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Faced with a shortage of affordable apartments, Metro Toronto politicians are looking at a European-style redevelopment of retail strips that would add several stories of residences above the stores and house up to 50,000 people.

Metro Councilor Richard Gilbert said there are 1,000 kilometers (666 miles) of main street frontage in Metro Toronto, and "about half are suitable. Some have industry nearby or are already developed or have historic frontage," Gilbert said. "That leaves about 500 kilometers worth."

Gilbert, who first proposed the idea of adding four to six stories on commercial buildings in 1987, has seen his plan gain wide acceptance among politicians on Toronto City and Metro Toronto councils.

The Toronto Council already has approved several studies aimed at setting new zoning rules that would ease approval of this kind of development.

Currently, developers with plans for four- or five-story buildings are required to go through a time-consuming and expensive approval process that virtually rules out small developments because of the high cost and low return rate on too few units.

Gilbert's idea would have the existing buildings torn down and replaced or simply add to existing units. He admits implementation would require "wholesale zoning changes and additional parking spaces."

But, unlike other development proposals that often run into opposition from neighborhood resident groups, Gilbert's idea has gained support because it relies on redevelopment along main thoroughfares.

According to his study, Gilbert said an additional 10,000 to 12,000 people could be housed along certain existing retail strips in Toronto within the next 20 years if his plan is approved.

Streets like Dufferin Avenue in the city's west end were residential streets until about 30 years ago when industrial and retail development moved in.

"There's no reason to think Dufferin is not typical" of streets that can return to a more residential environment, he said.

Of all the possible difficulties in his scheme, Gilbert says, "Parking is the big bugaboo of this whole thing. People fear if there is no additional parking provided there will be more congestion on neighborhood streets. We tell them studies have shown people who live on main streets don't usually have cars, but the argument doesn't always work."

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