More suburban sprawl, underused public transit and worsening gridlock — that’s what some planning experts are warning will be the result of the provincial government’s proposed changes to the regional growth plan.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative government introduced amendments to the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan on Tuesday, arguing the revisions would reduce red tape and make it easier to build quickly next to transit stops, a goal seen as key to boosting transit use and reducing gridlock in the region.

The province is proposing changes to Golden Greater Horseshoe Growth Plan that would see lower density targets in many areas, including the Niagara region, which planning experts fear could lead to sprawl and the road congestion that comes with it. (Mike Dibattista / Niagara Falls Review)

The document is intended govern development in the rapidly growing part of southern Ontario that is expected to absorb 85 per cent of the province’s population increase over the next 20 years, reaching 13.5 million residents by 2041.

“Local communities need more flexibility over how and where they grow, but they still have to plan for it. We will work with municipalities to make the most of our major transit investments by encouraging development, such as housing, nearby,” said Julie O’Driscoll, director of communications for Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark.

But the proposed changes would lower density targets in some communities, which critics say will create new car-dependent neighbourhoods. They also warn the changes could encourage the construction of expensive transit stations in low-density areas where they don’t make sense.

Victor Doyle, a retired provincial planner, called the proposed amendments “regressive” and a “huge step backwards.”

Doyle, who spent more than 20 years working for the government and oversaw the creation of the Greenbelt, told the Star the changes would worsen the region’s already substantial gridlock problem.

His main concern is that the current plan, which was approved under the former Liberal government in 2017, set density targets of at least 80 people and jobs combined per hectare for development of greenfield areas — lands outside of built-up centres.

But the proposed amendments would slash that to 60 residents and jobs per hectare in Hamilton and the regions of Peel, Waterloo and York, and to 50 in Barrie, Brantford, Guelph, Orillia and Peterborough, as well as the regions of Durham, Halton and Niagara.

The government argues the change is necessary because the current benchmark failed to take into account differences in local conditions, and municipalities have complained they’re unable to meet the target.

But areas with densities as low as the 50 people and jobs per hectare the province is proposing in some parts of the region can only support meagre transit service that would see buses running once every 20 or 30 minutes, according to provincial guidelines.

Doyle said a transit network that poor would ensure almost all residents moving into the new suburbs would rely on private vehicles.

He warned the proposed changes would result in “cars everywhere” and “wicked congestion.” He also predicted they would undermine the province’s multibillion-dollar plan to add stations and improve service on the regional GO Transit network.

“You need the bus service to feed the GO stations in more suburban and exurban locations in order for that whole scheme to work,” he said, because otherwise transit users will drive to their stop and “there’s not enough space to accommodate the parking for all the people that would need to use (a station) to actually make it financially viable.”

While setting lower targets for greenfield development, the province’s amendments wouldn’t change minimum density requirements for areas immediately surrounding existing or planned transit stations. Both versions of the growth plan stipulate 200 residents and jobs per hectare for areas served by subways, 160 for light-rail or bus-rapid transit, and 150 for GO Transit.

However, the new plan would expand the approximate area around a stop where developments would need to meet those targets to a radius of up to 800 metres, an increase from the current 500 metres.

Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson University’s City Building Institute, said that’s a positive change that would “increase the opportunity to add more multi-unit housing and employment close to transit, getting people on transit and out of their cars.”

But she said she’s concerned about an amendment the province is proposing that would eliminate some criteria municipalities would have to meet when requesting an exception to approve lower targets around transit stations.

The current version of the plan stipulates that if municipalities want lower targets in station areas, they should demonstrate that their plans would still increase existing density and not preclude meeting the official provincial density target in future, among other criteria.

The proposed amendment deletes much of that language, and says lower densities around stops could be approved if it’s demonstrated that development is restricted by an existing provincial policy, or there’s a major trip generator or feeder transit service like a bus route that will “sustain high ridership at the station.”

The government says the change was designed merely to simplify the language around how lower targets could be approved, and wouldn’t necessarily make it easier for municipalities to build less dense developments next to transit stops.

But Burda said reducing barriers for municipalities to request lower targets “could make it easier to build stations in low-density areas surrounded by parking lots.”

She noted previous provincial governments have been criticized for building stops in areas where they’re not warranted, citing the subway extension to York Region championed by the Ontario Liberals as one example.

“We’ve had a challenge with politically motivated subways to low-density areas for decades, and this kind of enshrines it in policy.”

Source: The Toronto Star