In Scarborough, Toronto’s east end, a three-bedroom house will cost almost the same to buy as a two-bedroom condominium apartment. It isn't difficult to guess which most home buyers might choose. Toronto’s Official Plan is to increase density in the city through mid-rise construction along designated avenues - arterial roads that could accommodate and become more vibrant with intensification. The challenge for Toronto is how to achieve this density in these “inner suburb” neighbourhoods in a market-driven economy where the market still favors larger homes. This is where policy needs to catch up to planning.
Where can the city and the province look to try to achieve their goals? Municipal finance and provincial building codes are two areas.
In Toronto, a significant revenue stream is generated from development charges. A development charge is levied on new development to cover the capital cost of new infrastructure that is required to service that development. At one of Toronto’s Chief Planner Roundtables, Pamela Blais, who focuses on the economic and environmental impact of planning as a Principal at Metropole Planning Consultants Ltd, explained that reducing the development charge can incentivize new construction in certain areas that would otherwise be less attractive in the current market. One strategy for Toronto is to vary these charges according to location to encourage new construction along the designated avenues.
The Toronto Society for Architects held a discussion recently about another approach to increase mid-rise development along the corridors: wood-framing construction. Currently, the Ontario Building Code only allows wood-framing for buildings up to four storeys, precluding mid-rise buildings of six storeys. Therefore, more expensive building materials like steel must be used, reducing the profitability of these developments. Paul Bedford, Toronto’s former Chief Planner, believes that by permitting developers could save “$20 to $25 per square foot (approximately a 10-15% savings) by allowing wood-frame construction in mid-rise buildings.” Assuming all safety standards are met, this reduction in building material cost might be the tipping point to lure the private sector.
By varying Toronto’s development charges and re-evaluating the Ontario Building Code, Toronto may be able to create the market that will build density and multiple avenues it envisions in the official plan.
What policy changes have helped your city achieve its planning goals? Has planning outpaced policy or vice versa?
Credits: Photograph by Lindsay Vanstone. Images and data linked to sources.