On February 22nd, ULI Toronto convened an expert panel to discuss the provincial government’s proposed reforms to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Held in a packed space at the National Club, both the panel and the overview presentation that preceded it illuminated a multitude of important potential regional implications of the proposed changes.
For the Ontario Progressive Conservative Government, the reforms would achieve, at a high level, increased planning flexibility for municipalities that comprise the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The provincial government believes reforms that reduce density targets for many large areas within the region would allow municipalities to better attract employers and new investment. Local communities, the provincial government says, would also be able to build more housing and businesses around transit stops. This would, in turn, foster growth in these key areas leading to increased transit usage and reduced congestion.
These claims have been challenged publicly by some in the planning community, who have raised concerns that lower density targets would increase car dependence in some of these regions. Critics of the reforms have also flagged the potential for incentivizing the construction of transit stations in areas that lack the density necessary to support them.
Emma West, Partner at Bousfields Inc., and Meaghan McDermid, Partner at Davies Howe, opened the morning’s programming by giving a comprehensive overview of the reforms.
The presentation was wide-ranging, with McDermid covering changes and clarifications to employment lands and employment areas as well as the criteria around land servicing and prospecting availability of existing and planned infrastructure. She also gave an in-depth explanation of a significant change to settlement area policies and the allowance to either adjust or expand boundaries outside of a municipal comprehensive review (MCR).
West highlighted a number of important definition modifications that have been introduced through the proposed reforms, including modifying the meaning of a “major transit station area” (increasing the radius from 500 metres around a station to 500 to 800 metres) and an expansion of what constitutes a “major trip generator” to include recreational trip uses. She also explained the introduction of a rural settlement definition to the plan that deals with existing hamlets and other small settlement areas. These areas are defined as long-established, identified in official plans, serviced on private water and waste water and containing a limited amount of undeveloped lands that are already designated for development.
Following their detail-rich presentation, West and McDermid handed the stage over to Phil Dewan, President of Counsel Public Affairs, who acted as moderator for the panel discussion segment.
The panel experts were Audrey Jacob, Deputy Regional Director, Canada East, IBI Group; Cheryl Shindruk, Executive Vice President of Geranium Homes and Chair of BILD; Brian Bridgeman, Commissioner of Planning and Economic Development for Durham Region; and Devan Sommerville, Associate Vice President of Counsel Public Affairs.
Dewan opened the conversation by encouraging panelists to share their first impressions of the amendments and speak to how they compared to past changes to the Growth Plan.
Bridgeman said that he and his colleagues at Durham Region had long been critical of the “one-size-fits-all” approach that they believed guided many of the policies present in previous iterations of the Growth Plan. He was “pleasantly surprised” that the new reforms differentiate between areas of the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
“Whether it’s exactly the right thing just yet, we’ll see, but it’s better,” he said.
Jacob agreed that the shift away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach was a positive development, but expressed concern over the lack of evidence-based or data-driven analysis in the reforms.
She was also disappointed that the province “hasn’t focused on the provincial agencies and ministries, as well as municipal service providers, in terms of what their contribution is in achieving some of these [Growth Plan-mandated] targets.”
Shindruk cited a study that BILD is currently undertaking to examine what the organization views as a “housing supply challenge” that has been significantly impacting the Greater Golden Horseshoe for several years. The study’s preliminary findings have identified 100,000 housing units projected by the province that have not been realized. She encouraged the audience to “think about the spin-off impact of that” with respect to the development charges and HST that went uncollected.
Shindruk commended the province for recognizing the housing supply challenges facing the region through these proposed reforms. While she acknowledged it’s a “big challenge,” she is “delighted to see that they’re interested in addressing it.”
As the discussion progressed, topics that were explored included, the consultations that guided the proposed reforms, the “business-first” approach that is apparent in some of the new and modified policies, the need to limit further amendments to allow planners to respond and adjust after this recent period of rapid change, and a commitment to delivering transit to the region.