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When Toronto city council last month approved the final plan for a locally contentious mixed-income apartment development near Wilson subway station, the number of affordable rental units was actually 25 per cent higher than the initial proposal, which was made public only a year ago.

“That’s probably the first time ever that the City of Toronto’s affordable housing process has added hundreds of units during the consultation process,” Mark Richardson, spokesperson for a grassroots advocacy organization called Housing Now, says.

The group’s name is a reference to a council strategy, first bruited by Mayor John Tory, to develop 10,000 new market and affordable apartments on 11 city-owned parcels, several of them near subway stations. Unlike an earlier generation of city land deals, these sites won’t be sold to developers, but rather leased for 99-year terms to property management firms and non-profits.

While council approved the Housing Now policy, responsibility for delivering on its promise has fallen to a newly ascendant municipal agency called CreateTO, which has emerged as an influential and closely watched player in the often byzantine process of redeveloping city land.

Headed by long-time Mattamy Homes executive Brian Johnston, CreateTO grew out of the 2018 merger of two arm’s length city agencies – the Toronto Port Lands Corp. and Build TO – that were tasked with managing or selling municipal real estate, but often ended up feuding with city hall, or one another.

CreateTO, officials say, embodies an alternative philosophy about the raison d’etre of city-owned real estate – a giant portfolio that includes 8,000 parcels of land ranging from tiny parkettes to sprawling brownfield sites. As Mr. Johnston explains, the city saw that it has to take a more strategic approach to those assets instead of either using them for one purpose only or selling off surplus land to builders. “Taking a holistic view of all these assets is just common sense,” he says. “We don’t have a profit motive. We have a public good motive.”

The agency has also been directly involved with a push by the city to rationalize its office space, now spread across 52 locations. As well, CreateTO is in the process of absorbing Toronto Community Housing’s highly integrated development and construction division, which has been responsible for rebuilding and intensifying older public housing complexes, such as Lawrence Heights. CreateTO is also overseeing higher profile redevelopment projects for sites such as the TTC head office and the Etobicoke Civic Centre.

Adamson Associates Architects

Renderings of the proposed Etobicoke Civic Centre redevelopment.Henning Larsen Architects

Toronto-Danforth councillor Paula Fletcher, a CreateTO director, says the agency’s mandate reflects a growing awareness that the city-building potential of all those far-flung land holdings far exceeds whatever financial windfall they may have generated on the open market.

RioCan president Jonathan Gitlin adds that CreateTO has been set up to allow the city to bring development deals to fruition far more quickly than was the case under the previous system, which gave every municipal department the right of first refusal on any parcel slated to be sold. “It’s certainly an improvement from what they had before,” he says. “It makes for a more fluid system.”

Mr. Johnston, who has been in the job for a year, is described as a forthright, no-nonsense developer who is eager to get deals done but wants to be measured by his ability to make a dent in the city’s affordable housing shortage. He says he was initially skeptical about consummating lease-based development deals that didn’t involve a land sale. But he now believes there’s a strong market for such arrangements, especially among institutional funds that invest in purpose-build rental buildings and won’t be spooked by a looming pandemic-induced recession.

The CreateTO back story traces to amalgamation, in 1998, when the city’s real estate holdings were divvied up among 24 departments and agencies, each with its own competing land agenda. The result is that many sites are single-use parcels (e.g., libraries, fire halls, community centres), often with plenty of surface parking.

The Toronto Parking Authority, in particular, has long held on to lands that sit directly adjacent to subway stations. (Several are now on CreateTO’s radar as future mixed-income apartment complexes that will be part of the Housing Now strategy.)

Mr. Tory and his advisers had their eyes on the fractured real estate division as early as 2014. After he was elected, city officials created, for the first time, a comprehensive registry of all those parcels, as well as a centralized list of future land requirements for city facilities that were slated to be expanded or rebuilt.

Insiders say city officials had a wake-up call back in 2013, when BuildTO, the agency responsible for selling surplus municipal real estate, threatened to go to the Ontario Municipal Board to over the city’s own plan for a Front Street site that once held the Greyhound Bus terminal. The unseemly intramural bickering offered vivid proof that a city agency mandated to maximize the return on land value was willing to ignore other city priorities.

That outlook has been shelved, as have BuildTO’s more recent plans to sell off several choice commuter parking lots to developers. Instead, Mr. Johnston cites the example of an aging fire hall on Adelaide Street West, near John Street. CreateTO will build a new station on the Metro Hall lands and is combining the previous site with a city-owned parking lot immediately to the north, on Richmond Street West. Mr. Johnston says his planners are developing a precinct plan so whatever goes up on those now conjoined downtown lots will provide a range of amenities, including open space, a daycare centre, as well as a mix of housing types.

Some CreateTO projects have run into roadblocks – local councillors objecting to a loss of parking, as happened with the Wilson site, or residents complaining about too much density. When it was established, council gave the agency all sorts of clout to ensure it didn’t become ensnared in bureaucratic battles or local backlash. But, Mr. Johnston says, he’s more interested in moving the Housing Now deals along expeditiously than obtaining consensus. “I’d rather not worry about getting every site absolutely correct,” he says.

Deputy mayor Ana Bailao, who also sits on the CreateTO board and represents the Davenport ward, insists this influential new player won’t be running roughshod over the concerns of communities and local councillors. But, she adds, the municipality has no choice but to engage in “tough conversations” about the need for more affordable housing in a city with a one-per-cent vacancy rate, skyrocketing rents and increasingly unattainable house prices.

Says Ms. Bailao: “People have realized that there’s going to be some changes if your son, your daughter or your mother is going to continue to live in the city.”

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