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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto’s new unified zoning bylaw project

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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.



  1. The unified Zoning By-law project is a monumental undertaking, and one that is almost completely thankless since it will never please everyone (home daycare operators are particularly pissed by the drafts released). Unfortunately, it is destined to be appealed and help up for years, or at least large parts of it will be. But that shouldn’t take away from the accomplishment of what this document will eventually become.

    And I’m very thankful I only have to interpret (and get around) it. I’d shoot myself if I actually had to prepare it. Kudos to those who do.

  2. Good Article.

    I have been up on this issue, and have been and remained very concern about the parking component in particular.

    I would like to see minimum parking waved all together in downtown. Served by 2 and we all hope 3 subway lines in the future, but certainly not by any new road capacity; if developers believe they don’t need parking in a new building, good for them!
    They City ought not force the issue.

    In less transit-friendly areas, I would still prefer lower minimum parking requirements. I think this is perfectly justifiable based on actual use.

    If you visit many plazas or apartment buildings in the east core end (Victoria/Park Danforth) you will see vast numbers of UNUSED parking spaces. Why force them to be built?

    I hope that can be improved before the new Zoning is passed by Council.

  3. mixed use is an interest area of mine.
    my wife and i recently built a mixed use building on Dundas West requiring planning review – committee of adjustments – lane widening expropriation of 4% property, and 18 months of building permit delay to have an expensive environmental review to enable the city to take back the 9 inches to widen the lane.

    if we had to follow the guidelines, our building would have been set back 10 meters and would have left 10 meters at the rear leaving 2 meters left to build on. it is very important to have sidewalk presence for commercial properties.

    anyway we are finished with all the complexity and the building looks great, we have a classy store on the ground floor and a 2 storey apartment above which is excellent and parking for a tiny car at the back.

    It would be great if more properties could be redeveloped like ours was (it was previously a terrible eyesore and rat infestment) – it makes a great sidewalk experience when the buildings engage pedestrian life.

    I hope it gets easier for people with initiative to redevelop this type of property which I think is called an infill project.

  4. I don’t understand why we need minimum parking requirements at all, even if we weren’t intending to encourage more transit use. Surely since tenants/customers expect enough parking to meet demand, developers would have a market incentive to provide whatever amount of parking is actually demanded, and not any more – not the amount the city says is needed. A minimum parking bylaw simply encourages excessive construction of parking above and beyond what is actually demanded, increasing costs for developers and encouraging car use (or forcing them to waste time getting a variance to reduce those requirements).

  5. Look at the parking garages at new downtown condos. They are at least 70% vacant at all times, at least from what I have seen.

  6. James and Luke,

    In terms of parking garages new downtown condos/buildings, if you waive minimum parking and have none, developers (depending where they are building) may have none altogether and create tenant issues. Depending on the amount of parking spaces, I’ve been told that residential developers make money on parking spots, especially within the downtown. For condo buildings downtown, I’ve seen prices from $65,000 per spot to $15,000.

    Luke, I’m not sure what condo buildings downtown you are speaking about in terms of “70% vacant at all times” but I’ve been in enough and spoken with enough developers to suggest that is an inaccurate representation of the parking vacancy in buildings. It’s more like 15-20% vacant but about 10-15% is owned by someone so only about 5% is unowned. Either way, these parking spaces are located in the underground so what huge benefit might there be to eliminating the vacant ones? Don’t forget, almost every existing surface parking lot in the downtown core has some sort of building application on it so whatever vacant spaces there are remaining will become a valuable commodity. Soon enough, there will be no more surface parking lots in downtown core.

    I am more of the opinion that some parking lots/spaces downtown are shared a la some European cities. Generally, residents of downtown will park at night while workers downtown park in the day (when residents are gone). Doesn’t work for everyone but I’ve seen data which suggests it reduces overall parking spaces in a given area by about 25-30% depending on application and rules.

  7. There is a recent report on the Zoning By-Law update page that goes into parking reductions for Autoshare. A number of previous development applications had argued successfully for a 10-space reduction per Autoshare space, although it wasn’t an official standard and had to be argued on a case by case basis. Anyhow, this report is aiming to formalize the process… unfortunately they seem to be leaning toward a lower standard (maybe 4 per Autoshare space, if I remember correctly).

  8. JT,

    The idea behind eliminating rules such as parking restrictions is that market forces are the best way to determine supply and demand for parking spaces. If a developer decided to build a condo tower with no parking at all, presumably only those without cars would want to live there.

    I’ve heard that developers often lose money on parking spaces, as underground spots are incredibly expensive to build and are often in low demand in downtown buildings. If the city did not mandate minimum requirements, developers would be able to provide lower-cost housing if demand was there. Alternatively if a developer felt there was demand, they could build as many spots as necessary.

  9. Tell me again why we continue to carry on with 1950’s style zoning into the 21st century? It’s clear that current zoning practices are mostly anti-urban. Large setbacks that perpetuate sprawl, parking requirements that encourage car use, single use buildings that don’t add anything to the urban fabric – what for? Perhaps less zoning = better urbanism?

  10. Re: Parking

    There is a development application on University at Queen (The Royal Canadian Military Institute building) that proposes a condo building with no parking whatsoever, other than a couple carshare spaces.

    Obviously if they didn’t think they could sell the units without parking they wouldn’t have tried the application. It looks like their target market was the cost-conscious lives-downtown crowd, so it would be a bare-bones, relatively affordable building. Right downtown. There is clearly a disjunction between the rules and the economic reality. In this case the site is very small and providing parking would be extremely difficult.

    Needless to say, it was shot down due to zoning, mostly because of parking and amenity space, another one of those minimum-required’s of questionable value, especially downtown (how much does a party room you never use add to condo fees?).

    Zoning was great in the 1950’s when everybody needed a good sized backyard and adequate suburban setbacks. It can be argued that they are still of some use in the suburbs (other than ridiculous right-of-way widths), but in the downtown core I think a case-by-case, community involved analysis would be more effective.

  11. Three storeys on commercial strips is an improvement, but I prefer the look and feel of something a bit higher, 4-6 storeys.

    Maximum parking limits, sure, but minimum? Why?

    Any laws against ugly? Nothing more depressing than when an eyesore is torn down and the building that goes up is even uglier. Public libraries could serve as a model for infill/renos on a budget that really add to their neighbourhoods.

  12. i wish the project was less about harmonising existing rules and more about rethinking what really needs regulation and whether to spell out such regulation in specific measurements (like the size of a parking space or the percentage lot coverage) or in broader principles.

    an example is the “50% greenspace” rule. i gather that the object of this rule is to prevent people from paving their yards. but it might prevent people from building sheds (for their bicycles, say), will require costly trips to the committee of adjustment for home additions that look exactly like their neighbours’ homes, and probably won’t be interpreted to include greenroof space. do we want these outcomes? is this a good use of city resources, not to mention the OMB’s? no, of course not.

    the real issue, i presume, is urban runoff. the rule should restrict people from building structures and landscapes that unduly encourage urban runoff. that’s all that needs to be said. we need a more creative re-think on zoning.

  13. Is there an official definition of “sustainable development” ?

  14. @jakub: “Perhaps less zoning = better urbanism?”

    You said it! Less zoing, more freedom, better city!

  15. Parking regulations are of course an incredibly touchy subject, dealing as they do with past use patterns and future projections – an impossible combination.

    Parking minimums are often there for those who do not use them as much as for those who do. If buildings are built with no parking, nearby residents who street park raise bloody hell at the prospect of increased competition for the few available street spaces when people who live in the new building, or who visit it, look for a spot — some of them will have a car at some point in time. NIMBYS will therefore show up at public hearings and demand that the new structure include parking. There is also the shared benefit that JT points out, especially with commercial buildings that empty out in the evenings. Do you think the SkyDome would be the only large stadium in North America without surface lots around it if Toronto did not have such a highly-developed underground parking infrastructure?

    Where parking spaces are needed by the actual building users or visitors, market forces are not as efficient as you think. Due to the costs involved, it is usually easier for developers to not build parking and accept the lower rents/sales; however this just shifts the problem onto others and the next thing you know some historic underused structure is being torn down to build aboveground megalots. I doubt anyone would view this as desirable.

    On the other hand, once parking is built it is going to be used. The price will vary to meet the market but those spaces will generate cars to fill them. putting more vehicles on the street and more pollution in the air.

    The trick is then to determine the appropriate number for the minimums that best serves all needs. It may well be that whatever was used in the past can be lowered to take into account reasonably certain future use patterns, but don’t expect it to go to zero anytime soon.

  16. About the only time all the parking spots anywhere are used are at Christmas or Thanksgiving time.

  17. I find the concept of a unified zoning plan terrifying. If they get it wrong, it’s the entire city that suffers, not just some neighbourhood. A better approach would be to come up with some common definitions/terms/whatever, to break the city up into districts, and then to allow each district to apply the generic zoning ideas as they see fit. Prevents homogeneity, prevents mistakes from affecting the entire city.

  18. While the proposed zoning by-law has a few small improvements (e.g. somewhat better rules for parking both cars and bikes, a few nods toward intensification), on the whole it is a terrible disappointment. Approving the current plan will harden many of the antiquated norms and rules that now exist, by giving them more credibility and stability than they have had.
    Most glaringly, there is no effort to remove the antiquated ‘separation distances’ and other zoning rules that now make it difficult to make space in our city for group homes, transition houses for battered women, shelters, and other forms of residential living that are not family-based. These antiquated rules would all fall by the wayside if the 1950s ideal of the nuclear family living in a detached home were dethroned by the simple method of treating all buildings in which people actually live as ‘residential’. For people living in a group home or a rooming house, that is indeed their residence! They should not be treated as if they were a noxious industry in need of spatial segregation. Virtually all North American zoning bylaws treat ‘single-family detached’ as the number 1 category of zoning — something which is nothing but moral (and economic) regulation. Current zoning law is based on the assumption that family life (or rather nuclear family life, since extended families often face zoning difficulties) somehow needs special legal boundaries around it, and that single people in rooming houses or supportive housing merely have “dwellings”, not residences.
    I think it would make sense to distinguish some “dwellings” from one another, but only by size, which would mean that large buildings, from nursing homes to condo buildings, would be distinguished from, say, one- to three-storey buildings. But just as I don’t see why a church should be subject to more stringent zoning rules than a restaurant (as the new zoning bylaw proposes), I also don’t see why a condo building should be treated as a different “land use” than a home for the aged. As the Ontario Human Rights Commission pointed out last year in regard to the troubles experienced by nonprofits providing affordable/supportive housing, it is unfair and unjust to differentiate ‘land uses’ by the kind of person or the kind of household living in the building.
    — For more on this see the website of the group “homecoming”.

    – Mariana Valverde