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REGULATORY RANT: With a little common sense, we can have faster approvals and more housing supply
January 31st, 2019 11:45 am     A+ | a-

Michael de Lint / RESCON
 

In December, the Province released a consultation document called, “Increasing Housing Supply in Ontario.” This document will form the basis of the Housing Supply Action Plan, which was announced by the government of Ontario in the Fall Economic Statement. The goal of the action plan is to address barriers to new ownership and rental housing.

RESCON's submission included recommendations to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing on a wide range of topics that provide common-sense ideas for streamlining approvals and increasing housing supply in Ontario. Some highlights of RESCON’s comments and key recommendations are outlined below.

As we know, unnecessary constraints on new housing supply – both ownership and rental – have created a chronic supply shortage in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) which artificially increases prices. This creates hardship for homebuyers and renters alike and reduces the GGH’s economic competitiveness. As a result, too many job-creating investors will invest in other comparable cities with a high quality of life but much more reasonable housing prices.

CONSULTATIONS ON THE PROVINCIAL GROWTH PLAN

In the fall of 2018, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing also consulted on ways to improve implementation of the “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2017,” which took effect in July 2017. As a follow-up to this consultation, the Ministry released “Amendment 1” to the Growth Plan which introduces some improvements including more flexibility regarding employment area conversions (which had been a problem in some Major Transit Station Areas – MTSAs) and reduced density targets in designated greenfield areas (where the previous 80 persons and jobs per hectare had pushed townhouses and mid-rise condominiums into urban fringe areas with no mass transit). RESCON will be providing further comments on Amendment 1 before the Feb. 28th deadline.




Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2017.



If the provincial Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2017, the Planning Act and municipal planning regimes were all working effectively and efficiently, we would not need a Housing Supply Action Plan. We applaud the government’s efforts to improve the provincial Growth Plan and the municipal planning regime.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM RESCON’S SUBMISSION

RESCON’s recommendations focus on several areas including: fixing the chronic under-zoning problem in the GTA that results in extra delays from unnecessary rezoning; using innovative ways to fix our huge transit deficit to expand mid- and high rise development opportunities across the GTA; speeding up and modernizing our development approvals regime with more transparency, more accountability, and advanced communication technology; and finally, supporting innovative building approaches that introduce more competition. In addition to these key themes, our report includes several other housing supply recommendations.
 

1. The Province should quickly fix chronic municipal under-zoning.

Toronto and many GTA municipalities have a chronic problem with of out-of-date zoning that has not been aligned with the provincial Growth Plan.

“Our submission to the Province emphasizes that as a result of chronic under-zoning, most building projects that are consistent with the Growth Plan still need to go through a long and uncertain zoning amendment process,” said RESCON president Richard Lyall. “That can often take three or more years, based on a U of T study of planning on the City of Toronto.”

Although municipalities are obliged to align municipal official plans with the Growth Plan as soon as possible, in reality they have eight years to do so – five years to complete a municipal comprehensive review to update their official plan and then a subsequent three years to update their zoning. Even those generous timelines are often not met.


RESCON president Richard Lyall


In addition, Section 37 of the Planning Act, further encourages chronic under-zoning. Under this provision a municipality can, through a bylaw, permit increased building heights or density in return for the provision of “such facilities or matters set out in the bylaw.” Often builders pay money which must be spent on facilities, services and other matters specified in the bylaw. Under site plan control, municipalities can prescribe matters such as exterior design, parking, landscaping and sustainable design. In addition, development charges and parkland fees are intended to cover the incremental impact of the building on public services.

So, it is not clear what legitimate purpose is addressed by Section 37 that is not already covered by site plan control, development charges and parkland fees. In a nutshell, planning provisions allowing for a glacial zoning update period, together with the existence of Section 37, have the effect of encouraging extremely slow municipal zoning updates, resulting in chronic under-zoning.

 



Above, an example of chronic under-zoning. Under this street is a high-capacity and very expensive subway line – but you would never know it. Below, Danforth’s Coxwell subway station, very low key and hard to find.


 

RESCON therefore recommends much faster zoning updates so that zoning is aligned with the Growth Plan in two years, including all prior planning updates (official plan, secondary plans and site plan control). In the case of major transit station areas (MTSAs), where the public has already invested in very expensive infrastructure, and the development parameters are more clearly defined, zoning updates – at least for the inner portion of the MTSA – should be completed in one year including all prior planning updates. This will result in a sense of urgency which is appropriate given our housing supply problem. The province should assist municipalities in updating MTSA zoning and municipalities could engage private planning consultants to provide advice.

Other measures to support faster planning updates include:

(a) Provincial policy goals – “stable neighbourhoods,” for example – cannot be a policy priority in MTSAs (a detached house beside a subway stop cannot under any circumstances be considered part of a stable neighbourhood).

(b) Dropping Section 37 or greatly narrowing its scope, so that it can only be used where zoning is already updated to the Growth Plan and where a developer has a reasonable proposal that would exceed or depart from the provincial Growth Plan.

(c) Replacing zoning with a properly designed community development permit system that, for a particular district, combines zoning with site plan control, thereby reducing the delays associated with separate site plan approvals.

(d) Integrating into the official plan development and consultation process, Municipal Class Environmental Assessments and associated public consultations for municipal infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges, transit, and bike paths, rather than having a second review and consultation under the Municipal Class Environmental Assessment Process (MECA). A similar approach is taken in London, U.K.

(e) Dropping the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT) in favour of a new appeals body with the result that if, for example, a municipal decision based on out-of-date zoning is appealed, the matter is not sent back to the municipality for a second chance, but rather, goes directly to the new body.


2. We need municipalities to speed up development approvals and help modernize the regulatory regime.

Eliminating chronic under-zoning will have a big impact on speeding up approvals by largely eliminating official plan amendments and zoning amendments. Combining site plan and zoning under a properly designed community development permit system will also speed up approval by eliminating unnecessary steps.

However, there is still a need to speed up development approvals, including site plan control, subdivision agreements, plan of condominium, as well as external agency approvals (e.g., conservation authority approvals, as well as Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks). In addition, we need to speed up any zoning and official plan amendments that may be still required – but we expect far fewer with updated zoning.

We need to improve time frames and move to risk-based timelines rather than one-size-fits-all. For example, instead of a single 30-day time frame for site plan control, we should have a risk or complexity- based system with timelines ranging from between 20 and 40 days based on project complexity. This principle can be applied to most other municipal and external agency development approvals.

In addition, as we outlined in RESCON’s July 2018 streamlining report, we also need to modernize the regulatory regime, so that these timelines are actually achieved on a regular basis.

This includes several components:

(a) There is total agency transparency. This includes: complete application requirements; checklists; guidelines; agency decision-making criteria; high-resolution maps; staff contact lists; and annual reporting on actual timeline performance.

(b) Regulatory agencies are client-centric. This includes: offering pre-consultation with expert decision-makers; assisting developers to address inter-agency conflicts; planners taking on the role of “development facilitators” and taking off their “planning hat.”

(c) Municipal and provincial regulatory agencies embrace comprehensive e-permitting. This includes Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Geographic Information System (GIS) enabled e-permitting, so that developers can obtain in advance, information on all planning requirements for particular sites and can submit and track applications electronically and in real time.

(d) Regulatory agencies move from a hands-on role to more of an expert audit role. As applications from industry professionals are complete, coordinated and where critical high-risk project elements are already peer reviewed by the developer’s professional team, municipal and external regulatory agencies can shift to more of an expert audit role to further streamline approvals.



Just imagine no more stacks of paper: Singapore’s development application system is entirely digital.




3. We need to fix the transit deficit with innovative land-value capture to fund system expansion.

As we know, the GTA has a huge transit deficit – and this greatly limits our ability to redevelop arterials with mid- and high-rise housing.

In order to catch up to other cities of similar size, the GTA needs to move quickly to use innovative funding to improve and expand the system. We need to use air rights above subways, GO and light-rail stations, in order to recycle land value uplift from transit investments into transit system expansions.

If we only developed mid-rise housing along City of Toronto arterials, we could add 100,000 housing units. By fixing the GTA transit deficit, we could add an enormous supply of mid- and high-rise housing.




Above: Melbourne’s mass transit network. Below: Toronto’s mass transit (subway) network.

 

 

The GTA, with a population of 6.5 million, has only 77 kilometres of subways, including the recent extension to Vaughan. The bulk of the subway was built in the 1950s and then followed by sporadic transit development which has lagged far behind population growth. Meanwhile, Melbourne with a population of 4.8 million has 390 kilometres of subway and high-capacity transit. Recently the Province announced it will partner with a private firm to build a new GO station at Mimico in exchange for the right to develop above the station (i.e., using air rights). Metrolinx is currently exploring the feasibility of this approach.

There are several examples of the successful use of air rights above transit stations to fund transit system expansion. Hong Kong’s self-funded transit body, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), is a rail plus real estate company that develops land above and adjacent to new subway and transit stations. MTR also manages the entire system in both Melbourne and Stockholm where densities are more in line with Toronto.



Downsview station on the Spadina line in north Toronto: a missed opportunity to build an attractive station incorporated into a beautiful, mixed-use residential building providing much needed new housing supply.



The Relief Line subway, which would take pressure off the over-crowded Yonge subway line, is a key Toronto priority. This subway expansion could, if handled carefully, be partly funded through land value capture.

Development around new mass transit lines should be planned, as was the case with the old streetcar suburbs, to accommodate a wide range of housing types meeting the full spectrum of the GGH housing demand from high density near MTSAs, to mid-rise along arterials between stations to detached housing further from the arterials and station areas.

Outdated and overloaded combined sewers in much of Toronto create an additional problem. Toronto won’t accept ground water from underground parking to be introduced into these sewers. The Province should encourage municipalities to accept much reduced parking standards and/or above-ground parking so that we can better use the existing and an expanded transit infrastructure.

Moreover, these condos should not be subject to additional costs and delays associated with above-code standards for energy efficiency or resilience imposed through site plan control bylaws. The Ontario Building Code already achieves carbon emission reductions that far exceed those required under the Paris climate accord. Site plan control bylaws are specifically prohibited from addressing building and energy efficiency standards covered in the building code. This means that, for example, the City of Toronto’s mandatory tier 1 green standards are ultra vires, and the Province should direct those municipalities engaged in similar practices to stop immediately.

A four-storey timber building with pre-fabricated glulam and CLT panels is shown under construction in downtown Toronto at Yonge and Charles.



4. We need to increase innovation in the building sector.

The Province should fast-track the Ontario Building Code changes allowing tall timber buildings. Other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world have already changed building code provisions to allow tall - timber construction of 12 or more storeys (wood buildings in Ontario are now limited to six storeys). The benefits of fast-tracking tall timber construction include:

a) Potentially lower construction costs, since providing mid-rise builders with another construction option increases competition with steel and concrete materials, which currently dominate this market.

b) Potentially more mid-rise infill supply, since pre-engineered mass timber construction is fast, quiet, clean and light weight, providing an excellent option for in-fill developments where existing residents are sensitive to noise, construction waste and disruption.

We will also be commenting in more detail Amendment 1 to the Growth Plan and will keep you posted.

We are fortunate that the Province has taken a genuine interest in streamlining and modernizing our planning regime to increase housing supply while ensuring that the GTA is a liveable region, and attractive to job-creating investors. We have at this moment a rare opportunity to make big improvements to our planning regime – carpe diem.

 

Michael de Lint is RESCON’s director of building regulatory reform and technical standards. Email him at delint@rescon.com.

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