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Has the Yonge-Eglinton Centre become a case study in how not do to urban intensification?

A version of this article was published in the Toronto Star, November 9, 2021

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is subject to intense economic and population growth pressures. Over the past two decades, a strong consensus has emerged that it is better to manage this growth by increasing the density of housing and employment in existing urban areas rather than through low-density, sprawling-outwards development.

The problems of sprawl are clear. In the GTA, outwards sprawl is onto the largest concentration of prime agricultural land in Canada, as well as major natural heritage and hydrologic features and systems, notably the Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment. Low-density development at the urban fringe exacerbates traffic congestion and is impossible to service with cost-effective transit services. The long-term costs of maintaining infrastructures spread of large areas exceed what can be acceptably collected through property taxes.

To address these problems with the dominant development patterns in the GTA, in 2006 Ontario enacted a Growth Plan for the region. The plan was intended to check the expansion of urban boundaries and concentrated new growth in existing urban areas. The goal was to create “complete communities” where it would be possible to live, work, play, shop, and go to school without needing to drive. Transit and active transportation (i.e. walking and biking) would be the primary modes of transportation.

The Growth Plan designated 25 locations in the region as urban growth centres. These centres were to have denser mixes of housing and employment, supported by access to higher-order transit (e.g. subways, GO Trains and LRTs). One such centre was at the intersection of Yonge St. and Eglinton Avenue in mid-town Toronto.

What has actually unfolded around the Yonge-Eglinton Centre over the past decade has been very different from the dense but mixed-use, “complete community” envisioned in the 2006 plan. Two fundamental problems have emerged. The first is that the form of development that has actually taken place has been almost exclusively residential, and overwhelmingly in the form of high-rise condominiums. The development of significant new employment sites, and in fact, of any other activities, such as cultural destinations, has been virtually nil.

The result is a location where, increasingly, people live, but do not work – a “vertical bedroom community.” Nor is the housing that has been built been very flexible. Rather it has largely taken the form of studio and one-bedroom (sometimes +) units. These are of scant use to growing families with children. Affordability has been an afterthought, and there have been substantial losses of existing affordable rental housing to the development boom.

The area’s new pre-development densities already exceeded the Growth Plan’s targets by a wide margin. As of 2006, the Yonge Eglinton Urban Growth Centre was already 600 people/jobs/ha (pjh), exceeding the Growth Plan target of 400 pjh by 50%.

Unbalanced development has led to a second problem. Throughout this period of explosive, single-use high-rise growth, infrastructure has remained largely static. A defining feature of mid-town Toronto development sites are signs posted by the Toronto District and Toronto Catholic Boards warning new residents that their children won’t be able to attend any of the area’s already overcrowded schools. The city has identified the need for additional park space equivalent to four full-sized playing fields, plus another community centre to meet the needs of the area’s growing population. Daycare is scarce, and community gathering spots are in short supply. Cultural facilities are almost altogether lacking.

With no new employment at Yonge and Eglinton, most of the people moving into the area will be working somewhere else – a somewhere else they likely expect to reach onto Toronto’s already overcapacity Yonge subway southbound. To these commuters, the one major infrastructure project in the area, the Eglinton LRT line, will add additional passengers from the East and West, who will be coming not to work at Yonge and Eglinton, but to transfer south onto an even more overcrowded Yonge line.

When the city attempted, via a careful plan, to mitigate the area’s stresses, the province intervened to make things worse. In June 2019, the Ford government rewrote the City’s Midtown in Focus plan (a.k.a. Official Plan Amendment 405), which attempted to moderate the scale and regulate the form of new buildings in the area. As they were, the City’s proposals would still have allowed development to densities of 1020-1100 pjh - exceeding the original Growth Plan target by about 185%.

The province’s move, a “mega” example of its Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) based approach to planning, went even further, removing height restrictions and other restraints on proposed buildings. The Province’s looser rules soon spawned proposals to add many new stories to high-rise projects already approved or in construction.

Getting the area’s development path back in line with the original vision for an urban growth centre means that infrastructures, of all types, need a chance to catch up with existing needs. That has to happen before any further development proceeds. The path forward from there must emphasize affordability and the area’s role as an economic, social and cultural destination. Better intensification models exist, like that seen in the redevelopment of Toronto’s North York Centre. But at the moment Yonge Eglinton Centre risks becoming a textbook example of how urban intensification should not happen.