Taller towers, more density, less sunlight: What the province's housing changes mean for Toronto

A decision from Ontario's housing minister is leading to sweeping changes to the city's plans for midtown and downtown, and sending city officials scrambling to make sense of the ramifications. But already, some warn the tweaks may spark growth but stymie livability.

Housing minister's decision makes sweeping changes to city plans for midtown, downtown

Increased development is the common thread throughout the province's latest decisions, and some say it's achieved by removing a cap on tower heights and ditching the city's push to mandate wraparound supports for growing communities — changes many warn may spark growth, but stymie livability. (Cole Burston/Canadian Press)

Opinions on the province's sweeping changes to Toronto's development plans came swiftly this week, but behind the scenes city officials were doing something else: trying to figure out what it all really means.

On Tuesday night, Mayor John Tory first learned about a decision from Housing Minister Steve Clark through a text message.

It wasn't until late Wednesday afternoon that the city obtained two documents outlining Clark's changes to Toronto's plans for both downtown and midtown neighbourhoods, which support a provincial push to boost development around transit hubs.

The changes total 93 pages, and reveal sweeping shifts to policy after policy, impacting a substantial chunk of the city — and requiring a line-by-line comparison to Toronto's original plans to make sense of it.

That's no easy task. And, as of Thursday, city officials and councillors' staff were still unpacking the ramifications, even going so far as scrapping a planned Friday morning news conference with the city's chief planner.

But while the delivery method no doubt ruffled feathers at city hall, the question now is: what do the changes really mean for Toronto and its residents in the years ahead?

Already, some say a few things are clear. Increased development is the common thread throughout Clark's decisions, and it's achieved by removing a cap on tower heights and ditching the city's push to mandate wraparound supports for growing communities — changes many warn may spark growth, but stymie livability.

'Wild West' for development sector: Cressy

"The Wild West for the development sector has returned to Toronto. That is the fundamental takeaway here," said Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents a downtown ward and whose staff spent much of Thursday poring over the changes.

Clark's decisions are stripping the city's ability to mandate social infrastructure — things like child care centres, schools, and parks — as part of new developments, he continued.

Cressy also said the province is scrapping a variety of other stipulations mandated by the city's long-term plans: minimum distances between buildings, the need for family-sized units, and a cap on tower heights to reduce shadows on parks.

Coun. Joe Cressy is not happy with the changes. 'The Wild West for the development sector has returned to Toronto. That is the fundamental takeaway here,' he says. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

For instance, the province deleted an entire section on "maximum permitted building heights," and replaced it with language around "anticipated height ranges" for various neighbourhoods in midtown.

"An Official Plan Amendment will not be required in order to achieve a greater or lesser height," the document notes. 

The changes, according to Julie O'Driscoll, a spokesperson for Clark's office, will provide "greater flexibility," with specific heights now being dealt with on a site-by-site basis.

In another case, city guidelines for developers on balancing unit types and sizes, in particular to support family-suitable housing in larger midtown buildings, is softened.

While the city's midtown plan stipulates exact square-metre size requirements for two- and three-bedroom units, the province's decision drops that detail, only requiring the number of bedrooms without a minimum level of space.

A requirement for having bedroom windows is gone, too.

The province's changes delete a line suggesting bedrooms in all residential units contain "an operable window on an exterior wall," though it does keep the city's call for bedrooms to contain closets.

"[Premier] Doug Ford has gone too far. He removed requirements for sunlight, skyviews, and even windows in bedrooms," said midtown Coun. Josh Matlow. "This plan doesn't support residents, let alone a houseplant."

A memo sent to city officials from chief city planner Gregg Lintern further revealed the level of changes made by Clark to city plans: 194 changes to the midtown plan and another 224 changes to the downtown plan.

The decision for the downtown plan is less policy direction, more policy "guidance" for developers, Lintern wrote, and it has direct implications for the walkability and livability of the city's neighbourhoods.

Overall, the language in the changes waters down a host of city stipulations for builders, said urban planner Sean Galbraith.

On one hand, that hits the province's goal of providing new tools to boost supply. On the other, Galbraith said, it could see more developers pushing the envelope ever further, potentially to the detriment of neighbourhood livability. 

'Deeply troubling' combination of housing policy changes

On top of concerns with the decision itself, what's "deeply troubling" for urban planner Ken Greenberg is how it meshes with the province's housing supply plan, Bill 108, which gained royal assent on Thursday.

"Bill 108 curtails the city's ability dramatically to provide park space, and curtails the city's ability to raise funds," he said.

The legislation, as CBC Toronto reported in May, aims to cut red tape, speed up housing approvals, and make housing more affordable for both would-be home-buyers and renters.

"One of the assertions being made is we have a supply problem, we just have to build more and more ... but that doesn't necessarily directly lead to affordable housing for much of the population," Greenberg echoed.

Multiple councillors have also raised similar red flags that the changes could reduce the city's ability to create supports for growing neighbourhoods by limiting the use of development charges, which are collected by municipalities to fund infrastructure ranging from transit to community centres to roads. 

The province, however, stands by both Bill 108 and Clark's decision, citing the need to boost supply around transit hubs in particular. The housing minister himself said as much on Wednesday in a letter to Tory, describing the latest changes as "absolutely necessary."

The province's housing supply legislation aims to cut red tape, speed up housing approvals, and make housing more affordable for both would-be home-buyers and renters, according to provincial officials such as Premier Doug Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

On Thursday, his office's spokesperson said they'll also help increase the affordable housing supply near transit hubs, in areas that are typically subject to the pressures of growth and higher housing demand.

"Our new development charges and community benefits framework will ensure that growth continues to pay for growth in infrastructure and communities," added O'Driscoll, in reference to the policies outlined in Bill 108.

And, according to Galbraith, the urban planner,  it's clear the changes in Clark's decision do have an upside.

One piece in particular could offer huge benefits to the city, he argued, citing a change to the midtown plans that stresses the need for a diversity of housing options — including semi-detached homes, duplexes, triplexes, and stacked townhouses — while generally maintaining neighbourhood stability.

An extra line now added to the original plans now encourages "compatible intensification where appropriate."

"And that opens the door," Galbraith said.

The city's composition is too stark, he argued, with either low-rise homes or tall towers, and not much in the so-called "missing middle."

The subtle change in language, he said, could allow for more gradual growth opportunities — beyond areas of transit-based intensification.


Lauren Pelley

Senior Health & Medical Reporter

Lauren Pelley covers health and medical science for CBC News, including the global spread of infectious diseases, Canadian health policy, and pandemic preparedness. Her 2020 investigation into COVID-19 infections among health-care workers won best in-depth series at the RNAO Media Awards. Contact her at:


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