Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star: Unpaving a parking lot to create paradise: It’s not easy

Unpaving a parking lot to create paradise: It’s not easy


July 23, 2016

Jennifer Pagliaro

The Toronto Star


The city is attempting to buy this parking lot at 229 Richmond St. W., with plans to turn it into much-needed parkland in the fast-growing downtown core.

The city is attempting to buy this parking lot at 229 Richmond St. W., with plans to turn it into much-needed parkland in the fast-growing downtown core. (CHRIS SO / TORONTO STAR)


A Toronto councillor is looking to un-pave paradise and green over a parking lot to fill a void of parkland in the downtown core.


Councillor Joe Cressy’s move to expropriate a parking lot in the King-Spadina area highlights the challenge council faces to create livable communities in the midst of unprecedented development.


An ad hoc system sees the city negotiating with developers on a case-by-case basis while limited real estate in the core is being bought out and built up.


And with the constant threat of appeals at the Ontario Municipal Board, it has proven difficult to inject amenities such as parks into those areas without out-of-the-box solutions, councillors say.


Cressy and his colleagues are running out of space — and time.


“The focus has to be on building neighbourhoods, not just building condo towers. And if you’re going to build a neighbourhood, then you need the parkland and the community space to make it livable,” Cressy (Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina) said. “The park becomes your backyard if you live in a condo tower.”


The commercial parking lot on Richmond St. is an increasingly rare flat patch surrounded by skyscrapers, with a perfect view of the CN Tower between Duncan and John Sts.


Although the cost of acquiring the land at market value — a city requirement — is confidential, a 2014 city study estimated the value of land in the downtown core at $30 million to $60 million per acre. With that estimate now outdated and the parking lot measuring 0.65 acres, it could be a record-high parkland purchase for the city.


Cressy and staff say it’s desperately needed.


The King-Spadina area has undergone massive change in the past decade, staff reported. A push to regenerate the largely industrial area saw the population increase from just 945 in 1996 to 19,000 by 2016. The number of employees working in the area grew from 24,000 in 2001 to 33,400 by 2015. Proposed development in the area could push both the number of residents and employees to more than 50,000 each.


That proposed development is unprecedented, staff said, with more than 40 projects for mostly condo towers currently under construction, approved or under review by the city.


Despite that, the most-affected blocks east of Spadina have seen no new parks, except for one 130-square-metre parkette.


Although the Richmond lot’s owner has agreed to sell the city the land, the stated value “vastly exceeded” what the city thinks it is worth, according to a staff report. Last week, council directed staff to get an appraisal of the site.


Staff noted it is “improbable” the city will be able to reach a negotiated deal, forcing the city to expropriate the space — a lengthy process that council would have to approve.


But how did it come to this?


The current system for leveraging community spaces from new development is governed by the provincial Planning Act. The act allows cities to secure parkland from developers who want taller or denser buildings than municipal guidelines allow.


The rules allow the city to require part of the development site be dedicated as parkland or for the developer to pay cash-in-lieu of that dedication.


Because developers are increasingly buying up small parcels of land, especially downtown, and building up to compensate, the size of parkland to be dedicated is often an insignificant patch of grass — a tiny parkette for dogs to squat, but not to play, and certainly not enough space for humans to stretch out on a warm day. A “postage stamp,” Cressy called it.


So staff recently reported that cash-in-lieu is, in most cases, the best outcome the city can achieve. That money is pooled in reserve funds that can only be used toward the development of parks or the purchase of land for parks.


Between 2000 and 2014, the most development-rich downtown wards — Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) and Wards 27 and 28 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) — collected $213 million in cash from developers for parks, according to the city.


As development boomed, more than half of that was raised in just two years, from 2012 to 2014. It was nearly as much as cash drawn from all the other 41 wards combined.


Although the city recently spent about $28 million for park improvements in those three wards, very few funds have been used to buy land for new parks, with the price of downtown land quickly outpacing what the city can afford.


The development money is split into separate funds for each ward. In Ward 20, there is $22 million in uncommitted reserve funds. Additional money available for acquisition in a south district fund totals $36 million. A city-wide fund for acquisition totals $42 million.


Just raising the word expropriation can inspire controversy at city hall. Although it’s rarely done for social infrastructure, Cressy said it’s something the city and province do often to build hard infrastructure like transit.


Council’s pending debate over paying heftily to take over a parking lot is likely to be difficult.


Parkland acquisition has spurred resentment in the past from suburban councillors, who balk at the cost to buy more valuable land downtown. But that money is a direct result of development in downtown wards, using the principle that growth should pay for growth.


In King-Spadina and elsewhere, the city is now moving to rectify the lack of new parks and other public amenities by rewriting the master plans for those high-growth areas.


Although the city’s attempt to regenerate King-Spadina was “wildly successful,” Cressy said it has left those communities wanting.


“We’ve swung too far to the other spectrum that we’ve built it up without making it livable,” Cressy said. “If we do not do it now, there will not be the land to do it in the future.”


Jake Tobin Garrett, manager of policy and research for advocacy group Park People agreed places like King-Spadina have “totally overshot” their growth potential.


“It’s held up as a success, I guess, of regenerating an area of the city, but it’s almost like they’ve created a monster in this one particular section of town,” he said by phone from his office just down the street from the Richmond St. parking lot.


“The really frustrating part is the money the city is raking in from these developments, which is pretty significant. It’s just sort of accruing in these accounts and not being spent. And the longer it’s not being spent, the more the value of it depreciates.”


The problem extends beyond downtown.


At Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave., where growth has also well exceeded city targets, there is a similar struggle to maintain public spaces.


On a strip of Soudan Ave., a quiet residential street just southeast of the busy intersection, there has been an influx of planned development — seven new condo and apartment towers containing about 1,600 units directly across from single-family homes.


Although the towers are to be built by different developers, local Ward 22 (St. Paul’s) Councillor Josh Matlow worked to push the buildings back from the north side of the street and dedicated land to create a continuous stretch of green space — a linear park.


Matlow said it is bad planning and bad governance for social infrastructure to not keep pace with development. But he says it’s not too late.


“The planning process is far too driven by the development industry, and the city and our communities are far too often in a position where we’re reacting to development proposals rather than proactively creating a plan that doesn’t just focus on built form, but on quality of life,” said Matlow, who helped initiate the city’s “Midtown in Focus” study.


That work is now held up to developers as the standard for new proposals. A similar planning study is taking place in the downtown core.


But it isn’t without pushback. Part of the midtown plan that specifically deals with parks and open space is currently being challenged by 25 developers and property owners at the OMB — which hears appeals over land issues. The board, councillors such as Matlow argue, handcuffs the city by often siding with developers instead of communities. The province recently launched a review of the board’s effectiveness.


Although Matlow said it’s a shame the focus on complete communities hasn’t happen sooner, he thinks there’s still time to plan well.


“We have an opportunity to support great communities and successful neighbourhoods if we make the right decisions, if our focus is on residents’ quality of life rather than just more condos.”




Across the city, individual councillors and their communities have found unique ways to build park space amid booming development. Here are some examples:


Large space


A 1.6 acre park site at 11 Wellesley St. West between Bay St. and Yonge St. was created after local Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam worked with staff and Lanterra Developments to combine parkland dedicated from separate sites, creating a larger green space downtown.


Connecting spaces


Advocates such as Park People have been championing a five-kilometre linear park space known as the Green Line in the Dupont hydro corridor, an attempt to connect and redevelop underused spaces and city parks spanning neighbourhoods from Davenport Village to the Annex. Linking the spaces would create a more “cohesive feeling” and create a better use of space, says the community-based website for the proposed plan.


Reclaiming space


After the owner of the former Glebe Manor Lawn Bowling Club moved to sell the green space near the rapidly growing Yonge-Eglinton centre to a developer for townhomes, local Ward 22 (St. Paul’s) Councillor Josh Matlow fought to buy back four-fifths of the land to maintain it as park space. Just 200 metres away on Manor Rd., Matlow also worked with Manor Road United Church to maintain another patch of green space instead of building townhomes, for a total 0.7 acres of parkland.


Underused space


A private donation of $25 million from philanthropists Judy and Wil Matthews will kickstart a 10-acre space under the elevated Gardiner Expresway between Strachan Ave. and Spadina Ave. — to be known as “The Bentway.” Early concepts for the space include open-air markets, a skating rink and a grand staircase that could be used for public theatre and other performances.


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