The case for mixed-use zoning

A rendering of the Shops on Steeles redevelopment.

By Brian Slemming

Cliff Korman is a man in a hurry. He wants to change the way we live, or perhaps where we live may be more accurate. That’s no small ambition.

“The North American planners’ dream was to build homes in one area, commercial in a second and retail in a third area,” he says. Then people could drive between the different areas. Drive to work, drive to the shops, drive for recreation. Everything depended on the automobile.

“Single use zoning was the aim. It doesn’t work today,” says Korman, a promoter of mixed-use development and a decreasing dependence on the motor vehicle.

Toronto-based Korman is a senior partner at Kirkor Architects & Planners. He describes himself as both a planner and an architect. Where most people see a shopping mall and an associated parking lot, Korman sees opportunities to increase density, and with that, greater commercial possibilities.

The key to these opportunities lies in the grey expanse of asphalt covered parking or greyfield development as Korman describes it. “We need sustainable development and smart growth. We have to put people where the services are. If you build a 30-storey-highrise with 360 units you need one acre of land. In the suburbs you can put 300 houses on 100 acres. That means 300 driveways, 300 roofs, 300 furnaces and infrastructure – hydrants, roads, sidewalks, street lighting and cars.” Must the march to the suburbs continue? Is it desirable? What are the alternatives?

Cliff Korman

“Our work generally begins with a problem. A site owner comes to us and we tackle the problem together,” Korman says. At the Hullmark Centre in Toronto’s North York, the problem was “a one-storey rundown retail plaza about 60-years-old. Low-end retail outlets, low-end food store. But it is a prime site because there are two subways crossing it. We came through with a major re-zoning to allow for a mixed-use category. We changed an 80,000- square-foot retail complex to a one million square foot mixed-use complex.”

Now under construction, the site will have a high-end food store, 200,000 square feet of office space and a 43-storey residential tower with 800 units. All on top of two subways. “We reduced the parking and did it in a green and sustainable way,” Korman says.

A similar rejuvenation is underway at Steeles and Don Mills at the Shops on Steeles, a typical suburban mall that lost its main anchor. Again, the mail is over 50-years-old. Kirkor says he can add over 1,200 residential units, rebuild the retail space and add public parks and walking spaces. He admits the density increases are considerable but “we increase density in a non-impact manner to local communities. We involve the existing communities in our planning from the outset.”

Korman admits there is opposition to many of his plans. “People don’t want change; they fear their property values will drop. Not true. A mixed-use project will increase values.”

He says it is not only property values that increase – so do the benefits for municipalities. An industrial parcel of land he is currently re-zoning has 11 acres with a transport centre on it that handles up to 400 trucks each day. There are 68 people employed on the site, which pays about $200,000 a year in taxes.

“We can put a one-million square foot mixed-use community with retail, office and residential units and the tax income will jump to $5 million a year,” he says. With that level of increased income it may be supposed that municipal politicians are racing to his side. Not so, he says. “They (the politicians) are firmly wedded to the single-use zoning concept. That’s understandable because they have to get elected and their voters don’t want change. People want to keep things as they are, they like the familiar places and systems with which they have grown up, so elected officials listen to their voters and work to keep the status quo. There are very few visionaries among politicians, because visionaries don’t get elected.”

Will the suburbs change? Korman believes so. “I hope we are seeing the end of the ‘big-box centres’. They represent very poor planning,” he says. “Car dealers and big box stores have now become the entry way to many Canadian communities. They look bad. I hope their end is near.”

Increasing density clearly raises the question of overbuilding, and there are often concerns that too many condominiums are being built in the GTA.

“Overbuilding is a myth. All my clients build to market,” says Korman. “In the GTA 70 per cent of our buildings are sold before a shovel goes in the ground. Every year Greater Toronto sees a minimum of 100,000 new immigrants, coming from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America. They are coming with education and with money. Their first requirement is somewhere to live. They are used to apartment living and they don’t want to drive. Condominiums have become the new affordable housing for the newer arrivals.”

The Hullmark Centre at Yonge and Sheppard in Toronto.

A short drive through any community in this country will turn up countless acres of greyfield. Every mall has a mandated number of parking spaces, which sit empty for much of the time. Korman acknowledged that the end of the car is a long way off, but that doesn’t convince him that those acres of asphalt are necessary. “There’s nothing to say that parking has to be at grade. We plan parking below or above grade.” In the drive for higher density, that greyfield parking area is golden.

Still, nothing in the world of planning and zoning is that simple. “It takes two years minimum to change a zoning bylaw. You need a host of experts and it is expensive. But it can be done.”

Mixed-use planning will become generally accepted, he says. Already the car and its parking space are playing a smaller part in planning. Already parking spaces per unit are falling. “In downtown Toronto, new highrises are being planned allowing parking allocation of one-third parking lot per unit. That will continue.” Change, it appears, is as inevitable as greatly increased density levels.

Korman says that visionaries “don’t get elected” but perhaps they do get things done.


  1. This is one of the best initiatives ! Well done…
    Why North America has to re-discover what Europe and Asia discovered centuries ago… :) ?

    Well done ! Density and mixed-use zoning is the future for a greener planet and a sustainable public transit !

  2. OK, if living in a highrise is your idea of the good life – go ahead.

    You'll never find me in a highrise cubicle . . . it might as well be a cell. Not interested, even if a planning guru tells me how swell it is and what a trendsetting enviro-bot I'll be, I'm not going to live in an apartment.

  3. Mixed use planning is not a new concept or unproven – it has simply been historically unaccepted in North America. Visit most (any) european cities and you can see it in action and understand the vibrancy it enables in communities and cities. As Realtors we need to better understand and promote good planning because we are often at the epicenter of, and can influence many development decisions. When we, as an industry, inherit this ability we own a responsibility to provide good and proper influence that will benfit our communities. Lets talk more about these issues and help Realtors better understand planning issues in the context of building better communities. Should urban planning 101 be a part of the Realtor curiculum? I certainly believe so.

  4. "“We can put a one-million square foot mixed-use community with retail, office and residential units and the tax income will jump to $5 million a year,” he says. With that level of increased income it may be supposed that municipal politicians are racing to his side. ****Not so, he says. “They (the politicians) are firmly wedded to the single-use zoning concept."****

    That statement cannot explain why Ontario's provincial authorities have left it up to regional municipalities such as York to devote a certain amount of land to green space plus increase their intake in immigration.

    I would refer as an example to Markham where the politicians are intent on making just about every new community a live/work environment where conceptually the residents can park their cars then live, work and play within walking distance. All blessed by council in part to meet the provincial order.

    The plan hasn't worked yet. Traffic is an increasing nightmare and while the political plans call for walking, biking and transit use, the politicians do absolutely nothing to put an end to the months old transit strike afflicting York region.

    The most difficult selling assignments I ever had was in early 2009 when hired to sell 2 live/work units in Markham. Investors – mom & pop types and even landlords were wary about buying any of the 7 such properties listed for sale on a two mile stretch. Yet, this was a community hailed as the vision of the future – the recipient of numerous awards. With the economy floundering, the lower commercial units either converted to apartments or empty for lack of interest and the expected foot traffic that to this day has not materialized, the speculators looking to turn a profit found that not many in the after market wanted to invest in this future.

    Mr. Korman's vision is not new. He has only to look at the Danforth/Bloor, King and Queen Streets in Toronto to see that builders lay the plan, lobby the politicians to do their bidding and eventually the population explosion will have to accept whatever housing is available. He just has to accept that just because he builds it they will not come until they have no choice.

    • Hi Ped,

      Didn't Hazelton Lanes and even Yorkville have that same problem for years. Then the traffic gradually started coming. But very gradually, if I recall correctly – IT TOOK YEARS!

      Haven't been there in a long time. Sometimes took out of town high end buyers there as a small intro to something a little different, after they moved here, to the Magic Pan restaurant there (it only lasted a few years – never could figure out why its demise happened), to let them see something a little different than suburbia then offered.

      And showed them some of the unique high end shops. Of course it's directly affiliated with the Bloor St. Avenue Rd area shops so it made for a nice entertainment day out, that was tucked away sort of out of site, out of mind.

      Another point of interest that you bring back memories for, for your own area, is the huge Weal & Cullen project (shops) – acres and acres – as well as the nursery itself, at the edge of the location where Agincourt and Unionville merged.

      Even that got sold off to developers. For years it was somewhat of a landmark locale. Enjoyed by thousands. It was sad to see it go. That is probably as good as any example, using the tax base theory.

      Carolyne L

  5. Let's turn back the clock of time and go back to the horse and buggy era. Reduce world population by 50%, keep it at that level and the world will be a far better place to live in. We ue to have jungles but we have now turned them all into congested heavilly poluted concrete jungles..

    • Did you ever consider attending anger management classes, Steve? Who forces you to read? When people react violently towards others, it usually indicates that they are the one with the problem, as is often reflected in your posts in response to other people as well. I feel so sorry for you. Sincerely. Have a nice day. Be blessed in the coming year.

      Carolyne L

    • Hi Steve Jones:

      I think you've met your match (superior?) when it comes to tangling with Carolyne on an intellectual level.

      Best wishes for the New Year.

      Hi Carolyne:

      Happy New Year smart lady…all the best in the coming years.


    • Hat's off to "you" Brian, as you often present "steady as she goes" in your own posts.

      We know who the pro's are ~ and aren't. We know who the down-to-earth, good, people are, those where it is safe to refer business… It's a good thing we don't all agree with one another, always. Keeps us in "move-forward" mode and chases away an otherwise zombie mode – lol.

      Sometimes posts are just vents; sort of thinking-out-loud. More people should "vent" on topics of interest. Permits the human element to show.

      Often on this type of forum, it is not easy to start a "new" topic, people have told me off-list. I agree. So perhaps my post might have been better standing on its own legs, rather than what I saw as being co-related … but I just typed what the article generated in my thinking, is all.

      Sometimes we are "too soon old, smart too late" – lol ;) (Heino the publisher can translate this better maybe.)

      Thanks for your support. You are appreciated. And may blessings chase you down and find you, in the New Year.

      Cordially as always,
      Carolyne L

  6. REM – Dec. 28.11

    When I read this article, for some peculiar reason I am reminded of “dress-down Friday,” and the resulting “changes.” There was opposition among the older crowd, who thought this approach to doing business would influence how business is done. Well, it certainly did.

    It wasn’t long before every day became dress-down Friday. And staff took it upon themselves to define exactly what dress-down Friday actually meant, to each of themselves. It certainly meant different things to different people. The concept was “lighten-up.” And “put people at ease when dealing with you, so they won’t be “afraid of change.”

    But the concept soon grew to include wearing flip-flops and near beachwear to the office, even in companies where dealing with the public was a daily occurrence. Is there a parallel to the topic in this article?

    Corporations were threatened by employees who said no one could tell them how they must dress, the rest of the week. The dress-down Friday people mindset got very comfortable. “Change” happened.

    Comfortable to the degree that not only did they prefer to dress down on Friday, but to dress down – every day, everywhere. Dressing down became the preferred clothing style. Only places of business where uniforms were a requirement continued to dress as usual.

    Doctors and other medical offices, including hospital staff were among the first to lighten the clothing load. Suddenly you couldn’t tell the professionals from the patients. It was done, they said, to make patients and visitors more “comfortable,” and less fearful. For those in the older crowd, it all seemed almost disrespectful – this “change” did.

    I recall a bank manager telling me a story. Important people from Japan were opening a new business nearby and decided to meet with the bank manager and staff regarding doing business there. The appointment was set with him for – you guessed it – a Friday meeting. The business people from Japan arrived wearing highly polished shoes and dark suits, complete of course with ties. They were men. “Business” men.

    They were so “not-impressed” by the non-business attire worn by the bank staff. This was a suburban branch of a large institution. They decided to take their business elsewhere, where they thought they would be “taken seriously.” Change, they did not find appealing.

    But no one can stand in the way of change. No one, least of which politicians. So the architect’s plan will be implemented. No matter who likes it, or not. Perhaps it falls in the category of the “laws of motion,” moving forward. Newton’s laws. Inertia.

    Just a passing comment: the picture of the subject in this excellent article portrays him as someone who would appear, just perhaps, to be uncomfortable “wearing a suit.” While he talks of change and its implementation, it’s just interesting.

    Where is it written that an architect needs to wear a suit? I congratulate the Korman for trying to portray himself as a business professional. But he just looks so uncomfortable, and projects the image that he would rather be dressed otherwise. Not suggesting he should “dress-down.” The picture is conflictual. Presents a dichotomy vis a vis how he “presents” – as to his topic of the parallel – change, as discussed by the writer.

    Back in the days when I was in the publishing field, I was fortunate to work on a textbook for the then Prentice Hall company. The topic: urban planning and development. It actually addressed the “building of Don Mills,” among other interesting areas, long before there was a GTA. I found it enlightening and really enjoyed working on the manuscript.

    And in other projects it was noted: A couple of concepts – no blue roofs were permitted in Don Mills. No Loblaws were permitted in Don Mills. Only Dominion Stores. (It was an E.P. Taylor “thing” – and the Windfield Farms story.) Today that wouldn’t fly with the CB, is my guess. Not just an issue with urban planning and development in the area noted by the writer. My, how things "change."

    Personally, I hope Korman is wrong about predicting the demise of the big box stores. Living in suburbia, as an appendage to urban dwelling (within easy commute), I don’t appreciate the “mall” concept. I see the big box stores as just overgrown corner stores. Where I can park, run in and get what I need, in between appointments, AND LEAVE. I predict the demise of malls, long before the demise of the big box store. They are, simply, just too convenient to most of us, is my best guess.

    As a footnote: might he suggest building apartments “on top of” the big box stores, perhaps? That would achieve his tax-based goal, in order to implement. Or likewise, putting the existing parking into parking garages atop the big box stores? Freeing up those acres and acres of parking areas, on which to build more big box stores? Perhaps mix an office complex in-between or on top of? Including day-care centers and medical facilities? Just some expanded (forward) thinking.

    Carolyne L


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