The report identifies location-efficient development – or “compact development” – as a promising low-carbon policy opportunity. Compact development allows people to live where they go, work, and play, minimizing time-consuming, polluting car trips. While compact development has significant potential to reduce Toronto’s greenhouse gas emissions, it is generally seen as a longer-term opportunity because changes to our urban form tend to occur gradually.
But the sooner we start building the low-carbon city of the future, the better. This was TAF’s thinking when we provided grant funding to the Pembina Institute last year to explore and promote policies supporting compact development in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Pembina’s research is uncovering the many challenges – and solutions – to effective compact development. One of these solutions is mid-rise development, which they explore in the report they recently released with the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, Make Way for Mid-Rise: How to build more homes in walkable, transit-connected neighbourhoods. The report explains that mid-rise development can fill a critical gap in our urban housing market by providing housing that is larger and more family-friendly than those in high-rise developments, and more affordable than single-family homes. At the same time, mid-rise is well-suited to compact, transit-accessible neighbourhoods.
So why don’t we see more mid-rise in Toronto? The problem is that our existing rules and incentives make mid-rise cost prohibitive compared with other, less sustainable options. Pembina’s report proposes five strategies to level the playing field for mid-rise development:
- Require minimum densities along rapid transit lines. Between The Big Move, regional express rail and the proposed SmartTrack system, our region will see billions of dollars invested in rapid transit over the coming years. Setting density requirements along planned transit lines would help to create thousands of new housing units and retail spaces, ensuring vibrant, thriving communities and maximizing the value of transit infrastructure investments.
- Eliminate minimum parking requirements. New developments must include a minimum number of parking spaces, which can cost up to an eye-popping $60,000 per space. These costs are passed on to homebuyers. But many new developments – especially those in transit-accessible neighbourhoods – simply don’t need all of this parking. If developers were allowed to set the number of parking spots based on the unique needs and characteristics of each site, they would be able to drive down costs and make mid-rise more affordable.
- Pre-approve mid-rise development along avenues and transit corridors. Many neighbourhoods with good transit access would be well-suited to mid-rise development. The problem is that GTA municipalities tend to “under-zone” these areas to accommodate only low-rise, low-density buildings. As a result, larger developments are subject to a case-by-case approvals process that is both costly and onerous, leading developers to pursue more lucrative high-rise developments even where mid-rise is more suitable for the neighbourhood. One possible solution is to replace the current approvals process with a development permit system that re-zones entire areas for appropriate mid-rise density, while still conforming to strict eligibility criteria.
- Require retail planning before mid-rise is built. Retail spaces on the ground level of mid-rise buildings can help build community vibrancy and economic vitality – but only if they’re done right. Too many of these spaces are poorly designed and/or ill-suited to the needs of their neighbourhood, and become under-used resources that negatively affect both residents and developers. This can be addressed by requiring conscious retail planning and design as part of the development process, with input from the municipality as well as local councilors and business improvement areas.
- Make parkland dedication rules more equitable. As with parking spaces, another development cost that’s passed on to homebuyers is the cost of developing nearby parkland. While open space and parks are critical to a community’s health and well-being, the current parkland dedication formula doesn’t account for density and can therefore lead to disproportionately high costs for mid-rise and high-rise developments over low-rise housing. Fortunately, there are several ways that municipalities can modify parkland dedication formulas to support compact development and still deliver accessible public space.
Pembina’s report goes through each of these solutions in more detail – and uses examples to illustrate their real-world application. Overall, the report is required reading for anyone interested in how mid-rise development can help us build a more livable, vibrant, low-carbon city.