ULI Toronto’s 9th Annual Fireside Chat brought with it a unique theme this year, with the organization choosing to host three successful and highly regarded professionals in their respective fields whose common affiliation at a basic level is their last names. The three “Diamonds” invited to be interviewed during this year’s event were A.J. Diamond (Jack) of Diamond Schmitt Architects, Dr. Sara Diamond (Sara) President of OCAD University and Stephen Diamond (Stephen) of Diamond Corp.
With Stephen Diamond moderating the discussion, ULI’s membership learned that these three share more than just a last name. They are all passionate about Toronto and have a genuine interest in its successful evolution toward becoming a world class city. The Diamonds touched on three main topics regarding Toronto’s development trajectory: complementary and necessary services that accompany development; housing affordability in Toronto; and the responsibility of public and private actors to ensure positive outcomes in the development process.
Development Beyond Buildings
Stephen Diamond started the discussion with the question of whether Toronto is a great city or if it’s falling behind. Jack and Sara both agreed that Toronto has evolved considerably since its early, more homogenous wards and with these changes has come new challenges relating to affordability, diversity and disparity among groups. “We are not leveraging our full potential,” said Jack, noting that when it comes to transit investments, Toronto lags considerably behind its peers in London and the United States. “London spends $1,100 per person on transit per year, Toronto $337,” he stated. “We have too much debt timidity,” he continued, making the case that Toronto needs to invest more in infrastructure if it wants to foster the development and communities seen in other major cities in the world. Jack emphasized the importance of “hub cities” which he defined as cities that contribute more than 4% to a province’s GDP. Jack indicated a preference for less prescriptive development guidelines that would allow for more density but require developers to share in a greater portion of cost for supportive infrastructure.
Affordability and Disparity within Toronto
A frequent topic in today’s discourse as well as the Fireside discussion is the increasingly expensive cost of real estate, and with it, the cost of living in Toronto. Sara noted that more and more those less affluent are being pushed to the outer edge of Toronto, where transit options are less optimal. For those less fortunate, commuting into the core has become more challenging. Sara indicated that this has also become a significant issue for the student population. With limited housing options, it’s become commonplace for students to be forced to commute from farther out, while as many as 60% of students now work while going to school in order to afford their education. Stephen offered the opinion that affordable housing is an “income Issue,” and that he would rather see market rents subsidized as a public policy tool rather than mandating below market rents to achieve policy outcomes.
Responsibility for Development Outcomes: Government or Private Sector?
All three Diamonds agreed that responsibility for Toronto’s growth and the challenges that go with it are a shared responsibility between government and the private sector. Jack was firm in his position that governments need to focus on the policy objectives first, prior to evaluating the ideal vehicle for execution. Stephen agreed with the need for a shared approach, but noted that developers do pay substantial taxes already and that their profits are not sufficient enough to cover, in a meaningful way, a subway expansion. Jack noted that the value of real estate is very much driven by its proximity to schools and other amenities sought after by residents and, by that measure, private actors do benefit and, by extension, should play a role in infrastructure to support the density they wish to create.
The discussion concluded with a sense that though coming from different perspectives “the Diamonds,” each accomplished in their own fields had complementary views of city building and the measures that might define success. The discussion was both informative and thought provoking. Though different from previous Fireside chats, participants likely came away with the thought that they had just witnessed and participated in a very fortunate discussion about Toronto’s future.