About 65 million square feet of office space has risen in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since 1980, with another 100 million square feet expected to develop in the next 25 years. Looming among these figures is the reality that the GTA’s population is increasing by 100,000 people every year.
What is a concern for Iain Dobson, co-founder of Strategic Regional Research Alliance and commercial property developer, is where this influx of people will work. Planning regimes, which have focused on the industrial era, are no longer applicable in an environment transitioning to mixed-use.
“We keep talking about mixed use without focusing on how to ensure that if we build lots of residence in a concentrated area, we’re also building a comparable amount of employment space,” he said during Toronto’s Land and Development Conference in June.
In a recent study, Dobson discovered that from 2000, developers built a downtown Toronto for more people to live than work.
“The capacity of the office market to absorb workers is half of what we build residentially,” he said. “It’s the reason people are all going from downtown and out to work to be a part of this new reality.”
From a growth perspective, Dobson affirms the provincial response has been promising. Over the past 15 years, limiting sprawl has been a necessary issue in infrastructure discussions as well as in solutions such as SmartTrack, a 53-kilometre, 22-station surface train service line on existing GO train lines.
But land use and transportation planning have to go hand-in-hand in order to accommodate sprawl. And one question of great importance for Richard Joy, executive director, Urban Land Institute Toronto District Council, is why development in the GTA over the last decade is not happening closer to planned or current transit infrastructure.
Margaret Knowles, senior vice-president of development at Morguard, says one reason for this disconnect is that transit is not going to drive employment. Developers used to search for a track of land that was substantial, where the investment was of sensible magnitude, said Knowles. In Mississauga, for example, the airport and tax base were the main drivers behind the development of the Airport Corporate Centre.
“A city like Mississuaga was open to developers who knew what the entry requirements were,” she said. “As long as you could make it work in your pro forma you could actually play.”
Today, however, one of the biggest difficulties concerns the zoning around those nodes. But Knowles says municipalities and the province need to integrate the zoning up to a level where developers can intensify around them.
Yet, the recently introduced Bill 73— provincial legislature that aims to make the planning and appeals process more predictable and give municipalities more independence, does not support this “spirit of collaboration” as Knowles calls it.
“If we’re talking about a sustainable future, there’s nothing more important than electrifying our transit,” she noted. “And the only way we’re going to get there is on a collaborative basis.”
Aaron Platt, Partner, Davies Howe Partners LLP, added that we have more systemic problems than legislation. “We’re still dealing with many municipal development decisions being handled by internal staff and the matters being turned over to council,” he said. “Most municipal councils’ decisions on development budgets are still, to a large degree, left to the decision of the local council.
He says if the density is being pushed away due to local concerns, there will be trouble bringing well-intentioned plans forward in order to make them effective.
Dobson noted that areas have to change but this should happen incrementally as on- ground conditions differ between areas.
“Every station has different dynamics,” he said. “One policy just doesn’t fit all. It’s very important for developers and policy makers to recognize that.”
Knowles, who believes government and industry collaboration leads to the best results, cited the Coquitlam Centre, the single largest employer in that region of British Columbia, as an example to emulate. The 28-million station along the new Evergreen Line, to be completed in 2016, was a collaboration between Morguard and the City of Coquitlam.
After ten years, Morgaurd, on behalf of pension plans that own the centre, the City and the Evergreen line formed an agreement to equally fund the station.
“Now the intensification that surrounds us is able to be accommodated within the centre and close to the station,” said Knowles. “The City has changed up the zoning on many parcels of the centre so now we are no longer required to build in the past office development; it can now be mixed-use with residential and office.”
She says the lesson learned is having patience and never giving up on what is the right decision. Meanwhile, in Toronto, a Centrepoint Mall, waiting to be redeveloped at Yonge Street and Steeles, sits on Yonge’s largest parcel of land.
“We’re arguing about what it could be after proposing the possibility of taking away all the required infrastructure that would have to go into the street as appropriations that would be accommodated underground on our site if we were able to build on top,” she said. “The idea died because province and the city can’t get their act together as to what the way forward is. There are a lot of opportunities on site that are centrally located that are going to be key to the development of transit in the city.”