One condo tower after another is sprouting out of the waterfront like new teeth from an infant's gums. In many ways, new vertical neighborhoods are better than new sprawl -- but are neighborhoods what we're building?
Poring through this year's list of private market development proposals requiring rezoning (which many do, given the shift to more density) reveals that no one's feeling much incentive to build units for families.
Only 1,813 of 27,529 units proposed 15 per cent are suitable for a brood. And that's assuming everything described as a "townhouse" unit will be adequate for kids.
Former Citytv reporter and city council hopeful Adam Vaughan fears the urban density sought as an alternative to suburban sprawl could develop into its own sort of monoculture.
"Any time you can have people moving back into the core, it's good," he tells me. "But we're not building better neighbourhoods; we're just building more places for people to sleep."
Using school board planning documents, Vaughan found that in Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina), the seat he's seeking, 6,800 housing units have been built since amalgamation in 1998, but only 86 of those have three or more bedrooms.
And, he adds, only 72 school-age children are living in rail lands developments on the old CN properties south of Richmond.
Current approaches to density development could alter not only the city's built form, but also its social makeup and ability to adapt.
With expensive one- and two-bedroom apartments the clear trend, workers, artists, seniors, families and small businesses (small in savings, not just stature) could be pushed out of the core, creating conditions of outer-city poverty and contributing, ironically, to the sprawl we're trying to avoid.
"A workforce with a range of skills is no longer available in the housing stock," says Vaughan.
The best litmus test may be trends in school funding. While many downtown schools are circling the drain, other wards are experiencing growing pains.
"In Scarborough they're putting up subdivisions like mad," says school trustee Howard Goodman. "There's a school where they just built an extension, and there are already 12 portables on the property."
But as the student population city-wide, which determines the funding available to all schools, continues to shrink, new suburban schools may find they fall into disrepair more quickly than expected. The fact that TDSB parenting centres are on the chopping block could presage a similar fate for settlement services and other social programs, especially as newcomers increasingly choose Peel and York over Toronto.
So how to restore balance? Vaughan clearly has his sights set on a certain big, blue room.
"Council is relying on developers to do the planning," he says. "It has abdicated control to the market."
But Helen Kennedy, former assistant to Ward 20 councillor Olivia Chow and Martin Silva, and Vaughan's main opponent in the coming municipal election, wonders if council isn't itself a victim of those forces threatening public amenities.
"It's certainly a problem if you think the demographic is changing," she says, "but I don't know if it can be attributed to development. There's also the cost of living."
According to the planning department, the city has created 2,026 affordable units in the last five years. Kennedy decries the historical difficulty of getting private developers to build more such units and the unwillingness of those holding the public purse strings to step in.
"We need more clout. There must be funding initiatives from all levels of government."
In fact, provincial bodies have actively worked against the city in the past.
An affordable housing project near the waterfront was scuttled in 2004 when the Ontario Municipal Board sided with Paul Godfrey's Rogers Blue Jays Baseball Partnership's objections to it.
Still, Kennedy points out, over a third of Trinity-Spadina residents are families with kids. "It's crammed with kids," she says.
She points out that Section 37 bonuses public amenities that developers agree to fund when they request density increases from the city are often needed to construct or maintain the spaces families use. An example is the $800,000 acquired as a part of the Canada Life development at Queen and University for improvements to Grange Park.
She also tells me of a number of projects approved for the rail lands that are deemed suitable for families 1,981 units, in various states of construction or occupation, including 915 with two bedrooms or more.
"A two-bedroom can work," says Vaughan, "but by the time a kid is school age, folks tend to move out. I'm using the model the school board uses to plan. I'm saying three bedrooms [for families]." Some 250 of the rail lands units are three-bedroom apartments.
He also points out that the many of the family-size units of the 1,981 were approved before amalgamation. "The old city of Toronto did a much better job. Since 1998, things haven't been healthy."
Vaughan doesn't believe the city is powerless. He says its planning structure could be used to compel developers to include a set percentage of larger, affordable units, and the growing number of developers adding a hotel to their condo projects could set aside some of those units specifically for hotel staff housing.
"When you have that mix, you've got flexibility in your housing stock to accommodate change in the future."
Coincidentally, Goodman mentions an example of such change. North Toronto neighbourhoods with an older population have recently seen a small but sharp spike in school-age children as empty-nesters sell to young couples.
"Communities change a lot in 15, 25 years," he says. "How do you predict it? It's a bunch of individual people making a bunch of individual decisions."