What’s more important? Delivering new affordable apartments, or keeping tall buildings away from people’s houses?
Strange as it sounds, this is a real question as Toronto plans to build 12,000 apartments with its Housing Now program. And the city is giving the wrong answer.
The good news is that Toronto could house thousands more people, if it chose – and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, creating an even more unequal metropolis, one city councillor is calling for just this sort of change.
Housing Now is the city’s program to build housing on land that it owns. It turns underused sites into new developments, where private condos and apartments help pay for cheaper subsidized rentals. It is very modest. It serves mostly people earning low to middle incomes, not those most in need.
It’s still significant. Last week city council added six sites to the program, bringing the total to 17 sites and an estimated 12,000 apartments. The challenge is using those sites effectively: The bigger the building, the more affordable housing. But the first round of proposals are all too small.
City Councillor Brad Bradford, a trained planner who worked for three years at the city, says the city should be pushing harder. “If these sites are supporting a public policy objective, delivering affordable housing, then these sites could do more,” Mr. Bradford said. “The [planning] and the process should reflect that goal.”
The problem is land-use planning and urban design: all the rules that a city makes to decide what can be built, where and in what shape. Toronto’s are convoluted and outdated. They are shaped by decades of regressive politics and inertia. Private developers push to build bigger, and they routinely win – often with the support of city planners.
But with Housing Now, the city itself refuses to play this game. Its real estate agency, CreateTO, largely defers to city planning, following the rules – often terrible rules – that other people get to ignore.
Mr. Bradford, rightly, sees this as a problem. “I think it’s time to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions we’ve made in city planning over the past few decades, and get back to our core objectives,” he said.
He’s concerned with assumptions like the one I began with: keeping bigger buildings away from smaller houses. “The basic idea is that a contrast in scale, between existing low-rise buildings and anything new, is a problem,” explains Mark Sterling, a private-sector planner and architect who heads the master of urban design program at the University of Toronto. “They can’t exist alongside each other, and the difference has to be smoothed out in some way.”
The history of such ideas in urban design is complicated. They mash together aesthetics and politics, including the classist and racist attitudes with which some people view apartments and affordable housing. In an online community meeting in May, one woman complained that a Housing Now development might bring a “ghetto” in her neighbourhood.
This is a complicated conversation. But it’s enough to know that not all urban designers and planners care about good “transitions.” Mr. Sterling – himself a former Toronto city planner – has no time for that orthodoxy. Yet it is shaping all the Housing Now projects, and it has consequences: It makes homes disappear.
Take the Danforth Garage, one of the new Housing Now sites. It’s five acres, currently occupied by a TTC facility and a public library. Last year, CreateTO finished a plan for the site that would combine civic functions and housing. This is largely fine. But the apartment buildings would be five, eight and 10 storeys: perhaps 300 homes total.
If this was a private development, it would absolutely be much bigger. The old Honest Ed’s site at Bloor and Bathurst is 4.5 acres, and it has many of the same constraints. But it’s got towers 26 storeys tall, 800 apartments and at least twice as much density. The city’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat praised it to the skies. If private developers can do that, why can’t the city?
It can. Government should not be tied down by its own dysfunctional process and arcane guidelines. It should do the most good for the most people. And if some neighbours care more about tall buildings than creating a diverse and equitable Toronto, it will be clear what kind of people they are, and what kind of city they live in.