Rob Thompson has given up the fight to sever his Long Branch property. His decision clears the way for a monster home to replace his tiny bungalow.
Instead of supplanting the rundown 1939 cottage on with two family homes — Thompson had hoped to live in one house and sell the other — it will probably be redeveloped into a single, detached house at least two or three times the size.
His self-imposed city hall defeat comes on the cusp of a broader civic debate as Toronto grapples with getting more people into neighbourhoods like Thompson’s that are walkable, transit-friendly and largely reserved for expensive single-family detached houses.
Thompson, who bought his 1,000-square-foot Lake Promenade property more than 20 years ago, will spend the summer mulling whether to build a new house for himself or sell and let someone else do it. The zoning allows for the construction of a home up to 2,625 square feet without any variance or special permission from the city. The deteriorating condition of the existing home means he can’t delay indefinitely.
It is the end of a frustrating 28-month challenge to redevelop his lot that has pitted him against neighbours he values and cost nearly $80,000.
“I knew it was coming to this,” he said. “I’m relieved it’s over.”
Thompson was appealing the city’s rejection of his redevelopment application at the Toronto Local Appeal Body (TLAB). But before he got through the appeal process, the rules changed. The Local Planning Appeal Tribunal approved an amendment to the Official Plan last year that said new developments must conform to the prevailing character of a neighbourhood. Even though his case predates the introduction of amendment 320, the TLAB decided to apply the rule.
Thompson’s own planner told him he couldn’t win given that the lot-splitting plan would mean creating two lots that would be undersized for the area. Continuing his fight would have added to the costs that Thompson had already incurred for planners, lawyers and an arborist.
His decision to drop the appeal came only two weeks before Toronto city council passed a motion that could make neighbourhoods more open to diverse kinds of housing by exploring ways to build more affordable, “missing middle” homes — small apartment buildings, duplexes and triplexes. The goal is to make “yellowbelt” neighbourhoods denser and more affordable.
The yellowbelt is a term that refers to the 70 per cent of Toronto’s residential land that is shaded yellow in the Official Plan’s land use map — places where zoning shuts out virtually anything that isn’t a detached house.
That motion, which asks city staff to report back by the end of the year, is the opening salvo of what Councillor and Deputy Mayor Ana Bailao says will be a critical public dialogue about expanding the city’s housing choices between the extremes of highrise living and expensive detached houses with yards.
It is the next natural civic discussion coming on the heels of Toronto’s expanded laneway home and secondary suite policies, she said.
“If we don’t allow for some of this gentle intensification to happen in more and appropriate locations, how do we accommodate for the population growth we’re having,” Bailao said. “The reality is the population will grow by one million people, a million people will need more houses to live in.”
Failure to build those units means supply and demand economics will impact the already high price of housing.
“People are living in a different way. They’re dealing with aging parents, they want to be close to transit. How do we create a level of equity that allows for that,” Bailao said.
It will almost certainly be an emotional discussion, she said.
Lot severances and missing middle housing are separate issues, says Christine Mercado of the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association.
“Lot-splitting applications in Long Branch typically take a previously well-maintained and affordable house and tear it down to replace it with two much larger, much more expensive houses … that are not in keeping with the existing neighbourhood character,” said Mercado, who says smaller lots frequently come at the expense of trees and green space.
While the association is focused on the Toronto-wide goal of a 40 per cent tree canopy, Long Branch’s canopy “has actually been going in the wrong direction due to development applications that do not take the environmental policies of the Official Plan into account,” she said.
Parts of Long Branch, including Thompson’s area, are zoned as single-family. On the other end of the neighbourhood there are many duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and secondary suites.
“Long Branch has a large number of rental units and a rapidly growing population due to the intensification that is being implemented as part of the City of Toronto Growth Plan along Lake Shore Blvd. and just north of Lake Shore. There are a total of 1,203 housing units recently (built) or in progress along this avenue, ranging from one-bedrooms to stacked town homes. In a community of over 10,000 people, that is significant,” Mercado said.
But there is a trickle-down effect even when new homes are on the upper end of the price scale, Bailao said. A new, expensive home makes way for someone to live in the buyer’s starter home, which potentially frees up an apartment.
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Bailao says opposition to intensifying neighbourhoods frequently fades when residents realize their children and grandchildren will need places to live.
“A lot of people still equate success and the American dream with this vision of single family home with a two-car garage. For us to really have this conversation we need to understand the motivations of people,” she said.
Retired planner David Godley has opposed several lot-splitting applications at the city, including Thompson’s. He said he’s against “soldier houses” — rigid, tall designs that he claims disrupt the streetscape. Thompson’s proposal was not unprecedented, he said.
“Once one 50-foot lot was split it basically gives the green light to any other 50-foot lot. And that is how we have over 100 soldier houses in Long Branch,” he told the Star.
“The reason for splitting lots is that there is a large profit to be made. Planning is supposed to intervene in the market for the good of the neighbourhood and city,” Godley said.
But David Matoc of a group called Vibrant Long Branch says profit is beside the point and his neighbourhood “is at the mercy of an overwhelming quagmire of planning restrictions that soundly trample on the concept of individual property rights.”
He is eager for a voice in the city’s coming “yellowbelt” discussion. It will be “NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) palooza,” said Matoc, who anticipates fierce opposition to opening up neighbourhoods.
“The current Toronto planning policies are a disaster for the future of housing in our city but especially for the next generation of families that want to live here,” he said.
Thompson’s inability to split his lot is typical of a situation that Matoc says consigns future generations to “being shoehorned into condo towers and stacked townhouses or praying that they win the lottery so that they can buy a $2.5-million, 3,000-square-foot monster home on a large lot.”
Needs and tastes change, Matoc said. The idea of keeping the neighbourhood frozen in 1964 when the bylaws were written rubs him the wrong way, as does the idea of neighbours deciding they don’t like the look of someone else’s home.
“The Official Plan says it needs to fit. What does fit mean,” he said.
“You’re upset because you’re going to walk past my house every day and say, ‘That’s really ugly.’ Meanwhile you live in a (cottage) clunker. Is that going to determine whether the neighbourhood is a safe, welcoming area for everybody?”
Thompson likes his neighbours and says homeowners shouldn’t be allowed to do anything they want with their property.
But, he said, “I’m in favour of civilized, reasonable limits that balance private and public interest, and are based in evidence and fact.”
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski