Intimidatingly overloaded at the leanest of recent times, the City of Toronto was awash with a deluge of development proposals at the close of last year. In a city already close to leading North America in the volume of new development—where the standard for what constitutes a 'flood' of applications isn't exactly low—the past weeks have brought an unprecedented degree of rezoning and site plan applications, reversing the script on what is usually a fairly slow time of year.
With planning application fees slated to rise significantly on January 1st of 2017, the last weeks of 2016 precipitated a rush of proposals to be filed before the end of the year. Given the circumstances, the situation is something of an outlier, precipitated not just by the demands of the market but by the bureaucracy of changing regulations.
Even so, the fact that an impending change in policy can precipitate such a rush of activity speaks to the already frenetic reality of Toronto's development. Notwithstanding the recent uptick in applications, the City has faced a growing volume of development in recent years. According to the City, 4,790 applications were received last year, representing a 27% increase over the 3,763 applications in 2013, a year when Toronto already led North America in the volume of high-rise construction.
Fuelling the already unprecedented pace of re-urbanization, Toronto is also taking on a growing proportion of regional growth (above). Evidence of the city's explosive growth requires little more than a walk down the street, with the last years seeing further growth in the volume of approvals and construction starts, as the mean GFA of proposed projects also continues to expand.
So what does all of this mean? With the City's relationship to the OMB evolving as a plan to expand the size of the City's Planning Division is set to be reviewed by Council, we take a look at the changing policies, while providing comparative overview of Toronto's planning practices, and an analysis of the challenges and benefits they pose.
City Planing Set to Expand
Responding to the size, complexity, and volume of applications, the City's Planning and Growth Management Committee approved a temporary, two-year staff expansion for the Planning Division. As outlined by the City, a total 17 temporary full-time planning positions will—pending full Council approval—be created to "address development application review matters," according to the City.
The new staff members would be assigned to review applications for some of the city's busiest development nodes, including Yonge & Eglinton, North York Centre, and the Downtown core. The temporary contracts are slated to expire in March of 2019, though a new permanent position for a Committee of Adjustment Director is also included in the recommendations. The 17 temporary positions will include 8 planners and 1 support assistant for the Planning Department, alongside 5 legal solicitors, 2 park planners, and 1 senior landscape architect.
Given the relatively harsh limits of Tory-era austerity—with cuts slated across the board—the new planning staff will not be funded in the City's Operating Budget. Instead, funding for the 17 new positions will be sourced from the reserve of surplus funds collected from development fees. Over the two years, the expansion is set to cost $4.7 million, reducing the reserve fund from $10.6 million to $5.9 million.
The rising complexity and volume of Toronto's development applications is also reflected in recently proposed amendments to the OMB mandate. Alongside the City's longstanding push to transfer some OMB appeal powers to the Municipal level, new changes to Ontario Planning Act could see the timelines for filing OMB appeals extended.
As it stands, developers are able to appeal a rezoning proposal to the OMB if the City "fails to proceed" with a review of the project within 120 days. For proposals requiring Official Plan Amendments, meanwhile, the deadline stands at 180 days. These deadlines are seen as unrealistic by the City, with December's Council voting for the timeframes to be extended to 180 and 240 days respectively. Although the City's push to extend these deadlines is probably not solely attributable to the swelling number of increasingly complex applications, the argument that existing timelines are inadequate is at least partially predicated on growing volume.
Although the proposed planning staff will not be funded through the City Budget, 2017's Preliminary Operating Budget does include a provision for 17 permanent staff members for Toronto Building, the Municipal service charged with issuing building permits. For both Toronto Building and the Planning Division, the necessary staff increases are symptoms of the same development boom. The difference is that the somewhat less tangible—but nonetheless vital—contributions of the Planning Division are not included in the budget, requiring an external (and temporary) contribution from reserve funds.
Toronto in Context
If approved by Council, the new staff members will provide the Planning Division significantly expanded resources. As Councillor Jon Fillion noted at Planning and Growth Management Committee, however, the new planners may not do as much as hoped for in reducing the burden. "I could say, without a whole lot of exaggeration, you could put them all in the North York Centre and they would be kept very busy,” the Ward 23 Councillor told the Committee. Ward 14's Gord Perks expressed similar sentiments, arguing that the combination of an "austerity agenda" and historically high growth has left the Planning Division overworked.
As noted in the Toronto Star, the addition of 17 new employees would still leave Toronto Planning proportionately understaffed relative to other Ontario municipalities. The "investment will still leave the division with far fewer planners on average per capita, compared to Mississauga, Hamilton and Vancouver," the Star's Jennifer Pagliaro observes. To match the per capita staffing of those municipalities, another 15 planners—making for a total of 32 new hires—would need to join the department. That argument was previously made to the Budget Committee by Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who has also warned that an even greater volume of applications is expected in 2017.
Despite Toronto's relative dearth of City planners compared to some Canadian municipalities, however, the nature of the City's Official Plan and outdated zoning necessitate an unusually large planning department. Writing in the Toronto Star in 2007—the earlier years of our ongoing construction boom—Metropolitan Toronto's former Planinng Commissioner David Gurin pointed out that the City of Toronto actually employed more planners than New York City throughout the previous decade.
Given New York's much greater population of over 8 million—compared to Toronto's 2.8 million—and relatively robust growth, it stands to reason that America's largest city would require a larger planning staff. So why the disparity? According to Gurin, New York's practice of rezoning entire districts, rather than individual sites, speeds up the planning process while encouraging more contextually cohesive built form.
By contrast, Toronto's zoning continues to "allow one or two-storey buildings, reflecting what was here in the 1950s," Gurin notes. Instead, much of the impetus for growth is driven by Provincial growth policy and developer interest. While most New York development continues to follow "as-of-right" zoning, some 90% of Toronto projects require rezoning, with amendments to the Official Plan—which Gurin argues may be overly prescriptive—also frequent. Both processes are time-consuming, requiring planners to perpetually re-write policy on a site-by-site basis.
Gurin also points out that low-density zoning may paradoxically incentivize taller buildings. "If a developer must incur the expense of lawyers and planners to apply for an amendment to the zoning bylaw, it makes financial sense to aspire to 26 storeys, rather than six," he writes. By contrast, allowing for wholesale rezoning of districts to allow mid-rise form could spur the sort of gentle density that characterizes Brooklyn.
While Toronto Planning has moved to facilitate more mid-rise development in recent years, it's valuable to consider how the regulatory structure that governs planning and development impacts the nature of Toronto's City Planning. Under the circumstances, of course, the impetus to add more staff is justified. At the same time, it's worth asking why the City's policies necessitate such a laborious planning process in the first place. And in a city where urban density has become the norm, it's worth asking why our planning policies continue to treat it as an aberration.
We will keep you updated as the City's Planning Division continues to evolve amidst record growth, with the proposed staff increase set to be reviewed by City Council on January 31st. Want to share your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment in the space below this page.