It won’t completely solve Toronto’s housing shortage, but experts are calling a successful “gentle density” project in the Dufferin-Bloor area a step in the right direction.
Nuno Nascimento and Nuno Paul, owners of Dufferin Lane Investments, recently won approval from Toronto’s committee of adjustment to build a three-storey building containing eight rental apartments on a site currently occupied by a detached single-family home.
Nascimento and Paul purchased the 6,000-square-foot house on Dufferin St. in early 2016 for $870,000 and later decided they wanted to turn the property into a lowrise rental building.
The process wasn’t easy. Late last year, with help from architectural firm MGBA, they brought forward their application which sought seven variances — exceptions to Toronto’s zoning bylaw — pertaining to things such as parking for bicycles and cars, floor space, building depth and landscaping.
In the end all the variances were accepted by the committee of adjustment — with the assistance of a support letter from area city councillor Ana Bailao in mid-July.
Their project falls into the so-called “yellowbelt” zone of the city. Used to describe about 70 per cent of the city, the yellowbelt refers to the yellow markings city planners use to indicate areas in Toronto’s official plan where higher density zoning isn’t really permitted. Only detached and a small number of semi-detached houses are permitted.
But under the city’s Official Plan the area the development falls into is designated “neighbourhood” and one of the allowable uses within this designation is apartment buildings up to four storeys tall.
But the zoning bylaw severely limits this form of housing. It’s timely and somewhat costly to try to meet these limits, so a lot of developers don’t try to create lowrise apartments.
Urban planner Sean Galbraith calls the project “fantastic” and a hopeful sign in terms of creating more density in Toronto neighbourhoods where land is scarce.
“It’s great. We don’t have a surplus of small apartment buildings in the city. Any time one can beat the odds and get approved, it’s a success. (These buildings) are not easy to design or get approved and it’s great to see this one do both. The zoning bylaw and official plan place a lot of restrictions on apartment buildings,” Galbraith says.
In parts of the city, especially near the core, there are very narrow, long lots where it’s difficult to fit in parking and sideyard setbacks, Galbraith adds.
“Anything over a triplex and up is basically discriminated against in the zoning bylaw for building depth,” he adds.
In a statement to the Star, Bailao says she decided to throw her support behind the project because it “provides much needed rental housing during a housing crisis in Toronto,” adding that the development is supported by the city’s community planning department and local neighbours in the area.
She went on to say the project is a “great example of how gentle intensification can be achieved in a residential neighbourhood.”
In a statement to the Star, Nascimento and Paul say there is a place in the city for condo developments and large residential buildings, but these are “not a universal solution” and other housing approaches need to be explored.
The developers must still get their site plan approved and will then require a building permit from the city to demolish the existing house and begin construction on the lowrise. They hope to begin digging this fall or next spring.
The owners say they intend to offer market-rate rental units once the project is complete.
“Existing neighbourhoods and communities can be maintained and flourish with rightsized developments. Our goal is to provide scale and density without losing the history and culture of what is already there,” they say.
“Cost and time are big factors. We need a way to fast track lowrise developments under 15 units … so the average developer will take the easier path — big developments which are right sizes to the approval process. Financing is also not easy on small multi-residential projects. We hope our development will help change minds among investors and financiers.”
David Sajecki, a partner with Sajecki Planning, the urban and regional planning firm that worked on the project, outlined the variances the development team sought — and won.
Toronto’s committee of adjustment can approve variances to the city’s zoning bylaw as long as the sought-after changes meet the “intent” of the bylaw.
Under the zoning bylaw the floor space index — the ratio of total floor area to the size of the land — for the site is 0.6 times the area of the lot, but the proposal calls for 1.09 times the area of the lot.
Sajecki says the development team argued the sought-after increase was in keeping with ratios for new properties built nearby or renovations.
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“We had a whole list of different sites that have been approved by the committee, where density was within a range similar or greater than what we were requesting,” Sajecki says.
In addition, the maximum permitted building depth for development on the property is 14 metres, but the proposed building depth is 24.92 metres.
However, the depth of the Dufferin property is deeper, the lot is “L” shaped, and two light wells used to illuminate the property are considered part of the lot’s depth, which are included in factors that made the proposed apartment building’s depth acceptable.
“In this case, the subject lot is ‘L’ shaped and bigger than the surrounding lots. This allows for a larger building that will accommodate a three-storey apartment building containing eight dwelling units,” Bailao explained.
Several of the other variances pertained to parking issues.
The required parking for the lot included seven spots for residents and one for a visitor.
The proposal calls for no parking.
Bicycle parking storage is required to be included within the first or second storey of the building. The proposal included bicycle parking within a rear detached ancillary building on the lot.
On July 12, the city’s transportation services department submitted a report to the committee of adjustment recommending that the property owners provide seven parking spaces at an “off-site location within 300 metres” of the site.
But working with a transportation consultant the development team put together a parking study — at the request of the city — to show how people moving into the building would move around. The study concluded that 60 per cent of future residents would use alternative modes of transportation rather than private cars.
“The parking issue is being addressed through a combination of bicycle parking, access to Green P parking and 300-metre walking distance to Dufferin subway station. There is also the Dufferin (TTC) bus. And permit parking available in the study area,” Sajecki says.
In her support letter, Bailao opposed the transportation services recommendation on parking spaces, noting the TTC subway and bus lines and the fact that only 75 per cent of available parking permits in the area have been sold.
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent