I went to an open house at City Hall last night about Toronto’s new zoning bylaw project. It doesn’t sound all that exciting, and the event was pretty sparsely attended, but the project is in fact both huge and very important. It will, literally, determine the shape of the city as it evolves.
The goal of the project is to finally amalgamate the 43 existing zoning bylaws from the former municipalities of the old Metro Toronto into a single coherent set. These zoning bylaws determine the size, shape, placement and use of every building in Toronto (unless, of course, they are overwritten by the Committee of Adjustment or the Ontario Municipal Board). The bylaws currently in force are still the original ones set up in each of the cities after the Second World War (the first was in Etobicoke in 1949), all of which have been repeatedly and massively amended over the years — a total of over 10,000 amendments.
Making sense of this massive tangle of laws is a necessary but Herculaean task, so it’s understandable that the current effort is focused on creating a single coherent zoning bylaw that encompasses the existing bylaws, rather than trying to make significant improvements. On the other hand, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create zoning that is better focused on creating a more attractive and sustainable city, so to some extent this is an opportunity lost. If it’s not done now, it’s hard to imagine when it will ever be done.
There are, fortunately, a few useful changes towards making a better city. First, the new bylaw will include standards for bicycle parking for most types of new buildings, including condos and apartments, office buildings, and shopping. These standards will apply across the city, and much higher standards will apply in the cycling-heavy downtown core. Unfortunately, the currently proposal does not include standards for some types of buildings, notably institutional ones (hospitals, schools) for which such standards are also necessary.
The new zoning also takes a more coherent approach to minimum parking provisions, requiring a lot less parking for condos/apartments or office buildings that are in the downtown core or on heavy transit lines. Many new projects don’t need the amount of parking required by zoning, and developers would be glad not to pay the extra cost to provide it. But the overall reduction in minimum parking requirements is disappointingly limited — the planner in charge of the project, Joe D’Abramo, estimated it at about 10% less compared to previous requirements.
But parking is just the tip of the iceberg. The new bylaw is vast and complex, with a lot of it in technical language, but it will have a big impact on issues like green space, water drainage, sunlight on streets, density, the width and vibrancy of sidewalks, and many other questions that will shape the overall feel of our city as properties are built and rebuilt. I’m worried that the only people with the time and expertise to understand and analyze the impact of this project will be people with specific interests in commercial or residential real estate. Will the project be simply too big, or too detailed, for people who are interested in the overall shape and direction of the city to digest? The project seems generally well-thought-out and positive in its direction, but without the ambition to make significant improvements.
There are two more public consultations coming up, in North York and Scarborough, and there is also an extensive website with feedback options. One of the most striking aspects of the website is an interactive map that will give you the zoning that will apply to every single property in the city, including references to the previous zoning and any special exceptions.
I know too little to do much further analysis, but here are some issues that struck me as interesting and possibly worth looking at. Maybe some readers will be able to investigate them in depth. (Note that all of these apply only to new buildings — old ones are always grandfathered in).
– “Residential/commercial” is the designation for the kind of building that exists along main streets — stores with apartments above. The new bylaw has interesting positive provisions, such as requiring that such buildings be at least three storeys (at least in some areas) — no more quickie one-storey stores on commercial strips. But the detailed requirements seem to be quite different for different parts of the city — they would have to be analyzed to see if they perpetuate suburban sprawl in suburban areas. And the overall map I saw suggests that there’s no expansion of such mixed-use building zoning along arterial roads where it was previously absent, even though the official plan calls for this.
– There seem to be some positive provisions to ensure that people can’t pave over their yards around their houses — at least half will have to be “soft surface”, in other words earth and plants.
– Those basement garages with down-sloping driveways will be banned, not for aesthetic or environmental reasons but because they encourage flooding.
– The current guidelines for protecting ravines will become bylaws: that nothing can be built within 10 meters of the edge of a ravine.
– There will be no as-of-right zoning for big-box stores — they will always have to go through a re-zoning process.
– But schools and houses of worship will also now have to always go through a re-zoning process. This strikes me as a potential source of trouble — communities will always resist a building that will bring a lot more traffic, but schools and houses of worship are important elements of building a civic community. Perhaps for schools they feel that most public schools needed in the city are already built, so it will mostly apply to new private schools.
– The parking provisions don’t make any provision for sharing parking spaces (e.g. between a school and a church, which use them at different times). Nor do they make allowances for carshare services (e.g. providing carshare parking reduces parking needs and therefore parking space requirements). And, for example, secondary schools still have what seems like unreasonably large minimum requirements (2 spaces per classroom/office – which might be appropriate in some areas but not necessarily all).
– Parking zones will have to be re-evaluated after the Transit City Light Trail Transit lines are built, to reduce them to reflect the new transit capacity.
– There are very interesting new requirements for tall buildings (again, making what were formerly guidelines into rules). They will have to have a base that is no taller than the right-of-way of the street they face, and the tall part will have to be set back. As well, in order to force towers to be thin, they will have to have a floor plate of no more than 750 square meters. These are both appealing ideas, but one person questioned whether they would fix a specific architectural style into place, and maybe stop the building of mid-rise buildings. He pointed out that very few mid-rise or tall buildings before the boom of the last 10 years would fit these requirements.
A final thought to ponder: the oldest part of the city, which is generally considered both the most sustainable and the most attractive part, was built before there was any comprehensive zoning bylaw in place (though there were some rules about how buildings should be built).
Photo by Sam Javanrouh.