How rampant development and poor planning left residents of this Etobicoke neighbourhood stuck in traffic
Toronto Star
Ben Spurr
11 March 2018

There are just two roads in and out of Humber Bay Shores. On a bad day, the commute by car to downtown can take 40 minutes.  (Bernard Weil—Toronto Star)

It’s easy to see why people are flocking to live in Humber Bay Shores. At most times the highrise neighbourhood in south Etobicoke appears an idyllic community. Glistening modern towers stand near a waterfront park, offering scenic views of downtown and ample opportunity to walk, bike or sail along Lake Ontario.

But the tranquil scene is shattered every weekday morning when thousands of residents clog the community’s meagre transportation network as they struggle to make their way to work.

Local residents say the roughly 10-kilometre commute downtown can take 40 minutes by car on a bad day, particularly if an accident on the nearby Gardiner Expressway causes drivers to spill off the highway in search of an alternative route. And with new condo towers already under construction, locals predict the gridlock will only get worse.

“Right now it’s pretty bad,” said Randy Barba, a photographer and chair of the Humber Bay Shores Ratepayers and Residents Association.

When the new development comes in, “it’s going to be horrific,” Barba said. “I don’t understand how it’s going to be managed.”

Once known for its notorious strip of seedy motels, Humber Bay Shores has undergone rapid development in the past two decades, and the influx of thousands of new residents has been almost completely unaccompanied by the provision of new transit.

When the new condo development comes in, "it's going to be horrific," said Randy Barba, seen in this photo with Filip Vlasak.   (Bernard Weil—Toronto Star)

It’s a problem that is being repeated in different ways in different neighbourhoods throughout the Greater Toronto Area, caused in part by the region’s success. As more and more people choose to live in the GTA’s urban communities, local authorities are struggling to provide the infrastructure necessary to sustain the quality of life that attracted them in the first place, be it in the form of schools, parks or public transportation.

Even for a city in the grip of a development boom, the growth rate in Humber Bay Shores has been astonishing. The population of a single census tract in the area more than doubled in just five years, jumping to 11,390 in 2016, from 5,236 in 2011.

There are currently six developments either under construction or approved in the Park Lawn and Mimico districts, representing more than 4,400 new residential units.

According to the city, the population of the area bounded by Royal York Rd., the Gardiner and the Humber River is roughly 26,800, and it could grow by another 10,000 residents when all the expected development is complete.

“The second you fill all of these buildings up, where are people going to go?” asked Barba.

“Something has to happen to sort of ease that pain.”

There are just two roads in and out of Humber Bay Shores: Park Lawn Rd. and Lake Shore Blvd. Otherwise the area is cut off from the rest of the city by the rail corridor to the north and the lake to the south.

Two TTC bus routes and a streetcar line ply the neighbourhood, but there is no quick link to downtown. The 501 Queen streetcar operates in mixed traffic on Lake Shore and is slowed by gridlock, while the 145 Downtown/Humber Bay express bus charges double the regular TTC fare and attracts fewer than 300 riders each day.

Local Councillor Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) concedes the transportation options are inadequate.

“Transit’s the No. 1 issue in my ward,” he said, stressing the area needs a better road network as well as more transit service.

According to the councillor, the pace of development in the community was unforeseeable.

“I don’t think that anybody saw what was going to happen in Humber Bay Shores, never mind what’s happening in the (rest of the) city,” he said.

But while the population on the waterfront has spiked in recent years, the growth has been a long time coming, and successive municipal administrations have been slow to react.

Filip Vlasak and Randy Barba stand at the corner of Lakeshore Blvd. and Park Lawn Rd. A condo boom in the area is causing major traffic congestion. Density has increased faster than the provision of infrastructure to support new communities.

The potential to reshape the area was unlocked back in the 1990s, when the former city of Etobicoke expropriated land behind the old motel strip. Once a popular tourist destination, the row of motels had by the end of the century declined into fertile ground for drug use, prostitution and at least one shootout with the police. The expropriation freed up access to waterfront parkland to serve as the front yard for a new planned community.

But critics say it was a decision by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) — a provincial tribunal that settles land use disputes — that truly set the stage for the rampant densification.

In 2006, the quasi-judicial body sided with developers in a dispute over a strip of land on the west side of Park Lawn. The city had designated the site as an employment zone, which limited the amount of permissible development.

A group of landowners appealed to have it rezoned as mixed-use residential and commercial, which would allow them to erect apartment towers. After 50 days of hearings and testimony from 25 experts, the OMB agreed.

In a written ruling that in hindsight appears rich in irony, the OMB member who heard the case explained that residential highrises should be allowed precisely because the site wasn’t served by higher-order transit.

The city’s plan for an employment hub hinged on the relocation of a GO Transit station to Park Lawn. But GO hadn’t built the stop, and the office cluster hadn’t sprouted.

The “proposed relocation of the commuter rail station to the Park Lawn area has not occurred, is in no current plan for GO, and will not occur in the foreseeable future if it occurs at all,” wrote the presiding board member. She determined the land was “not a viable office node” and “a change in designation is appropriate.”

The decision cleared the way for the construction of five developments and more than 3,200 new units the city hadn’t anticipated.

Richard Beck, the city’s project manager for Etobicoke transportation planning, says the ruling dramatically altered the community.

“That changed the whole context … as well as increasing the traffic,” he said.

“That wasn’t originally something that the city envisioned happening down there.”

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in transportation policy, says what’s happened in Humber Bay Shores is symptomatic of a larger problem in the city.

“The key issue in Toronto is that there is a separation between land use planning and transportation planning. And there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” he said.

He argued there is a fundamental lack of co-ordination between the institutions responsible for planning development and those building transit. They include the TTC and the city’s planning and transportation departments at the municipal level, plus Metrolinx at the provincial level, and the OMB, which operates independently of government. The federal government also plays a crucial role in providing funding for major transit projects.

Last year the provincial government decided to reform the OMB and replace it with a local tribunal that would give planning authority back to municipalities, but the decision could take years to come into effect.

There are “a lot of different players involved who sometimes co-ordinate, and other times it’s somewhat more ad hoc,” Siemiatycki said.

He also argued the city has made questionable decisions about where to build transit, often under political influence. Projects like the Line 4 (Sheppard) subway and the extension of the Spadina subway to Vaughan were approved in anticipation of development springing up along those lines in the future, not necessarily to serve existing populations.

“These are long-range investments, and they do I guess show foresight. But there are also places in the city where there already is the growth and there already is the demand for transit, and it’s not being served,” he said.

Repeatedly, the city has drafted plans for new roads and transit in Humber Bay, but the proposals fell by the wayside as other projects took priority.

A proposal to extend Legion Rd. north to provide a crucial second link between Lake Shore Blvd. and the Gardiner was approved two decades ago, but remains unfinished.

In 2008, the city finalized an environmental assessment for a streetcar link that would create a continuous route between the western and downtown waterfronts. Ten years later it still hasn’t been built.

In January, council took another tentative step forward when it endorsed an updated Waterfront LRT plan that included a proposal to build an exclusive streetcar right-of-way on Lake Shore Blvd. in Humber Bay Shores.

The $35-million project could be complete sometime in the next 10 years. But it’s part of a larger $2-billion plan to build a continuous LRT line across the entire waterfront, and it has no committed funding.

In the short term, the TTC is taking steps to improve existing operations. As early as this summer the agency will implement a shuttle bus that will loop through the community during rush hours and deliver passengers to the Mimico GO station to the west.

But community leaders and local politicians have long argued the most effective transit improvement for the neighbourhood would be a GO stop at Park Lawn.

That plan got a major boost on Feb. 26, when Metrolinx, the arm’s-length provincial transit agency, announced it would consider a Park Lawn GO station for inclusion in a major expansion of the regional rail network.

“To say I’m thrilled … would be an understatement,” said Councillor Grimes in a statement. He predicted a Park Lawn transit hub that incorporated GO and TTC services would be “transformative for the community.”

However, even as the prospect of higher-order transit for Humber Bay Shores seems brighter than ever, it’s accompanied by the spectre of yet more development.

Two years ago, developer First Capital bought the sprawling 27-acre site on the east side of Park Lawn that once housed a Mr. Christie’s factory. The land is zoned for employment use, but like the Park Lawn developers who fought the city at the OMB a decade ago, the company is hoping to have it redesignated in order to build residential towers.

Jodi Shpigel, First Capital’s senior vice-president for development, says the firm “inherited” an OMB appeal from the previous landowner who wanted to build a whopping 27 towers on the site, but First Capital isn’t keen to pursue it. She said the company would prefer to come to an agreement with the city.

The developer could have significant leverage in any negotiation, because the city and Metrolinx could require some of the Mr. Christie land to build the new station. An earlier proposal would have placed the station squarely on the Mr. Christie site, but updated plans contemplate shifting the station further west, directly above Park Lawn Rd.

The company would be willing to co-operate and even help pay for the new GO stop, Shpigel said, but on the condition the company be allowed to build significant residential development on Humber Bay Shores.

“We’ve communicated to the municipality that we could be a financial contributor. Obviously we require sufficient mixed-use density in order to be able to support such a contribution,” Shpigel said.

Mayor John Tory has thrown cold water on such a deal, however.

“The density on that site should be determined by sound planning principles, not by some kind of tit-for-tat negotiation,” he told reporters two days after the Metrolinx announcement.

The new GO station, which has been estimated to cost at least $178 million and be would be served by trains every 30 minutes, could bring some relief to the congested neighbourhood.

But Beck, the city transportation planner, said there are inherent drawbacks to shoehorning transit into an area where residents have already moved in and have come to rely on their cars.

“It’s always nice to have the transit infrastructure and everything in place first so that when people move in, their transit patterns are dictated by the existing infrastructure,” he said.

“It’s hard to convert people after the fact when you’re trying to retrofit something.”

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