There are many phases to the development process which we regularly cover here on UrbanToronto. From site applications revealed by our insiders, through public notices posted on-site and captured by our Forum contributors roaming the city, to the day when hoarding is finally erected and equipment appears on the site.

But there is a much earlier part of the process, which is the Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) required to complete before any development moves forward. Here, lenders and developers turn to environmental consultants to identify potential or existing environmental contamination liabilities on a particular piece of property based upon what has existed there before.

To source those comprehensive sets of current and historical environmental records, environmental consultants in Toronto turn to ERIS, Environmental Risk Information Services, a source of historical property information in commercial real estate for North America. Because whatever the piece of property, vacant or not, chances are very strong that something stood there before, especially in a high-density city such as Toronto.

Historical Aerial Photos 1946 vs 2018, Highway 7 and Weston Rd, Concord ON, image courtesy of ERIS

ERIS, through hundreds of federal, state/provincial and private sector databases, has accessed, collected, tabulated and stored millions of digital historical records to identify potential environment threats on properties. It is involved very early in the process, during the purchase, refinancing, and development process of a commercial real estate property.

“Environmental consultants order our data in doing due diligence and environmental site assessments on a property, with most looking for information from when cities began to be developed in a high-density manner, and that in North America began as far back as the 1920s,” says Mark Mattei, Senior Vice President, Business Development. “In major cities such as Toronto, New York, and Chicago there has been a lot of development where land use has changed over the decades. Maybe retail or an office building is being planned on a site where a chemical plant existed 100 years ago, or even a landfill site. ERIS has it.”

ERIS has been providing critical risk and historical information on properties in Canada since 1999 and operates in the United States, Mexico and, through affiliations, in Europe and Australasia. Its reports meet criteria set by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The company delivers accurate, affordable, on-demand database research and risk assessment services and is the most comprehensive environmental data repository in Canada.

The depth of information contained in ERIS' arsenal is impressive in that it includes historic fire insurance maps, historic aerial photos, topographic maps, city directories, and land title and lien searches. It also includes detailed physical setting information about a site area including hydrologic, geologic, soil, oil and gas wells, water/groundwater wells, and radon.

The first stage of an Environmental Site Assessment, referred to as a "Phase I", is when most consultants turn to ERIS to gather the current and historical environmental records on a site. That is followed by a site survey whereby the consultants set out to answer questions on the site which may be raised by the information. They also may interview stakeholders and some neighbours to the site about past activity and what has been on-site over the years. The consultant then evaluates all the information and provides a final report to its client.

ERIS has introduced new digital technology to assist its clients, including ERIS Mobile, an app which allows the user to view project data, take and tag site photos, notes, and complete checklists while on-site to make report writing more efficient back in the office. It also offers ERIS Xplorer allowing users to visualize, interpret, and analyze records and risk information relating to a particular location.

ERIS Xplorer platform showing site area with Aerial Photo (2018) and environmental data records plotted, image courtesy of ERIS

“ERIS Xplorer simply layers everything, such as fire insurance maps, aerial photos, the physical setting report, and allows for the filtering of database records,” says Mattei. “It’s designed to bring all the required information into one platform for efficiency and accuracy, while also reducing the time required to complete an environmental site assessment. We’re always trying to help our clients through efficiency.”

As UrbanToronto readers continue to marvel at the seemingly endless pace of development in the city, counting construction cranes and monitoring Zoning By-Law Amendments, keep in mind that important processes and procedures are taking place much earlier, with consultants digging deep into data, before any digging occurs anywhere else.

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