Fri. Nov 16th, 2018

Toronto has an affordability Crisis

Imagine this…

You are a good upstanding citizen of Toronto, you have developed and built homes, offices, condo buildings and factories. You are someone who has actually worked to build the city.  You support well-researched, well-thought-out ideas on how to build a strong dynamic city.  And you keep well-informed. You do research on Toronto and find that there is a shortage of affordable housing and this is pushing people who can’t afford to invest in purchasing a home into rental units. So, you think you might build apartments to fill the demand.   But then you discover that warehouse and manufacturing space is desperately needed to supply the growing population with consumer goods. The lack of warehouse space is pushing up the cost of goods to ordinary citizens and making Toronto an expensive place to live and work. You decide the best contribution you can make is to develop a well-designed, efficient warehouse space quickly.

You look for a property in areas the city has designated for manufacturing and warehousing.  The city has started cracking down on outside storage, and you find a property with a warehouse but where most of the yard is kept filled with old shipping pallets. The building itself doesn’t conform to any of the specifications the city has designated in its Official Plan. The property is an eyesore in the middle of an industrial area, and you know that with a good architect you can create an efficient and elegant building that will provide much more warehouse space than the current building provides.

An interesting fact you learn is that warehouse space no longer requires the large offices they once did. The separation of office space from the warehouse began over a decade ago as salespeople needed to be closer to customers located in urban centres.

Imagine that you decide you will take an old rundown factory and turn it into a new, modern warehouse facility. You put an offer in on the building, you hire an architect (checking their credentials to ensure that you have someone  knowledgeable and educated). You work through the designs and make sure that the entire warehouse conforms to Toronto’s Official Plan – which is there to provide exact guidelines on all development, and the intent behind the guidelines (safety, pedestrian usability etc). Once you have the plans designed you apply to planning for approval.

Then you wait… and wait… and wait.

Given the huge demand for warehouse space in Toronto and the growing economic costs associated with this demand, you might think that Toronto’s city planners would do all they could to approve a well-designed modern warehouse, and one that would be a huge improvement to the existing property. But the sad fact is that as a developer you might wait anywhere from three to six years just to get approval to improve the property.

Why?

In part it is because the plans have to go through almost every department at the city for approval, which should take approximately 9 months.  But the major hurdle you will face is the planning department. If you are unlucky the biggest slow-down you will face is an over-zealous planner with no experience or knowledge of warehousing, who believes his views are superior to the experienced architect you have hired. This type of planner is what the industry terms a “wanna be architect” because they either didn’t bother to get a degree in architecture, or they did, but weren’t good enough to keep a job in the industry. They get a job working in government and revel in the authority they have over experienced world renowned architects. They grow to believe themselves superior and try to re-design every building that comes across their desk. The problem is that they lack the knowledge and experience needed to understand elegance in design, or efficiency.

They often forget guidelines in the Official Plan. For example I heard about one planner who completely ignored whole sections of the Official Plan around separating pedestrian areas from parking areas. The planner insisted that the old layout of the site be kept with parking between the sidewalk and the front of the building. He refused to accept the architects plan to place parking away from the sidewalk at the side of the building and have landscaping between the front of the building and the sidewalk.

Another developer has a planner who insisted they completely change their design to move the employee space designed to go on the sunny south side of the building (studies show sunlight has a positive impact on employees) into the darkest corner of the building. The planner’s only explanation was that it should keep to the old design.  

I actually heard of one warehouse developer who had an argument with a planner who insisted that the huge amount of office space that old warehouses built 50 years ago needed to be maintained. The planner had no experience in modern warehouse design and no idea of the changes in the industry that have occurred over the last 20 years with office and sales employees moving out of the warehouse into offices that are closer to their customers.

The sad fact is that city planners waste a lot of time playing at architecture and design when they should be focused on their primary role – to approve designs that conform to Toronto’s Official Plan. The time wasted by a city planner who wants to completely redesign a building can add literally years to the planning process. It now takes a developers between 4 to 6 years to work through the planning process – a process that is legislated to take 9 months.

The fact is that city planners have moved into the private realm of architecture and design and were given the authority to do so with no understanding of the true cost – the dumbing down of architecture and the slow down of building development across the city.  Forcing a slow down on housing and warehouse development has an economic impact from increasing the cost of goods, to increasing the cost of housing – and today Toronto is just beginning to feel the impact.

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