LA used rules for small parties to get ‘hide density’ into its housing-hungry city. Could Toronto do the same?

Have you ever seen a nice project in another city and wondered: could we do this? Should we? We have that too, and as part of an ongoing series, we will take ideas from around the world and drive them through Toronto’s lens.

A residential building in Los Angeles, a city starved of places for people to live, was created based on a city ordinance that allows properties to be subdivided to increase density.

The Blackbirds, a project designed by LA firm Bestor Architecture for developer LocalConstruct, is a residential community in Echo Park in central LA

It was built around 2011 on five plots of a total of 0.82 acres that were combined. (Some of the plots were empty, there were a few dilapidated houses on some plots and one plot had a small single-family house from the 1920s.)

To make room for the Blackbirds, the properties were subdivided to create grounds for 18 houses – a mix of duplex and triplex, which from the outside look like large single-family houses.

The houses are two- and three-bedroom and vary in size from about 1,360 square meters to 1,930 square meters.

“We were hired by the people who bought the five plots. They wanted to do something specialized. The site was physically complex. (The developer) wanted to take the small plot regulation to a new design level,” explains Barbara Bestor, Rector of Bestor Architecture.

The small plot order was adopted in 2005, when the city’s municipal law was changed. The small plots are not allowed in areas that are zoned single-family – only areas with several families or commercial.

The homes in Echo Park are built within a cement and metal structure, but they are separated by six to eight inch walls.

The roof lines make the structures look like one large single-family house – where there are actually two or three homes. This is the element of design that Bestor refers to as “stealth density.”

In addition, as part of the Small Space Order, the parking requirements were changed so that they are not obliged to have parking spaces in each individual space.

Bestor created a large common parking area – she calls it a “living street” – a landscaped parking lot where children can play or bike, or the local community can gather when the track is not much used by parked cars.

“It’s a progressive planning idea not to dedicate asphalt to just cars,” Bestor explains.

She goes on to say that when the Blackbirds project was proposed, a lot of outreach was done to the surrounding community and there was generally a positive response. That reaction remained after construction and to this day.

When the houses were completed, they sold for about $ 500,000 each. They have since doubled in price, so they do not fall into the affordable world, Bestor admits.

“The Small Land Order is not used for affordable housing, but condensed market housing. The goal is to get as many units as possible,” says Bestor, adding that LA has a serious housing shortage.

Could a similar ordinance and Blackbird-like neighborhood happen in Toronto?

There is no policy for small parties in Toronto, but the goal of the city’s multiplex survey is aimed at achieving a similar goal as in LA – in our case, adding extra housing to the “yellow belt”, large areas of Toronto where single-family homes dominates.

The city’s multiplex survey, which is part of the Expanding Housing Options in Neighborhoods initiative, is aimed at supporting the construction of a number of low-rise homes – duplex, triplex, fourplex in lowrise neighborhoods.

The idea is a marked departure from the current rules, where about 70 percent of Toronto neighborhoods only allow detached and semi-detached houses.

Contrary to the policy of small parties in LA, however, multiplexing in Toronto is not about splitting land, but rather allowing existing homes to be altered to add housing units.

Laneway housing, another Toronto bylaws designed to densify neighborhoods, allows new, self-contained housing units to be built on the same land as a detached, semi-detached, townhouse or other low-rise home.

John Gladki, principal and owner of Gladki Planning Associates in Toronto, says that while the executive order on small plots, street houses and multiplexing are all “great ideas”, he is skeptical as he says none of these solutions really improve the affordability problem – an important piece of the housing crisis in Toronto.

“It will be great to get more devices, but they will not be affordable,” says Gladki.

With files from Victoria Gibson

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