The City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario have continued to protect and defend the necessity of dedicated Employment Lands, but is their current approach narrow in scope?

Despite being in the midst of a housing crisis, recent and planned discussions in Council indicate that the conversion of Employment Lands to include mixed-use developments is getting trickier. During the recent ULI Toronto seminar on the Future of Employment Areas (held a month ago), the different GTAH representatives spoke discouragingly about the idea of allowing non-Employment Uses such as residential dwellings on Toronto’s Employment Lands. The general consensus during this seminar was that Employment Lands are crucial to the economic prosperity of the GTA, but given the current context of housing and employment in Toronto one can’t help but ask why?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, office buildings in Toronto and the Greater Golden Horseshoe have emptied out as companies are coming to the realization that many of their employees can work from home. While this trend may reverse as we loosen public health restrictions, it’s widely accepted that working from home will either partially or fully remain the norm for many Canadians. At the same time there has been a shortage in housing stock in Toronto that has continued to contribute to the worsening affordability crisis.

So why are we still pushing for land that is exclusively dedicated for employment uses? Many policymakers are against allowing mixed-use because they see these lands as essential for economic activities to occur. From a planner’s perspective, however, these lands have the potential to be used much more efficiently in a way that can help alleviate the affordability crisis. Some 13.6% of all land in Toronto is designated as Employment Lands. While this may seem like a small value, it is important to remember that the primary reason for the current affordability crisis is a lack of housing stock. Housing stock that would greatly benefit from being able to take advantage of these over-protected Employment Lands.

READ: Ontario Will Need 1 Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years to Keep Up With Demand

Both the City and Province like to protect these lands, which they justify with the fact that over a quarter of all jobs (26% or 402,000+) in Toronto are concentrated on just this 13.6% of land. This justification is outdated in a post-pandemic world where many Ontarians have moved to remote office work permanently. The needs of today’s population are reflected in the demand-induced housing prices, and the reduction of commuting to in-person jobs. This should be a wake-up call for organizations and governments to start transitioning some of this land towards a mixed-use model that can house both employment needs and residential spaces.

In Toronto’s Official Plan, there are two distinct employment areas: core and general. While similar in purpose, core employment areas are located at the centre of employment areas and are more likely to have industrial uses within them. In contrast, general employment areas are on the outskirts of these core areas, and allow a large breadth of commercial uses such as restaurants, retail, and other services.

Additionally, there are Provincially Significant Employment Zones which are strategically located zones, intended to provide stable, reliable employment opportunities, and are presented as crucial for job creation and economic development in Ontario. The added classification by the province makes them much more difficult to convert for uses outside of employment.

Despite these protections, there has been an influx of conversion requests by private developers who have recognized that there is a high-demand for housing and a decrease in in-person work. The City of Toronto and its surrounding Regional Municipalities are seeing an uptick in land conversion requests. Toronto has seen over 150 new individual land conversion requests for these Employment Lands, but it's unknown how many of these applications will be approved. So, how difficult is it for these applications to be approved given how protective the province and municipalities are of their Employment Lands?

Developers must adhere to the following criteria:

  • The conversion must be seen as necessary in order to meet population forecasts.
  • The lands must not be required in the long-term for employment purposes.
  • The conversion must not negatively affect the overall viability of the area.
  • The converted lands must not be near important transportation infrastructure (i.e., major highways).

One of the greatest arguments in favour of transitioning Employment Lands to include residential uses is that much of the Employment Lands are located around major transit stations. Take for example the land surrounding the Milliken GO Station, which is all designated as Employment Lands. This land could be perfect for a transit-oriented development centered around the GO Station, which -- with a more frequent schedule -- could bring residents to and from downtown Toronto for employment and recreation without the need of a car. Instead, the site is currently a low-density space for commercial activity that subsidizes car-dependency by providing free parking.

Overall, Toronto has the opportunity to provide more housing at major transit stops that are currently protected as employment sectors. However, this massive opportunity is being dismissed by policymakers who believe that any addition of residential uses will result in the loss of jobs. In reality, most places such as those surrounding the Milliken GO Station are low-density buildings with room to share for affordable housing.

The conversion of designated employment areas to mixed-use is a complex issue in planning. On one hand, having space for residents to work is necessary for providing job opportunities and economic stability, but on the other, these employees need reasonably priced homes that are conveniently located -- preferably a walkable distance from work.

Urbanity Fair