Toronto is a city undergoing tremendous change. All you have to do is drive around and look to see it. There is construction everywhere. Old buildings are being repurposed and made new again. Brand new and increasingly taller towers are populating our skyline and contributing to a monumental shift in the atmosphere of downtown. Our city core has become a series of 24/7 live-work-play neighbourhoods. Almost daily, we read about new restaurants and bars opening, new office, retail and residential buildings being announced and built and growing numbers of new companies moving downtown. It is truly an exciting time to be in the Six. Just watch the new Tourism Toronto video and you will see what I mean.
For all the incredible growth and change that is happening in our downtown, the city’s low-rise neighbourhoods have remained relatively stable in terms of look and feel. The streetscape and urban fabric of these places remain much the same as it did 10 and 20 years ago. That being said, these neighbourhoods are changing as well, albeit in different ways. The composition of residents is has evolved, as older homes are sold to new owners who often undertake considerable renovations and occasionally, rebuild completely. Secondary suites are being added to many basements and infill projects abound. Despite these changes, the scale of these places is generally consistent. The experience and feeling of being there is consistent. And that is a good thing.
Undoubtedly, one of the most popular topics in the media, at dinner parties and even in line at the grocery store is the increasingly escalating real estate market. For many, the idea of owning a property in Toronto is becoming increasingly out of reach. Prices have escalated at a remarkably quick pace, one which only seems to intensify despite the record high values of late. For all the new development that has been completed since the creation of the Greenbelt in 2005, demand has continued to outpace supply. This issue of simple economics is amplified in the low-rise, ground-oriented market, which is comprised primarily of properties in the established neighbourhoods mentioned above. Lack of supply is an especially prevalent problem given the lack of space to build new low-rise homes.
At Lanescape, we have been advocating for gentle intensification of our existing neighbourhoods for years. In 2012, I built and moved into a laneway suite in the city’s east end, just north of Leslieville. Ignoring the advice of planners and my lawyers, I purchased a property with a detached triplex at the front together with an illegally converted laneway garage housing a three-bedroom rental unit. Despite formal opposition from the city’s planning department, I secured the support of neighbours and successfully argued at the Committee of Adjustment for the variances required to legally renovate the existing unit. Morphing from a dark, mouldy three-bedroom bunker into a bright, airy one and a half storey two-bedroom suite, my wife and I got married, had a daughter and now have a second on the way.
My experience with this project taught me two things. The first was that very few people would have the expertise, patience, or resources to undertake a laneway project with the city’s own planning department issuing formal opposition from the start. And for good reason…the letter they sent to CofA in advance of our hearing was not very encouraging! The second lesson I learned after moving in was that the lifestyle afforded by laneway living is amazing and more people should be able to experience it.
Lanescape was born from this experience. In 2014, together with Co-Founders Craig Race and Andrew Sorbara, we began to discuss the potential for a Toronto framework for laneway suite entitlements. The idea was that we would learn from jurisdictions like Vancouver which had their own laneway suite programs, while tailoring the approach to the realities in Toronto. What works in one city may not be suitable in another. Toronto had studied the idea in the past and technical issues always seemed to stand in the way. As such, our guiding principles were that no laneway suite could ever be severable and all services required for the new laneway suite would be run from the main house, eliminating any disruption / downtime to the laneway.
During our early efforts, Ottawa and Regina also began working to legalize laneway suites and coach houses in their own cities. In addition, the Province of Ontario has come out in favour of permitting secondary suites above garages and has amended legislation to exempt these units from development charges. With the help of our great partners at Evergreen as well as Councillors Mary-Margaret McMahon and Ana Bailao, we have hosted three community consultations on the topic of laneway suites and are working on a report outlining the feedback we received along with some proposed guidelines for laneway suite implementation. We have gotten a very positive reception in the early discussions on this topic, as well as some positive editorials voicing support.
It is no longer a question of “if” we should permit laneway suites but rather “how” we are going to do it.