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Let’s not be so fast to wreck our Greenbelt

Our Premier got himself re-elected with ease, and can pretty much do as he pleases, and what pleases him is to open up the Greenbelt around Toronto to development, even though he promised he would not do that. His reasoning is that we need more affordable housing. That is certainly true. It’s become way too expensive to live in Toronto. It isn’t quite adding up, though. I’ve been up in areas like Richmond Hill and Vaughn and Markham and Uxbridge, where I was today, and I don’t see affordable housing being built. Mostly it’s huge homes. Is that not so?

One thing we can do today to create some affordable housing is to look at re-purposing all the empty office towers in Downtown Toronto. Sure, businesses are in many cases encouraging or compelling employees to return to the office, but what they seem to be able to achieve, at least for the foreseeable future is a return to the office 2-3 days per week. I think the pandemic has taught us that working from home can be tremendously effective for many organizations. There has been an historic shift. We’ve opened that Pandora’s box. As businesses switch to a hoteling model to cut costs, I can imagine multiple businesses sharing space in ways that can work well for everyone. What if we look at converting empty office space into affordable housing.

Imaging a 50 story office tower in which there are floors for office use, floors for living, floors for retail, a floor for a community centre, gym, church, etc. Businesses could even look at having short term suites for employees who have to travel to town for a few days. We should be asking the question, how can we make this work?

I know that changing the use of buildings from their original intent can work. When the garment industry in Toronto failed, leaving loads of empty factory and warehouse space, artists wasted little time renting up that space for live/work situations, even when the municipal government was unwilling to make it easy for that to happen.

I lived in one such space for a few years. Everyone lived and worked in the building even though it was not legal to do so. Every year or so the City would notify the owner of the building they wished to satisfy themselves that nobody lived in the building. We got really good at dealing with the charade. The inspector would make an appointment. All the beds and stoves would disappear for a day and everyone was happy. Were there problems with this model? Yes, of course there were, but these buildings happened and in some cases are still happening in the City for many years (shhh, don’t tell Mayor Tory). Eventually, the market caught up many of these buildings as they were sold as “loft” condo units. Only a few of the artists I know still have modestly-priced warehouse or converted factory space for live-work studios. The building I was in is being turned into condo towers with some of the original building preserved at the ground level.

Instead of rushing to build on the Greenbelt, I think we should do an inventory of disused space in the City and look at how to economically convert space into housing. I’d also like to ask the question, how much condo space is sitting empty in the City?

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