Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief city planner, hasn’t stopped talking since she took this job. She has been speaking everywhere in the city to constituencies big and small. She uses Twitter, has a blog, even did a TED talk.
When she spoke recently at the Wychwood Barns Salon Series, organized by Ward 21 Councillor Joe Mihevc, she began by laying out the scope of current development in the city.
Toronto’s crane count at that point was up to 164 and rising. The number varies week by week, but she gave us some context. By comparison, New York is next most intense with 60 cranes, Mexico City has 40-50, and Chicago has 30-40. So, she pointed out, “Toronto has more cranes up than the next three cities in North America combined.” And, she noted with satisfaction, “85% of those buildings are going up at points where we would like to see intensification – areas that are well-served by transit and other necessary infrastructure.”
She described Toronto as a city of innovation, citing the Wychwood Barns, the Brickworks and the Distillery District . “These are developments admired and emulated by other cities.” Toronto is a leader in Green Roof policy, and “in five years, based on existing applications, we will be leading the world in green roofs.”
Then, she laid out her priorities for the city:
1. A spectacular public realm – Our common spaces are the fabric which knit our lives together and make place for civic life.
2. Transportation – We want to direct growth to places with best access to transit, and we need revenue tools for enhanced transit.
3. Economic Prosperity – Condos everywhere is short term profitable, but we must take the long view in planning and protect community assets, employment lands and affordable housing to make a city for all.
4. A City for the Future – we must make spaces that can adapt and change over time, build considering weather patterns and climate change, and plan for resiliency.
I liked what she said. I liked how she said it. She emphasized the positive and still directly addressed the urgent issues we are facing. She is straightforward, smart, articulate and has a vision of the city I would like to see implemented.
So I wondered just how that would happen. Huge towers just seem to go up wherever a developer decides there’s money to be made building them, whether or not they enhance the city or are welcomed by its citizens. What can she really do?
Take, for example, the Avenues. Toronto’s Official Plan classifies arterial corridors throughout the city, such as Eglinton and St. Clair West as ‘Avenues.’ The city has a process for conducting Avenue Studies to determine for each individual avenue thoughtful criterion to intensify to a degree compatible with adjacent neighbourhoods. Downtown, as we all can see, is well-saturated with high rises, but there are other parts of the city also served by existing infrastructure where intensification can be accommodated. Keesmaat would like to see development spread further across the city with more mid-rise buildings along the Avenues. Me, too. In fact what she is advocating has been a city goal for quite some time now.
The increase in density along avenues can revitalize local shopping areas and take advantage of new dedicated transit lanes. It allows for more variety and affordability in rental stock as well as condos, so people can live near jobs and urban amenities, which increases everyone’s quality of life. It allows older people who wish to downsize the chance to stay in their own neighourhood. Forestalling Manhattanization makes a city for everyone, not just those rich enough to afford to live downtown.
For St. Clair Avenue West, for example, the recommendation is 7-9 story mid-rise buildings, where the norm now is 2-3 stories with retail on the ground floor. I participated in the city’s public consultations during the Avenue Study, blue-skied and applied my little sticky notes to the paper street scape lining the room, all of us hoping our little brainstorms and local innovation ideas would add up to the St. Clair we always wished for. And how many years ago was that?
The St. Clair Avenue West Study was completed in 2009 and the bylaw amendments were adopted by council, but can not be implemented because the changes were immediately appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). According to the City’s website, “These By-laws have been appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board and will not be in full force and effect until a decision has been rendered. In the interim, the current policies zoning provisions will continue to apply to the properties in the area.“ Since 2009.
The OMB is an unelected body appointed by the Lieutenant Governor (!) on recommendations from the provincial government. The OMB has the power to impose its decisions and overrule the city’s official plan and zoning by-laws. An appeal takes a great deal of time and money, which means the system is inherently biased in favour of developers over citizens. (The famous halt of the Spadina Expressway in the early 1970’s came about, after all the organizing and demonstrating against it, only because the Premier of Ontario overruled the OMB. That’s what it takes to win.)
What can the chief planner do about developing the Avenues? For developers, dealing with zoning applications to the city can be so time-consuming and expensive that there’s a natural incentive for them to get their money’s worth and build big. Her idea is to ease zoning processes making mid-rise construction “as of right” rather than requiring application for a zoning change for every project. Developers could then afford to build smaller, and small developers could have a chance to build at all.
She would like to make this small change, but it’s city council that must pass it. What she is doing with this suggestion is thinking tactically. She is providing councilors with a way to direct city development with one simple change that, once in force, will remove this class of development from the purview of the OMB. It’s consistent with what councilors have already endorsed by incorporating the Avenue Study recommendations into the Official Plan. It’s just that the way municipal law is structured, the zoning changes must be passed to implement the vision in the Official Plan. It’s possible that the zoning change will be challenged if passed and we will have to wait for the OMB to rule, but if that happens it will be a one-time decision rather than a case-by-case zoning variance for every project. Any highrise proposal would still need to apply for a zoning variance, and the practice of horse-trading between local councilors and developers, which secures those approvals by providing local amenities, can continue unabated for those large projects.
So, does it do us any good at all to have an intelligent and articulate chief planner? Absolutely yes. Keesmaat understands the convoluted structure that Toronto is saddled with, that of municipal governance with provincial oversight. She has vision and ideas and encourages citizen engagement using every communication tool at her disposal. She sees her role as providing leadership. Her approach seems to be both strategic, looking at the big picture, and tactical, suggesting tools and ideas to move the plan along.
“We as planners must be rooted in data, evidence and best practices, and use these to advocate for good planning.”
But her success depends on us. We should take advantage of her expertise, participate in that conversation with the planners and each other, and learn and develop our vision of the city together. But it is elected representatives, not city staff such as planners, who implement policy. We have to elect people who know that we are passionate about where we live, that we expect them to respect citizens’ municipal decisions and to implement our planning recommendations. And we have to actively hold them accountable between elections, throughout their terms. Municipal and provincial – all of them.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin