How A Subway Is Helping Toronto Fight The Housing Crisis

By U Cast Studios
June 11, 2024

How A Subway Is Helping Toronto Fight The Housing Crisis
Image Courtesy Of Strong Towns

Few cities face the North American housing crisis more acutely than Toronto, Canada. Decades of price increases have made the downtown core exorbitantly expensive. A population increase, driven by an influx of immigrants to Canada’s largest city, is estimated to add up to a million new residents in the next twenty years and put more pressure on housing construction.

This article was written by Ben Abramson and originally published by Strong Towns.

The city and the Ontario provincial government are trying to address the need by leveraging an underutilized urban resource: transit property. The largest subway expansion project in Canadian history includes plans for “Transit-Oriented Communities,” which will integrate thousands of new housing units with mixed-use development into the existing urban fabric of metropolitan Toronto. The Ontario Line will be an all-new 9.7-mile stretch with 15 new transit stations that include a series of housing projects on and adjacent to transit-owned lands.

Architect Shonda Wang planned and designed several of these projects, a unique range that includes new mixed-use town centers, apartment complexes above and around new stations, and even adaptive reuse of historic buildings. She praises the city, province and transit authorities for reconsidering decades of a suburban development pattern that was “economically unsustainable and didn’t create great places,” and is excited to work on an approach in which, “you’re actually utilizing the land, including the land in and above the stations, in a way that’s factoring the full development potential into the equation.”

At Corktown Station, a development with 1,490 residences will rise from existing surface parking lots. Retail and commercial space will be included, in an area that is already served by streetcars and buses. Exhibition Station, in a prime location near Toronto’s waterfront, will add 570 residential units, plus office and retail spaces. At the Queen-Spadina Station downtown, 220 residential units with retail space will be integrated into and above a heritage building — an enormously complex project, according to Wang.

The future Queen-Spadina Station.

Metrolinx, the area’s transit agency, estimates that when the Ontario Line is completely operational in 2031, it will serve 388k boardings a day and 227,000 people will live within walking distance of its new stations.

As well as being a principal at the SvN architecture firm, Wang has training as an urban planner and a social worker, and she says there’s an obvious need for often-siloed municipal entities to work together. “Typically, transit agencies have been the ones responsible for track and train. And then it’s the municipalities working with developers that are responsible for the development.” Wang says it’s important to focus on “one integrated thing — one built opportunity, one public realm opportunity. And then actually bring the stakeholders that are required to implement that together around the table. It’s really challenging to achieve that whole outcome.”

Edward Erfurt, Strong Towns’ director of community action, says this disconnect has been to the detriment of cities. “Many transit providers have failed to capitalize on the air rights above their lines and stations. They also place parking lots and garages near stations,” making the properties foreboding as well as unproductive. Erfurt says Toronto’s program, “encourages higher and better uses in these highly valuable areas,” and cites Atlanta’s Atlantic Station as an example of this type of development done well.

The Toronto projects use a combination of federal, provincial and city funding, and include private development rights to help offset the costs of the new track and stations. Wang says such a public-private partnership increases public support and maximizes the return. “Transit infrastructure is one of the most expensive investments a city or region or government will ever undertake … And so you don’t want to leave any opportunities or value behind.” By including developers in the pre-planning process, the city and province were able to develop a “good balance between what the public needs and what the private sector is trying to achieve.”

These projects also offer an opportunity to rectify another shortcoming of 20th-century transit planning: Even as new transportation services were added to communities, they were often in “corridors that were implemented without a lot of thought about how they were going to actually relate with even the sites that are directly next door,” says Wang. She cites architect Bjarke Ingels’s observation that no part of a city should be considered “back of house” with one function and no concern for context. “How different would this transit station look if we actually treated it as a front door and it was at the center, or conceived [it] as integrated with the rest of the city fabric?”

The future Exhibition Station.

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