CreateTO, the real estate arm of the City of Toronto, has identified parking lots adjacent to TTC stations as the best places for its affordable housing program, Housing NOW. Metrolinx should also take a closer look at its enormous surface parking lots.
Ontario’s GO commuter rail network has the opportunity to foster a new wave of transit-oriented communities (TOC) with affordable housing and mixed-use living, in the place of what is now a sea of asphalt.
Metrolinx – the Government of Ontario agency responsible for the development of transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) – is currently underway with its GO expansion project which, back in 2018, was estimated to cost around $16.2 billion.
The project is aimed at providing increased all-day service, more service in both directions, trains at least every 15 minutes, faster and more efficient trains, better accessibility at stations, and an expansion for Union Station. Because of these improvements, ridership on the GO Rail network is expected to increase, even outside of rush hour.
The ultimate goal of the system is to decrease the dependency on cars to travel between Southern Ontario’s municipalities, rural and urban.
Unfortunately, the GO rail network in its current state encourages and subsidizes car dependency by surrounding all of its stations with free parking lots paid for by the residents of Ontario. Rather than using the land surrounding GO stations for commercial and residential uses to promote public transit, the government has chosen to build massive parking structures.
These structures not only promote driving, but also make walking unattractive as pedestrians would have to cross lots which can reach 1,000 combined spaces. To put into perspective the quantity of parking space GO maintains, GO is the largest provider of parking in the province, beating out the City of Toronto and any other municipal organizations.
Making matters worse, GO provides this parking for free, passing the costs onto the riders rather than making parking subsidize the cost of train tickets.
The Ontario government should follow Toronto’s lead
While accessibility in the GTHA may be increasing thanks to the GO expansion, affordability continues to decrease with the National Bank of Canada stating housing affordability in Q2 of 2021 is the worst in 27 years. Understanding this, the City of Toronto initiated the Housing Now program in 2019, which is aimed at developing affordable housing on city-owned land.
Even better, the city wants to ensure these are TOCs providing a mix of uses to serve new and old residents around these sites.
One site the Housing Now program is reclaiming for affordable housing is 777 Victoria Park Ave., a commuter parking lot which services both a bus terminal and Victoria Park station on the Bloor-Danforth Line. Current plans include constructing mixed-use buildings which include residential, retail and community facilities.
Another good example of a site CreateTO allocated for development is 50 Wilson Heights, the large parking lot adjacent to Wilson Station on the Yonge Line. The proposal for this lot includes 1,484 residential homes; of which 520 are market-rental homes, 520 are affordable rental homes, and 444 are market condominiums, replacing 811 parking spots.
The potential of GO stations
The government of Ontario has an opportunity to transform its massive stock of land along an efficient transit system into affordable TOCs.
Similar to the HousingNow program, converting GO parking into housing has the benefit of not needing to evict any current tenants. Additionally, this would align with the province’s A Place to Grow growth plan, which outlines that Ontario wants to prioritize development in major transit station areas and intensify existing urban areas, especially those which provide access to transit.
Many stations such as Kennedy GO, and Unionville GO provide a fantastic opportunity to ditch the large flat commuter lots which encourage car usage and construct affordable higher-density living which can help bolster ridership.
With the GO expansion introducing all-day service to many stations in Toronto’s northern suburbs and neighbouring municipalities, there is no better time to help increase density in the urban centres the province has outlined as places to grow. While demand for living in Toronto has become extraordinary, many of these identified growth centres can deliver affordable housing proactively rather than reactively.
Clinging to the status quo
Despite showing encouraging partnerships to develop TOCs in the GTHA along GO Railways, Metrolinx is still promoting low-density, car-oriented lifestyles with the recently constructed Bloomington GO Station, for example.
Located at a rural highway interchange within Greenbelt protected land, this station cost Ontarians $82.4 million for what is essentially just another parking structure.
These funds could have gone toward redeveloping one other old station to be transit-oriented, but instead went toward building a station in rural Southern Ontario. The longer the government of Ontario continues to support and build infrastructure for low-density living, the longer our current housing crisis will remain.
Are you interested in more information about GO’s network? Smart Density offers a catalogue/route map of station information for stops within 35 minutes of Union Station.