Only in Toronto, it seems, does it make sense to rip down fully-occupied high-rise buildings to make way for more high-rise towers when most of the city remains covered in low rise housing.
Toronto-based developer TenBlock is pursuing two such tower replacement projects. At 25 St. Mary Street, near Yonge and Bloor streets in the heart of Toronto, their application to demolish a 24-storey 1960s apartment building is nearing approval to construct two towers (54 and 59 storeys) and replace 259 apartments with 1,024 homes. This same developer also nearly has approval to demolish a 12-storey, 130 unit rental tower built in 1959 at 145 St. George Street and replace it with a 29-storey, 341-unit condo building.
Why is this happening? Even though we are in a severe housing crisis, with homeownership only affordable to the most affluent families and average rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments skyrocketing more than 20% in 2022 alone, developers are only able to build much needed multifamily housing in relatively narrow slices of the City.
About 75% of the land area in the City of Toronto is protected as “Neighbourhoods” in the Official Plan and “Residential Detached” areas in the Zoning Bylaw. This vast swath of land, referred to as the “Yellow Belt” because of the colour used to identify it on zoning maps, generally only permits development of 2-storey detached and semi-detached homes, regardless of proximity to transit infrastructure like subway stations and LRT stops.
NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces, mostly homeowners in these areas, work hard to protect these designations and prevent any development of meaningful density in these “stable communities”. Given that 20% of the land area of Toronto is dedicated to employment areas and open space where no residential is permitted, we are left with roughly 5% of the land area of the city available for mid-rise and high-rise construction, and much of this is already occupied by towers.
With influential NIMBY forces still protecting low-density communities even in transit-rich areas well served by existing and soon-to-be-completed subway and LRT infrastructure, some developers are now submitting applications to demolish existing high-rise towers because efforts to assemble and intensify lots with detached homes are effectively obstructed.
TenBlock’s efforts are appreciated; more homes are desperately needed in Toronto, especially near transit. Intensification in all forms should be welcome. But there should be a better way to create the homes we need that minimizes demolition of the ones we have. We don’t have a shortage of low-density land near transit infrastructure in our city. Rather, we have a shortage of the political will needed to combat the calcified forces aligned against intensification. Looking at the development process in Toronto, we can see just how inefficient and confused our system of land planning has become when we consider how we treat low-density areas compared to the very small percentage of the city where greater density is accepted.
This all results in a crazy situation in which developers find it less risky and more cost effective to demolish large multifamily rental towers rather than assemble sites currently occupied by way fewer single-family homes in order to build the new homes we so desperately need. The Province of Ontario has set a lofty-yet -essential goal of adding 1.5 million new homes within ten years. This target will be much harder to reach if we also need to demolish thousands of perfectly operational apartment buildings just to clear the way. We must find a way to use all of the land in the city, particularly near transit, more effectively.
With a surprise mayoral byelection now underway in Toronto, the new mayor and existing council should bring forth a zoning by-law amendment for the Yellow Belt to permit various types of multifamily developments in the existing neighbourhoods, with particular effort paid to rezoning and intensifying land-use nearest to existing transit services. We need political leadership to break the stranglehold that homeowners have over these crucial parts of the city.
Voters who care about a solution to our housing affordability crisis might want to ask candidates what they are going to do to fix the city’s planning process. We have a stark and unfortunate choice: protecting stable communities located in close proximity to transit or ensuring all families can afford a home.
About the author
Randy Gladman is the Managing Director of Colliers Strategy & Consulting Group and leads Colliers' national Development Advisory practice in Canada. His team helps owners of intensification-ready land extract maximized real estate value through development. He also authors articles about city-building, architecture, art, and culture and considers himself proudly YIMBY.