With the city facing a housing crisis, the Port Lands can handle more density, Waterfront Toronto says

As Canada’s largest city battles a housing crisis, Toronto’s Port Lands could handle more density if city planners call for it, according to one of the project’s managers.

Although housing development in the waterfront megaproject is still years away, the foundational infrastructure that will service the new neighbourhoods in the area is nearing completion.

On a site tour this week, David Kusturin, a chief project officer with Waterfront Toronto, told CBC Toronto that water mains, sewers and electrical utilities going into the Port Lands will be able to service more housing units if density targets for the area change.

“They absolutely will. We’ve checked and additional density can be accommodated. They’ve been designed with enough redundancy,” Kusturin said.

Mayor John Tory’s 2023 Housing Action Plan, released last week, directs city staff to amend development rules in Toronto in order to build more units of housing over the next decade.

Tory targets Port Lands for density

The plan specifically mentions a need for “optimized density” in the Port Lands. The 715 acres of land on the city’s waterfront is being transformed from an industrial zone into a mixed-use neighbourhood that will include thousands of homes.

But project managers don’t expect housing development until at least 2030.

While there are plenty of shovels in the ground right now, it is for work on flood protection and the re-engineering of the mouth of the Don River, which is set to be complete by 2024. 

David Kusturin, Chief Protect Officer with Waterfront Toronto.
David Kusturin, a chief project officer with Waterfront Toronto, says the Port Lands can handle more density if the city calls for it. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

A large part of the Port Lands housing will consist of the planned community on Villiers Island, which is being created by the re-routed Don River. While specific development plans haven’t been made yet, a 2017 precinct plan for the area calls for 4,865 units of housing.

According to the plan, the community will consist of mostly mid-rise buildings, with some tall buildings strategically located In the precinct plan, drawings show some towers higher than 20 storeys.

More affordable housing, not ‘wall of condos’

Coun. Paula Fletcher, who represents Ward 14, Toronto-Danforth, which includes the Port Lands, says she supports the more density in the area and it’s something she’s been calling for for years.

“I think we can certainly accomplish more there, particularly for affordable housing,” Fletcher said in an interview.

The 2017 precinct plan calls for 20 per cent affordable housing on Villiers Island. Fletcher believes that should be increased to 30 per cent. 

Coun. Paula Fletcher says she supports more density in the Port Lands but not a ‘wall of condos.’ (Tina Mackenzie/CBC )

Fletcher says a lot has changed since the precinct plan was developed, with housing becoming more scarce and more unaffordable in Toronto. She believes increasing density targets for the Port Lands would bring the area’s urban planning up to date with current housing needs.

But not “density for density’s sake”, Fletcher said. She doesn’t want a “wall of condos” that cuts off the waterfront from the rest of the city. And she believes more people can live in the Port Lands without it being a block of condo towers.

“The majority of this land is owned by the city. So we are going to make sure it’s not just block-by-block with no space for people. It has to be a beautiful place,” she said. 

“There’s parts of Europe that have on their waterfront very dense communities. So that would be my goal, more of a Rotterdam-style that would increase density.”

Flight paths and height restrictions

If there were a desire to build skyscrapers in the Port Lands, it may be restricted by another factor, the nearby Billy Bishop Airport.

While the towering skyline of downtown is actually closer to the airport, buildings in the city core are mostly to the north and run roughly parallel to its main runway. 

Any tall structures in the Port Lands would be situated east of the airport, in the general of path of flights approaching from the east or taking off to the west.

“There’s only so high we can go and not impact on the flight paths,” Kusturin said.

Aircraft at Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport. Due to its proximity to the Port Lands, there will be some height limits on buildings in the new neighbourhoods. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Ports Toronto, which owns and operates the airport, says there is no specific height restriction for the area but rather a process “whereby any new building development proposed for areas around Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is assessed.”

“There is no standard formula applied per se, but rather a detailed analysis is carried out of exactly what is being proposed and whether there would be an impact to the operations of the airport.” 

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