Jessica Bell MPP, University–Rosedale

Government of Ontario

Ford’s COVID-19 bill gives blanket authority for Ontario to seize land and build near transit

Published on July 14, 2020

This legislative session has revealed very clearly that Premier Ford wants the private sector to help pay for his four new transit projects.  To offset the cost of station construction, Ford wants to give developers the right to build above stations and on nearby expropriated land.  Instead of the Ontario Line, could Ford be giving us a Developer Line instead?

Over the past few months, Premier Ford has passed a few bills, including Bill 171 and Bill 197, which give him the power to easily expropriate private land and allow developers to build big on that land. 

Ford’s COVID-19 recovery omnibus law gives huge power to cabinet to classify any private or public land they want as "transit-oriented community" land, even if it is not near a station. The new law also strips the hearing of necessity from the expropriations process, and allows the government to impose new zoning requirements on this land, strengthening the power Ontario already has to exempt land from municipal zoning laws.   

it sounds good in theory, but the reality could be very bad indeed. Here are some concerns with Doug Ford’s developer-first transit plan.

A developer-first approach hasn't worked well for the Fords before. Doug Ford and Rob Ford tried this developer-pays model before with the Sheppard Subway and the Scarborough Subway, and in both cases the projects did not pan out.  Our congestion crisis is so great we can't afford to lose years experimenting with a risky model. 

This developer-first approach isn't working out so well for GO station construction either, even though GO station construction is significantly cheaper than TTC station construction. Since Metrolinx announced its pay-as-you-go approach to GO station construction, the provincial agency has only been able to secure two deals.  Metrolinx made a secret deal with Vandyk in 2018, giving them the right to build above and near Mimico GO station in return for renovating and expanding the station. Vandyk has made no commitment to incorporate affordable housing into these new condos. Metrolinx also approved Woodbine Entertainment Group’s request to fund the construction of a station at their casino and racetrack complex in Ford’s riding, even though Metrolinx’s own report last year found that the projected job opportunities and population growth in the area around the Woodbine station fall below the required minimum for a new stop. Meanwhile, stations that Metrolinx has identified as being crucial to increasing ridership, such as the St Clair Weston GO station, languish on paper.  

The amount of development required to pay for TTC station construction is enormous. In an interview with the Star, market analyst, Shaun Hildebrand, president of Urbanation, said the development required to offset the cost of building one $500 million station and allow a developer to make the typical 15 to 20% profit would be in the magnitude of 10 to 17 million square feet. That's the equivalent of building eight to 13 78 story towers at each station. That kind of development would require the most exceptional demand for condos that ever existed in the history of Toronto, and that doesn't even factor in the taxpayer cost of providing services, from day cares to schools, for new residents. The math doesn't add up. 

A developer-first approach will also mean the route and station location could be chosen to help developers profit first, and the public-interest second. The Ontario Government has made it clear that they have not settled on an Ontario Line route because they want the exact route to be set by the private market. It might also be why Ford’s nascent transit map veers the Ontario Line off into the the fields of Ontario Place and the former vacant Unilever lands instead of following its original underground route through established neighbourhoods with high population density and little available land. The end result could be new transit line that doesn't best meet the needs of our city.  Instead of an underground mass transit line that truly relieves pressure from the Yonge Line, we could be getting a dinky cheap monorail that services the new mega condos at Ontario Place instead.  

Do we really want to gamble the future of our transit system on the real estate market?  No we don't. Instead of embarking on Premier Ford’s risky and untested privatized model of building transit partially funded by mega-development, the Ontario government should put the public interest first, require developers to pay their fair share, invest in affordable housing, and build transit that truly helps our city by consulting with communities, working in partnership with all levels of government, and using the reliable and cost-effective public delivery model.