As a rapidly growing Toronto struggles to keep pace on the development of affordable housing, day care and other vital services, there’s a potential solution for the city’s leaders: unlock the hidden value of existing under-utilized buildings by entering into public-private partnerships to redevelop, renovate, expand, and reimagine them.

Think about it: there are hundreds of publically-owned, single-purpose buildings around the city.  We’ve got workshops, warehouses, maintenance yards, libraries, fire stations, police stations, schools, and community centers. The cost of city service delivery across the board is rising, and yet many of these single-purpose facilities are often under-utilized and don’t really require the amount of space they have to deliver their specific service. And to top it off, quite often, these facilities sit on highly valued land.

So why aren’t we doing something about this?

There isn’t one answer, but there is a common thread: the City has treated sites like these as liabilities and costs. But we should be treating them both as assets and as opportunities to deliver services more efficiently and effectively. Put another way, I believe the time has come for the City and its agencies, boards and commissions to consider integrating multiple services, into single-purpose facilities—Islands of Good, as I like to call them. In this way, both the public and private sectors would be free to focus their attention on what each does best (delivering services and managing assets, respectively), mutually reinforcing the other and raising public benefits for everyone.

For example, you might take an existing library, redevelop the building to include underground parking and a few additional floors, move the library service to a higher floor, put a grocery store in its place, add a day care and a health clinic that specializes in senior care, and combine both with an early-learning center where youth can interact with seniors. Depending on the space, housing could be included: assisted, affordable, condominiums—whatever meets the given community’s needs. The redevelopment of North Toronto Collegiate, made possible through a ‘partnership’ between the Toronto District School Board and a private developer, is an example of this concept.

The point, in any event, is to match service integration to the needs of the given community—including cases of neighbourhoods that are relatively more or less diverse. But what about in ten years’ time, you say, when the neighbourhood has changed again? The Islands of Good approach builds-in flexibility—if the demand for specific services changes, then the various floors and areas of the facility can be reconfigured/repurposed with relative ease because the City will have retained control through the ‘partnership’ agreement.

Stephen Beatty is a partner with KPMG in Canada, Head of Global Infrastructure (Americas and India) and Head of KPMG’s Cities Center of Excellence.

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