Province's plan to allow taller towers in midtown, downtown Toronto draws blowback

Ontario plans to unilaterally change the city's development plans for midtown and downtown areas.

Councillor calls series of proposed changes 'giveaway to the development industry'

Two men speak at a press conference behind a podium sign that reads "For The People."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford (left) and Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, have previously said that Bill 108 is intended to increase the province's housing supply and boost affordability, especially in urban centres like Toronto. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Another political battle is brewing over the province's plan to change key aspects of Toronto's official development plans, including allowing taller buildings to be erected around transit hubs.

The revisions will specifically impact the midtown and downtown areas. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark says the looming amendments are necessary to increase the city's housing supply and boost affordability.

Furthermore, Clark said Wednesday, the amendments will help the province make the most of its multi-billion dollar transit spending in Toronto.

"We need to leverage that huge investment we are making for transit and we need to intensify and provide more housing opportunities close and near transit," Clark told reporters in a scrum at Queen's Park. 

The provincial government's changes will permit buildings of 20 to 35 storeys to be constructed around the corner of Eglinton and Bayview avenues, where a new Eglinton Crosstown station is under construction. The city's current development strategy for the area, called Midtown in Focus, limits buildings to eight storeys.

Clark also intends to introduce changes to the city's downtown plan, known as TOcore.

"We're a new government making modifications based on our new priorities," Clark said.

City staff spent years formulating Midtown in Focus and TOcore. The process included public consultations and expert input. 

'The hard way' of doing things

In an interview, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he was only made aware of the province's plans in a text message sent Tuesday night. Tory acknowledged that the government has legislative authority to make the changes, but added that it is going to "again sour the relations between the two governments."

"And it is going to lead to quite a backlash both in the community and in the municipal government," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

If Tory's concerns materialize, it will mark just the latest chapter in what has proven a rocky relationship between Premier Doug Ford's government and the city. City council recently voted to oppose Bill 108, sweeping legislation that would introduce significant changes to the development process in Ontario. The bill is up for third reading, and could pass as early as this week. 

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Clark acknowledged these latest moves will further strain the inter-governmental rapport. 

An exasperated Tory said the province is going about making revisions "the hard way.

"No consultation; no respect for a process that unfolded over years," he said.

'Giveaway' to developers, councillor says

The province's impending changes to Midtown in Focus will significantly impact Coun. Josh Matlow's ward, Toronto-St. Paul's. 

Matlow is among the most vocal opponents of Bill 108, calling it a "giveaway to the development industry" that will ultimately impede the city's ability to collect community benefits — like green spaces, schools and child-care centres — in exchange for development permits.

"We're not saying no to development but we want development to grow in a way that supports the quality of life of residents," Matlow said Wednesday. 

He added that city staff is prepared for significant growth in various parts of the city, especially around public transit hubs. But the province's decision to unilaterally change development plans will upend years of judicious planning.

"It was led by our professional and mature planning staff, who really focused on deep consultation with our communities and on ensuring that it be planned well, based on good urban planning principles and that we not just see a bunch of expensive apartments or condos," Matlow continued.

Haphazardly raising new towers around heavily trafficked subway stations like Eglinton and Davisville will do little to improve affordability while adding to problems of over-crowding, Matlow argued.

Clark said the province will work with the city to ensure that inclusionary zoning for affordable housing units is part of new construction and that developers will continue to pay for public infrastructure, like community centres.

"We want to ensure that we have complete communities," he said. 

'Disrespect and outright contempt'

Meanwhile, three councillors representing a large swath of the downtown core issued a blistering email statement of their own, saying the province's "disrespect and outright contempt for the City of Toronto and Torontonians is unlike anything we've ever seen."

Councillors Joe Cressy, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Mike Layton (Spadina-Fort York, Toronto Centre and University-Rosedale, respectively) say the city spent seven years developing TOcore, a strategy that emphasizes maintaining livability as the area's population doubles over the next 25 years.

"Things like minimum unit sizes, access to sunlight, separation distances between towers, shadow on parks. It re-focuses all our attention on affordability, and community services like child care," the statement reads.

"The province is on the cusp of throwing all of this out in favour of a few well-connected developers."

On Wednesday afternoon, Tory received a formal letter from the government outlining the impending changes. In it, Clark says the changes are "absolutely necessary."

"The modifications provide additional flexibility to attract and retain the job-generation employment and institutional uses the downtown is known for, as well as creating much-needed housing supply."


With files from Metro Morning