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Federal government urged to halt sale of Toronto waterfront land slated for ‘fancy condominiums’
July 25, 2019
Jennifer Pagliaro

A downtown councillor is pushing the federal government to reconsider the sale of prime waterfront land being marketed as a “landmark” condominium redevelopment site and to instead build affordable housing.

But the federal representative for the area said the sale is now out of the government’s hands.

The Canada Lands Company, a federal Crown corporation that manages the government’s surplus lands, has recently started marketing the site at 200 Queens Quay W., across from the Harbourfront Centre, for private residential redevelopment with the “potential to support a landmark two-tower development featuring a 55- and 45-storey tower above a 10-storey podium.”

The 1.2-acre site is currently home to a privately-operated, eight-level parking structure.

Last week, Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina--Fort York) moved a successful motion at council asking the city manager to write to Minister for Public Services and Procurement Carla Qualtrough, copying all federal MPs, requesting the sale be halted to allow for consideration of affordable housing on the site.

“In a city in the midst of a severe housing crisis, selling off valuable public land for fancy condominiums without any requirement for affordable housing is short-sighted and wrong,” Cressy told the Star, saying the federal government can and should intervene.

Ottawa currently has a plan to consider surplus lands for affordable housing, introduced under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government as part of its National Housing Strategy first introduced in 2017. The initiative screens surplus lands for opportunities and partners with builders.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who represents the same area, said the land was sold to the Canada Land Company before the initiative was in place. Public land records show the $22.9-million sale happened in 2016.

Vaughan accused Cressy of “grandstanding” ahead of a federal election (city hall has no political parties, but Cressy is an NDP member).

As a former councillor for the area, Vaughan said he pushed for the federal government, under Conservative leadership, to declare the land surplus for the benefit of the Harbourfront Centre to help with its ailing financial situation.

Though that plan was in the works, Vaughan said, the lands were eventually declared surplus but not as part of a plan to help the Harbourfront Centre. Ahead of the 2015 federal election, the land was essentially in limbo, he said, and later transferred to the Canada Lands Company.

Vaughan said the federal government would have to “cash out” Canada Lands Company in order to regain control of the site, making a pitch for affordable housing a losing proposition.

“We can’t reach back into a process like that legally without paying full market rate for the property,” he said. “We’d lose money on it.”

Minister Qualtrough’s office said they had nothing to add to Vaughan’s comments.

“The CLC is an independent Crown corporation, it is not up to the federal government or the related Ministers to get involved in their day-to-day operations.”

Marcelo Gomez-Wiuckstern, Canada Land Company’s vice-president of corporate communications, said in an emailed statement that the city could try to secure community benefits like affordable housing units through the development application process, after the land is sold.

“Any plans for the redevelopment of the site will be prepared by the future purchaser of this site and subject to City of Toronto approvals,” the statement said.

Cressy said his office only escalated the issue to council after unsuccessful conversations with the federal government.

He said there’s nothing to stop the government from intervening before the land has been sold to give consideration to affordable housing.

“This is federally-owned land. It has not been sold yet , and it is a board that is a appointed by the federal government and reports to Parliament through the minister,” Cressy said. “If the federal government is unable to ensure that its own land is not sold off for condos, it’s solely because they chose to let that happen.

“That is an unacceptable argument.”

Cressy also said the land is being marketed on behalf of the government on the basis of “bad planning,” with the marketing documents referencing recent controversial changes made by the province to planning rules and the city’s plan for the downtown core, which critics have said will be a boon for developers.

“Recent modification and approval of the Downtown Plan and proposed changes to the Province’s (Local Planning Appeal Tribunal) regime are expected to be conducive to a balanced discussion with the City of Toronto regarding a redevelopment at 200 Queens Quay West,” the offering document reads.

Council also voted last week to ask the province reverse the downtown plan changes and other amendments, with councillors like Cressy saying it undermines the city’s ability to build livable communities.

New legislation earlier introduced by the province may also limit the city’s ability to secure new community benefits through the development process, rules which have not yet been spelled out.