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From parking to housing: Toronto council eyes changes to 130 lots | CBC News

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Toronto’s push to address its mounting housing crisis could see it convert parking lots on prime land across the city to build new homes. 

That proposal will come before city councillors later this month, after Mayor Olivia Chow’s powerful executive committee recently endorsed the plan in principle. 

The plan would see staff conduct an inventory of city owned facilities, including parking lots, to see what might be suitable for conversion to housing. 

Chow acknowledges that re-purposing city parking lots to create more dense communities, specifically around transit stations, has been planned for decades. But, she says progress has been frustratingly slow and this city council needs to change that.

“In the days that I was a local councillor, we were talking about it and I was impatient back then,” she said. 

“I’m more impatient now. And now that I’m a mayor, I can do more.”

City staff say in a new report that Toronto owns 300 parking lots, typically managed by the Toronto Parking Authority, many of which wouldn’t be suitable for conversion. However, staff say their examination of those lots shows 130 could potentially support housing. 

Of those 130, 74 are in what the staff describe as “Major Transit Station Area zones,” meaning they are a 10-minute walk from a subway, light rail or dedicated busway. 

“At Council’s direction, the shift away from parking accommodation to housing and community service accommodation at these parking lots could provide a significant pipeline of City-owned lands to meet the City’s housing and other goals,” staff wrote in the report.

Chow says it’s a shift that’s long overdue. In fact, she says seeing the lots around the city is a pet peeve.

“It drives me nuts,” she said.

“I go around the city and I see a surface parking lot that belongs to the city. I say ‘Pardon me, in this day and age?’ How could we have a surface parking lot? Come on, we can build housing on it.”

The provincial government has set an ambitious target of building 1.5 million new homes by 2031, and it’s given municipalities across Ontario specific goals. Toronto city council endorsed a plan to meet its target of 285,000 new homes. 

Some conversions already underway

At the same time, council has adopted a plan from Chow to build 65,000 new rent-controlled homes. Under that, a number of city-owned parking lots are already being converted to housing.

Jamaal Myers, the TTC board chair, said he supports the idea — especially if it helps build housing close to transit. But Myers also serves as councillor for Scarborough North, where access to reliable transit in his ward can be challenging, so many people have to depend on cars and need parking.

“As much as it breaks my heart to say this, for a lot of people transit is just not a viable option, particularly in certain parts of the city when you get more into the inner suburbs,” Myers said. 

“So, we have to strike that balance in terms of, obviously housing is a priority, but we also need to understand that people need to park.”

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HousingNowTO technical lead Mark Richardson said converting city-owned parking lots to housing isn’t a new idea, but it’s proved thorny each time it’s been debated by city councillors. 

Push back from local residents and businesses often causes councillors to hit the brakes on individual conversion proposals, and that needs to change, he said.

“In most cases, a city needs to ignore the neighbours,” he said. “We have spent decades in the city following the preferences of local neighborhood associations and residents groups.”

Richardson said that view has contributed, in part, to the city’s affordability issues and the housing crisis.  

“These parking lots are being given away sometimes for $9 to park for 24 hours,” he said. 

“That’s a wasteful use of lazy land in the city of Toronto, where we have a housing crisis. So it’s about setting priorities and about leading the city not following the loudest noises in the public meeting.”

Matti Siemiatycki, director of the University of Toronto’s Infrastructure Institute, said he’s hopeful that this latest push to build on some city-owned lots will be successful. 

The housing crisis may be the thing that pushes councillors to act, he said.

“If this report helps re-energize that effort, in the name of affordability, and the city takes more of a direct role, instead of just trying to sell those properties off, I think that is really a step in the right direction,” Siemiatycki said.

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