Progressive Toronto was feeling pretty darn good about its collective self last week when the City revealed it would be hiring the poised planning consultant Jennifer Keesmaat to take over as chief planner. In a round of media interviews (including one with Spacing editor Matt Blackett), she made all the right noises, stressing her interest in pedestrian life, bike lanes, and transit.
With all due respect to her outlook, it’s difficult to imagine a new chief planner speaking any other language: her comments echo consensus views in the profession, expressed in cities from Calgary to Los Angeles to New York and beyond. No one ever expected the City to hire someone cast in Mayor Rob Ford’s mold.
But Keesmaat will be dropped through a ring of fire when she starts the job in September, given that council in October will be considering what to do with a suite of far-reaching staff reports on a long-term transit expansion and financing plan. She’ll have to stand up to the likes of James Pasternak and Giorgio Mammoliti and resist the temptation to equivocate in response to their queries about subways. (I’m not even going to speculate about how brother Doug intends to conduct himself.)
No one, I should add, should delude themselves about the length of Keesmaat’s leash: the City’s de facto chief planner is deputy city manager John Livey, a tough-minded veteran planner who holds the keys to the waterfront file and much else that goes on in the murky corners of the bureaucracy.
Acknowledging Keesmaat’s official role, however, I’d suggest she faces two other major priorities that are every bit as important as the mobility issues she foregrounded in the media last week.
Start with defending the Employment Lands. The City has a lot of the land zoned for industrial or commercial uses, much of which is either sitting fallow or at risk of being gobbled up by voracious condo developers.
In my view, job one for the City, broadly, and Keesmaat, as chief planner, is developing a novel and imaginative strategy to bring employment back to the 416, and not just the office/institutional districts downtown.
Here’s a shocking little statistic from the City’s 2011 employment survey [PDF]. Last year, Toronto’s absolute employment level — 1.3 million jobs — remained below what it was a generation ago, just before the big manufacturing collapse of the early 1990s, and this despite the arrival of about 300,000 new residents since amalgamation. True, the number of jobs has climbed back over the intervening two decades, but the changes have been fairly marginal in the past few years.
More problematically, most of the new job growth, according to the survey, takes place either downtown or in the city’s other office clusters (North York City Centre, Yonge/Eglinton, Consumer’s Road, etc.). Almost all the industrial zones in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York have seen declines, some of them (e.g., Steeles/Victoria Park, Rexdale) quite steep. Drill a bit further down and you can see that the largest employment gains from 2001-2011 came from part-time jobs.
That’s not a pretty picture. The chief planner, of course, is limited in his/her ability to alter global or even regional investment patterns. Yet the GTA Greenbelt/Places to Grow regulations should, in theory, draw commercial/industrial investment back towards the city, just as these growth management policies have prompted subdivision developers to build downtown.
But Invest Toronto seems to have had extremely limited success attracting business to the city. In 2011, according to its annual report [PDF], the agency persuaded just 19 companies to settle here, adding between 549 to 1,221 jobs. (For you kids keeping score at home, that’s a .4% increase in the number of new establishments in the city and a rounding error in terms of Toronto’s overall employment base.)
Meanwhile, Build Toronto officials, having been given firm marching orders by brother Doug to rapidly monetize the city’s land holdings, appear to have shifted their development priorities to the residential market, which is to say merrily transferring land to the aforementioned voracious condo builders.
Keesmaat, who professes an interest in doing things differently, should take it upon herself to spearhead a multi-department effort to figure out how the city can turn this particular page, and do so without transforming all those parcels of land into shopping malls.
Her other major challenge is breathing sanity back into the condo sector. Two generations from now, Torontonians will look at one another and wonder what the hell we were thinking, building so many shabbily constructed glass towers filled to the brim with veal fattening pens masquerading as starter investments.
Yet while the City has gone to genuinely absurd lengths to make life simple and profitable for the tower builders, it continues to throw regulatory obstacles in the way of mid-rise developers, and this despite years and years of official and secondary plan visions that wax on endlessly about…midrise. The recent fight over the mid-rise proposal for the Licks land, on Queen East in the Beaches, is just the latest manifestation of our political and institutional muddle-headness on this topic.
Mid-rise buildings will age well, allow homeowners to retire in their own communities, and hold out the possibility of family-sized units — all goals that support the official plan. Yet the planning department has been unable to figure out how to restrain the high-rise sector and encourage the mid-rise sector. Keesmaat’s predecessors have died on this hill, and there’s good reason to think she will, too.
But with Mark Carney mercifully busting up the condo party, she has a choice opportunity to push the planning bureaucracy, and council, to figure out how to better align the City’s Kakfaesque approval machinery with the Big Urban Goal of creating arterials lined with mid-rise mixed use buildings that create precisely the kind of transit- and pedestrian-friendly development Keesmaat espouses.
And if all else fails, she can always phone up David Crombie and ask him how that he pulled off that 45-foot height limit rule way back when.
photo by Samuel Bietenholz