A bylaw meant to transform Thorncliffe Park is failing

On the ground level of Thorncliffe Park’s decades-old apartment buildings could sit shops serving kabobs and pink Kashmiri chai, storefronts that sell clothing or simply space for the community to spend time together.That’s what resident Sabina Ali says she envisioned for the neighbourhood after the city passed a bylaw a decade ago that would allow the re-zoning of some building sites, including those in Thorncliffe, to allow for non-residential uses like businesses. It’s called the RAC Zone bylaw, which stands for Residential Apartment Commercial.But that vision hasn’t come to fruition in Thorncliffe Park.Not a single store, health clinic, gym or cafe has opened as a result of RAC zoning, according to Ali, a long-time community leader in Thorncliffe. A city spokesperson did not respond to a CBC Toronto query about how many businesses in Thorncliffe Park opened as a result of RAC zoning. Ali and urban planning experts who spoke to CBC Toronto say residents need more support from the city to actually make use of the 10-year-old bylaw. “Not really anything has happened since the bylaws passed,” said Ali, founder of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, an organization that focuses on improving community space and creating opportunities in the neighbourhood. Ali and other residents had pushed for the RAC Zone bylaw to be ushered in hoping it would give women entrepreneurs in the neighbourhood a chance to have spaces of their own. For years, the group has hosted stalls with women from the community selling goods like food and clothes at fairs at a nearby park. Store-fronts could be a way for these businesses to be more accessible to the community, she said. “That would make more sense, if they had the cafe on the ground floor of the building or the convenience store,” she said. The Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood is known as a landing hub for new immigrants and refugees. Many people in the community run informal businesses from their homes, said Ali.”What if the start-ups get some space?” she said.Sabina Ali is the founder of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee. She says RAC zoning has not been successful in the neighbourhood. (Laura Pedersen/CBC)Residents need funding, guidance to use bylaw: planning expertsThe RAC Zone bylaw, that was adopted by the then-titled Ontario Municipal Board in 2016 (now called the Ontario Land Tribunal), is focused on apartments that are older, more than 100 units in size and allows small-scale commercial and community uses in building sites, according to the bylaw.Graeme Stewart, principal at ERA Architects, helped work on the bylaw. ERA has been involved in a few projects across the city that have been successful due to RAC zoning, including Gordonridge Place in Scarborough where shops have been put in, he said.Stewart says high-rise apartments built in the 1960s and 1970s were meant to be affordable for people like immigrants and that’s still the case. But a lot of people living there no longer rely on cars like they did decades ago, and space to congregate, along with commercial space, is missing, he explained.”Especially a place like Thorncliffe, but all over the city, those lawns or parking lots are really the centre of social life,” he said. “I feel we’re not at the vision yet.”‘A complete community is one in which people can live, work, and play where their home is,’ reads the RAC Zone bylaw website. (Daniel Rotsztain/ERA Architects)Changing policies is important but investment in the communities has to be there too, and a sponsor for these projects is needed, he said. Ty Redden, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Toronto, says that RAC zoning is a great solution to car-centric development that the tower housing in Thorncliffe Park was predicated upon.”But many good plans are taken down by implementation,” she said. There’s a lack of education by the city of residents on how to take advantage of the easing of zoning laws, she said. “It shouldn’t take super hyper-engaged residents to educate themselves…the city should be creating pathways,” she said. “That’s just not feasible nor realistic for the average person…we’re talking working-class communities.”City says it supports small businessesCBC Toronto asked the city about whether it provides guidance to communities on the RAC zoning bylaw in order to help them navigate launching businesses in their neighbourhoods. The city did not answer that question. It did say in a statement that small businesses are “essential” to the vitality and success of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and pointed to programing available to support businesses and “main street vibrancy.” Redden says she recommends the city establish staff who can help residents connect with funding partners and landlords to navigate the bylaw. Landlords are currently not incentivized to make this work, she said. “It seems very surface level to have simply passed the bylaw, had a round table or two and have not really provided any support infrastructure for full implementation,” she said.”Particularly because this is disproportionately impacting newcomers, there is a responsibility on the part of the government,” she said.Meanwhile, Ali says she has been searching for an office space for the Women’s Committee. But she says it’s taking time to sort that out with the building’s landlord, because they need to approve it. She says they told her they are looking into it, but she’s skeptical about whether it will work out.”They told us they are giving some space for tenant meetings, but not any permanent space,” she said. Still, she hopes the city provides more support soon. She still believes RAC zoning, when done correctly, would be beneficial for Thorncliffe Park. “I really like the concept of having cafés, any kind of stores, on the ground level of each building. And it will also bring the money, it’s a local economic development,” she said. 

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