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Initial renderings that accompanied a redevelopment application for a 50-foot lot at 2165 Gerrard St. East in Toronto.Galbraith & Associates

Toronto’s east end, like much of the city, is full of low-density, single-family, suburban-style homes. The house at 2165 Gerrard St. E. is one of them.

There are detached houses on either side, and across the street. On the nearest corner, there’s a small, low-rise apartment building. At 2165 Gerrard East, there was a recent development proposal to split the 50-foot lot in two. Such decisions are normally automatic.

But the proposal hit a wall of bureaucratic opposition.

Instead of two new detached houses, or maybe a fourplex, the developer wanted to build two semi-detached buildings and two laneway suites, for a total of 10 family-sized rental units. This should not have a been a problem. The plan looked to fit within all of Toronto’s many, many zoning restrictions.

Yet at the Dec. 2 meeting of the Committee of Adjustment, staffed by Torontonians chosen by city council, the proposal was rejected. One committee member said the plan was not “in the best interest of the community,” that it was “too dense,” and, evoking the deepest fears of all NIMBYs everywhere, “I really have serious concerns as to where this consent may lead us.”

All of this in a neighbourhood that is one of the most transit-rich in Toronto – there’s a streetcar out front, a GO station a couple of blocks away and a subway station a couple of blocks further. It’s not exactly the kind of place where a proposal for 10 low-rise rental units should be taken as a harbinger of ruin.

The story of 2165 Gerrard East shows where on-the-ground reality undermines the emerging broader ambitions of a city. Almost two-thirds of Toronto’s residential land is reserved for detached homes, the so-called yellowbelt. That is typical of Canadian cities. The housing needed for a constantly growing population is restricted to a few areas, where increasingly tall towers are erected. This tall-and-sprawl straitjacket dominates development.

What’s missing is what’s called the missing middle. What was proposed on Gerrard East is an example. The new buildings would not have been taller than adjacent houses, though more people could have lived there. Other forms of missing middle housing include townhomes and low-rise apartments. This is how, decades ago, cities used to be built, before owners of detached homes demanded walled-off zoning to keep out the riff raff who rent.

If Toronto’s yellowbelt was opened even a little bit to something new, there could be all kinds of excellent new housing. The best cities are more than tall and sprawl.

There are signs of change, though they are coming slowly.

Last summer, Toronto City Council passed the “expanding housing options in neighbourhoods” plan. It aims to move, even so tentatively, in the right direction. For now, the measure has many months of review and study to come, leaving the city stuck in pondering mode.

Vancouver also steps cautiously toward expanding the missing middle. The primary vehicle is a citywide plan, which its city council launched in late 2018 but which won’t be finished until mid-2022.

The future might arrive – eventually.

It may surprise to hear that Edmonton is at the fore. The city council there has been making smart moves. Last year, it approved zoning changes in some areas to allow missing middle housing. Last summer, the city was the first in Canada to eliminate parking minimums; arbitrary rules forcing developers to build a fixed amount of parking in new housing. This month, council approved a new city plan, whose goals include having half of all new housing be infill, and creating so-called 15-minute districts. Like the missing middle, the idea of a 15-minute city, where people can meet their daily needs within 15 minutes of home, on foot or bike, harks back to the past, when the car did not dominate.

There has been an important shift in thinking over the past couple of years, though opposition of the type that sank plans at 2165 Gerrard St. E remains deeply entrenched.

The thing about the missing middle is that it’s not some radical idea that demands the overhauling of everything. It’s a minor evolution, not a big revolution. Small changes – a little more building height and size in existing neighbourhoods; a little less parking – can be transformative. Cities can grow without expanding. And they can change for the better, without changing much at all.

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