From 2015 to 2017, UrbanToronto and its sister publication, SkyriseCities, ran an occasional series of articles under the heading Explainer. Each one took a concept from Urban Planning, Architecture, Construction, or other topics that often wind up in our publications, and presented an in depth look at it. It's time to revisit (and update where necessary) those articles for readers who are unfamiliar with them. While you may already know what some of these terms mean, others may be new to you. We are publishing or updating and republishing Explainer on a weekly basis.

This week's Explainer is a refresh of an original that appeared in 2016.

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Anyone who lives in Toronto sees the constant flux as they move about the city: places that were lively decades ago and then became obsolete over the years, are being redeveloped with new buildings that fit modern needs, while sometimes heritage buildings or parts of them are restored or retrofitted to suit a new era. In cases where the type of land use changes are required from industrial or commercial into residential or more likely mixed-use neighbourhoods, zoning and often Official Plan amendments must be obtained first. That can leave some older structures in their original state with legal nonconforming uses. What does it mean in Toronto? 

686 Richmond St W is an example of a Toronto building that had Legal Non-Conforming uses, image retrieved from Google Street View

Zoning By-laws are there to direct the physical composition of an urban area, specifying the permitted uses and standards of individual properties. They outline a site's authorized functions, built form, height, and density, but as the city evolves, updates to the new Zoning By-laws resulting that are the result of Area Studies can alter these permissions. The revisions often result in legal nonconforming uses or structures, where the use or built form of a property that complied with previous zoning regulations no longer adheres to the new regulations. This is also known as 'grandfathering.'

Toronto's zoning map outlines the permitted property uses across the city, image via City of Toronto

While the use or built form of a grandfathered site may be contrary to current attitudes and the public interest, a nonconforming use or structure does not need to be altered to reflect the new zoning rules. The property can continue to operate legally despite not meeting the most recent zoning specifications. While the City will prohibit or place strict limitations on the addition and expansion of nonconforming uses and structures, it is accepted that requiring a property owner to immediately cease existing uses in most cases is unfair. However, if a property is abandoned or its use is discontinued — usually for six months or one year — it loses its legal nonconforming status, and new use would have to conform to the new zoning in place.

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Do you have other planning terms that you would like to see featured on Explainer? Share your comments and questions in the comments section below!

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