For years, there has been a steady stream of new development applications in the area surrounding Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue — tower after tower since the first was approved over a decade ago. It was like a gold rush, with a torrent of proposals that seemed to overwhelm City of Toronto Planning, leaving most of the decisions to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and sinking any hopes that thoughtful, people-centred communities would prosper.
Now, for the first time in recent memory, there are no development applications. Not a one. Sure, there are many in the pipeline in various stages of approval and construction, but nothing more on the horizon.
According to local councillor Josh Matlow, there could be one of two phenomena at work. First, with the abolishment of the OMB and the passing of the Midtown in Focus plan for the area, developers are coming to grips with the reality that the area requires better, perhaps less profitable proposals, and the once-hot area is being forgotten.
Or, behind door number two, developers have built upon every soft site available, and they are ready to move on to other nodes of densification along the subway line such as at Lawrence Avenue and St. Clair Avenue, and Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue West.
That second scenario has Matlow concerned.
“For far too long development was being approved that led to over-intensification, especially at Yonge and Eglinton, without necessary social services and infrastructure to support people’s quality of life,” he explained.
“Now I’ve become the new councillor for a much larger ward that includes both St. Clair and Yonge and new areas like St. Clair and Bathurst, and I don’t want to see it happen again in those areas.”
Condominium developer Brad Lamb agreed that city intervention and the abolishment of the OMB have caused a chill, but it’s not just at Yonge and Eglinton — it’s across the board and it is part of what he sees as a looming problem.
“The creation of LPAT [Local Planning Appeal Tribunal] alone has taken approvals down to a trickle,” he said. “Developers have lost the taste for risk.”
According to Lamb, the difference between a ruling at the OMB and LPAT could be as much as 50,000 square feet of building space, enough to scuttle interest from developers in building more homes the city desperately needs.
Lamb said the city is going beyond its mandate.“It’s massive payback is what it is,” said Lamb.
As a result, he said every single developer in the city wants a return to the OMB, and is making that known to the Province.
With a new provincial government in place, he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a return to the OMB.
“We want the OMB back, so we can hold the city accountable with a realistic attempt at getting more than the city is holding us to,” said Lamb. “It’s what we need. We can’t have Central Toronto littered with 10- to 15-storey towers. We need taller towers.”
For Matlow, of concern is that the pace of development that swamped Yonge and Eglinton will migrate to other areas and it is important for the city to get ahead of it before it is too late.
“I want to make sure we do everything possible to make sure development fits into a plan to build a community with a high quality of life,” he said.
Matlow is intently watching the development applications at Yonge and St. Clair.
“I’m concerned when companies like Slate are proposing massive development right at Yonge and St. Clair,” he said. “There is a lot of attention being turned to the area, and I don’t want it to become another Yonge and Eglinton.”
Another thing Matlow would like to see is development around some of the city’s other nodes of activity in suburban areas to take some of the pressure off the core.
“I think the city needs to encourage more development in the underachieving urban growth centres such as Etobicoke and Scarborough,” said Matlow.
“We should be incentivizing opportunities for jobs to go where people are and cut down on commute times that contribute to a more complete and walkable community.”
The issue, for Matlow is also compounded by Premier Doug Ford and his desire to upload the city’s subway system to the province, thus enabling the Progressive Conservative leader to potentially sell off air rights over subway stations to developers.
There is precedent, said Matlow, citing the recent case of Ford selling the Hearn generating station to a developer for what Matlow calls “a song.”
“He’s got another friend of his looking at how to dismantle Ontario Place to sell off to developers, and he is going to do the same to Toronto’s subway lands and air rights,” said Matlow.
The midtown councillor has suggested that the pursuit of Charter status would be advisable to ensure Toronto would no longer be hijacked by other levels of government. This status, which has been granted other global cities including New York and Chicago, would allow Toronto to decide issues such as planning and elections on its own.
For a developer such as Lamb, more power in the hands of the city via the LPAT is already damaging enough.
He said that applications are drying up and the city will see cranes disappearing and condo sales numbers drop, which is already the case, as 2018 sales are far behind the pace set in 2017.
“Sales will get worse not because people don’t want to buy, but because [condo units] are not available to sell,” he said. “You’ll see in the stats that the new condo market numbers will tumble to an all-time low, but if you actually look at it, new buildings being launched will be a third of 2017 and 2020 will be worse. It’s setting up to be a massive problem.”
The question is whether or not the city and the development industry can find a middle ground. If not, it could be the Province setting the rules yet again.