Toronto & The Development Permit System

toronto_waterfrontDo you know anything about the proposed Development Permit System that the City of Toronto is considering implementing? I didn’t until the other night, when the topic came up in one of the local Facebook groups that I’m part of.

The system is being proposed by Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and if I’m understanding things correctly (and I might not be), it works like this: The city is broken down into a series of “neighbourhood-scale” sections that each receives its own development by-law that replaces all existing development rules and that covers everything from zoning to site plan approvals to minor variances.

This by-law is created with input from two community meetings and after it’s put in place, it can’t be appealed or modified for five years. Projects that are proposed and that fit within the DPS by-law also can’t be challenged by the community, the City or anyone/anything else. However, developers can appeal any plans that are shot down because they don’t fit within a DPS’ by-law. Now, here’s the part I really hope I’m misunderstanding: I’ve been told that while these by-laws might say something like, “All buildings must be under X meters,” developers will be able to buy their way around such specification by offering Section 37-style cash.

I can see why Keesmaat and others would push for this system: It’s undeniably quicker, cleaner and ultimately cheaper than what we have now. I do see some merit to creating neighbourhood-specific by-laws and I’m not against trying to simplify the system.

However, I worry that basically saying “Full steam ahead to anything that fits within this framework” is going to lead to some awkward and unfortunate developments. Yes, create a DPS but use that as a starting point. If a project fits within that by-law, and no objects to it or has any recommendations for it, then yes, off it goes and gets built. But the community, including local businesses, should still have the chance to raise their concerns about a project, as should the City. There’s also a matter of fairness; if a developer can appeal a decision, why can’t anyone else?

map_Trinity_Bellwoods_ward_TorontoI’m trying to think of how this system will work in my neighbourhood, Trinity-Bellwoods, and it will have to be incredibly nuanced to the point where almost every street will need to be detailed out. It sounds crazy but I think that’s the only way this system will work in an area that’s home to a little bit of almost everything.

I can see things being simpler in neighbourhoods that are overwhelming residential but here, where you’ll have a few houses, then some retail and restaurant, a condo, then a park, then light industry, things are trickier. How will retail zoning work? I think most people would agree that along Ossington, there should be retail in the ground floor of a new condo building. But if that building was on Shaw, should there be retail? My answer is no. Will the DPS be that nuanced? Or could a single-family home on Shaw one day find itself beside a Tim Hortons (which, I know, would be a dream to some but a nightmare to others)?

I also worry that the option for developers to buy their way around a DPS. If that option exists, why even bother with such a system? That part can’t be right, can it?

I’ve tried looking online for more info on this proposed system and I’m not seeing a lot that applies to Toronto (this system is already in used in various other cities). There are though a few interviews with Keesmaat where she discusses the DPS. In this one, she makes a pretty good case for it though there’s no mention of a lack of appeals process (for non-developers) or the possibility of being able to buy your way around the system.

I’ve been told that Keesmaat is very open to conversation so I think I might tweet at her and see if there’s some kind of “Guide to the Toronto DPS for Dummies” document that I can take a look at. If there is, it might clear up some of my confusion and concerns.

I do think that there is something to implementing a DPS in Toronto but I also think that we can’t do away with at least having the option for a project to be challenged. At the end of the day, the focus needs to be on what’s best for the community and if it can’t have a say, we can’t know what that “best” is.


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