City of Toronto proposes Official Plan Amendment to allow for continuation of institutional and commercial uses in employment areas.

By Al Ruggero

In response to new Provincial legislation under Bill 97 (Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act, 2023) the City of Toronto’s Planning and Housing Committee acted swiftly to protect existing land use in “areas of employment” that would otherwise be excluded under the new definition under Bill 97 to be enacted by the Province later this year. Bill 97 amends the definition of “area of employment” to exclude institutional uses, commercial uses not associated with manufacturing, research and development, warehousing, and goods movement.

In some background, the Province and the City both recognize the importance of maintaining and protecting employment lands in the City, making up only 13% of Toronto’s total land mass. It should be pointed out that while not all employees work in employment areas, they account for the majority of manufacturing, warehousing, logistics, and other jobs. Also, many of our neighbourhoods are entirely dependent on the types of jobs found only in these designated areas. For their part, manufacturers and others like warehousing and shipping, like to be close to places where labour and skills are more accessible and in greater abundance. As Toronto’s population continues to grow, the trend has been that developers and commercial land owners have shown interest in pursuing conversions from existing land use away from employment to residential. The growing trend towards these conversions over the years has impacted employment areas and imperils future job growth and the economic viability for the City. Toronto anticipates 700,000 new residents in the coming decades. One underpinning of the new Official Plan acknowledges that to accommodate the increase in population, job growth must keep up.

With a membership of approximately 3200 employers and commercial property owners, Emery Village BIA encompasses a large employment area targeted for planning changes under the newly defined “area of employment” and is considered a stakeholder in the deliberations. With this in mind, on July 5, 2023, we presented before Council’s Planning & Housing Committee in support of the City’s Official Plan Amendment (668). We are of the view that the City’s Official Plan Amendment would, at the very least, provide the City with greater flexibility in the wake of the Province’s more restrictive measures. The amended policy means that the city wants the Province to recognize existing use to be excluded (office, institutional, commercial) to allow for the continuation of the current use to carry on- provided that the use of the property is “lawfully established” - even if that use is non-conforming. Often referred to as “grandfathering,” this policy recognizes the status quo to remain but still presents conditions that may not guarantee continuity in the future.

To lessen that future impact, the City needs to undertake further impact studies and consider other planning and transportation changes (such as high-order transit), including transition zones where sensitive land use should be considered. We wish to avoid policies that one day result in core industrial areas becoming rust-belt districts devoid of the amenities and activities that make them harmonize with their surroundings.

Bill 97, introduced by the Province in April, is currently subject to a consultation period running until August 4, 2023. Following that, it will be up to the Province to enact the legislation at their choosing, with or without the City’s say.