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marcus gee

By latest count, Toronto's skyline boasts 185 construction cranes. That is good news for the construction industry and good news for the city. "We have sucked up like a vortex all of the cranes in North America," marvels Jennifer Keesmaat, the city's chief planner since September. Some whopping big projects are crossing her desk, including towers of 80 storeys or so.

"We've started to see development proposals for what I've called super projects in the past that are beginning to come forward, putting a tremendous amount of density into certain areas, and I want to raise the flag that we need to think very, very carefully," she said after a luncheon speech to the Toronto Board of Trade on Monday.

It's not that she wants to slow development. All the high-rise projects are a direct result of city and provincial planning policies designed to fight sprawl and encourage urban "intensification." In fact, 84 per cent of recent development in Toronto has been in places – like big intersections served by public transit – that are targeted as growth areas in the city's official plan. As a result, "We are starting to see a greater acceptability for a more intensified form of living," Ms. Keesmaat said.

It's just that she wants to spread the wealth a little. The way she sees it, Toronto should try harder to shift some of the growth away from dense high-rise nodes and encourage mid-rise development along big avenues such as St. Clair and Eglinton. "We need to recognize that we have a tremendous amount of capacity throughout the rest of this city, which means we don't have to shove all of our density on one site."

The Avenues, as planners call them, are crying out for more development. Many are served by streetcars, buses or other transit. One of them, Eglinton, is to get a new light-rail line, part of it running underground. The Avenues usually have lots of shopping and good access to local parks and community centres. Development there is "not quite as a dramatic" as all the glass condo towers in the sky, Ms. Keesmaat said, but "it can be a great way to build out communities" and revitalize streets.

The question is how to make it happen. Planners have been trying for years to build density on the Avenues. Developers often find it hard to assemble significant parcels of land on streets with many different building owners. Architects find it hard to build modest-sized buildings given the welter of city design and engineering rules.

Ms. Keesmaat said she wants to make it easier and that it is one of her priorities for the new year. Among the ideas being considered is allowing mid-rise development on the Avenues "as of right" – in other words, without the hassle of applying for a zoning change.

Another problem she will have to overcome is public opposition. Although you might expect a modest mid-rise condo of six or eight storeys to attract less controversy than a mammoth tower, in fact, some local residents often fight even these projects. Proposed condos on Ossington Avenue and Queen Street East, among other places, have run into opposition from residents who fear they will bring congestion and change the character of the neighbourhood.

"We have a very clear framework," Ms. Keesmaat rejoined. "If some people don't like that, there is not much we can do about that." She hopes the city will come around to seeing the merit of developing the Avenues. "We have the opportunity to absorb and accommodate a significant amount of density in mid-rise forms in a non-onerous way that results in a very high quality of life," she said in her speech.

Great density is coming to Toronto, like it or not. Population growth demands it. Planning policy is encouraging it. Might as well spread some of it to the Avenues.