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When Franz Gouskov, a 36-year-old Toronto factory manager, bought a mostly gutted St. Clair West house two years ago, he had the long-game in mind. His parents, who lived in an upscale Annex condo, wanted to move because they felt they weren’t getting value for their $1,000 a month maintenance fee. Mr. Gouskov, for his part, is hoping to have a family soon.

They’d seen a growing number of homes being converted into architecturally distinctive duplexes, which is to say, projects that went beyond the time-honoured habit of carving up larger dwellings into apartments. A house they found on Greensides Avenue in Hillcrest Village seemed to be a perfect candidate: a vacant former rooming house that had been gutted by fire. “It was in very bad shape,” he says. The price: $1.3-million.

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Mr. Gouskov bought this house in Toronto's St. Clair West neighbourhood with the intention of converting it into a duplex.John Lorinc/The Globe and Mail

Today, the renovation is within weeks of completion. Working with Toronto architect Glenn Rubinoff, Mr. Gouskov divided the dwelling into two conjoined three-storey, 1,765-square-foot units, each with four bedrooms, a rooftop patio, modern finishes and a dug-down basement that could be converted into an apartment at some point. He’ll live in one half of the semi, his parents in the other.

This renovation, he allows, came with a measure of uncertainty, given the state of the structure. Mr. Gouskov mitigated some of the construction risk by personally overseeing the contractors. Turning the structure into a duplex didn’t require a severance application. And he lucked out with his neighbours: apart from a bit of grumbling about the roof deck, he didn’t run into hurdles or unexpected bureaucratic delays.

Yet, other homeowners or small contractors looking to either replace a small house with a larger duplex or subdivide lots in order to add an additional unit have faced far more daunting obstacles, even though these projects often get the green light in the end.

Earlier this month, the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) shone a harsh light on the problem of costly delays facing small building projects around the city. The group released data showing that 28,000 applications were caught up in the approvals process backlog that includes Committees of Adjustment and the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT), the successor to the Ontario Municipal Board. If even half were promptly dispatched, TRBOT found, the new housing units coming on stream would be almost equal to the number of condos built in Toronto each year.

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Mr. Gouskov mitigated some of the project's risk by overseeing the contractors himself.John Lorinc/The Globe and Mail

Sina Souresrafil knows this story only too well. The owner of a small real estate investment firm, he bought a run-down bungalow on an orphaned 40-foot lot near Danforth and Greenwood four years ago. The $1-million property, which backs onto a parking lot off Danforth, is a 10-minute walk to the Coxwell subway.

Like Mr. Gouskov, Mr. Souresrafil wanted to create two modernist townhouses on the unusually wide lot – one for himself, the other as an income property. However, after getting an approval for a slightly modified version from the Committee of Adjustment, Mr. Souresrafil found himself facing a daunting opponent: the City of Toronto’s planning department, which appealed the approval to LPAT, arguing that the two 2,200-square-foot, three-bedroom units represented bad planning, too much density for the location and a lack of regard for the prevailing neighbourhood character. (Mr. Souresrafil’s design allowed for separate-entry secondary suites, as well.)

On the eve of the hearing, however, the City abruptly dropped the appeal when Mr. Souresrafil agreed to replace the proposed integrated garages in each unit with pad parking out front. The extra hurdles cost him $18,000 (towards hiring lawyers and planners for the LPAT hearing that never took place), on top of the $70,000 for the parks levy and development charges imposed by the city. He now thinks he’ll have to sell the other unit because of the additional cost and delays.

The city’s objections underscore the contradictory state of land use planning rules: though a modest residential intensification proposal within steps of a commercial street, a school and a transit stop, the planning department nonetheless argued his plans ran afoul of the city’s neighbourhood character protection policies. Yet a late December LPAT ruling suggests the city’s ability to block such low-scale intensification projects may be waning. Two investors, Mojdeh Arvandi and Hussein Cheraghi, had acquired a pair of older adjacent Willowdale homes, on Norton Avenue near Yonge and Empress, with a plan to divide the two properties into three narrower lots with townhouses. The city and some local residents fought the proposal, arguing that the severances would undermine the character of the area.

LPAT’s ruling stressed that the site was located less than 500 metres from a subway station. But it also found that the plan to subdivide two lots into three wouldn’t damage the character of an area that already had plenty of “diversity” in terms of its residential built form. Indeed, observed the presiding panel member, narrower lots with smaller dwellings “nonetheless contribute to neighbourhood character and properly represent context when applying the OP policies.”

Whether this ruling will add predictability for other modest neighbourhood intensification proposals remains to be seen.

Mr. Souresrafil acknowledged that with his plan, there was never any guarantee that he could persuade the city to approve the severance.

But now, with construction nearly complete, he has come around to the view that the city was more than willing to make it “difficult” for small contractors trying to add a bit of density to neighbourhoods. “With all of these things, you need a lot of time,” he reflects. “You can’t put a definite timeline on it.”

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