August 27, 2014 6:18 pm

With 77,000 new condos on tap, can Toronto handle the influx?

Watch above: Why experts say city infrastructure needs to keep up with development. Sean Mallen reports. 

TORONTO – City councillors approved a staggering 755 storeys of new development in the city’s downtown core on Tuesday as part of an ongoing effort to increase density south of Bloor Street.

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That’s 6,887 new units, 377,900 square metres of non-residential space and 5.3 acres of new parkland.

And that’s on top of 70,000 residential units already approved and just waiting to be built.

But much as good planning demands density – and seductive as it can be for politicians to use construction cranes as campaign props – can Toronto’s infrastructure handle the influx of people, cars and buildings?

So far, yes. But if the city doesn’t move forward with infrastructure fixes and upgrades, it risks falling behind, leaving residents of those 77,000-odd new units high and dry.

“We have to make sure the people and the residents have the tools and the resources they need to be successful. And that’s one of our challenges,” downtown Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said in an interview Wednesday.

Councillor Joe Mihevc said the onslaught is part of huge changes the city will go through in the next generation.

 “If you want to do a financial analysis, it is about $21 billion of development, which is the equivalent of three or four Eglinton light rail lines from one end to the other. And that’s the largest infrastructure project in Canada these days.”

But, he said, the city has to make sure its infrastructure keeps up with the development.

The city’s planning department is studying whether Toronto is keeping up with development – analyzing everything from water capacity and sewage systems to schools, parks and daycares.

Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat doesn’t think development needs to hit the brakes – yet.

But she admits the city is pockmarked with areas starving for adequate, up-to-date infrastructure – be it water capacity, parks or transit.

Commuters face congestion at the Bloor-interchange platform during rush hour on Monday, Feb. 4, 2013.

THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Christian Lapid

She noted that at least half of the new residents downtown walk or cycle to work, taking some strain off an already congested public transit system.

“So it actually really points to the importance of investing in cycling infrastructure, which is a fraction of the cost of transit infrastructure,” she said.

At the same time, Keesmaat said the relief line is absolutely critical for Toronto to stand a chance of moving people in and out of the city’s core.

“Given the magnitude of growth that we see, we simply cannot afford to pause on the downtown relief line,” Keesmaat said.

“We are creating a problem that is only going to mount and grow.”

The relief line – much touted by mayoral candidates but vague in its length, route, cost and time frame – could go down Don Mills, south on Pape Avenue, then west on King Street, giving people from the north and northeast a way to get to and from downtown rather than crowded buses, streetcars and subways.

The project though will cost billions: roughly $3.2 billion to connect Pape Station to St. Andrew Station, or nearly $8.4 billion to run the line from Don Mills and Eglinton to Pape Station, then St. Andrew and ultimately Dundas West station.

A 2012 Metrolinx report said some kind of transit fix – preferably a relief line – is “required before 2031” in order to deal with capacity concerns on the existing subway lines.

There is an upside to the 70,000 units and 750 storeys, though – a huge increase in tax revenue.

Mihevc explained the city’s coffers have been benefitting from the fast pace of development for several years but due to a number of factors from downloading services from the province, increased costs of policing and the demand for new services, the city hasn’t been able to invest in badly needed infrastructure.

“So it really hasn’t allowed us to do things like infrastructure planning like say around public transit, or strong additional park lands that we need,” he said.

- With files from Sean Mallen

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