A city without jobs will quickly find its housing shortage problems solved. People will just stop coming.
What if Toronto kept permitting the construction of condos to the point where there was no place left to work?
That's one of the dilemmas facing the city as it hosts public consultations starting February 12 on what to do with old industrial properties.
It's all part of the Employment Lands Review where the key issue to be resolved is whether to allow areas formerly designated as employment zones to be rezoned for housing.
The review is part of the process of harmonizing the 43 different zoning bylaws Toronto inherited from its six pre-amalgamation municipalities; as well, it's a feature of the five-year review of the provincially mandated Official Plan, an extended project that won't likely be fully complete until 2014.
The employment lands are scattered across the city and include large tracts along rail corridors and the waterfront. Toronto was once one of North America's leading manufacturing hubs, with tens of thousands employed in large facilities.
Today, young people and newcomers wouldn't know that trendy neighbourhoods along the waterfront, Queen, Spadina, King or in Mimico, for example, were once the domain of large factories producing everything from chemicals and textiles to washing machines and machine parts.
Most factories have moved out of Toronto in search of cheaper land far away from vocal community groups complaining about noise, smells and environmental contamination. Add globalization and the fact that manufacturing is now mostly done outside North America, or in smaller facilities when it's stayed close to home.
Many of these former industrial sites remain vacant and in many cases polluted. Over the last two decades, hundreds of these parcels have been redeveloped for new condos and town homes, in many cases to the delight of neighbourhoods happy to get rid of the blight of contaminated abandoned properties.
Often, it was only the fact that these properties could be rezoned for buildings with several tens of storeys that enabled developers the cash to undertake expensive enviro cleanup and remediation.
The transformation from derelict to condo tower is an organic process that shows how vibrant the city is, but in the long term our economic health is at stake if we don't have properly serviced land available for facilities that create well-paid office and manufacturing jobs.
As well, exchanging employment land for condos doesn't provide much of a tax windfall, since industrial and commercial land is taxed at two to four times residential rates. And residential properties bring people who require more services than business occupants.
The pressure for more employment sites is relentless; over the next decade, Toronto will need millions of feet of new office space, fantastic news because it means jobs. Companies are now looking to locate or relocate to downtown transit- or pedestrian- friendly neighbourhoods where they will have access to an educated and motivated workforce.
While it's unlikely that Toronto will once again become the site of large-scale manufacturing, there are significant opportunities for new small-scale facilities. Many companies are looking for the cheaper and more interesting spaces that former industrial buildings can provide. Think the port lands or the former GM site in Scarborough. The advantage of these sites is that they are often serviced by public transit but isolated from residential communities, meaning few complaints from neighbours.
If more employment lands are allowed to be converted into condos, there will be some short-term economic benefits in the form of construction jobs and condo financing. But in the end, these buildings generate relatively few low-paid service sector jobs on the ground floor and in the surrounding neighborhood. However, if all the current employment lands were given over to condos, where would the jobs of tomorrow be created?
It's certainly unlikely that new places of production or large commercial developments would be allowed in current neighbourhoods through rezoning, and those residential properties would be too expensive to convert anyway.
Likewise, trying to buy out all the units of a condo building for industrial or commercial use would be unrealistic, all the more so since the city's rental replacement policy requires that any rental units lost due to demolition be replaced in kind, making this an unaffordable way to obtain space, not to mention the political ramifications of trying to get something like that through council.
Toronto is expecting over 1 million new residents over the next 30 years, and beyond the questions of where to accommodate them and how to provide services is the matter of where they are going to work.
A city without jobs will quickly find its housing shortage problems solved. People will just stop coming While it may be unpopular to preserve hulking former industrial buildings that remain underused today, those lands could provide space for the jobs of the future, even if they are not developed for 10, 20 or even 30 years.
After February's consultations, a report will end up some months hence at the Planning The Growth Committee, where, I believe, councillors should think wisely of the future and decide to resist the rezoning of employment lands for more condo towers.