Jennifer Keesmaat has a message for Torontonians: Get used to more condos, better transit, additional bike lanes, Greener living, improved walkability… These aren’t just hopes or dreams for the chief planner at the City of Toronto – they’re actual agenda items. And as the person charged with delivering on the City’s mandate for Growing Up Vertical, she’s beginning to cross them off the to-do list.
NextHome: You’re coming up on five years as chief planner for the City of Toronto. How would you characterize your time in the chair?
Jennifer Keesmaat: Fast and furious! There continues to be a ton of work to do, but we are moving the needle on so many critical priorities at once that sometimes it all feels like a blur.
NextHome: How do Toronto’s key planning challenges differ now, compared to when you took over?
Jennifer Keesmaat: We’ve made inroads in so many previously neglected areas in planning that it feels like a different place.
- We’ve worked closely with the Province to advance OMB reform, Community Hubs and Inclusionary Zoning. All of these initiatives are critical to creating walkable, people oriented neighborhoods that are inclusive for all.
- Following three years of detailed analysis and consultation, this fall we will bring forward the first comprehensive plan for the downtown in a generation, which we’ve called TOcore. The last plan was approved in the 1970s! This is allowing for clarity with respect to parks, energy, transportation and community amenities needs. It was long overdue.
- We have 19 corridors in the city that now have as-of-right zoning, including the portion of Eglinton where 19 km of LRT is currently being built. This provides certainty for adjacent neighborhoods and allows development to be expedited.
- We have a council-approved Transit Network Plan and are advancing SmartTrack, the Relief Line, Waterfront LRT and both the Eglinton East and West LRTs, that build on the Crosstown, currently under construction.
- Both our Etobicoke and Scarborough urban centres are advancing. A new street grid is being built in the new Etobicoke centre, and we just completed a design competition for a new civic building. In Scarborough, a subway is being built, and we have created a Transportation Master Plan to unlock new development parcels, to urbanize its core.
- We have large area plans underway in the Portlands and on the Unilever site, but also in our suburbs in the Consumers Road Business Park, along the Golden Mile and on the Celestica site. These projects allow us to add a combination of employment and residential uses.
- We now have an interdivisional Ravine Strategy to coordinate protecting and investing in the ravines.
- We are aggressively advancing Heritage Conservation Districts – particularly some tricky ones that have been stuck for many generations, such as the St. Lawrence Neighborhood and King Spadina. This is a legacy to future generations.
NextHome: Midrise development – the “missing middle” is something we’re hearing more and more about – transit and the waterfront are key areas of focus for the city and you as chief planner. How much progress are you making in those areas?
Jennifer Keesmaat: We have advanced through City Council new Midrise Guidelines, and this is such a ripe opportunity that in mid June one of the largest developers in the city indicated that they are creating a new company to focus only on advancing midrise. We have 68 projects either approved or under construction in the city. Despite this progress, this is an area where a dedicated staff team could make a real impact. That is one of my goals as a means to making a big leap forward in this building typology.
NextHome: You recently described the Toronto Planning Review Panel, a new way for residents to become engaged in city planning processes, as a success story that is a first not just for Toronto, but for the entire world. What makes it such a success?
Jennifer Keesmaat: The Toronto Planning Review Panel is a tangible way of putting our values into practice. We say that we value diversity and diverse perspectives, but we have many systemic barriers to full participation in our municipal processes. The Panel turns that on its head, by being truly representative of the diversity in the city.
We are working to make Toronto the most engaged city in North America on planning issues. Our city’s motto is Diversity Our Strength, yet we know traditional planning processes don’t always hear equally from Toronto’s many communities. The Planning Review Panel is an exciting way to bring new voices to the table, as a complement to the hundreds of consultations we host each year. It has been insightful for staff – broadening our perspectives, a great tool to improve our recommendations to city council.
NextHome: You’ve cited Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common and Corktown Commons as examples of a successful strategic planning approach to attract private sector investment and trigger revitalization? Where might the next success stories be – that might yield homebuying opportunities for Torontonians.
Jennifer Keesmaat: We are focusing on driving growth to our higher order transit corridors – we want more people in the city, but we know we cannot manage any more cars than we have today. With the introduction of light rail (first on Eglinton and Finch), which is mostly in our suburbs, there are significant intensification opportunities along both of those corridors. For example, along Finch, the Albion Mall is an example of where we can create new hubs within the existing urban fabric of the city, adding more housing and enhancing quality of life.
NextHome: What’s the latest on Rail Deck Park? How likely is the project to actually go ahead?
Jennifer Keesmaat: I would say very likely, but projects like this need consistent leadership and tenacity because they evolve over many years. Mayor Tory and Councillor Joe Cressy have been explicit about their intention to see it through. We have initiated the Official Plan Amendment process, and there is a team of lawyers and planners working on advancing everything from air rights to structural design.
NextHome: The Bloor Street bike lanes were in the news recently, having received strong support from area residents. Earlier this year, though, the pilot project was reported to also lead to significant increases in travel times for drivers. What are the key learnings?
Jennifer Keesmaat: Significant travel times for drivers? I’m pretty sure the number was three minutes. The goal in our city as we get denser and Greener is to focus on using the road right of way that we have to move more and more people. That means, in some instances, moving by transit or by bike is going to be the better movement system. From an efficiency perspective, it is possible to move more people, by far, using these modes. And they are better from a health, safety and air quality perspective, too.
NextHome: Toronto has a serious housing affordability issue. You’re a mom: How hopeful are you that your kids’ generation will be able to become homeowners in Toronto?
Jennifer Keesmaat: It is precisely because I am a mom that I feel so passionately about our new guidelines, Growing Up Vertical. The objective is to ensure that “vertical” communities offer a desirable quality of life with the right amenities – stroller parking, multiple bedrooms – for families. We know that a key part of our future as a city is going to be vertical living – whether in towers or midrise buildings. If we design these communities right, they offer an excellent quality of life where parents are not trapped in a long, expensive commute. If my kids choose to stay in Toronto – and I hope they will – the odds are that they will raise their families in a smaller space and in an even denser community than they were raised. My goal is to ensure that this is their first choice!