Employment areas on City of Toronto council radar

By Al Ruggero

In October, Toronto’s Planning and Housing Committee met to deliberate Planning Staff’s proposal to narrow permitted uses in the City’s Employment Areas. Phase 1 advances the process of Zoning Conformity. Zoning Conformity for Employment Areas (under OPA 231) started in 2013 and reflects the conditions of employment areas that existed at the time. Some say it does not delve into the ensuing changes to employment zones, nor the potential systemic impacts of the pandemic. Over the years, building structures, floor space usage, technology and the changing nature of work have all played a role in defining the employment environment in the context of land use, especially in designated Employment Zones.

Over the objection of many oral and written deputations, the committee moved for Phase 1 approval at the next council meeting on November 9.

Businesses and property owners in Emery Village BIA and Duke Heights BIA have expressed opposition and concerns for the zoning conformity provisions and the removal of sensitive use in the General Employment Zones categories.

Duke Heights and Emery Village encompass two of the most significant areas of employment within Toronto. They joined in opposing the implementation of Phase 1, warning the committee on the possible harm of introducing disruptive changes at a vulnerable period when many employers and businesses are struggling to find their footing in recovery. The committee also heard from several business owners’ representatives, educational institutions and from property owners. Some pointed to being caught unaware of the pending changes and see serious threat to their operations as the city moves to reduce or eliminate certain categories of permissions such as recreation, day care, non-trade training facilities, ice rinks, and places of worship.

Councillor for Humber River-Black Creek, Anthony Perruzza and Councillor for York-Centre, David Pasternak who are not members of the current committee, but whose wards include Emery Village BIA and Duke Heights BIA respectively, spoke as guests of the committee. They opposed the proposal and urged their colleagues caution and the need for further study by staff. Councillor Perruzza recalled the history of industrial commercial properties in the former North York and the conditions that prompted the manufacturing industry to leave employment areas following successive economic downturns and the loss of quality jobs that were not replaced. He questioned the proposal’s impacts through zoning conformity on the current employment base.

The committee passed a motion for staff to reach out to the businesses in our BIAs to better communicate the purpose and implementation of their recommendations. Planning staff mentioned that no current business would be shuttered under legal-non-conforming provisions and gave assurances regarding the ease of making individual appeals to the Committee of Adjustment. According to several individuals involved in both planning and appeals before the Committee of Adjustment, past experience has them doubting those assurances operating under the legal-nonconforming classification.

The City of Toronto is undergoing several watershed studies that will shape its future. It is undertaking a year-long process to review the Official Plan as part of its provincial obligation to produce a Municipal Comprehensive Review and Growth Plan. That plan, colloquially titled OUR PLAN TORONTO outlines 2 fundamental elements. Namely, the city must accommodate and a population growth of 700,000 more people over the next 30 years. Concurrent to that goal is the need to create and accommodate 450,000 more jobs. However, all over the city employment lands are disappearing or threatened by planned conversions to other uses, mainly high-density housing and mixed use developments. It remains to be seen if mixed use developments built to date have met their mandated objective of providing sufficient, suitable and decent jobs.

While appearing to be balanced and sustainable, it is fairly evident that land use conflicts arise from linking housing growth with sufficient job growth within the existing employment areas. How do we provide more land for housing while protecting land for jobs. What’s notably missing is the prospect of identifying more lands within the city for new businesses and employment. One of the lessons learned from the pandemic, is that not possible for a majority of workers to work from home.

No doubt we can all agree on the priority of protecting existing lands designated for employment purposes. That is why Emery Village and Duke Heights received provincial designation as significant Employment Areas employing a total of approximately 58,000 people. What is at issue here is the process undertaken by city staff to achieve the goal of protecting employment lands without a net loss of employment. For non-compatible jobs to be moved is not straightforward and risks losing them to other municipalities. Many of the existing building structures that occupy General Employment zones border major arterial road intersections, include mid-rise office buildings, banquet halls, court offices and others that cannot be readily retro-fitted to other uses. Their demise will also displace numerous ancillary services with even greater job losses. Moving those jobs elsewhere would also impact adjacent communities whose residents work nearby, add to congestion and lengthen commuting times.

Toronto City Council is to consider Phase 1 of the proposed zoning framework for Employment Areas on November 9th meeting. Phase 2, however, has yet to be fleshed out. Let’s hope the rest of council sees the folly of proceeding with the proposals without further consultations.

Al Ruggero

Project Manager, Emery Village