The Metro Toronto sub-centre policy

With the construction of several large office complexes from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, considerable concern was voiced about the accelerating employment growth in downtown Toronto. In 1974, the Core Area Task Force report highlighted difficulties with prevailing development tendencies: the overspecialization of the downtown risked displacing activities that foster a 24-hour use of the district and the rising numbers of commuters risked overburdening transportation infrastructures (Toronto, 1974). The report led to the adoption of the Core Area Holding Bylaw, a measure intended to freeze development until the adoption of a plan for the area.

The political context

It is important to understand the political context in which downtown development was reconsidered. The year 1970 had seen the arrival of a new breed of "reform" councillors at the City of Toronto who were committed to the preservation of inner-city neighbourhoods threatened by high-rise apartment developments and a proposed expressway. The confidence of neighbourhood organizations was bolstered in 1971 by the provincial government's decision to abandon the Spadina Expressway proposal, which would have linked downtown to Highway 401, disrupting inner-city residential areas in the process.

In the 1972 City of Toronto election, the reform caucus consolidated its power on council, and used its newfound political capacity to launch a secondary plan process across the city's neighbourhoods. The planning process was intended to canvass the views of residents about their neighbourhoods and to adopt plans that for the most part reflected those views. Residents of core-area neighbourhoods were still anxious about encroachments from downtown-type development and eventual road expansions to accommodate rising numbers of commuters.

Reports of the time mention the possibility of a sub-centre policy as a way to relieve employment growth pressures on the downtown. This was the case of the Roweis report on land costs in downtown Toronto, commissioned by the City of Toronto Planning Department, and of proposals in the Metropolitan Toronto Transportation Plan Review prepared by Richard Soberman, a transportation engineer from the University of Toronto (Globe and Mail, 1 February 1975: 6; 31 July 1975: 4; 18 October 1975: 5).

Although it tightened controls on the density of downtown structures and introduced measures to encourage residential development, the Central Area Plan, adopted in 1977, did not limit the overall potential for downtown office growth -- as accelerated office development in the 1980s demonstrated. Still, interest had been ignited in the potential of sub-centres to decentralize downtown employment.

The 1981 Metro Toronto Official Plan

The nodal policy was clearly laid out in the 1981 Metro Toronto Official Plan, the third to be prepared since the formation of the metropolitan government in 1953, but the first to be adopted by Metro Council. The document, titled Plan for the Urban Structure, identified two orders of nodes: major and intermediate centres. (See Map 2.) Major centres were to be:

a. multi-functional in land use;

b. compact and pedestrian oriented in their internal organization and design;

c. intensive in their development relative to those areas which are not centres. Activities encouraged should include but not necessarily be limited to the following: retailing, offices, hotels, theatre, library, post offices, government and community activity while also serving as transportation hubs for local surface transit. (Metro Toronto, 1981: 22)

The document insisted on close ties between centres and rapid transit networks, and stated a preference for locations that would optimize the use of existing infrastructure (Metro Toronto, 1981: 2).

The picture that emerges from the Plan for the Urban Structure is that of centres that are compact, densely developed, transit-oriented, and provide a wide range of activities, even if the plan offered little indication of the actual layout of the centres or of how their different categories of activities would interconnect. These centres implied a break from prevailing low-density suburban development, in which land uses were separated and the car had priority. Most important, centres were to provide a transit-supportive alternative to the low-density suburban business parks then sprouting along expressways (Metro Toronto, 1989: 16-17).

The plan identified two new major centres: one in North York, the other in Scarborough. In choosing the two major centres, the Metro Toronto Official Plan drew on the Official Plans of North York and Scarborough, which had already designated their own centres. As early as 1968, Scarborough approved the creation of a town centre, originally part of a projected industrial park. In the initial proposal, the town centre expressed the multi-functionality inherent in the 1981 Metro understanding of nodes. Agreement between the two definitions did not extend to transportation aspects, however. While the 1981 Metro Toronto Official Plan emphasized pedestrian orientation and the availability of rapid public transit, early planning for Scarborough Town Centre included plentiful surface parking, permitted vehicle sales and service uses, and failed to stress the importance of pedestrian connectivity (Scarborough, 1973: 11).

North York designated a centre along Yonge Street in 1977. The centre was to host the full range of functions later listed in the Metro Toronto Official Plan definition of nodes. But here too, support of pedestrian hospitality failed to match that expressed in the Metro Toronto document. North York planners raised doubts about the viability of pedestrian orientation in the centre, given the heavy dependence on the automobile within the municipality (North York, 1978: 1-3).

According to the Metro Toronto official plan, intermediate centres were to share the characteristics of major centres, but at a smaller scale (Metro Toronto, 1981: 15). The Metro Toronto plan listed four intermediate centres: Yonge-Eglinton, Yonge-St. Clair, Islington-Kipling, and Kennedy-Eglinton.

A 1989 Metro Toronto planning report (Metropolitan Plan Review, Report No. 9: Centres and Office Areas) expressed satisfaction with the employment growth rate in the designated centres -- 40,000 jobs since 1976. But it also voiced concern about the trend for businesses to locate in dispersed auto-oriented suburban sites and the adverse impact this trend could have on the future development of suburban centres. Between 1976 and 1989, these dispersed sites attracted 95,000 jobs (Metro Toronto, 1989). The report noted, for example, the destabilizing effect on Scarborough Town Centre of the approval of office development on nearby industrial lands (Metro Toronto, 1989: 56). The document also called for new suburban rapid transit facilities to create sites for additional centres, reduce "pressures for further growth in the Central Area," and alter "the trends of continued high levels of dispersed auto-oriented development" (Metro Toronto, 1989: 88).

Map 2: Centres designated in the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto's 1981 Plan

Mississauga's central core plan

The City of Mississauga was also trying to create its own centre, but it took an approach different from that of Metro Toronto. In 1975, Mississauga City Council committed to the development of a city core, motivated by a desire to create a complete city, rather than remain a mere bedroom community. Achieving this goal meant attracting higher-order jobs, like those held by many of its affluent residents, who were commuting to offices outside Mississauga. A planned core area that would also be the focal point for Mississauga's civic, commercial, and cultural life was perceived as suited to this purpose (Globe and Mail, 2 January 1976: 5; Mississauga, 1978). This perspective was enshrined in the city's 1981 Official Plan (see also Mississauga, 1978; Starr Group, 1988). Another purpose of the planned core area was to contribute to an urban structure that would be more conducive to transit use. At this stage, however, relatively little attention was given to the urban form of this centre.