Toronto is trying to remake a waterfront neighbourhood and it’s creating a big debate

A new housing plan for Toronto is making people talk — and worry — about affordable housing — and toting millions of dollars worth of development rights for the city and surrounding regions.

Proposed changes to the Heritage Conservation District in the Toronto Design District — which sits in between Queen Street West and Bay Street, so the two don’t actually touch the city — are expected to bring two high-rise towers and as many as 3,500 new units to the space. City councillors on Monday are expected to approve a plan to realize that plan: the TDA.

The Toronto Design District is home to dozens of restaurants, shops and corporate offices, built on the waterfront along the Windsor and Leslie Rivers. It is known for its large and expansive windows, and the area is dominated by hotels, warehouses and high-rise buildings.

That history has made the area iconic, and its buildings quite distinctive in the city. In 2012, the city created the Heritage Conservation District to, as a press release put it, “recognize the cultural, historic and architectural significance of buildings in the area.”

A few years ago, the city decided it wanted to approve a new condo development at a location that would have necessitated knocking down the existing buildings in the design district to create a larger structure. But some residents objected — and the proposal was ultimately rejected.

“We didn’t want to lose the liveability of the area,” says Genny Buckner, one of the opponents of the plans. “There’s so much going on there already.”

But the city decided to try again. Now, a new development plan is in place that would create apartments and condos all around the area. This time, the city would ensure that whatever they built would be of the same type as the buildings there today. This new plan would allow the city to require developers to build so-called “density bonuses” in case it failed to meet its goal to increase housing supply in Toronto.

Developers for the past two decades have strived to boost housing supply and prices in the Greater Toronto Area, particularly in the area surrounding the peninsula west of the city. But with homes too expensive for most buyers, they’ve had to push up prices by turning their projects into waterfront condos.

That means they’ve put a lot of water-based housing projects on land that would have been used to produce office buildings. Often, they bring in transportation corridors and public transit hubs, which means even more demand.

But allowing these projects to proceed came with two conditions: the developers would have to include units that were more affordable and they would have to pay a levy, which would go into a fund for infrastructure and upkeep of the waterfront.

Incentives for developers have become a contentious issue for the city of Toronto, particularly for those in the less-affluent neighborhoods, Buckner says.

Buckner, who is the chair of the Queen West Community Association, calls what the city of Toronto is offering to developers the “million-dollar deal.”

As The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham reported last week, critics of the plan have called it a “stealth tax” to raise funds for public transit.

As in any project, Toronto’s particular residential market has differences between neighbourhoods. What people want in the area in front of them might depend on what kind of buildings they want to live in.

But whether the city can retrofit these buildings in a way that suits the city’s needs remains to be seen. But at least one former developer who lost out on another proposed development in the same area is applauding the city’s attempt to protect the historic buildings.

“There is a beautiful jewel in the Heart of the City of Toronto and we should be protecting it, not letting it slide away,” Grant Green says in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “I hope they will be able to preserve those remarkable structures as a crucial part of the original design of the TDA.”

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