At community meetings to discuss new developments it’s common to hear the term “density” applied to housing construction with the disdain of a four-letter word. This, even though most will agree there is an affordability crisis and that one of the ways to address it is to find ways to build more supply.
Often, the political argument over density is framed as a choice between the starkest possible housing options: Either it’s all high-rise towers everywhere or it’s all low-rise single-family everywhere, as if there are only two ways to build cities: tall or sprawl.
Last week, the new mayor of Burlington, Ont., fulfilled a campaign pledge of turning away from tall and slowing down development in the city, freezing for one year all approval work on high-rise developments proposed in the downtown core of the city of 183,000.
“Burlington residents have consistently raised concerns about over-intensification and development in our city,” Mayor Marianne Meed Ward told reporters following her election in 2018. Her opposition was linked in part to a Local Planning and Appeals Tribunal ruling that approved a 26-storey, 264-unit lakefront condo tower from Adi Developments near a city bus terminal.
But density does not have to equal towers, and according to new research by Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development all the growth in housing construction the province needs to support both population growth and affordability goals could be met by rezoning areas near transit to support “gentle density,” missing-middle projects.
Last week, Tim Hudak, chief executive of the Ontario Realtors Association, and Joe Vaccaro, chief executive of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, announced their support for an expansion of as-of-right zoning in lands near public transit for higher housing density. The groups commissioned the Ryerson report, Transit Nodes in Ontario Have Untapped Development Potential, and submitted it to the Ontario government’s Housing Supply Action Plan consultation.
The report said the province needs to build 75,000 units a year for 24 years to keep up with population growth, but in the past 24 years it has averaged just 63,000 units per year. The report identified 200 transit nodes, everything from subway and GO stations to light rail or bus rapid-transit lines, and found 1,500 square kilometres of land within 800 metres of those nodes. Currently, 30 per cent of that space is predominantly single-detached houses and only 154 square kilometres of the land has been rezoned to allow greater density.
There are many neighbourhoods in Ontario that explicitly reject any density higher than single-family. In Toronto, this has become known as the "yellow belt” – an area about 297 square kilometres (or two-thirds of all of Toronto’s residential land) that restricts housing types to detached or semi-detached. No triplexes, no quads, no townhouses or six-storey apartments without a rezoning approval.
No-density zones also distort the local land market, leading developers to focus on small pockets that are filled with towers. Eglinton and Yonge or King West stand out as examples of a tower rush.
“Right now we’re getting a lot more density than we currently need, but all the city has done is pushed density into small pockets. You’re not getting a lot of missing middle,” said Diana Petramala, senior researcher with Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Research and co-author of the transit nodes report. Ms. Petramala’s research has shown that missing-middle housing has gone from 40 per cent of the new housing stock that was created pre-1946, to less than 15 per cent of new housing since 2006. “There’s a lot of fear in terms of density, and there are there are negative externalities” she acknowledges, such as when explosions in density overwhelm local infrastructure.
Ms. Petramala said that even if towers were banned in the transit nodes the report identifies and new multi-unit housing was restricted to four storeys tall, a mass rezoning would still generate plenty of new housing. Over the past three years in non-rezoned areas about 13 housing units per year have been created; by comparison, rezoned areas see twice the volume of housing creation. The report projects rezoning the entire transit node area could allow the creation of 25 housing units per square kilometre, or an extra 20,000 homes a year.
Just that sort of smaller-scale “missing middle” development is what Leith Moore, co-founder of R-Hauz Solutions Inc., is poised to start delivering to Toronto, and, if all goes well, to the rest of Canada.
“I’ve been in this business for 36 years, for the last decade I’ve been trying to find ways to do more mid-rise housing. And I thought, why don’t I design something that fits as-of-right, and is repeatable so I don’t have to design it every time?” said Mr. Moore, who was a vice-president of development with the Sorbara Group and a past chair of Toronto’s builders’ association BiLD. “I’ve been collecting all these ideas and techniques and along the way I saw some built forms I’d like to do. I proposed it to a lot of folks: ‘Leith the dreamer, it will never work,’ they said.“
Mr. Moore has developed a template for a six-storey townhouse, made of mass-timber, pre-fabricated off-site, assembled on-site in weeks, built on slabs (so no expensive below-grade parking garages), complete with an elevator and a flexible interior layout that could support owner-occupied uses, rental or retail as needed.
Now Mr. Moore’s plans are moving ahead; the first two buildings are set to begin construction in April at 1598 and 1602 Queen St. E. (site of the original Knob Hill Farms grocery store founded by former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro).
Mr. Moore said he has 13 more sites in the pipeline, and in the second year of his project he hopes to complete 100 or more a year as the process for approvals and fabrication ramp up. Going forward, he hopes to partner with small landowners who are looking to upgrade their lots or their buildings (his intention is not to be a major landowner on his own).
“There’s tens and tens of thousands of units that can be done in Toronto: Danforth, Queen, King, Eglinton, Bloor: we’re really focused on avenues on transit,” he said. Mr. Moore’s plans are intended to fit inside the as-of-right density rules along the city’s avenues, and hopefully avoid lengthy planning approval delays.
Kyle Knoeck, Toronto City Planning Division manager for the east section of Toronto and East York District where the first R-Hauz townhouses are slated to be built, called Mr. Moore’s project “interesting.”
“It brings forward intensification on a smaller scale than we see it,” Mr. Knoeck said. “If this building typology becomes common and familiar, I would expect that will also make our understanding of any planning issues associated with planning applications quicker and easier to deal with.”
But he cautions that “as-of-right” is not as easy as it sounds. Mr. Moore hopes his six-storey build fits on every transit avenue in the city, but even his first site on Queen was initially zoned for only four-storeys. Mr. Moore admits the time required to apply for rezoning of hundreds of city sites currently in the yellow belt would make R-Hauz’s plans uneconomic.
"This city is good at high-rise, good at townhouses and bad at everything else,” Mr. Moore said. "You go to Copenhagen, they have great transit, but there isn’t anything that feels like more than six storeys. Same in Paris: you can get really good density using mid-rise techniques.”
“The term yellow belt is loaded with a pre-judgement and value statements on areas that are designated as neighbourhoods,” said Mr. Knoeck, who notes the city has other preoccupations that include stabilizing neighbourhood character. “I don’t think it’s as simple as just allowing intensification everywhere. The real issue is around questions of housing affordability … what’s necessary to improve housing affordability?”
Whether you believe that “more supply” is automatically good for affordability there are other economic goods to consider. The Ryerson report says adding density to those transit nodes would add an extra $5-billion to $7-billion in construction expenditures, create more than 40,000 jobs and lift the Ontario economy by as much as $10-billion, or 1 per cent.
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