Side­walk Labs or more hous­ing?

Google rep­re­sents change, but we need even more

Bayview Post - - News -

We need big new ideas about the city, and there are two ways of get­ting them. One is to take up the of­fer from the Google sub­sidiary Side­walk Labs, which has pro­posed an in­no­va­tive com­mu­nity on 16 acres of for­mer in­dus­trial land at the mouth of the Don River.

Side­walk Labs has an ar­range­ment with Wa­ter­front Toronto to build a new res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood along with a Google Canadian head­quar­ters. It prom­ises to be a model that will “rev­o­lu­tion­ize” how cities are built us­ing dig­i­tal tools to build less ex­pen­sive (maybe even af­ford­able) hous­ing, bet­ter traf­fic con­trol and more ef­fi­cient waste col­lec­tion.

It cer­tainly is a big idea, and it is en­dorsed by Mayor John Tory and other lead­ers, al­though there are ques­tions about how it will work and how the plans of pri­vate sec­tor Google will mesh with the pub­lic sec­tor and city life.

An­other way of think­ing big about the city is to ad­dress some large prob­lem in a bold and more tra­di­tional way.

Here’s the big change I think the city needs: a lot more af­ford­able hous­ing. Where to lo­cate it?

In the near sub­urbs, the parts of Scar­bor­ough, North York and Eto­bi­coke that were built in the 1950s and early 1960s. They are low-den­sity ar­eas, of­ten smaller sin­gle-fam­ily houses on large lots built in the Don Mills style and small strip malls.

They are ripe for re­de­vel­op­ment to cre­ate a more com­pact ur­ban form and a much more work­able ur­ban­ity. De­vel­op­ment here will take off the pres­sure to build so many tall con­dos with tiny units in the down­town

Our civic lead­ers need to work out the plan­ning mech­a­nisms with de­vel­op­ers, res­i­dent groups and so­cial and hous­ing agen­cies to per­mit mid-rise six- to eight­storey build­ings to be con­structed with­out has­sle and de­lay along ar­te­rial streets.

They should in­clude lots of two- and three-bed­room units to ac­com­mo­date fam­i­lies.

It’s a good way to make new vi­brant main streets sim­i­lar to the Dan­forth, Bloor Street West and Queen Street, streets that support lo­cal tran­sit and lo­cal en­trepreneurs.

New build­ings would add much life to St Clair Av­enue East, Eglin­ton Av­enue, Lawrence Av­enue, Shep­pard Av­enue, as well as to many north-south ar­te­ri­als.

Now that Jen­nifer Keesmaat has re­signed, the city needs to hire a new chief plan­ner who is ca­pa­ble of lead­ing the con­sul­ta­tive process to get work­able plan­ning so­lu­tions within a six-month pe­riod.

We’ll also need in­no­va­tive fund­ing in the form of mort­gage fi­nanc­ing and grants, too, to make this hap­pen. As well as non-profit, co-op and rental hous­ing, fi­nanc­ing should per­mit a goodly num­ber of units for sale, since those look­ing for af­ford­able hous­ing are just as in­ter­ested in own­ing their hous­ing as oth­ers. Our civic lead­ers need to start some bold ne­go­ti­a­tions with Canada Mort­gage and Hous­ing Com­pany — that is fed­eral of­fi­cials and maybe the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment as well.

Can this ever hap­pen in Toronto? Forty-five years ago Mayor David Crom­bie led the ini­tia­tive to get the city of Toronto into a pow­er­ful and pop­u­lar pro­gram of build­ing af­ford­able hous­ing. What’s needed to­day is that kind of good, strong lead­er­ship.

At the mo­ment, nei­ther Mayor John Tory nor his pu­ta­tive op­po­nent Doug Ford seem in­ter­ested in this kind of big idea.

It’s eas­ier to side with Google on wa­ter­front de­sign as the way of the fu­ture. But much more than that is needed.

Now, a year out from the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion, we need to start ask­ing our civic lead­ers — not just those who ex­press an in­ter­est in be­ing elected mayor, but also those in­ter­ested in serv­ing as coun­cil­lors — to get se­ri­ous about this big is­sue that can re­vi­tal­ize the near sub­urbs and pro­vide the hous­ing that Toron­to­ni­ans need. Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist John Sewell is a for­mer mayor of Toronto and the au­thor of a num­ber of ur­ban plan­ning books, in­clud­ing The Shape of the Sub­urbs.

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