Intensification yes, but just not this one …

There is a public open house coming up on Feb 4th  at the Hintonburg Community Centre about the proposed 3 tower project beside Gladstone OTrain Station (to be built and opened at the same time as the towers).

There is, of course, an outcry from the surrounding residents “expressing their concerns” about the project.

It seems to me to be a pretty common occurrence than urban residents question suburban “sprawl” and talk of the benefits of intensification. But it must be intensification elsewhere. Whether it is an infill house, a basement apartment, or high rise towers, the manta seems to be “I support intensification, but just not here” followed by a scramble to find reasons opposing the development.

The Gladstone proposal is immediately adjacent a major transit access point, is transit-oriented rather than car-oriented (as far as we as a society are currently willing to go that route today…), is within a very short stroll of a traditional main street plus has a cluster of stores within the finely-mixed-use complex itself …

and don’t forget the wonderful new LRT system that is going to transform the city … we are paying for it from development charges (ie, tax on existing city residents who move into, and new residents of the city (including your children…) who move into new buildings) and NOT by taxing the owners of existing low rise low density homes in the city and certainly not directly charging the existing ones who benefit from proximity to the new LRT. **

Not all sites for high rise development have very low impacts on neighbouring properties. But this Gladstone site has no existing residential development or residential streets on any side of it. The closest “homes” are kitty corner, and mostly out of the potential shadow. Across the street to the west is a block-sized factory that is not going anywhere according to its owners.

If this isn’t ideal conditions for intensification, what is?

New infill construction is expensive. We, as a society, have designed our system that way. Infill low rise homes in the Gladstone neighbourhood sell in the $700,000 – $1.5million range. These are affordable to a select percentage of households (of course, if we can afford these, we don’t consider ourselves part of the top 2% of society).

Apartments in the proposed towers would sell for about $500,000 (today’s dollars) if they were condos ($700/sq ft). Are we piously proclaiming we want affordable housing while simultaneously working hard to prevent the supply of it? $500,000 is not affordable to everyone, but it is a lot more affordable than $1million. (And let’s not forget that the adjacent Gladstone Village development by OCH will be all “affordable” not “unaffordable luxury”).

Of course the apartments are smaller and thus cheaper than infill low rise houses, but no longer by that much. I have noticed infill low rises in the neighbourhood now asking $600-700+/sq ft so it is slowly becoming a wash as to whether someone chooses a low rise vs apartment. As this permeates the consciousness of the marketplace, we will see much larger apartments appear, just like they are in Toronto or other big cities further along the smart growth track.

Remember, the whole premise of “smart growth” was to curtail the supply of lower cost (to the buyer) suburban houses, raise the price of land thru scarcity, thus making the provision of higher density housing (which has a higher construction cost) feasible and financially attractive because it makes more intense use of scarce land.

Politicians of course have to tread a fine line between the votes of existing householders and the new residents. Not surprisingly they generally heed the existing clientele – after all they are today’s voters and the established, usually older and wealthier residents.

Anyone who reads stories on this website knows I am not a huge fan of tall towers. I prefer that we achieve density through low and mid rise intensification. I am skeptical of arguments that concrete high rises are how to meet our carbon dioxide “pollution” targets.

But our rules are strongly skewed to limiting low rise intensification,  and towards protecting the perceived interests of the established homeowner class, at the expense of anyone who wishes to right size their residential consumption, and to the benefit of large corporations who can command the resources to build these very large concrete towers. This is our system, and its not going to change by waving some magic wand.

We can however, work to slowly change the direction of the rules.  The inbuilt bias towards the low rise homeowner class is being regularly challenged these days, and the pressure will only increase. Overturning single family zoning will come from higher levels of government or the courts, but not from ward politicians.

In the meantime, folks continued to have children in the 90’s who now need to be housed, and we continue to be a nation that welcomes immigrants, and recipients of internal migration from small towns to fewer and fewer big cities, and the boomers who are tiring of lawns and driveways need somewhere to right size to … and the only answer in our current playbook is high rise apartments/condos.

Opposing the supply of apartments for the 70% of households that consist of one and two persons, and who want to live in walkable urban neighbourhoods, is ultimately suicidal and causes the very problems of affordability that the opponents of supply (“just not here…”) so much claim to lament.

Sorry folks, Gladstone Station high rises is as good a project as our financial and planning rules allow us to permit. Constraining the supply of new urban housing just punts the problem another few months down the road. Government cannot rectify the shortage of affordable housing by itself, their supply is too limited and the demand is too infinite and past track record is dismal.


** note on increased taxes:  City council decided to pay for our new LRT system from specific development charges on new construction and not property taxes on existing homeowners. Proximity to a LRT station or even a direct bus route to a LRT hub is a windfall increase for the property values of existing homeowners, who will pay higher property taxes as our city revenue is based on taxing value. Any increased property taxes flows into general tax revenue of the city and does not go to directly pay for the LRT system.





3 thoughts on “Intensification yes, but just not this one …

  1. You say: new LRT system from specific development charges on new construction and not property taxes on existing homeowners.”
    So the Fed’s and Province each paid 1/3 of the $2B. Of the City’s remaining 1/3 are there any predictions how much or how long it will take to collect the remaining $666 million from Development Charges? I recollect the City did do some significant borrowing for LRT.

    1. Bernie Geiger, the fed’s and province each funded $600M, leaving the city with $900M of the costs (total $2.1B), but that is before the cost overruns that will not be covered by RTG. The quantum of the overruns that will be to the city’s account has yet to be determined, but the city has acknowledged that the contract is silent on who covers ancillary costs arising due to the almost one year delay.

      As for how the city will cover its $900M+, it will be funded with debt. A 20 year “mortgage” on a long term asset is not an unreasonable approach.

  2. Bernie, I vaguely recall that the city borrowed its share, to be paid back over a long period of time (20? years?) so that the actual money leaves the city treasury periodically, in a similar time line as development occurs. Development charges also pay the interest accruing. If developments occur faster, I dont expect we will pay down the debt faster. I also feel the city has spent way way more than the public figures, like rubic’s cube expenditures can be shuffled around and parked in different budget blocks.

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