Should infill take precedence over upward building?
By Brian Burchell
With affordable housing at a premium in Toronto, two councillors are proposing to open up the city’s 2,400 laneways to infill development.
Arguing that residential growth in the city must not only be vertical and sprawling, Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York) and Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport) see the back lanes as a place for people to live. Although not currently permitted by the city, the councillors believe what they term “laneway suites” could transform underutilized spaces like rear garages and parking pads into sensitively-scaled housing that allows for adding second storeys to garages.
It’s not a new concept.
“We have done three charrettes that were very well attended and the response has been very positive, which is almost never the case for development issues”—Mary-Margaret McMahon, city councillor
Croft Street (technically a lane), near College and Bathurst streets, is a legacy from a previous period of rapid growth — 1870 to 1930 — when laneways were home to workshops, lumberyards, and even housing. The 15 laneway houses were originally commercial, and the properties were severed into parcels that legally distinguish them from the houses that front the streets on either side.
It’s a bit different, however, from the vision proposed by the councillors in which the land would remain in common ownership with the main house. It would mostly see the conversion of existing garages into living space, and all services would be fed from the main house.
McMahon says this is long overdue for Toronto.
“Vancouver, Ottawa, and Regina are way ahead of us. We have done three charrettes that were very well attended and the response has been very positive, which is almost never the case for development issues. Realtors, builders, homeowners with lanes, students, and seniors were all supportive at these events.”
The proposal does not contemplate severing property (as it does in Vancouver), and the idea is to create rental housing. Proponents argue that these new residential spaces will be occupied by seniors and students, but McMahon admits that bylaws do not extend to setting demographics. She also couldn’t say whether a proposed bylaw would cover only existing structures or if a homeowner could construct a new building, and noted these were details to be ironed out. She is hopeful a policy would be put in place by the end of the year.
“This is win-win. We have so much underutilized geography in the city where we have 2,400 laneways.”
But not everyone sees the plan as win-win.
The Harbord Village Residents’ Association (HVRA), for example, has a long-standing policy against laneway infill.
“Most laneways are not serviced specifically in the form of sanitary sewers,” explains Gus Sinclair, the association’s chair. “Laneway housing means more load on a tenuous [sewer] connection…. This is a stable built form community and the [existing] laneways are a critical amenity to how this neighbourhood works.”
Laneways, which are prevalent in Harbord Village, are wed to the shape of the existing built form.
“The height is at the street and then you drop down to green space across the lane and then you have the opposite. It’s a bowl effect and you fuck with that at your peril. Adding [second storeys on garages] on either side of a narrow lane will create a canyon,” he adds.
Laneway infill has also been tested at the Ontario Municipal Board at least once before. In 2009, it denied an application by a Brunswick Avenue homeowner to build a second storey right back to the rear lane, recognizing that preserving the backs of the houses and lanes were as important as streetscape.
“I can see the attraction, they are like dollhouses, but we are against it,” says Sinclair. “The way that people have lived here for 120 years involves the commerce between the front and the back, and across the laneway. You cut that off at your peril.”
He’s also concerned about adding additional density to an already dense area. In Harbord Village, the above grade density of living space can be equal to the square footage of the lot compared to most other residential neighbourhoods where the above grade coverage is only 60 per cent of the lot.
“We are already doing the density thing by the density that was put here by the Victorians,” argues Sinclair, adding that the city should solve its population growth problem on Spadina Avenue and at transit points, as is mandated by the Official Plan.
For his part, Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) takes a middle ground.
“Laneways are a tremendous untapped resource for downtown Toronto,” says the councillor, whose ward includes a lot of them. “Every laneway requires animation that is suitable to that laneway. In some cases, it is infill housing, in some cases it’s greening, and in others it’s cultural animation (such as the CBC’s Rick Mercer rant lane south of Queen Street West). It’s not just housing, and it should not be a cookie cutter approach.”
This nuanced approach to the possibilities for laneways may be what’s needed to get wider support for the plan on city council. “Right now, it’s hard to do anything in a laneway. Making our laneways viable requires us to adopt rules that give us flexibility,” he says.
McMahon believes that it may come down to priorities about people and things.
“We have great spaces for our cars often with windows [in garages] and we put humans below ground in basement apartments, and isn’t that a little strange?”
City seeking street greening opportunities: Harbord Village plan targets laneways, parkettes (February 2016)
FORUM: Untapped potential (February 2016)
Incubating micro-retail: Laneways untapped realm of urban design (December 2015)