The COVID-19 pandemic has offered Leaside a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine the employment area known as the Leaside Business Park – the employment area bounded by Eglinton on the north, the DVP to the east, Laird/Millwood to the west and Overlea on the south. The pandemic’s effect on the future use of commercial office space will undoubtedly play a factor. That, when combined with (1) the changes resulting from the City of Toronto’s Official Plan Review specifying the types and nature of acceptable business; (2) the subsequent work plan item PH14.4 (approved on June 29th that went into force on August 4, 2020), which identifies Leaside as an MTSA (major transit station area) and calls for the creation of 16,000 new jobs OR residences within 500-800 sq. m. of the coming Laird Station; and (3) the rethinking of globalization, which just might have light manufacturing jobs ‘onshoring’ and coming back, leaves no doubt in my mind that change is afoot for Leaside’s Business Park.
The Crosstown stations are nearly complete; data about the fallout from the pandemic are being acted upon; the province and the City have adopted new growth plans. Is Leaside’s business infrastructure ready? The conditions to justify change are compelling and change is welcome, so long as we are prepared. But, overall I feel we will need a considerable amount of effort to fully realize the benefits because I sense we are not ready…yet. The alternative is dire. If we are not able to put in place a plan to create 16,000 new jobs, there is a potential threat that proactive residential developers will take advantage of the City’s offer to “consider requests to convert employment areas,” as of August 4, 2020. There’s no need to panic…yet. The Leaside Business Park is a protected employment area, and this will not change any time soon, especially if my friends at the Leaside Business Park Association (LBPA) have a say.
This “gift” is our chance at realizing Leaside’s original raison d’être. As my colleague Geoff Kettel reminded me, Leaside has a very real chance at being a relatively self-sustaining neighbourhood in the heart of Toronto as a light industrial manufacturing centre and a burgeoning hub for entrepreneurial ventures, thus bringing to fruition Frederick’s Todd’s ‘garden city’ vision (rebranded today as the ‘live-work-play’ lifestyle). Not many in Toronto can enjoy this live-work-play lifestyle while at the same time having access to decent-sized backyards, good schools, friendly neighbours, proximity to the downtown core, transit options, and oodles of local talent in both Leaside and Thorncliffe. This truly is a gift. We just need to attract the right kinds of businesses and the right kinds of commercial developers to make this all work.
A thriving live-work neighbourhood
We’re going to need a strategic business plan for the Leaside Business Park. More importantly, if we want to do it right we need resources – both time and money – to build a blueprint for the park’s future that works for all stakeholders. I’m happy to report that back in 2019 the LBPA executive team began preliminary strategic planning about the role and needs of the business park in the future. Plans were underway to pick up the discussion this March when COVID-19 hit. In both instances I had the privilege of working directly with the group and can confidently say there is a strong desire to lead the change, but a woefully bare cupboard when it comes to resources, or dedicated staff, which renders the desire relatively mute.
The stakes here are big. The business park employed 10,130 full- and part-time employees in 2018. Adding 16,000 new jobs to the park would more than double capacity. Is this realistic? Even if some of the allotment will be taken up by new residential units on Eglinton and down Laird, the scale of meeting the MTSA requirements is daunting. What types of jobs, what types of businesses, how to attract investment, who will do the work? Any plan that gets tabled needs to be done professionally. How can our governments think a solid plan will emerge organically? I believe they will help, but will need insight from our ‘boots on the ground’ perspective. The stated City priority for their “engagement strategy” is to prioritize the growth plan for Leaside station (Phase 1) first, then Laird station (Phase 2) next. Bottom line is that the City will be directing resources and the LBPA is a stated “stakeholder” in that work plan, so I assume representatives of the LBPA will be all over that process.
As I have often written, my preference is to create new jobs with less focus on increasing the number of new residents. An increase in the number of employees during the day will benefit local business yet not strain our residential infrastructure during the evenings when we are home (working!). The Leaside Business Park is ‘in play.’ The LBPA should continue to aggressively pursue sources of funding and set out an updated vision for its future. It needs the support of its many stakeholders (in particular property owners and commercial developers) to help craft a vision that seeks to move beyond “preservation” and toward one that embraces the future and drives growth.
What types of businesses should be targeted to set up shop in the Leaside Business Park? Would you participate in a working session about the park where you could contribute your ideas and volunteer to assist the LBPA in this endeavour? Do you think Leaside’s infrastructure is ready to support this change? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.