University of Toronto turning to laneway housing for its next residences

The University of Toronto hopes to unveil two tiny residences in fall of 2018 — new laneway homes that would serve as architectural guinea pigs as the school embarks on its plan to build up the property it owns just south of the Annex.

Regal Victorian homes now stand sentinel throughout the tree-lined Huron-Sussex neighbourhood.

Those living there — mostly students with families, faculty and visiting scholars — wanted to make sure that any development preserved the character of the area, according to Huron-Sussex Residents Organization president Julie Mathien.

The university agreed. 

And now Baird Sampson Neuert Architects is finishing the design for the first two of a planned 50 garden suites and townhomes for the alleys within the borders of Harbord Street, Spadina Avenue and bpNichol Lane. 

The project does not yet, however, have city approval. 

The city of Toronto began its own public consultation on the future laneway housing in December. Right now it's a piecemeal system, with property owners having to file individual applications with the city for approval — but those pushing for planning changes are hoping to see property owners be allowed to develop secondary suites. 

Pending city approval

The university will submit a municipal planning application in the next few months, but Burke said there's already been "quite of bit of buy-in" as both the school and the Huron-Sussex Residents' Association approved the neighbourhood plan in 2014.

"We're protecting its character and all the good open space and connections and everything that everyone loves about that kind of area in the city," Christine Burke said. "And some of the key pieces to doing this successfully is we're really focusing on affordability."

The first two homes will be between 800 and 950 square feet.

Neither Burke nor residents' association president Julie Mathien could say exactly what the garden suites might look like, but Mathien said there's the possibility that some could have green roofs.

They're meant to integrate into the neighbourhood's character, but "they won't be little Victorian cottages," Mathien said. "Within the next 50 years we will be a neighbourhood that mixes old and new, that mixes tradition and innovation and that is both environmentally and economically sustainable."

What the city can learn

Mathien suggested that city planners can learn about what might work in other neighbourhood laneways.

In the past, city staff cited concerns about how to deliver public services like garbage pick-up or whether ambulances or other emergency responders would be able to access laneway homes.

Those concerns — contained in a 2006 staff report — helped kill the proposal at the time.

At the first public consultation, however, Coun. Ana Bailao said there's a push to name the city's laneways so that first responders would be able to navigate them more easily.

Since then, however, provincial legislation has supported the creation of the secondary dwellings to address the hot housing market in Toronto and its surrounding suburbs.