In my article in the most recent print issue of Spacing, I argued that if the City of Toronto wants to properly manage building height in this city, it needs to update its zoning to accommodate reasonable densities. So I was very happy to read recently that Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat has proposed to start doing just that. She is planning to re-zone the “Avenues” to allow mid-rise buildings “as-of-right” — that is, developers could just build to a mid-rise height without having to seek special approvals.
It’s an excellent idea, as long as it is done right. The “Avenues” are the transit-heavy main streets designated in the Official Plan as places that have the potential to absorb more population growth and develop into walking, cycling and transit-supporting main streets lined by mid-rise buildings. However, the City has had a hard time getting developers to build there in the way the plan envisages.
Re-zoning would mean that developers no longer have to go through a time-consuming and expensive re-zoning process for each project in order to build mid-rises on these streets. It creates two positive incentives.
First, it means it will be simpler for developers to build on the designated Avenues than in other places, which will encourage them to focus their projects in the locations where the City wants them to build rather than in places where projects might be more problematic.
Second, it gives an incentive for developers to build to the height the City has designated for the street. At the moment, since the developer has to go through a re-zoning in any case, they may as well seek as much height as possible to maximize their profits. If, on the other hand, they can get a reasonable and profitable height quickly and without extra expenses, they will have an incentive to just build to the as-of-right height. Quick and painless building to a pre-established height would benefit everyone: developer, local residents, and the city as a whole.
The crucial issue, however, is getting the re-zoning right. First, the re-zoning has to adhere to the City’s new Mid-Rise Performance Standards. These were developed specifically to set a height limit that would increase density but still allow sufficient sunlight onto the street. They are flexible — the height allowed is dependent on the width of the right-of-way (essentially the street and sidewalk). Go beyond the height specified by the guidelines, however, and the Avenues would start to become dark canyons, losing the walkable destination character that is their primary justification.
That doesn’t have to mean all the buildings have to be the same height. Rather, it should mean that if a building wants to go higher, it needs to buy air rights from its neighbours (commiting them not to go higher), so that if one building casts a larger shadow, its neighbours allow more light in to balance it. This variation might actually be beneficial, meaning more light on parts of the street during winter months.
Second, the City has to commit to fighting tooth-and-nail against attempts to break the new height limits without air rights. The re-zoning has to be a rule, not a starting point for negotiation like current zoning tends to be. With a coherent and well-reasoned re-zoning, the City will have a much better case in front of the Committee of Adjustment and the Ontario Municipal Board, but it will still need to bring its full weight to bear on early cases. Once a precedent for holding to the re-zoning is set, it will be easier to keep. But if a precedent is set that lets buildings start to creep higher, the benefit of re-zoning would be lost and we’ll be on our way to getting canyons rather than avenues.
But since the chances of that happening are actually greater without a re-zoning, Keesmaat’s proposal to get ahead of the game offers the best hope of having the Avenues develop in the way envisioned by the Official Plan.
Image from the City of Toronto.