the heart of downtown. Just as naturally, governments are keen to have them build there. They get a heap of new revenue, which helps them pay for the subway and other services. And, naturally, some locals don’t like it.

They particularly object to the big projects that are going to rise next to two subway stops near the 407. The Bridge and High Tech station communities will bring in tens of thousands of new residents and dozens of new towers, some potentially as high as 80 storeys. In a recent CBC report, one resident said the result would be a “condo wasteland.” Another said there would be “no quality of life.” The general feeling seems to be that it’s sheer madness to build such a dense community in an area of golf courses, low-rise housing and shopping malls.

In fact, it makes perfect sense. Yonge Street is Toronto’s spine. Clusters of high-rise development have been popping up along it ever since the subway line opened in 1954 – first right downtown, then at midtown intersections such as Bloor, St. Clair and Eglinton, then, when an extension was built in the 1970s, near stations in North York. The projects planned for the Yonge North extension simply continues this healthy process.

Building concentrated development along the subway line means that people can get to their homes or work without always using a car, making their lives a little simpler and the environment a little cleaner. It means that the booming Toronto region can accommodate thousands of new residents without building low-rise subdivisions and worsening urban sprawl. It helps control the soaring cost of housing by creating supply to meet the incessant demand for a place to live. It makes the subway line more efficient, with frequent service and lots of paying customers.

Urban planners call what is happening along Yonge “transit-oriented development.” The idea, pursued by cities all over the world, is to build dense, active, walkable communities around transit hubs – places with gyms, bars, offices, apartments and parks, all within easy distance of a station. Apart from the existing hubs along Yonge, Toronto has had far too little of it. For decades there was next to no development near the stations on Toronto’s second subway route, the Bloor-Danforth line.

Now that is starting to change. Big projects are going in at intersections along Bloor such as Bathurst, Dufferin and Dundas. More are rising along the new Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line, finally approaching completion. Still more are expected on the Ontario Line, an ambitious subway route through downtown that is currently in the works.

The government of Premier Doug Ford has embraced transit-oriented development with the fervour of a convert. It notes that cities from Vancouver to Washington to Sydney have worked with developers to build around transit stations, increasing housing supply and transit ridership while “catalyzing complete communities based on good planning principles.” The two projects on Yonge, it says, represent a once-in-a-generation chance to move beyond the park-and-ride model of suburban transit and put housing and jobs right next to transit stations.

Quite right. These projects will be anything but wasteland. Around a quarter of their land will be set aside for parks and open spaces. There will be bike paths and plazas and fountains and all sorts of nice things, a big improvement on the parking lots and big-box stores that sit there now.

Judging by some of the bitter online comments, much of the opposition seems to come from those who think that having a lawn and garage are the only way to live. That is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who live contentedly in Toronto high-rises, from post-war apartment buildings to downtown condos to the towers that are sprouting at hubs all around the suburbs.

Unless it is the mere sight of a tall building that offends them, surrounding residents have no reason to complain. High-rise communities at transit hubs won’t threaten their pleasant low-rise neighbourhoods and single-family homes, which will remain intact and inviolable. What they will do is add street life and vitality to these spots, a splash of urban buzz in the ‘burbs.

The real madness would be to build a subway all the way to Richmond Hill and put nothing there.

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