Residents and local governments are protesting Ontario’s heavy hand pushing through ‘vertical dormitory suburbs’

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Condo towers reaching 80 stories to the sky. Forty thousand new homes. Eighty-eight thousand more people. All within the space of approximately 45 hectares in Richmond Hill and Markham.

The Ontario government recently pushed through plans for two “transit-oriented communities” on the northern outskirts of Toronto by releasing two enhanced Minister’s Zoning Ordinances, or eMZOs.

The proposed communities would straddle Highway 407 at Yonge Street along a future subway extension that would run north into York Region and bring 67 condo towers to what are now industrial areas, shopping malls chain stores and parking lots.

The map shows the site of a high-rise development project around what will be Bridge Underground Station in Markham. Rendering from Engagehightech.ca

While Ontario Premier Doug Ford is touting transit-oriented communities as a way to solve the province’s housing crisis and fund subway projects, some residents and municipalities across the York Region accuse the province of rushing local planning processes and concerns.

Housing promises to be a key issue in the June 2 election as prices continue to rise, particularly in the region of Ontario’s largest city, where the average apartment rent one-bedroom apartments soared to over $2,000 per month and the average home price to $1.3 million.

“After decades of inaction from previous governments, our government is saying ‘yes’ to building new homes and subways,” Ford said in an announcement about planned developments in York Region. “Others will find any reason to say ‘no’ to delay desperately needed housing and public transit with more studies, committees or reports. Instead, our government is cutting costs for families by building more homes…”

The map shows the site of a high-rise development project around what will be the High Tech Tube Station in Richmond Hill. Rendering from Engagehightech.ca

To quickly enact its plans, the government issued a series of zoning ordinances that overrule municipalities, which typically make planning and development decisions. Prior to the Ford government, Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) were rarely used, averaging about once a year. Since being elected in 2018, the Progressive Conservative government has issued dozens – 44 over a two-year period, from 2019 to 2021 – and expanded its powers to control municipal developments.

Earlier this month, the province announced five MZOs to build transit-oriented communities in Toronto along the proposed Ontario Line.

Condo towers reaching 80 stories to the sky. Forty thousand new homes. Eighty-eight thousand more people. All within the space of approximately 45 hectares in Richmond Hill and Markham. #MZOs #ONpoli

And then, on the eve of the Easter long weekend, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark signed two more ‘improved’ MZOs for developments in Markham and Richmond Hill despite vocal opposition from city councils and residents.

The enhanced ordinances, incorporated into 2020 legislation guiding Ontario’s economic recovery from COVID-19, dictate permitted land uses, building densities and heights and remove municipal authority to approve building plans. site plans, said York Region chief planner Paul Freeman. Site plans determine specifics like architecture, landscaping and the location of services such as fire stations and schools.

“This is unprecedented,” said Markham Deputy Mayor Don Hamilton. This government uses [MZOs] as a regular daily planning tool, throwing them everywhere. We are flabbergasted as a city that the province came in with a big hammer, a big fist and took over the planning process.

The province’s plans are markedly different from those developed over the years by the Regional Municipality of York and the communities within it. The orders more than double the proposed population for the area — already slated to become York Region’s densest neighborhoods — while slashing jobs by nearly a third to create what a seasoned city planner called it “a vertical bedroom community”.

Ontario’s housing crisis promises to be a key election issue for outgoing Premier Doug Ford, whose government is pushing for major developments in the Greater Toronto Area. File photo of Nick Iwanyshyn

Freeman said city planning has been underway for more than a decade to build high-density neighborhoods on the sites as well as commercial and economic spaces for nearly equal numbers of jobs and create “complete communities” where people live and work.

The province’s plans call for one job for every four people, raising concerns that neighborhoods will be predominantly residential and increasing pressure on roads and public transport as people are forced to commute to work. When built, the area would have four times the density of Toronto’s densely populated Yonge-Eglinton center and towers that would tower taller than anything but the CN Tower.

“There are concerns about the amount of density on offer and the livability of such a dense area,” Freeman said. Residents are concerned about the lack of parks, schools, community services and other amenities to accommodate the influx of people, he added. The development plans also do not include details on affordable housing.

A December 2021 report by the province’s auditor general criticized the “wide and frequent” use of MZOs, noting that provincial interference in accelerating development has disrupted normal planning processes for services like water. and sewers. “Planning processes often take months or years to ensure sufficient due diligence is carried out,” he noted. “MZOs were originally intended to be used only in special circumstances.”

Melissa Diakoumeas, spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said in an email that a zoning by-law “just starts the planning approval process by putting the zoning in place.”

“Our government had extensive discussions with the City of Markham, City of Richmond Hill and York Region, and public consultation before seeking these zoning ordinances,” Diakoumeas wrote.

Various municipalities have raised concerns that the increased use of MZOs is setting dangerous precedents for future developments as more developers ask them to remove potential barriers.

“Every development is going to want 80-story buildings,” Hamilton said. “There’s a queue, I think, downtown for MZOs.”

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