Dealerships in the age of new urbanism


Christopher Tzekas
Bylaw Columnist

Dealerships are evolving for many reasons.  Planning issues are also affecting this evolution, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area.

In the GTA, the provincial government has provided planning “guidance” through the enactment of various plans, including The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.  

This plan gives direction as to where growth should take place, and at what density.

One of the cornerstones of these planning initiatives is to encourage intensification and to concentrate development within existing urban boundaries.

The aim is to slow urban sprawl and its perceived negative impacts on commuting times, servicing costs and a myriad of other issues.

In conjunction with these efforts, a new planning philosophy has emerged dubbed new urbanism.

This planning philosophy is becoming the dominant planning strategy of our time. It promotes sustainability, walkability and mixed uses, among other things.

In some important respects, new urbanism promotes a form of development that is the very antithesis of the planning norms that dominated our thinking in the 1950s and 1960s:  car-dominated, suburban landscapes where each land use seemed to exist independently of the others.

In those days, dealerships were often housed in low-rise buildings, on lots surrounded by a sea of parking, usually on arterial roads that were isolated from the well-manicured residential developments that surrounded them.

In many parts of the GTA, that form of development would simply not be acceptable today.

In the City of Toronto, for example, some planning policies now require that buildings used for car dealerships be a minimum of two storeys in height, that their parking lots be placed behind these buildings when possible and that these parking lots be screened from adjacent streets.      

Dealerships Adapting
The establishment of a strong relationship between the building and the street edge is also encouraged to enhance visual identity, accessibility to public transit, and to create attractive and comfortable streetscapes.

Dealerships have adapted, and, in some cases created building forms such as seven-storied structures that would have been unheard of even a few years ago.  

BMW's MINI dealership in Toronto is a great example.

The Toronto Star's architecture critic, Christopher Hume said: “This is a piece of architecture that brings new life to an area in transition. But as [MINI's architect] Roland Colthoff points out, ‘It's gotta sell cars; that's its job.’

“… but it also has to fill space in the city, which means it must deal with nagging issues such as presenting a public face, being a good neighbour, enhancing connectivity and so on. For the most part, it fulfills its urban duties with aplomb.”

Many of these same concerns are finding their way into the planning process for dealership sites not located in the downtown. An example is Audi's effort to develop a six-storey dealership on Consumers Road, adjacent to the Highway 401 and Highway 404 interchange.

The initial proposed gross floor area would have resulted in a density of a floor space index of 1.5.

The floor space index measures the ratio of building space to lot area; the fact that a suburban automobile dealership is proposing. (This level of density is indicative of the evolution such uses are undergoing).

After more than a year of consultations and public input, the city’s planning department issued a report last March recommending the proposed amendment to the zoning bylaw.

The planners noted that the proposal promotes intensification, in a compact building form. They pressed for a street-related development, with the main building entrances directly connected to the public sidewalk.

Surface parking between the front face of the building and the sidewalk was discouraged, and the proposal called for a seven-metre front yard landscaped setback with a maximum of three display vehicles permitted within this portion of the property to allow the dealership to display its product outside.

The proposal also calls for a new, 8,000-square metre building that is six storeys high. This building will be highly visible from both Highway 401 and Highway 404 and designed to display cars to those traveling along these highways.

What is extraordinary is that these requirements are being suggested for a site bounded on two sides by 400-series highways and in an area within a well-established business park.

One can only imagine the planning concerns that might need to be addressed in any application for a dealership closer to residential properties.

Change has Come
There is no doubt that municipalities are pushing for change. The dealership models that were in vogue a generation ago are not likely to be well received today.

Municipal planners will come to the negotiating table with more sophistication than ever before, and they will be armed with new planning regulations and philosophies that promote intensification and the “new urbanism”.

These changes in planning philosophy will require dealerships to continue to evolve and respond creatively. No longer will dated development templates meet current planning standards.

Taller, Not Wider
The new norm is likely to see more dealerships building up, not out.

The buildings themselves will be the focal point on the street and they will have to be designed to enhance connections to the public realm, including public transit, pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths.  

The display of product will have to be presented in a more creative way, rather than by simply massing automobiles around a low-rise showroom.

Signature buildings are likely to become the dealership's new “billboards” and the cornerstone of its advertising efforts.

What does this mean for the planning of new dealerships?  It means that dealerships will have to consider their relationship to its neighbourhood in new ways.  

A good urban design, achieving improvements to the public realm, the integration of the building to the street and the screening of parking areas are the cornerstones.  

Not only will this require thought in terms of the land uses that the dealership will house (sales, service, ancillary uses), but the site plan process – getting the details right and aligned with the municipality's planning visions – will likely be much more arduous and detailed.  

Architects and planners with expertise in these areas are going to have to be involved.

Some existing dealerships will be grandfathered and allowed to continue in their present building forms, notwithstanding zoning changes or new development guidelines.  

The ability of a municipality to impose new urbanism standards is limited, absent some kind of development application.  

However, changes might be required even if a dealership is only going through a renovation. Much will depend on how extensive the renovation is and whether the dealership is asking for something it does not have: more space; more parking; the introduction of new uses, etc.

Most municipalities require development plans to undergo a pre-submission consultation, and this is where the position of the municipality will become clear.  
A negotiating process may then ensue, and one that will perhaps require public or community input.
These changes will no doubt carry significant marketing and economic implications, and these factors will also have to be considered, along with these new planning policies.  
There is, however, no doubt about the direction dealerships are being taken in.  This has become the new normal.  Better get used to it.
Christopher Tzekas specializes in administrative law and civil litigation, with an emphasis on municipal and expropriation law, land use planning and development for WeirFouldsLLT. 416-947-5039, ctzekas@weirfoulds.xcom.