In My Opinion: Private profits, rental housing and the ‘monolithic’ proposal for Woodbine and Danforth

Image above shows the view looking northwest from Cedarvale Avenue towards the corner of Danforth Avenue and Woodbine Avenue with the proposed residential buildings, including one of 35-storeys at 985 Woodbine Ave., in the frame. Image created by Adam Smith.

By ADAM SMITH

In the public consultation about 985 Woodbine Ave. (at the northeast corner of Danforth Avenue), Andre D’Elia, architect from Superkul, said they “wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel monolithic”, an ironic choice of words as “monolithic” is the only apt phrase I see for a 35-storey tower nestled amongst two-and-three-storey buildings.

It’s so tall that in the artist’s rendering they chose not to show the top of the building. While there are plans for even taller buildings, at 125 metres currently this would be the tallest building in all of East Toronto from the DVP to Victoria Park and as far north as Sheppard, and will dominate the view for kilometres in every direction.

The original proposal was a 15-storey condo, while the new proposed all-rental development is more than triple the height of the nearby Carmelina building on Danforth Avenue, and will cast a shadow far into the ward.

This image shows the view looking northwest from Cedarvale Avenue towards the corner of Danforth Avenue and Woodbine Avenue as it now looks. Image created by Adam Smith.

When asked about the change in height, the planner did not mention the change from condos to rentals, and instead cited examples of other plans for tall towers in the area and stated the new height is appropriate simply because the location is on the subway line and is in line with the official plan of Ontario’s focus on rapidly increasing density.

The northeast corner building at 2078-2086 Danforth Ave., where the Workaround is located, was on the way to being designated a heritage building in 2019, because it was built in 1927 and has architectural and historical significance. But the March 2019 heritage impact statement from the developer claims “that neither property has sufficient design, historical or contextual value to merit designation under Part IV of the OHA. As such, their removal does not constitute a significant impact on the cultural heritage value of the area.”

In April of 2019, CP REIT Ontario Properties Ltd and a couple other partners took Toronto to the LPAT (Local Planning Appeal Tribunal – check this) to protest the heritage designation. It was decided to go to arbitration, and five years later those properties are not on the heritage list.

To create some extra space on the sidewalk leading to the subway station the new building will be set back, which means the historical corner building will have to be moved. The west elevation of the architectural drawings mentions the “extent of the heritage façade to be reconstructed”, so it’s not clear if the building will be demolished and rebuilt anew or removed in chunks to be reassembled. In either case, the preservation of the building is in question.

The street level façade makes an attempt to fit the character of the area and recreate some of the details of that corner building, however the uninspired design of the towers is identical to most new buildings: boxy and flat, with neutral colours of beige, brown, and grey. The previous design suffered the same flaws, but it was stepped on almost every side to lessen the visual impact, whereas the new design has completely discarded any concern for visual domination of the streetscape.

The new design proposes 646 units and 98 residential parking spaces, with a few thousand more units planned in new towers across East Toronto. With our congested streets, inadequate transit, and insufficient infrastructure, it’s not clear how we’re supposed to absorb all this new density.

The strain on our aging and ailing infrastructure, in particular storm water management, is given scant consideration despite being a serious and growing problem. Like all new towers, this one will have basement storage tanks to handle excess storm water, 240 cubic metres worth, because our storm water system already can’t handle our current density.

There’s also the issue of carbon emission targets; how many emissions will be involved in the demolition and construction of this building, not to mention the embodied carbon in the new materials themselves?

How many years of dust and dirt and constant pollution will this development add to the air?

Originally a condo building, the city recognized the need for more purpose-built rentals and the failure of the investor/landlord system of renting out expensive condo units. Developers favour condos because they recoup their costs and make all their profits the moment every unit is sold, whereas a rental building can take years if not decades to turn a profit. Enter the REIT.

REIT stands for “real estate investment trust”. It’s when investors pool their money to invest in rental properties.

As housing is an essential need and buying a house is increasingly out of reach for the average person, rental income produces a steady, ongoing, and reliable return for the investors. It’s even more lucrative when a lack of rent controls, in particular on newer buildings, ensures REITs can raise rent easily at their whim.

It’s not just a lack of rent controls driving up prices for renters. There is also the above guideline rent increase, which enables a landlord to raise rent on their tenants by more than the prescribed amount if they have costs they need to recoup from improving the building.

However, as the tenants of a certain East York building can attest, the REIT can allow their units to languish in disrepair while still qualifying for an above guideline increase by improving the façade of the building.

One woman showed me her broken kitchen cabinets; another man showed me the large crack in the stucco of his living room ceiling. They had both been asking for these repairs for years, only to be ignored, while their rents kept going up because the REIT refinished the outer surface of part of the building.

This is a strategy of landlords to drive out existing tenants so they can renovate the vacated apartment and increase the rent on new tenants without limit, something that wasn’t possible until former Premier Mike Harris removed vacancy decontrol. Not a single tenant spoken to had anything good to say about having a REIT as their landlord.

In order to satisfy the return on investment the REIT desires to extract from renters, the proposed building at 985 Woodbine Ave. had to increase in size. It’s the only way to entice a developer. Other than 14 units to replace what is being lost, the city and developer admit they have not determined what if any affordable units will be included, nor at what level of affordability, nor what the rent would be on regular units.

Considering the lack of numbers it’s clear the developers have proposed 35 storeys as a safety measure to ensure the volume of units necessary for their desired income, especially if an unknown number affordable units are going to eat into that profit. They mentioned market rates, but due to the proliferation of condos and lack of rent controls, the rental market in Toronto has become unaffordable to those of average income.

It is said that rent plus utilities shouldn’t be more than 30 per cent of your gross annual income. In Toronto the average one bedroom goes for $2,013 per month, requiring a $90,000 gross annual income. The average annual salary in Toronto is $57,550. Clearly the math doesn’t add up, and at this rate renters in Toronto can expect to never have enough savings to buy their own home.

To build 985 Woodbine Ave., the Valumart will have to close down for years, which removes an anchor business and the only large grocery store in the area for many blocks.

If this “monolithic” building is to serve the purpose of providing much-needed rental units to the city’s housing stock, then residents need to see the math.

Before any demolition begins the city and developer must provide the number of affordable units and at what level of affordability, the rental costs of regular units and what utilities will be provided, and make some kind of binding agreement to maintain rental rates at levels affordable to the average Toronto income that cannot be raised upon vacancy, to ensure ongoing affordability. Anything less ensures increasingly unaffordable housing in the city.

There is only one solution to this dynamic: Public housing built by a public developer.

Like any corporate entity legally beholden to its shareholders, a REIT can only be trusted to do one thing and one thing only — make profits for its investors. This makes it the wrong choice to provide an essential need like housing.

Only when private profits are removed from rental housing will we see any return to reasonable rates affordable to the average income.

This image shows the view looking north along Woodbine Avenue towards Danforth Avenue, including the proposed 35-storey residential building at the northeast corner. Image created by Adam Smith.
This image shows the view looking north along Woodbine Avenue towards Danforth Avenue as it now looks. Image created by Adam Smith.

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