How rampant development and poor planning left residents of this Etobicoke neighbourhood stuck in trafﬁc
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
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
“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
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
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
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
There are “a lot of different players involved who sometimes
co-ordinate, and other times it’s somewhat more ad hoc,” Siemiatycki
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.”