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The proposed affordable-housing complex at Queen East and Coxwell.Toronto Community Housing

Call this a tale of two publicly owned redevelopment sites.

Late last month, City of Toronto officials unveiled a major revitalization of a Toronto Community Housing site, with Context Developments and RioCan teaming up to re-build an aging affordable housing complex at Queen East and Coxwell, near Woodbine Park. The site’s density, according to TCHC, will go from 120 to 750 units. Of those, 120 will be designated “deeply affordable”; another 100 will be affordable rental and 180 will be market rental. The balance of the apartments will be sold as condos.

Although located between Leslieville and the Beaches neighbourhoods, the project’s most conspicuous feature is the mix of tenure types and price levels. “I don’t see this as being a luxury location,” said RioCan REIT president and chief operating officer Jonathan Gitlin. “This community didn’t need that and didn’t want that.” The council is expected to vet the plan in the spring, with occupancy planned for 2023.

In the west end, meanwhile, Metropia and Capital Developments are pushing for council sign-off on a plan for a much larger swath of public land – a 7.3-acre parcel at Bloor and Dufferin streets that is home to Kent Public School and Bloor Collegiate Institute. The developers are proposing 2,034 market residential units (three-quarters will be one- and two-bedroom apartments) in five towers.

The proposed redevelopment of a 7.3-acre parcel of land at Bloor and Dufferin Streets formerly owned by the Toronto District School Board.Metropia/Capital Developments

However, the plan calls for just 56 deeply affordable rental units, relegated to a small structure proposed for a corner of the site and accounting for less than 2 per cent of the floor space in the entire project. The application goes to council later this year, and the developers have already filed a pre-emptive appeal to the Local Planning and Appeals Tribunal.

As governments seek to dent the escalating affordability crisis in costly cities such as Toronto, local politicians are increasingly interested in leveraging publicly owned real estate as a means of promoting a wider housing mix on redevelopment sites – not just condos and subsidized apartments, but also purpose-built rental complexes geared toward a range of incomes. As Mr. Gitlin noted, investor interest in the rental sector has grown in recent years; indeed, RioCan’s expanding residential rental portfolio now includes a tower near Yonge and Eglinton.

In some locations, portions of redeveloped public land will actually remain in public hands, as property-management firms and non-profit housing providers enter into long-term leases with municipalities to operate apartment buildings.

Yet, in other cases, this laudable policy goal has proven illusive. The Bloor-Dufferin property – a highly desirable parcel located steps from a subway station, amenities and a popular park – is a case in point.

In place of the Kent Public School and Bloor Collegiate Institute, developers Metropia and Capital Developments are proposing 2,034 market residential units in five towers.Metropia/Capital Developments

The site was deemed surplus almost a decade ago, which meant it could be sold, with the proceeds used to offset the TDSB’s capital budget requirements.

In 2016, Metropia/Capital submitted the winning bid in a request for proposals to purchase the property; the agreement automatically expires at the end of this year if the developer fails to secure council approvals to proceed with the redevelopment.

While Toronto Mayor John Tory touted the Queen/Coxwell TCHC site as an example of the city’s strategy to fast-track more affordable rental units on publicly owned sites to help alleviate Toronto’s housing crisis, the Bloor-Dufferin project has drawn local criticism, albeit not the more typical type of “not-in-my-back-yard” reaction that often greets large-scale-intensification schemes.

In this instance, a coalition of area residents and non-profit housing providers say the city is forsaking an opportunity to add more affordable units on a prime site.

The proposed Bloor-Dufferin development has run into local opposition.Metropia/Capital Developments

“We’re just really disappointed that the city is taking such a cautious approach,” says Emily Paradis, a spokeswoman for Build a Better Bloor-Dufferin (BBBD).

Habitat for Humanity, the Cooperative Housing Federation of Toronto and St. Clare’s Multi-Faith Housing Society, which has built five mixed-income housing projects in downtown Toronto over the past 20 years, are working with the residents who started BBBD. The organizations say they could leverage Section 37 grants, city grants and contributions from the federal government’s National Housing Strategy to raise the funds required to add several hundred mixed-income apartments on the property.

“This is a piece of public land across from Dufferin station, in a mixed-income community in the middle of a housing crisis,” said St. Clare’s executive director Andrea Adams. “Why is TLC, which is also a public institution, not participating in solving the problem?”

Capital Developments’ managing partner Todd Cowan said in an e-mail that his firm was “pleased” to be invited to participate in the mediation but declined to comment on the negotiations, citing confidentiality. “We are continuing to work with the community and affordable housing operators and are working towards a positive outcome.”

In a statement, TLC spokesman Rob Thompson pointed out that the organization’s board earlier this year updated its schools land policy so surplus properties will be repurposed for community uses, including affordable housing and recreation hubs. The deal with Metropia, however, predates the shift in policy.

“The pressures currently being experienced at this point of the project are typical of large and complex redevelopment initiatives of public lands involving multiple interest groups,” he said. “TLC is confident that an agreement can be reached to ensure that the end result is a project that meets the needs of all parties involved.”

Unlike the Queen/Coxwell site, deputy mayor Ana Bailao, who is Toronto’s housing czar as well as the local councillor, said the city has little ability to influence the mix at the Bloor-Dufferin site because the land belongs to TLC. “I don’t have the same tools,” she noted, adding that the Metropia proposal still has to pass muster with city council.

Ms. Paradis of BBBD and Ms. Adams, whose organization continues to develop mixed-income housing projects in desirable areas such as Queen West, hope that council and the mayor will press for a more diverse range of housing types on the site and look for creative solutions. “It will take some problem solving,” she said, adding, “Once the land is gone, it’s gone. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article indicated that the Bloor-Dufferin property was sold by the Toronto Lands Corp., which manages the board's lands. The owner of the site is actually the board, not the TLC. Also, the TLC did not participate in an October mediation session between a residents group, the City and the developer.

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