This past Wednesday, the real estate investment corporation RioCan brought an application (page 3) before Toronto’s committee of adjustment. It captured a lot of local attention because it looked like they might have been trying to shoehorn an urban-format Walmart onto a property within a few minutes’ walk of Kensington Market and its small, independent retailers. The neighbourhood was understandably concerned and opposed to any large-scale corporate competition practically in their back yard.
This application was the first big test of development at the site, 410 Bathurst, and it failed. The committee of adjustment rejected the application. That’s not the end of it, though. The local councillor predicts RioCan will appeal to the quasi-judicial Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) that rules on disputes between municipalities and developers.
But on what grounds did the committee of adjustment reject the application? And how might the OMB rule if the case is brought to it? A lot of planning in Toronto, it seems, involves shouting your case into the dark and hoping the gods/bureaucrats/politicians feel compelled to support you now and in each round of appeals. But there is some method—poorly communicated and understood method—to the madness.
To understand this, we have to take a quick(ish) look at how the whole urban planning system works.
Everything in planning in Toronto starts with the provincial government. They control the legislation and the regulations that are the foundation for the whole system. The province created the Ontario Municipal Board and enabled the numerous committees of adjustment. It prescribes how cities plan themselves and has the power to overrule any local decision. It also pays for most of the expensive infrastructure that complements planning decisions, including expressways, public transit, huge water pipes from the Great Lakes, and so on.
As it affects the shape of existing communities, one of the most important things the province does is set high-level goals and principles for planning in Ontario. Don’t develop on environmentally sensitive lands. Do build communities that are accessible to people of all abilities. Don’t develop in a way that needlessly wastes money on public infrastructure. These and a hundred other directives are collected in the Provincial Policy Statement that cities must follow. (There is some wiggle room due to the sheer number of directives that may, in practice, conflict with one another.) In addition, the province has some special plans for only the Toronto region, principally the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan (below).
The province also requires that every city create an Official Plan, conforming to the principles and requirements established by the province, and review it every five years. (A review is underway in Toronto right now.)
The Official Plan is a vision for what we want the city to look like in about 20 years. It takes into account the province’s requirements, population projections, and community consultation to create a guide for growth and investment in the city.
In Toronto’s Official Plan, there is an Urban Structure Map (below) that establishes which areas of the city should be stable (the neighbourhoods) and which areas should see growth. It also describes how that growth should take shape, which is different at suburban nodes and downtown than along the “Avenues”—roughly, a modern take on Toronto’s streetcar main streets. Other cities have different ways of describing their desired growth, but the principle remains the same across Ontario. It’s not about individual properties but neighbourhoods, corridors, patterns, and typologies.
The zoning by-law does deal with individual properties. Each lot is assigned a short code that refers to specific regulations in the zoning by-law which is a very heavy physical document. (The upcoming slimmed-down version is likely to exceed 2000 pages.) The zoning by-law defines what you are allowed to do with your property as of right, meaning without making any special planning applications to the city. This includes the permitted dimensions of a building on your property, how it is laid out in relation to the street and neighbours, and what sorts of uses are allowed.
At a minimum, the zoning by-law usually allows you to re-construct whatever is already on your property. If you have a two-storey house, you can probably build a two-storey house, but not a car dealership or a condo tower.
Like the Official Plan is supposed to conform to provincial plans and policies, the zoning by-law is supposed to conform to the Official Plan. But while the province exercises its right to reject or modify errant official plans, it is the city’s responsibility to synchronize its own zoning by-law and Official Plan. And zoning by-laws, because they are so site specific and intensely personal for everyone involved, take a lot of work to update.
This is a source of considerable trouble. Toronto is currently scrambling to harmonize the 43 separate zoning by-laws it inherited from amalgamation in 1998 as well as bring it up to date with respect to the current Official Plan. Some of these zoning by-laws have not been substantially updated for decades (they have been decorated with thousands of amendments) and none, apparently, has been fully reconsidered since the early days of Metro following WWII. Toronto’s zoning is very out of date and hard to understand.
Changing the Rules
Appealing the planning rules imposed on your property is relatively simple, as bureaucratic processes go, especially for the sorts of changes that most homeowners want. If you want to make an addition to your home, you’ll probably need to seek a minor variance from the zoning by-law through a committee of adjustment. You essentially pay a fee, submit some forms, and if the committee decides that your proposal maintains the general intent and purpose of both the zoning by-law and Official Plan, it gets approved.
This is what RioCan was seeking for 410 Bathurst but the committee of adjustment rejected the proposal because the changes were not minor. RioCan was proposing to exceed the constraints of the zoning by-law in a number of ways by no small margin. Instead, it would have been more appropriate for RioCan to seek an amendment to the zoning by-law. Through that process, you can significantly change the use, height, or density of your property. Eventually, the proposal ends up in front of City Council where a vote decides if it is approved or rejected.
If rejected in either case, the developer can appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board. This upsets a lot of people because the OMB is set up as a quasi-judicial body, meaning it has all the jargon and pedantic intricacy of court proceedings without the necessity that rulings be based on the letter of the law or precedence. You could fill a library with all the OMB’s real or imagined failings, but that’s a topic for another day.
When it is working properly, the OMB is generally supposed to operate like a high-stakes committee of adjustment. For a zoning by-law amendment, the OMB should ask if the proposal maintains the general intent and purpose of the Official Plan and the province’s policies. A lot of the ‘bad’ decisions from the OMB are cases where the zoning by-law wasn’t supported by the Official Plan, or conflicts were mitigated by greater benefits in terms of the high-level provincial policies.
Getting the City We Want
Zoning by-laws are a lot weaker than many people realize. That’s good news for developers, homeowners, and weak city councillors looking to hide behind the unpopular OMB, but it does take too many people by surprise. Far fewer people, unfortunately, take an interest in the regular Official Plan reviews than in individual development applications in their neighbourhood, which is often too late in the process to affect major change.
In the case of 410 Bathurst, however, I don’t think RioCan will get very far with either an OMB appeal or a zoning by-law amendment. The Official Plan’s urban structure map shows 410 Bathurst is not in an area targeted for growth. It is immediately across the street from the western extent of what the city considers ‘downtown' so it might be targeted for growth in the next Official Plan revision, but in the meantime RioCan's lawyers will have a tough time making a case for intensification on that site.
In the long run, keeping a Walmart away from Kensington Market means getting involved in the Official Plan review to define large-format, car dependent retail out of the neighbourhood. And it probably also means finding a way to accommodate intensification in the neighbourhood without changing its unique character because otherwise you are leaving yourself open to challenges from developers on the grounds that the Official Plan is in conflict with provincial policies encouraging intensification. It’s tough, but it’s better than letting developers define your neighbourhood, and more effective than picketing a City Council meeting.
As I posted some time ago, I recently read the book Human Transit which has an entire chapter called Frequency is Freedom. The idea is that the most useful bus is one that is preceded and followed closely by others because then you don’t actually have to worry about catching that bus—you just show up at the designated stop whenever you like and a bus will pick you up shortly.
Infrequent, schedule-based services are fine for the minority of people who only commute regular hours to major employment centres (more than 150,000 take a GO train downtown every weekday) but most of us also like or need to travel by transit in many directions at many times. If you’re going to rely on transit for all your travel, your city needs to provide frequent service to all the important destinations and corridors.
A corollary of “frequency is freedom” is that frequency also has to be legible. Your city’s frequent network has to be simple enough to understand implicitly (that usually means it is a rough grid), and your city’s transit agency has to highlight, among the mess of spaghetti lines on the full transit map, which ones have dependable service throughout the day.
In many other cities, you can get a local “frequent network map” that shows you where transit is sufficiently robust that you won’t need to check the schedule. Vancouver has just released an official frequent network map that literally highlights the frequent lines in orange. I don’t know if Montreal has an official version, but here is an unofficial frequent network map for that city (a section of that map is above).
As far as I can find with Google, there is no equivalent, official or amateur, for Toronto. There’s a full service map from the TTC, of course. I found maps of the different kinds of rail transit, the average speed of each surface line, and service cuts. But not frequency.
So here is my first attempt at a frequent network map for the TTC:
Since I’m no cartographer or spreadsheet wizard, it was awfully tedious, but I spread the work over a few months of scattered bursts of ambition. Basically, I drew lines roughly over the TTC’s official map in Adobe Illustrator and used the schedules, available online, to categorize each line according to minimum frequency at noon on a weekday. (I figured service at noon could be a rough proxy for all service outside the morning and afternoon rushes. It would take an unreasonable amount of time to actually determine, myself, if these frequencies are maintained until, say, 9 PM.)
In all cases I tried to take into account branching and lettered routes that only operate on a portion of their main line. In only a few cases I tried to add up the frequencies of lines that overlapped for meaningful distances, e.g. north of Pape station and east of Eglinton station. I chose 10 minutes as the upper limit for waiting based on my own bus-riding experience and because that was the standard set in the (short-lived?) Transit City Bus Plan from a few years ago.
Ultimately, I would like this to spur somebody, even at the TTC, to use their better skills and technology to produce a more useful frequent service map for the city. In the meantime, I intend to clean up some errors and improve the design/legibility of my own map. To either of those ends, I would appreciate your comments.