By Tracy Hanes
Taking Advantage of Transit Line Development
With ‘transit-oriented communities’ (TOC) becoming entrenched as an Ontario government mantra, developers are hopping on board in the search for prime development sites along GO, subway and other transit lines. The Ford government’s vision is to integrate residential units (including affordable housing), commercial space, parks and other amenities close to transit, thus easing gridlock and creating more economic opportunities and jobs in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Building in these locations has unique opportunities and challenges. Most of those involved have procured their own sites, with one developer partnering with Metrolinx to transform one of its Toronto locations.
Dream Unlimited Corp./Kilmer Group have been selected to rezone and redevelop Metrolinx’s 1.01-acre site at 433 Front St. W. in downtown Toronto into a high-density, mixed-use development that will connect to the future Spadina-Front GO Station. The goal is to create a place where people can live, work, shop and play, as well as have transit access.
Currently, the site serves as the North Bathurst Yard, where GO trains are stored during non-peak times. Building on a tight site on an active rail corridor is complicated; thus, Metrolinx issued a two-stage Request for Qualifications (RFQ) and Request for Proposals (RFP) through an open competition. According to a press release, Dream Kilmer was selected based on its qualifications and experience in mixed-use and infrastructure development. Its proposal will integrate the at-grade GO station with the new development, with connected station entrances on Front St. W. and Spadina Ave. Dream/Kilmer will work with Metrolinx and ONxpress (the GO expansion proponent) on a two-year GO expansion development phase to ensure seamless integration of the scope, design and construction schedule, while working with the City of Toronto through the approvals process.
“The process we’re going through with Metrolinx is fairly typical of other government agencies in terms of procurement,” explains Jason Lester, vice-chair, development at Dream. “A lot of government proposal calls align with Dream’s core values, as they often include sustainability, inclusiveness and affordable housing.”
However, these types of proposals surpass the typical complexity of a development, Lester adds. “There is greater risk in terms of execution, and you are dealing with multiple stakeholders—more than you’d normally have. With a typical project, you are dealing with the neighbourhood and city. At 433 Front Street, you also have Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario. There is no question, 433 Front will be complex. It’s a tight site with The Well (a massive mixed-use community) under construction (across the street), a busy downtown and a live rail yard.”
However, Lester says the build program itself doesn’t tend to add complexity, unless “you want to raise the bar for sustainability and affordability.” He said while that might require additional time up front, it doesn’t necessarily add time during design and construction. But building in close proximity to a rail line does add another layer, requiring coordination with the rail line and city. “Historically, we were more concerned about vibration and that it could migrate to the site. And in the days of diesel, you had to be mindful of fumes from diesel engines. Now there are engineering solutions to all of this. You often have development sites right up against 400-series highways. Noise goes up when it disperses and you have to be mindful of how you do the design. It’s the same thing for building next to transit, and you don’t have as many trains going by a day as you do cars on a major highway.”
Another transit-oriented project by Dream is 2200 Eglinton Avenue East, along the future Eglinton Crosstown LRT at Birchmount Road, along Scarborough’s Golden Mile. The plan will transform the partially vacant and underutilized 16-acre office/commercial/industrial site into a mixed-use development, with residential and employment uses in a connected open-space network. It will include six towers standing between eight and 46 storeys, with the LRT station out front and two stops from the major hub at Kennedy station.
Shannon Adams, director of project and development services for Canderel, is currently working on Forêt Forest Hill, a condo by Canderel and KingSett Capital at 490 St. Clair Ave. W., steps from a subway station. “Canderel has a hyper-awareness of community needs,” says Adams. “We pride ourselves on finding sites on transit, as these are the most amenable sites to community building. You want to create a village where people don’t need cars.”
Adams says projects such as Forêt that are close to municipal infrastructure have additional layers to the approval process; in this case, with the Toronto Transit Commission. The TTC mandates its own technical review process with its own engineering department. That adds time up front to ensure a project is complying with TTC standards as well as to the building code. There is also a peer review of noise and vibration, and there may be requirements to add insulation or isolation to accommodate homeowner comfort above grade. There may also be additional structural engineering design parameters below grade to accommodate loading of streetcars, for example. Fortunately, these are issues Canderel has dealt with before. Its 900 and 908 St Clair W. projects are on streetcar lines, and College Park, Aura and YC Condos are all in Yonge/College/Bay, steps from transit. All have a Transit Score of 100/100. Transit Score is a measure of how well a location is served by public transit. It is scored on a scale from zero to 100, with 100 representing a perfect score. It, like Walk Score, is a patented, open-source measure of a neighbourhood’s built environment. It scores how well a particular address is served by public transportation, such as bus, subway or light rail, and is based on distance to a transit stop, type of route and frequency of route.
The Forêt proposal is working through the site plan approval process, but so far has been received positively, says Adams. “The city wants these types of developments; it wants new housing and community-building. This will bring positive elements to a historically vacant corner at St. Clair and Bathurst. There will be three residential towers with 1,150 units, plus retail and community amenities, such as dedicated public parkland and retail at grade.”
Because Canderel has to work through additional steps, Adams says “it’s on us to ensure we are managing our time and running as many processes concurrently as possible.” The plan is to start shoring and excavation work in fall 2023. The underground footprint will take up the entire site, except for the dedicated parkland, and with five levels of underground parking, so there is no space for staging or construction infrastructure. “You have to be very clever. Even a year before, a lot of thought goes into the construction management plan.”
In Ottawa, Dream Asset Management and Dream Impact have partnered with non-profit MultiFaith Housing Initiative on another transit-oriented community, Dream LeBreton in the Library Parcel of LeBreton Flats. Set to break ground this spring, the two-tower project is intended to be a model for inclusive, affordable and sustainable housing.
The Library Parcel marks the westward expansion of Ottawa’s core. Dream LeBreton will connect to the Pimisi LRT station as well as the Canadian War Museum and the upcoming central library branch, Ādisōke. The 2.5-acre site will become one of the first developments in the growing neighbourhood that is part of the National Capital Commission’s Master Concept Plan.
The design is led by Perkins+Will and KPMB Architects and is supported by Two Row Architect and Purpose Building. Other collaborators include landscape architect PFS Studio, construction manager EllisDon and an Indigenous engagement consultant, Innovation Seven.
Of the 601 rental units, 41% will be affordable and the 247 affordable units will be earmarked for five target populations in need: Indigenous communities; women and children; immigrants/newcomers; veterans; and adults with cognitive disabilities.
The development aims to be operationally net-zero carbon, LEED Gold and One Planet Living-accredited.
ALL ABOARD THE ONTARIO LINE
Toronto, meanwhile, has a bevy of transit-oriented opportunities coming to the city. The Ontario government recently announced a partnership with the private sector and the City of Toronto to create nine TOCs along the upcoming 15-stop Ontario Line running from Exhibition Place to the Ontario Science Centre.
The GTA overall presents opportunities for developers. The province has committed to a multibillion-dollar expansion of the transit network across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and Metrolinx is creating partnerships to create TOCs at new and existing transit stations.
Vince Molinaro, president of the Molinaro Group, says his company “saw the writing on the wall that the province wanted intensification around transit” and bought a Fairview St. site in downtown Burlington next to the GO Station eight years ago. “We saw it early and saw the merits in developing there. The first phase with three towers and 550 units is sold out. People love it and we’re now moving to Phase 2, with two 18-storey towers and 364 units that are 60% sold.”
The Burlington GO is full-service, Molinaro notes, with trains running every half hour, and easy commuter access to Niagara, Hamilton, Toronto and beyond.
When the Molinaro Group purchased the site, the previous owner had already been to the Ontario Municipal Board and had approval for five 20-storey buildings. “All we had to do was go for the site plan approval,” says Molinaro. However, the city approval process dragged on for two years. Approval also had to come from Metrolinx, since the site is adjacent to its property and the property line is within metres of the tracks—and that involved repeating the entire process, says Molinaro.
“I understand Metrolinx’s point fully,” says Molinaro. “They want to avoid any disruption of service. We had to build a crash wall along the property line. That process was quite lengthy and we had to go through the city to get structural, shoring and excavation drawings approved. We had to have heavy insurance above what we do normally. We call the crash wall the million-dollar wall—it’s five feet thick and two storeys tall, as it has to withstand a derailment.”
Any residences had to have a 15-metre setback from CN rail lines, but Molinaro was allowed to create an amenity closer than that on top of the three-floor, above-ground parking structure. “We put a nice rooftop terrace there. One side is more tranquil with barbecues and seating, while the other side has circuit training. We took a curve ball and made it into something cool.” The development, called Paradigm, is mixed-use with 20,000 square feet of commercial space at grade and 20,000 square feet of office space on the second floor.
Albany Street Investments Ltd. is capitalizing on future transit plans with a site at 63 Albany St. within Oshawa’s designated Downtown Main Central Area and across the street from a proposed multi-modal transportation hub that will include train, bus, rapid transit, walking and cycling. The hub is to serve as the southern anchor for Metrolinx’s proposed rapid transit route on Simcoe St., creating the city’s first north-south rapid transit corridor. In May, Premier Doug Ford promised to spend $730 million to add four GO stations to Durham Region—local residents have been waiting 30 years for expansion of GO service. One of those new stations will be part of the hub, along an existing CPR freight line on land formerly occupied by Knob Hill Farms. It will replace Oshawa’s current GO station south of Highway 401. That station shares property with VIA, but the parking lot is fully used and is constraining access to GO service for the city’s and Durham Region’s population.
“The current owners (of the Albany St. site) are based out of Hamilton and were looking at development sites where they could add value,” says Matt Johnston, principal of Urban Solutions Land Planning and Development and 2018 president of the West End Home Builders’ Association. His company is the planning consultant for the Oshawa property. “This site was brought to us for consideration. The previous approval didn’t take full advantage of what the site permits, as there is a fair amount of density permitted. It was a good candidate to bring more density.”
Previous approval was for a six-storey building with 99 units. Based on subsequent changes to the provincial policy statement, Growth Plan and Oshawa Official Plan, Johnston says his client will seek approval for 286 units in two towers (15- and 10-storey) plus 18 townhomes. Units will range from studios to three-bedroom units. The application was submitted in May with meetings with the planning committee slated for fall. “Most residents want to see something happen there,” says Johnston. “This is a good candidate for some infill.” He says there will be requirements to evaluate noise and vibration, but that will be down the road as they move on to the site plan application.
Johnston and the others interviewed here say the approval process is the most challenging aspect of TOCs. Adams recalls a project she worked on previously where the approvals took somewhat longer than anticipated: “I joke that I made two humans in the time it took to get those approvals.”
Adams says it’s definitely helpful to have a councillor who is interested in bringing transit-oriented development to their areas, and hopes proposed changes will reduce wait times. The Ontario government is proposing changes to the Planning Act and City of Toronto Act, 2006 to streamline approvals and reduce barriers and cost to housing development.
As challenging as the sites can be, they also have clear positives. Molinaro, Lester and Adams have found there is strong buyer demand for units on transit lines—not only from people who do not want to have to rely on a car to access amenities or get to work—but also from investors who know that there will be a pool of eager renters. Molinaro estimates “well over 50%” of his Paradigm buyers in Burlington are investors. Another plus can be the reduced number of required parking spots, since the sites have access to transit—or in the case of some downtown Toronto projects, no parking spaces.
They do caution that it’s not simply a matter of ‘transit + new housing = success.’ Johnston is hoping the provincial government will soon roll out more announcements that will include the new Oshawa GO station (recently Doug Ford announced construction is starting on a Stoney Creek station). But Johnston says the Oshawa development proposal he’s involved with won’t be solely dependent on the anticipated GO facility. “With or without GO, the site’s a good candidate,” he says. It’s just south of the downtown core, close to Highway 401 and bus routes. Oshawa is a regional centre for shopping, postsecondary education and health care, plus new jobs at the re-opened General Motors plant. “Oshawa’s gotten to the point where it’s ready for this type of development and the appetite is there. The renaissance is here and it’s happening.”
Lester says the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre and its transit station is proof of how transit-oriented approach can spur positive development. “You have developers in and around that station, then concentric rings. Those were very, very successful developments when they came out. I can’t think of a better example of adding density and mixed-use around transit. Vaughan is a combination of specific factors—it’s three stops from York University, it has connectivity, amenities and placemaking attributes.
“It made a lot of sense and there was a very supportive local government promoting that type of density,” Lester says. “It’s not just the vision. It had support from different levels of government and great ‘demand drivers’ nearby. Because of York University, investors came out, not just end users. It made it an attractive investment
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