I've learned since writing my April 22 article on East Harbour that what happened behind the scenes is the City of Toronto meekly handed to the Ontario government the unilateral power to rezone and significantly intensify development on hundreds of acres of land surrounding dozens of transit stations being planned for the Toronto area.
The massive shift only became known to the wider public on April 12, 2021. On that day, the province announced some details for TOD at the planned East Harbour and Corktown stations on the Ontario Line.
Those are both important sites. East Harbour is slated to be a second ‘downtown’ close to highways and the lake. And the Corktown site includes the land where Canada’s first parliament buildings were erected in 1795.
The April 12 news release mentioned that there would be housing on these two sites, in addition to transit infrastructure and commercial buildings. The addition of residential development signifies that the province had changed the zoning.
When I wrote my April 22 article on East Harbour I wasn’t aware of why or how the province rezoned the land. And now that I know what happened (details below), I realize it’s more devious than I’d imagined.
The province, of course, is putting a sunny spin on this. For example Kinga Surma, the provincial deputy transportation minister, asked readers in a May 11 opinion piece in the National Post to “imagine a future where people can affordably live, work and play in one connected place.” The province has “chosen to create vibrant community projects with housing, jobs and public open spaces integrated at our transit stations,” Surma wrote.
But some people are furious. Among them is Robert Hatton, who retired last year from his position as Director of Strategic Initiatives and Intergovernmental Finance at the City of Toronto, and who lives near East Harbour.
“If I was the mayor I would be screaming from the mountaintops about provincial abuse of power, unaccountable interference in municipal planning, lack of concern for the community, and potential for corruption. Voters confer their mayor with the platform and the responsibility to get fair treatment for them from the province, and to act when our communities are at risk,” Hatton wrote in a May 11 email in response to some questions I’d asked him.
The city doesn’t have the legislative authority to stop this rezoning. Also, the Progressive Conservative government knows it can ignore, with impunity, local residents’ wishes: people in that part of Toronto haven’t elected a Conservative to represent them in the provincial government since 1964.
Other blunt instruments the province could use to get its way include a Minister’s Zoning Order. This type of order allows the province to unilaterally rezone virtually any piece of public land in the province (and this to be further broadened very soon). Another instrument is outright expropriation of land.
But that doesn’t excuse the enabling of the coup by the mayor, leading bureaucrats and city council.
They didn’t even try to negotiate for anything substantive to compensate for this shocking power grab. For example, there’s no indication they urged the province to put underground sections of the Ontario Line that traverse densely populated areas in the east end.
What happened is that in October 2019 the mayor’s Executive Committee gave the thumbs-up to a city-staff recommendation that city staff go ahead and sign deals giving the province control over what happens on land surrounding all TOD sites. Later that month, the full city council concurred. It was stick-handled so skilfully that council wasn’t given the opportunity to vote on whether to accept or reject this radical change.
Council then voted in January 2020 to let city staff execute the MOU that formalized this coup.
(In February 2021 Toronto city council gave the thumbs-up to a staff request for each TOD to be negotiated separately. This was laid out in a term sheet for the SmartTrack stations.)
Council members acted as if they didn’t know this was happening. For example, at the January 2020 council meeting, they passed a motion asking the province to respect the city’s authority over planning approvals on TOD sites, and also to make affordable housing a priority on those sites. Much later, at the April 2021 council meeting, several council members expressed shock (‘I am shocked, shocked’) at the province’s April 12 announcement of the rezoning of East Harbour and Corktown and by extension its power to do so on all TOD sites.
Most recently, TOD at East Harbour and Corktown stations was discussed at the April 29, 2021, Executive Committee meeting. Hatton and several others spoke against it at the meeting. But the Executive Committee gave it the thumbs-up anyway. And it was also green-lighted at the May 6, 2021, city council meeting, with only one councillor, John Filion, verbally pushing back with any intensity at what was happening.
Hatton isn’t optimistic about where this can lead.
“The way TOD has been put into practice is about cooking up deals in a back room with the city expressly prohibited from participating. That isn’t transparency. That’s a recipe for heavily favouring developers, bad deals for the city and its communities and, ultimately, corruption,” he told me in a May 10 telephone interview.