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E-BLAST: Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods

"Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods". That's not just the title of this week's E-Blast. It's the name of a major, multi-pronged initiative being led by City of Toronto Planning. As always at City Hall, we've shortened it to an acronym: EHON. A specific prong of EHON, the Major Streets Study, is going out for consultation next week, and it isn't really anything new. It is a type of housing that North York used to be very good at. We just got away from it somehow.

When I was ten years old, my family moved from Vancouver to Toronto. My dad's company had moved us so many times in the previous five years that he decided we would not be buying a house this time. We moved into a rental townhouse in the Don Mills area.

A photo of the street my family moved to when I was 10. As you can see, the townhomes blend right into the neighbourhood.

Our townhouse complex, called Horizon Village, was a great place for me and my sisters to make friends. Neighbouring tenants included some of the earliest arrivals of 60s multiculturalism, American professional families avoiding the Vietnam draft, and a few single-parent led families, despite divorce being less common at the time. My parents chose Horizon Village because it was affordable. My father had lost a bit of ground in the buying and selling of homes every time he got a transfer, and we needed a place that didn't tighten the purse strings.  

These townhomes sat at the bottom of Cassandra Boulevard, surrounded by large, single-family houses. My sisters and I could walk to school on our own, as the traffic didn't really start until you got to Underhill Drive, the major street that ran through the middle of our subdivision.

North on Underhill Drive, a few blocks away from Lawrence Avenue, was a little strip mall with a Loblaws store that all the local families relied on. Right across the street stood the Denewood and the Nouville, two apartment blocks of four storeys with about 32 apartments in each of them. At school, everyone knew someone who lived in one of these apartments—a grandmother, an old babysitter, or maybe a big sister and her newlywed husband. My classmate Margaret Carrick, who had just arrived from Scotland, lived there with her family.

The Denewood apartment building as it stands today.

We little girls from the townhouses and from the larger, single-family homes all thought those apartments must be the coolest place to live ever. Some units cost as little as $75 a month. If a big sister could get married and move there, then so could we. These buildings represented our freedom. We knew that if we worked hard at school and college, we too would one day rent a Denewood apartment as our first independent place to call home.

Horizon Village, the Denewood, and the Nouville are still standing. Certainly, they cost more than $75 a month these days, but in their quiet, low-tech way, the Denewood and the Nouville provide great "missing middle" housing in our city. With their small number of units, the two buildings are accommodated by a modest surface parking lot and not much more. They don't need a lot of amenities, as they are nestled right into a subdivision with nearby parks, a community centre, and an arena. The value of single-family homes in the same neighbourhood has skyrocketed over the years. The presence of small-scale, multi-residential properties on a major street did nothing to detract from property values.

The latest EHON proposal is to encourage these types of modest buildings on major streets in neighbourhoods for the first time in many years. The theory is that by allowing buildings of this type as-of-right, meaning that the applications will be approved as long as the developer adheres to the guidelines, we will get a lot of new housing built faster and more affordably. Staff think that as many as 30,000 sites across the city and inner suburbs may lend themselves to a building like the Denewood.

These smaller buildings can be built faster because they take far less engineering and infrastructure upgrades. Builders like to complain about the time and expense of getting a tower built in Toronto, but there is a vast difference between allowing the construction of a building that will bring 60 people and maybe 30 cars, and one that will bring 500 people and hundreds of cars. This also means they can turn over more quickly, which can be a real appeal in our current economic climate with borrowing costs at an all-time high.

There is another example of this style of building right here in Don Valley North that has long intrigued me, just the way those apartments of my childhood used to. At 22 Elkhorn Drive, nestled between a tennis club and an elementary school, sits Elkhorn Suites.

22 Elkhorn Drive right here in Don Valley North.

Elkhorn is a short street, but it is considered major because it's a connector street that leads away from Bayview Village Mall. In the long-ago North York Official Plan, this street made sense for large community amenities, so in went a school and a church. A leftover lot beside the school was too deep for a single-family home but perfect for an apartment of three or four storeys.

Elkhorn Suites is a long, low-rise apartment building with about 90 units. It extends deep into its lot but avoids being too overbearing for the single-family homes behind it. When the EHON team consults us in North York on October 18, I think we should keep this building top of mind.

Staff are proposing a limit of 30 units in these low-rise apartments. I'm inclined to say that we should allow builders to go over that number as long as we never compromise on height guidelines. However, I need to hear your opinion first. That's why I'm hoping as many Don Valley Northerners as possible will attend this important EHON session. We can tell City Staff that we are willing to look at low-rise apartments and townhouses on major streets in neighbourhoods, provided they are done as well as they were back in North York's heyday. You can find all the details about this consultation at the link below. I'll be there with my team and we really do hope to see you come out and share your thoughts on this proposal.

I know that change in our neighbourhoods can be challenging, which is why I think it's important to remember that we used to build this way. Generations before ours knew it was important to provide a variety of housing options so everyone could find a place to call home. I want my grandkids to be able to dream about getting their first apartment right here in the city the way I was able to when I was a little girl. So let's all come out on October 18, share our feedback, and get moving so that we can start to see more affordable homes crop up in every neighbourhood in our city.



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