Preserving urban employment lands key to future prosperity

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Change the conversation, support today.

Canada's housing bubble has already set off many alarm bells. Economists fret over the risks of sky-high home prices, excessive consumer debt and the over-building of new condominiums.

But there's a less-known consequence of the property boom that could be equally damaging to the long-run economic viability of our biggest cities. The condo boom is gobbling up land almost as fast as it sucks up mortgage debt. Important tracts of urban space, once used to support jobs and produce wealth, have been drawn into the vortex of real estate speculation.

Fat profits on multi-unit residential complexes allow developers to outbid any other user for a given plot of urban land. That jeopardizes the sustainability of manufacturing, warehousing and other industrial uses. The resulting disappearance of decent industrial work will undermine the economic and social well-being of our biggest cities.

In some cases, industrial lands have already been bought up by developers willing to sit on it for years, hoping to cash in on eventual re-zoning and development. In other cases, the enormous profits of residential developments are luring industrial employers to themselves consider alternative uses for their own land.

That shift in corporate mindset explains the recently announced closure of the venerable Mr. Christie's cookie factory in west-end Toronto. Over the last decade, the plant was fenced in by multiple high-rise condos. Former owners Kraft Canada Inc. joined with the City of Toronto to oppose further residential conversion of adjacent industrial properties -- but they were over-ruled by the development-friendly Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Last year, the facility's new owners (Mondelez Canada) clearly decided there was more money in condos than cookies. They're shuttering the plant, laying off 550 workers -- and readying plans for a multi-tower condo complex on the same land.

Another Toronto food plant, run by Nestlé, hopes for a better outcome. Condo developers wanted to convert neighbouring lands for residential purposes, but managers and workers knew that would be a nail in the plant's coffin. Even if an existing factory is not directly covered by re-zoning, the conversion of surrounding lands is usually the beginning of the end (raising real estate values, sparking noise and traffic complaints from new neighbours, and complicating logistics). They campaigned to preserve the employment lands designation, and won city council's support in November. However, Toronto currently faces 112 other applications to convert employment lands. And any decision (including the Nestlé case) could still be overturned at the OMB.

Toronto's sky-high land costs and constraining geography mean its land use pressures are especially acute. But the threat looms in other locations, too. Lucrative residential developments in GTA suburbs like Brampton, Mississauga, and Oakville are pinching the region's industrial backbone. A business case for new capital spending in one of the region's keystone auto, aerospace, or food factories must now clear an additional hurdle: would it be better to just close the plant and sell the land for condos?

Vancouver, another real estate hot spot, faces similar challenges. B.C.'s lower mainland has lost thousands of hectares of industrial land to residential conversions in the last quarter-century. There's not much undeveloped space left for industrial use in the whole region. A new proposal to create an industrial land reserve for greater Vancouver (similar to an agricultural land bank established there in the 1970s) is a promising response.

Real estate prices are now cooling, and this may ease the pressure on urban employment lands -- for a while. However, the scarcity of land in big cities is long-term, not cyclical, and zoning and economic development policies should make the protection of urban industrial lands a permanent priority. The option of closing factories in favour of condo developments must be eliminated through firm, permanent zoning rules. Provincial governments have a role to play, too: making sure developers can't sidestep city regulations through unelected bodies like the OMB.

The intensification of urban housing is clearly a good thing. But people living in all those shiny new condos need places to work -- so employment must be intensified at the same time. Not everyone belongs to the "creative" class who will find work in downtown office towers or design studios. The future economic and social health of our cities depends on residents having access to decent, working-class jobs, right where they live.

Jim Stanford is economist with the Canadian Auto Workers union, which represents the workers at the Nestlé factory in Toronto. A version of this commentary was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: JasonParis/Flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.