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TTC set to unlock its property riches

Plans in the works to redevelop underused lands around bus and subway stations

By Stephen Wickens
The Globe and Mail
Friday June 18, 2004

For more than 36 years, the sprawl of vacant land surrounding Warden TTC station has illustrated a problem with subway construction in Toronto: Intense development doesn’t necessarily follow rapid-transit lines. Taxpayers have had their wallets siphoned to pay for lines to the suburbs, buoyed by the faith that dense, mixed-use subcentres would automatically spring up as developers clamoured to exploit the land-value premiums subways can create. For the most part, it never happened.

But all that appears ready to change — and the changes will extend far beyond the corner of Warden and St. Clair avenues. Through a joint city-TTC undertaking known as the Schedule A Property Initiative, an 11-site list of publicly owned lands near and atop subway stations has been compiled. The intention is to kick-start the intensification goals of the city’s new official plan while boosting the cash-strapped transit commission’s bottom line.

An eight-site Schedule B list — which includes the large but tough-to-develop Davisville and Greenwood subway yards — has also been put together. As well, an industry source says all other TTC lands and many city-owned properties, “including large areas currently used solely for parking, remain under consideration — a sort of unofficial C list.” Some Schedule A construction and site-preparation work is evident at Eglinton station, which has a new, temporary bus terminal that will be replaced by a private-sector developer as part of a project expected to be announced soon. And an application is in the works for an eight-storey, 110-unit condo building across from High Park station’s west entrance, with 25 townhouses on green space atop the tunnels.

Plans for a low-rise residential project on Yonge Street in front of Rosedale station are being reviewed. Reports and the public consultation processes involved in making big changes on land surrounding Warden and Victoria Park stations are well under way. The city is also preparing studies on a major urbanization push for the corridor between Islington and Kipling stations. Public consultation is set to begin in September. “We sit on some of the best real estate in the city, but we haven’t necessarily used it effectively,” says Charles Wheeler, manager of the TTC’s property development department.

“If Toronto wants another half-million people, you want the majority of that to be transit-oriented, and the best way is to have people living, working and shopping right around subway stations — right on top of them, even,” he says. Toronto has lots of untapped potential in this regard. Apart from the 50-year-old original, Eglinton-to-Union portion of the Yonge line, nearly all Toronto’s subway stations stand alone as single-use properties, something that would be unthinkable in many parts of the world.

“Some of the properties are huge … it’s an incredible waste of capital and potential,” says BA Group’s Ed Levy, an internationally respected transportation consultant and engineer. “At least some people in this city are finally waking up,” Mr. Levy adds. “Now, if we can only get neighbourhood groups to understand that good, high-density, mixed-use development at subway stops doesn’t have to be high-rise, we can all benefit.”

The TTC, through Mr. Wheeler’s department, has some experience generating revenue from its properties, but the push is on for it to become truly organized and aggressive for the first time. Driven largely by the virtual elimination of provincial transit funding in the past decade, as well as private developers’ preference for low-cost suburban sprawl, the TTC may have reason to become a property developer in its own right.

To that end, a closely guarded report on the feasibility of creating a for-profit transit development corporation (TDC) is expected out next month. The corporation would be modelled on similar entities in Asian cities, where the symbiosis between public transit and real estate creates profits that are sometimes large enough to more than cover the cost of subway building.

Mayor David Miller says that if Toronto can create a TDC model “that is efficient and accountable in the context of a North American city, we would want to roll the disposition of the [Schedule A and B properties] into that.” But the Mayor stresses that a TDC will never make enough money to end the need for ramped-up funding from Queen’s Park and Ottawa. Mr. Wheeler says, “We haven’t done things nearly to the extent that [Far East cities have].” He refuses to discuss the TDC report but does cite recent examples of innovation in the United States that illustrate some of the hurdles the TTC must clear. “When we buy land for subway stations, we’re constrained to buying only land that’s needed for transit purposes,” Mr. Wheeler says. “San Jose, for example, has the ability to buy land not just for the station, but to generate revenue. They’re going out and buying 40-acre development parcels [next to proposed stations].”

In the case of Warden station, the TTC hopes to free up 6.6 hectares of potentially prime land by relocating underused commuter parking lots to a nearby hydro corridor. The plan would allow residential or mixed-use development, cascading down from high-density uses at the station. “Commuter parking often isn’t the highest and best use of land in the prime catchment areas [land within an easy five-minute walk of the turnstiles],” says Mr. Wheeler, who adds that the TTC’s current mandate continues to make increasing ridership a higher priority than real estate profit.

Piggy-backing on to scheduled renovations, partly to increase access for the disabled, the plan aims to improve things for residents of existing neighbourhoods who live close to Warden station, but find the walk difficult or unpleasant. Ruth Lambe, a senior city planner for the area that includes the Warden corridor, points out that big changes are imminent for the whole area. Although the deal hasn’t yet closed, Mattamy Homes’s offer to purchase the Warden Power Centre mall, 15.2 hectares immediately north of the TTC parking lots, has been accepted.

Goldman Group plans to develop about 25 hectares south of the station — land that was once the site of a glass factory, the Becker’s dairy and Centennial College’s Warden Woods campus, which won’t reopen this fall. “A lot of people are talking about this as a chance to really get things right, and transit access will be a huge part of it,” Ms. Lambe says. But trying to make the most of real estate opportunities can have some downsides for the TTC. “They’re in the development game now; things have changed,” says Guy D’Onofrio of Goldman Group, which owns a strip of former rail corridor crucial to the TTC’s plan.

“We respect their goals, and development around Warden will help us and Mattamy, but we want the city and the TTC in particular, to realize they now have to play by the same rules as [private-sector developers]” Mr. D’Onofrio says. “If you want market value for your land holdings, you also have to be prepared to pay what the market will bear when you buy land.” Lots of people think the TTC has been unintentionally overpaying for decades. Mr. Levy, who sees lots of potential in lands around subway stations, laments the cost and the opportunities that were blown in building the TTC’s schedules A and B nest egg.

“We’re coming at this late. It’s much more expensive to develop over a working station than during the actual subway construction … and I will say that the Sheppard line is the most useless, the worst transit investment of major proportions in the last 100 years. “You can’t blame the TTC for all this; there are many good people there,” Mr. Levy says. “Warden and all that wasted land is a good example of what went wrong in recent decades, but it sounds as though it can be a symbol of how people are waking up, too.”

Next stop - profit:

The Toronto Transit Commission and the City of Toronto are preparing a plan to develop some of the valuable land occupied by its bus terminals, garages and subway stations. Schedule A properties would be the highest priority for development.

Schedule A (in order of priority)

1- Yonge-Eglinton bus terminal land 2- High Park station property (20 Gothic Ave.) 3- York Mills station commuter parking lot 4- Islington station bus terminal lands 5- Lansdowne garage (former streetcar/bus yards north of Bloor) 6- Rosedale station bus terminal lands 7- Spadina and Bloor (small property) 8- Warden station commuter parking lots 9- Victoria Park station commuter parking lots 10- Yonge and Sheppard, northwest corner 11- Danforth garage (former streetcar/bus yards at Coxwell Ave.)

Schedule B

1- Davisville subway yards and station 2- Downsview station lands 3- Finch station bus terminal lands 4- Greenwood station 5- Greenwood subway yards 6- Lawrence station and bus terminal 7- Leslie station 8- Wilson station and bus terminal




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