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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

The entire purpose of Toronto’s Committee of Adjustment is to make exceptions to the restrictive zoning rules that govern what gets built where in the city. But a recent decision highlights how what we accept, or deny, can affect housing affordability and inequality.

On Dec. 2, the committee – which is made up of residents appointed by city council – denied a P & R Developments application for consent to sever a 50-foot lot at 2165 Gerrard St. E. and replace one home with two semi-detached buildings and two laneway suites that would have added 10 family-sized rental units to the neighbourhood.

“I don’t believe dividing the property is in the best interest of the community,” said committee member Carl Knipfel, himself an architect and planner who complimented the beauty of the existing house and critiqued the design of the new buildings. “What is proposed is too dense … I really have serious concerns as to where this consent may lead us.”

For urban planner Sean Galbraith, who represented the developers at the hearing, the decision was in many ways business as usual. It is also emblematic of the way sometimes coded language is used to keep new rentals out of mature neighbourhoods, while at the same time allowing for ever-larger or more expensive homes to replace existing more modest housing stock.

“We’re very disappointed,” Mr. Galbraith said. “This is a good project; more people could be housed on this project than expressed opposition to it.”

The proposal was designed entirely within the city’s zoning for the area; it sought no variances or bylaw exceptions. All that it needed was permission to split the lot, a common occurrence in a city that has split thousands of lots in the past decade.

“We could get a permit to knock the house down today to build a fourplex,” Mr. Galbraith said. ”But we think that’s an inefficient use of the land. It’s on a streetcar line a block and a half west of Main [Street], near a subway station; near a GO train. This could be a showcase for what you can do in terms of ‘missing middle’ in Toronto.”

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The existing single family home would be replaced by two semi-detached buildings and two laneway suites that would add 10 family-sized rental units to the neighbourhood.Galbraith & Associates

Mr. Galbraith said his clients may seek a review of the decision, which he argues was not properly decided, not least because “community interest” is not one of the 13 applicable tests in the Planning Act. But that adds tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs, not to mention delays.

The kicker, for Mr. Galbraith, is he knows if he wanted to sever the lot for two single-family homes he could get that permission without delay and likely also get permission to build more than local zoning allows.

“I can get variances for a one-unit McMansion every day of the week,” he said. “Lot coverage variances are very common; you want to take a bungalow down and make some big ugly house with a weird roof and a high first floor? You see those all over East York and Etobicoke.”

Close to two-thirds of Toronto’s residential land is restricted to single-family homes, extending in a broad band surrounding the downtown core. The blame for this so-called “yellowbelt” – highly resistant to added density – is often laid at the feet of planners. But University of Toronto historian Richard White argues simply blaming planners lets the public and the politicians who represent them off the hook. Mr. White, who wrote a history of Toronto’s boom years called Planning Toronto, says the current paralysis in the yellowbelt can be traced back to plans written in the 1960s in response to what some Torontonians felt was the overbuilding of rental in the 1950s.

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Two laneway suites that would add 10 family-sized rental units to the neighbourhood.Galbraith & Associates

“We have those restrictions because the people wanted them,” Mr. White said. “The prewar areas of the city have become popular since the 1970s – it became a little bit cooler to live in the Annex or High Park – and it’s attracted people that have money; influential upper middle class people – these well-informed doctors or lawyers – who get what they want.

“This idea that low density residential neighbourhoods are inviolate, now it’s entrenched. As someone who has interviewed planners from the past, [I can say] the planners as individual people did not want that. Most of what happens in cities is not planned,” he said.

The result is a city that has for decades had two modes: tall and sprawl. In areas where planning is loosened, pent-up demand creates thickets of new condominium towers (see King Street East and West, Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street and Queen’s Quay). In low-rise areas, only a rare townhouse project or McMansion replaces older houses.

Mr. White and Mr. Galbraith both agree many of the postwar bungalow neighbourhoods in the city are ripe for redevelopment. The question is what form.

“These ideas have been floating around for decades of how to somehow or other increase the density of land use of these early suburbs,” Mr. White said. The political desire to stop that trend results in rules such as Official Plan Amendment 320, which mandates new construction must match the “stable neighbourood character.” Even though, as planners such as Cheryll Case have pointed out, there’s nothing stable about gentrifying neighbourhoods, which not only see the swapping out of small houses for larger more expensive ones, but also often depopulation and a decrease in housing density.

Even when a plan like 2165 Gerrard St. E. fits inside restrictive rules, a stiff NIMBY wind seems to blow against it. “We are overprotecting the overprotected,” Mr. Galbraith said. “Redevelopment happens … does it happen in a way that’s beneficial to the city? Why should some neighbourhoods adapt and evolve and others are allowed to remain exclusionary and keep people out?”

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