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  • Jason

OPINION - Toronto Zoning By-Laws are whack.

First and foremost, I must preface this opinion piece by saying that I do not wish to diminish the hard work of civil servants, city planners, or committee/council members - we should thank the city staff for their service. This opinion piece is directed at the "system" in general.

I'm not an urban planner nor do I have any expertise in large scale city planning. And historically, architects who try and dabble in city planning tend to create logically clear, incredibly interesting, yet functionally problematic places. Look up Chandigarh and Brasilia as prime examples.

What's the problem with these places? Large scale city planning usually focuses on certain principles or are a testbed for new ideas. Let's be honest, who could possibly be qualified to be an expert in city planning? It's not like you can test the success/fail rate on one city, learn from it, and then try again on another city - our lives are just too short to be able to properly practice city planning.

It's either city planning from a theoretical basis, or trying to study precedents from past cities to project into the future. I argue either of those cases would lead to flawed outcomes.

Theory-based City Planning

Chadigarh and Brasilia are prime examples of using a theory or idea to generate a city plan. They reflect the ideologies of the designers. What's the result? These places worship the automobile. You drive to a sector or district, park, and then you can walk to your destination.

"What's wrong with that?" The very logic of the city plan is the problem. Staying in a hotel (in Brasilia as an example), I remember wanting to get some fruit to eat. Bananas to be exact. When I asked the front desk where the nearest grocery store was, their response was, "Yes, you need to take a taxi 24km to the grocery district." On another instance, in Chandigarh, due to the insanely large 800mx1000m grid, my friends and I tried walking to our hotel (only two "sectors" over). It was the most excruciating walk - you reach an intersection every 30 minutes. The 1 hour walk felt like an eternity!

Precedents-based City Planning

On the other hand, city planners could look at the cities around the globe, study the things that work and do not work, and then enact those ideas into a different city's plan. Again, it's a flawed method as the complexity of a city is far too complex to grasp (for me). Further, each city has its own independent culture and socio-political climate that no other city would share. How can one city possibly serve as a precedent for another?

As an example, we Torontonians complain about the slow development of our subways (for reference, we have a laughable two and a half subway lines for our city of a few million people). It would be easy to note the vast number of subway lines in New York City, or that Shanghai was able to build 10 subway lines in a year (for the Expo). But our socio-political situation disqualifies the other precedents. Firstly, Toronto's funding from the Federal Government pales in comparison to other metropolises'. Secondly, we live in a democratic society with a high regard for human rights. This leads to a slow decision making process and expensive/unionized labour.

The Toronto Zoning Bylaw is Whack

I approach city planning with a healthy dose of skepticism. On one hand, I fully understand the need to try and control the growth of a city - it would be unstable for a society to allow people to build whatever they wanted. On the other hand, you cannot enforce boundaries on the human imagination - people will find a way.

In this opinion piece, I'm going to discuss one of the biggest headaches in my job: quashing my client's dreams because Toronto's zoning bylaw is whack.

What's a Zoning Bylaw?

In many major cities, the municipal government has spent countless resources to develop an "official plan" document. This outlines the overall goals for growth for the city based around their analysis of the socio-cultural and economic position.

A zoning by-law is the implementation of the goals in a municipality's official plan document. As an analogy, an official plan is like making the decision to lose weight. Losing weight would be the overall goal. The zoning by-law would be the plan in action in order to reach that goal: "I'm getting a gym membership and cutting french fries from my diet in order to lose weight".*

*Note: I can honestly say from experience that getting a gym membership and cutting out french fries may not necessarily result in weight loss. And the same comments are valid for zoning bylaws.

The problem with zoning bylaws:

An official plan takes years to develop, and a zoning by-law takes decades to implement. By the time the zoning-bylaws are set for use, they're obsolete. The world has changed and society has new rules which govern their lives. Heck, a new government is in power too.

People would have found new modes of transportation (most recently like electric scooters). Or might have found creative ways to leverage income from their properties (like AirBnB). Or people may have created completely new sectors of business that didn't exist a year ago (like Uber).

Zoning by-laws will always be obsolete.

Story 1 - The Hair Salon Event Space

One of my early projects when I was starting JFA was a hair salon design: Hair By Banks. The client was an entrepreneur/hair stylist who had a great idea: let's mix the experience of getting your hair done-up with the fun of a party. The idea is that groups of friends can use the salon services while also hosting a party in the space. Or, it could serve as a "pre-party" to get ready for some evening celebration to follow. The entire business makes so much sense - the experience of getting your hair done can be an event!

What was the problem? Toronto's zoning bylaw does not know how to distinguish between a hair salon and an event space. During the permit phase we were stuck choosing one or the other -- and each function had their own separate set of rules (from number of required toilets, to number of required parking spaces).

In the end, we sided with designating the space as a hair salon as the primary function - as that was honestly the core of the business. This decision became problematic as a hair salon would never apply for a liquor licence -- spurring all sorts of questions from the ACGO -- adding another level of complexity in the process.

What angers me is the zoning by-law should not limit human creativity to carve new avenues in a business.

Story 2 - The Crossfit Gym

Another project that became problematic was the design of a crossfit gym. The clients had leased a perfect space to house their crossfit gym business. When applying for permits, we realized that the area was governed by an ancient former zoning by-law that predates crossfit gyms.

When reviewing the former zoning by-law, the only reasonable choices for the space would have been "School for Calisthenics", "Boxing Club", or "Personal Service Establishment". It was a nightmare trying to find the right definition of the space, and it was all for naught. In the end, regardless of the choice, we had to go before the Committee of Adjustment to allow the gym to be a gym.

The real burn was that two tenants prior had operated the space as a gym without permits. My clients were punished for trying to do things legitimately. As an architect, I must always endorse obtaining proper permits - but in these situations, I greatly question the logic.

Story 3 - The Restaurant Parking

One of our clients was a restauranteur. I have great respect for the individuals who can pull-off a restaurant business. The stresses we deal with pale in comparison to restaurants.

Our client found a perfect place for their new restaurant in a brand new commercial complex. Swaths of parking, and the space would house a restaurant well. The adjacent neighbours were commercial businesses (retail, professional offices, etc).

When it came time to submissions for permit, the city had to confirm parking numbers.

"Why?" we asked,

"Because the space was originally permitted as a 'commercial retail unit' for either mercantile or personal services. Restaurants are places of assembly, so the parking requirements are different."

It was baffling. We had to conduct parking calculations for the other 15 commercial units - verify with the existing parking spaces, and produce a chart proving the restaurant would have enough parking spaces.

It was even more of a slap in the face when the city responded to our calculations saying that we had an excess of parking spaces in their own calculations (they re-measured our drawings for the commercial areas and the new restaurant area).

Above were the commercial examples..,, it's worse with residential.

Residential Buildings

In Toronto, as a broad-stroke city plan, higher density/building height is meant to happen at major avenues and roads, whereas neighbourhoods are meant to be maintained as 2 to 3-storey homes. This ensures a "stability" in neighbourhoods throughout the city and "encourages" higher density to happen on the major thoroughfares.

The big problem with this is that Torontonians are clawing at the walls for more house. I cannot tell you how many clients I have had to disappoint by telling them that their dreams for the following items would require an 8 month delay to go to the Committee of Adjustment:

1. front porch enclosure

2. rear addition

3. second or third floor addition

4. bay window

"Why?" you ask. Because the current zoning bylaw prevents those items one-way or another. If you're adding area to your home, whether it's a front porch enclosure, rear addition, upper storey addition, or even bay window, it might tip the scale making your home larger than allowed.

"But my neighbour did it..." you might say -- it doesn't matter. Just because a neighbour may have built something, it could have been done either illegally or they previously spent the time to go to Committee of Adjustment.

What is "Committee of Adjustment"?

A zoning by-law outlines what can or cannot be built across the various properties in each city. Building height, gross floor area, property setbacks, parking requirements, etc. are all things that are governed by a city's zoning bylaw. If you ever want to do something that is beyond what is allowed in the zoning bylaw, then you have to ask for a "minor variance".

Minor variances are considered at the the Committee of Adjustment, and in Toronto it represents a method to present this said "variance" to the public for discussion -- why a neighbour has a say in what you are allowed to build on your property is a topic for another time.

The problem with this method is, as we established earlier, that zoning bylaws are obsolete by the time they have been enacted. Therefore, to do almost anything to an existing home in Toronto will require some form of minor variance.

The kicker is that even if you tried to rebuild your home by tearing it down and rebuilding - new building codes will be enacted (requiring wider stairs for accessibility and thickening insulation for energy efficiency). So a full house "rebuild" following the zoning bylaws will result in a smaller home than the original.

The whole thing is lunacy. And this opinion piece is certainly not producing any solutions to the problem. I only hope that this narrative rings true with others; that somehow we can get out of this system of design and creative oppression.


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