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Tribunal gives Toronto green light for North York modular housing project

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A modular housing development in North York for people exiting homelessness can go ahead as planned, the province’s land planning tribunal has ruled.

In February 2021, the City of Toronto announced plans to build a three-storey, supportive modular housing project at 175 Cummer Ave.

However, a series of delays, including an unsuccessful request for a Ministerial Zoning Order to speed up the process, has meant that ground has yet to be broken on the project, which is part of Toronto’s Modular Housing Initiative.

After waiting for almost a year for a response from the province, the city decided in early 2022 to launch its own rezoning process for the site near Willowdale and Finch avenues. Amendments to the zoning by-law to permit the construction of the 59-unit project were approved on July 22, 2022.

However, less than a month later, on Aug. 17, 2022, Bayview Cummer Neighbourhood Association, LiVante Holdings (Cummer) Inc., and Voices of Willowdale Inc. submitted a joint appeal challenging that the proposed development is not compatible with the Willowdale Manor residence, a four-storey, Toronto Community Housing building for about 600 seniors on the same site.

The Ontario Land Tribunal considered the matter during a three-day hearing in early November and released its decision on Jan. 2, ultimately siding with the City of Toronto.

“The Tribunal finds that the Appellants did not proffer evidence to support their issue that the (zoning by-law) would result in development that is incompatible with Willowdale Manor,” tribunal member Astrid J. Clos wrote in her decision.

“The Tribunal finds that the ZBA will implement compatible development which represents good planning and is in the public interest.”

Lawyer Eric Gillespie represented the three parties that made the appeal.

“I think many people who have been following this story closely are extremely disappointed and disturbed by this decision,” he told CP24.com on Wednesday afternoon.

Gillespie, who sat down with his clients today to discuss the outcome of the appeal and their possible next steps, raised two key concerns with the OLT’s decision.

The first, he said, has to do with protections not being extended to those who live just metres away from the proposed development.

“Unfortunately, the city and now the tribunal have decided to not protect some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, seniors,” Gillespie said, pointing to what he called an “open-for-everyone” approach to the new modular housing project.

“That means that now vulnerable senior citizens have to now compete for their accommodation against all of the other people also competing for (it).”

Gillespie also pointed to the precedent this project sets in terms of protecting neighbourhoods from big high-rise developments under the city’s Official Plan (OP).

“This decision says that those protections don’t apply if the building that’s being proposed is something that you can walk up to,” he said, adding that the interpretation of the OP when it comes to large-scale, high-rise developments no longer applies.

“This case is not just about this situation in North York. It’s opening the door for high-rise developments without the Official Plan protections across all of Toronto.”

Preliminary artist’s rendering of the modular building – Looking west on Cummer Avenue. Final design subject to approval. (City of Toronto image)

Willowdale Coun. Lily Cheng, in a June 9 letter to her City Council colleagues, said that while she doesn’t oppose the project, there are “flaws in our approach that have left certain voices marginalized and disregarded.”

At that month’s council meeting, she tabled two motions aimed at addressing what she called “significant gaps” in the city’s process, including units being ordered before zoning was firm, the lack of accessible consultation, and a site plan being designed without adequate consultation of the seniors who live nearby.

Cheng proposed that a non-profit organization to operate the new building, that a multilingual community liaison committee be created, and that there be more green space available at the site for seniors who live on the same site. She also wanted to move the project elsewhere. None of her motions passed.

CP24.com has contacted Cheng for direct comment on the OLT’s decision.

Instead, late Tuesday afternoon her staff provided a news release in which she iterated her commitment to “ensuring a dignified and compassionate process both for the seniors who live there and their future neighbours.”

Cheng said that losing the appeal may be “difficult for the seniors who cherish the green space in front of their home and remain uncertain of how the supportive housing will impact their daily lives,” but said she would “work collaboratively with the community and future operator to strengthen the outcome of this implementation.”

“I hope some of the services provided within the supportive housing building can be extended to the low-income seniors who are also vulnerable,” said Cheng, who brought a representative from the nearby seniors’ community as well as a leader from the neighbourhood association to tour another similar modular housing site in East York on Cedarvale Avenue.

“They were impressed with the kindness and professionalism of the operators and care taken for the surrounding community. They hope a similar model of operation can be replicated,” the release said.

CP24.com also reached out to former Willowdale Coun. John Filion, who strongly supported the project at 175 Cummer, for comment, but we have not heard back.

Since launching the program in 2020 as as an urgent response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to rapidly create 250 modular homes on city-owned and/or controlled land, Toronto has completed four modular housing buildings. There are now a total of 216 units with 24/7 supports for people who have experienced or were at risk of homelessness at 11 Macey Ave., 321 Dovercourt Rd., 540 Cedarvale Ave., and 39 Dundalk Dr.

Construction is expected to begin on 175 Cummer Ave. “as soon as possible,” the City of Toronto said, adding updated project timelines will be shared once they’re confirmed.

A request for proposals for a not-for profit to lease and run the new site will also be issued in the coming weeks, said the city.

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