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Boom or go bust, city told



AN OASIS: Chief planner Paul Bedford stands at site of former Inglis Ltd. plant on Strachan Ave. The land is slated to be approved for mixed use.

A million new residents needed, planner warns

By Bruce DeMaraand Moira Welsh
Toronto Star City Hall Bureau

Toronto must attract 1 million new residents or risk a population explosion in the 905 area that will create disastrous urban sprawl, warns the author of a blueprint for the city’s future.

Chief city planner Paul Bedford says unless there is a campaign to entice new residents - promoting a rich city lifestyle and short commute - more than 2 million people will move into the outside reaches of the Greater Toronto Area in the next 30 years.

“Think of it as an existing city of Toronto added on top of the 905 region, and it’s totally car-dependent - it is disastrous in terms of longer commutes, poorer air quality and disinvestment in Toronto,” Bedford said yesterday during a meeting with The Star’s editorial board.

Bedford’s report, entitled Toronto at the Crossroads: Shaping Our Future, was released Tuesday as a preview of an amalgamated Toronto’s first official plan, to be completed next spring.

It says that 2.6 million people will move into the GTA - with only 550,000 going to Toronto - unless the city takes action.

The report recommends the creation of five public campaigns to create a place of international urban beauty with more parks, transformed avenues, better transit and shorter commuting times.

Bedford’s report, which will be followed by extensive public consultations throughout the fall, also recommends:

  • Gradual growth along major “avenues,” such as parts of Sheppard Ave., Eglinton Ave. and Danforth Ave., replacing one and two-storey structures with four- and five-storey structures.
  • Major commercial and residential growth in the city’s downtown and central waterfront.
  • Major development of 1,620 hectares of empty land - the equivalent of 10 High Parks - located throughout the city.
  • Clustering growth around six locations in the city where the TTC and GO Transit connect.
  • Preservation of most established neighbourhoods, with severe limits on future growth.

Joe Berridge, one of the city’s most respected urban planners, agrees Toronto needs more, not fewer, residents.

“Everybody will benefit if we have more people living in those parts of the city that are well-served by transit, well-served by shops. It’s an alternative to the endless sprawl out to Barrie,” Berridge said.

“That would make transit a lot more viable, that would make a much bigger tax base. It would significantly increase the local purchasing power so that local shops would do better. There are a huge number of advantages of (intensification).”

Councillor Jack Layton (Don River) called Bedford’s plan “one of these beautiful ironies.”

“By allowing people to live in some of these under-built-up areas of the city, we can reduce congestion. So more people means less congestion,” Layton said.

“Maybe there’ll be a few more people out on sidewalks, but I’ve seen very few traffic jams on sidewalks. We’ll all be breathing a hell of a lot easier, too.”

Bedford’s report is one piece in Toronto’s long-term plan to give itself more autonomy over its own affairs. Mayor Mel Lastman is pushing for a Toronto charter that would allow the city to raise money and give it special powers to care for its own economic, transit and social needs.

Toronto’s chief administrative officer, Mike Garrett, said people are growing tired of commuting, so it is up to the city to create more housing and offices.

“People are beginning to treasure their discretionary time,” Garrett said. “Our challenge is to flood the downtown with residential. That would lower the housing prices and increase the supply… . Then people have the opportunity to get from home to work in 30 minutes.”

Bedford’s plan will replace one of the last vestiges of the pre-amalgamated city: seven official plans from the former Metro Toronto and six local municipalities.

In all, the plans have more than 2,000 pages and endless details and limits that restrict development, Berridge said.

“Someone needs to simply say these are the top-10 priorities for the city and nobody’s ever sat down and done that and that’s what I hope this (official plan) would do.”

Urban development commissioner Paula Dill said the new official plan will be a “more pro-active, more streamlined and less prescriptive approach to planning.”

That will mean development applications approved within three to four months instead of one to two years under the existing system, she said.

“The official plans we have now … have a lot of numbers, they’re very specific on height and density. We’re getting away from that by saying we want to establish principles of development. It’s not a rule book per se.”

While Bedford’s report promises that an official plan will call for more affordable housing throughout the city, Layton said nothing will happen until the federal government restarts its national housing program.

“Is our federal government going to be visionary enough or sensible enough to embrace the idea that you have to invest in cities?”