Bill 23 isn’t perfect, but it’s a step to building better, faster

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By Andrew Ferancik
MCIP, RPP

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Canada will need to build the equivalent of Rome in the next five years, according to its own population projections, if it is to house the people it wants to bring here through its ambitious near-term immigration targets.

The question is: Is Ontario up to the challenge of what it really means to accommodate its share of that kind of growth? And can it happen without destroying our quality of life?

We used to build cities instinctively. They often grew organically, on an ad hoc basis, in response to population increases, and were almost always compact, mixed-use and walkable. This happened without any zoning or land use policies as we know them today, and often no centralized direction. Yet the cities and towns were built and are now the places we consider to be the most interesting, with the most compelling architecture and greatest cultural assets. They are the districts tourists visit to determine the true essence of a city or even the “soul” of its nation. They are the environments that Jane Jacobs had in mind when she wrote The Death and Life Of Great American Cities.

Then we largely stopped building those kinds of places. But why?

Because we made them illegal. Over time, the rules for building cities have grown increasingly voluminous, complex and even contradictory. In Ontario, uses today are tightly controlled and in many areas prevent anything to be built except expensive single-detached houses. Other areas allow only industrial uses leading to vast stretches of low buildings – even next to subway stations.

The few remaining “hero districts” are tasked with accommodating most of the growth. There are layers of caveats, including density limits, height limits, setbacks, stepbacks, parking requirements, heritage designations, conservation limits, rental housing replacement rules, among many other considerations that chip away at a property’s potential to accommodate development. Then, layer on development charges, community benefits charges, parkland dedication fees, application fees and inclusionary zoning requirements.

We certainly want to protect heritage buildings and our ravines. We want parks. We want new community centres and well-designed streetscapes with well-designed buildings that equate to a livable community. We want affordable housing for everyone. On the surface, these rules seem eminently logical and virtuous. But, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. The consequences intended or unintended (a topic for another time), are that these rules collectively limit how much housing can be built in response to market demands. They often also mean densities and heights must be much higher than their surroundings for projects to be feasible, meaning they are often opposed by nearby residents. Couple that with the soft costs (and time) needed to sift through all these issues, and then consider ever-escalating construction costs. And then we wonder why housing is so expensive.

Bill 23 has been generally demonized in traditional news and social media for its wide-reaching seismic changes to how planning is done in Ontario, which can generally be summed up as loosening (just some of) the rules mentioned above. The changes, while perceived by some as drastic, are hardly a return to the laissez-faire days of past generations who built the places we so cherish today, and still leave in place most of the regulatory structure that governs development.

But the fact they are seen as drastic is indicative of just how far the pendulum has swung toward overregulation in the past few decades. When applications for just a few townhouses can take half a decade or more to achieve approval, and towers next to subway stations can take more than 10 years from acquisition to completion, there is a problem. In my view, these changes, love them or loathe them, were an inevitable shake-up of the status quo that, if nothing else, recognizes we have a problem and seeks to address our growth challenges.

Past generation showed us that it’s possible to build dense, vibrant and beautiful places without layers of policy, guidelines and regulations. No one is saying those things should disappear, but they should be scrutinized to assess if they continue to achieve their intended purposes and eliminated when they don’t.

Short of turning off the immigration tap at the federal level, we must find a way to build Rome faster and better, and Bill 23, even if imperfect, is a step in that direction.

Andrew Ferancik is Principal and President of WND Associates Ltd., a planning and urban design firm located in Toronto. wndplan.com.