Adding small businesses to Toronto's high-rise residential towers

A wide proposed re-zoning of apartment buildings across Toronto is mixing commercial and residential zones.

Mixing commercial into residential-only apartment buildings

Shazia Iqbal cooks for friends and neighbours, and hopes to one day cook for many more, in her apartment's small kitchen. (CBC)

The large chest freezer in Shazia Iqbal’s small apartment kitchen on Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Drive is stuffed with kebabs and other Middle Eastern delicacies.

Iqbal loves to cook — and not just for her family of six. She also shares her food with friends and her children's school community. But her big dream is to start her own catering business.

A wide-ranging proposed re-zoning of her building along with hundreds of others across Toronto could help Iqbal accomplish that dream as early as this summer.

The new Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning in previously residential-only zones, throws open the door to a myriad of small businesses popping up at the base of as many as 564 apartment towers across the city. 

Hair salons to food retail to places of worship are among the many possible commercial uses that could appear in buildings from Rexdale and Etobicoke to North York to East Scarborough. Planners hope this move will help revitalize some of these declining suburban neighbourhoods

There are hundreds of privately-owned high-rise suburban apartment towers in Toronto and with hundreds of thousands of residents, many suburban neighbourhoods have a higher population density than the core of the city.

Originally conceived as "towers in the park," the high rises were built in the 1960s and 1970s and marketed to young couples. Each apartment came with a couple of underground parking spaces and the couple were expected to find everything they might need at the local mall, a five to 10 minute drive away.

But over the years, the towers evolved into the city’s stock of affordable housing. They are often the first home for families new to Canada.

Iqbal is just a few minutes walk from a nearby grocery store in her Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. But other apartment dwellers are not as fortunate. Some are severely inconvenienced by living in residential neighbourhoods a few buses or an arduous walk from the nearest food store.

The new zoning will only apply to buildings of at least 100 residential units. It allows a range of commercial uses including green grocers, professional offices and services such as hair stylists to establish themselves on the ground floor or basement levels of residential buildings. If the site is large enough, adding onto the existing building or even constructing a new free-standing one is possible.

"We’re trying to create as flexible an opportunity as possible here to accommodate the different types of situations that the buildings find themselves in," said Joe D’Abramo, director of zoning and environmental planning at the City of Toronto.

Small businesses serving local residents

The size restrictions of 200 square meters for each business and the limit of 1,000 square meters of commercial uses for each apartment building aim to ensure the ventures stay small to serve only local residents.

"What we’re doing is really simple but really complicated," said Graeme Stewart, an associate with ERA Architects Inc., one of several partners working since 2008 on revitalizing tower areas.

These neighbourhoods once planned for couples are now full of families, many including grandparents and many with lots of young children. It’s now time now for the environment around these places to catch up with what the community needs, said Stewart.

A tremendous amount of talent among residents is going untapped because of the restrictions of current zoning, he said.

These people have taken the risk of going halfway around the world to come here, only to arrive and be faced with remarkable set of restrictions, said Stewart. “We have heard lots of stories of residents wanting to start businesses, whether a barbershop or to do pedicures or a place to do a market garden…. They hit a wall and realize it is actually against the bylaw.”

Though the tens of thousands of dollars required to set up a store may be too much for some, RAC zoning allows the popping up of temporary commercial ventures such as flea or farmers markets. Moving cars over to one side of a parking lot, may be all the setup required. The ban on selling fruits and vegetables from food trucks on private property would also be lifted.

While Iqbal cooks only for friends and family, others already run catering businesses from their apartments. There’s "a robust grey economy in a lot of these neighbourhoods or otherwise they wouldn’t survive," said Stewart.

The new bylaw is set to take effect by mid-year assuming city council approves.

But RAC rezoning won’t make changes appear by magic. The transformation will not be immediate.

Landowners: some interested, others skeptical

The changes will require initiative and funding, said Brian Cook, a research consultant with Toronto Public Health, a partner in the tower renewal effort. It will not only require willing entrepreneurs with financing in place to come forward but also building owners ready to hear their proposals.

"Some landowners are interested, some are a little more skeptical," said D’Abramo.

Daryl Chung, president of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association, says landowners are looking forward to the proposed zoning changes. He says tower residents stand to benefit. He hopes the new zoning will spread to the thousands of apartment towers across the city.

Iqbal wishes for a commercial kitchen at the base of her building, much like the kitchens already operating in some community centres. She and other cooking friends could share the rent and get their catering businesses off the ground.

For Iqbal’s dream to materialize, she needs a kitchen entrepreneur with financing to come forward. She also needs her building owner to agree to sign a lease. Only then might Iqbal’s dream business materialize and help transform one of Toronto’s high-density suburban neighbourhoods.

Trained as an architect, Michelle Adelman is a fellow in global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She writes on architecture and the urban environment with a special focus on human well-being.