Bonnie Crombie—the ‘Queen of Green’—leaves big shoes to fill after transitioning Mississauga toward a sustainable future
In 2002, the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission proposed a westward expansion of the subway system that had been servicing the giant municipality since the mid 1950s. At the time, Mississauga was an incorporated city, but it still functioned geographically very much as a suburb of Toronto. The TTC pitched an extension of the Bloor Line from Kipling Station, with five additional stops into the heart of Mississauga.
The late Hazel McCallion, known as the Queen of Sprawl, rejected the proposal, denying entry of the Toronto subway system into her “small town” city.
Two decades later, McCallion’s successor, Bonnie Crombie, told The Pointer she wonders how her city might have grown differently if a subway system had been built across Mississauga.
She recalls growing up around High Park and then Etobicoke, being able to take the subway and “do all my grocery shopping and all those little outdoor markets and the meat markets and the fruit and vegetable markets and a couple of sacks of food for dinner.”
“I loved that. I wanted more of that in Mississauga,” she says.
McCallion’s Mississauga sent people out in their single occupancy vehicles, to their jobs in Toronto and beyond, returning to their bedroom community after escaping the congestion of the big city.
“We were built out in a time where land was cheap and gas was cheap,” Crombie says, recalling her early days in politics. “We were a suburban enclave, a suburban town where executives lived in four-bedroom, picket fence single lot homes. Large homes and wide boulevards.”
Suburban life came with a sense of pride. Residents across Southern Ontario who worked hard for their money could retreat to their sprawling backyards for weekend barbecues, the feel of cool green grass between their toes. Two cars fit neatly into their wide garages. Space and size, at reasonable prices, was what pride of ownership was all about. It was convenient living—the good life—what a few decades earlier was only within reach for the upper classes.
But Crombie, the daughter of Polish immigrants, who grew up riding Toronto subways, had a different idea. Instead of people coming back to Mississauga for evenings and weekends, she wanted to keep them there, and draw more residents to the city, where complete, walkable communities would replace the car dominated subdivisions hemmed in by sprawling boulevards.
“I've lived in some great cities. I studied in Paris. I've lived in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver. I've seen density at its best, and people enjoy it. There's a certain dynamic and vibrancy in more dense neighbourhoods.”
If Hazel McCallion was the Queen of Sprawl, Crombie was the Queen of Green.
Transit expansion became a top priority when she was elected in 2014. The giant parking lots that checkered the city were replaced by highrises, commercial developments and other features of a booming cosmopolitan city that was quickly shedding its suburban past.
Bonnie Crombie has helped Mississauga pursue density and “missing middle” housing the city is lacking.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
From her first days in office, the new mayor, who was previously a Liberal MP between 2008 and 2011 and a Mississauga councillor from 2011 to 2014, prioritized transit (long an afterthought) and mixed-use residential housing.
An aerial view of Mississauga on Google maps shows gaping boulevards like Cawthra Road, Hurontario Street, Mavis Road and Erin Mills Parkway that shape the city’s stop and go grid. Bounded by the QEW highway, the 401, 403, 427 and 407, car exhaust across the entire network of major thoroughfares has created an airshed heavily polluted by vehicular traffic.
The transportation sector is the second largest contributor to community emissions in Mississauga. Crombie has prioritized more sustainable modes of transportation. She helped pass a motion opposing the construction of the 413 Highway, calling for the money to instead be invested in transit projects.
Since Doug Ford’s PC government cut the downtown loop out of the Hurontario LRT project, citing escalating costs, Crombie has lobbied aggressively to bring the critical feature of the rail route back.
“It's over 50,000 jobs and people coming into the downtown that need access to public transit, and they had been promised light rail transit at their doorstep,” she says. “In fact, with the development [projects] that are already underway, their proformas are written, and they are starting to sell their units. We gave them lower parking considerations knowing there would be public transit at their doorstep.”
It was another move by Crombie to reduce the use of cars in the city, eliminating parking provisions that decades ago used to dominate planning applications that featured hundreds, even thousands of stalls for vehicles.
Funding to restore the downtown LRT loop has been in all of Mississauga’s budget requests to upper levels of government.
While lobbying to get the loop back, Crombie has been vocal about the LRT’s potential to change transportation habits across the city.
“We're very proud that we will be carrying now 200 passengers on light rail rather than 50 on a bus or one or two in a car, getting people out of their cars and giving people options that will be seamless,” she says.
The Hurontario LRT will serve as the spine for transit throughout Mississauga.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Two east-west bus rapid transit lines along the Dundas corridor from Kipling to UTM, as well as a two-kilometre corridor along Lakeshore will connect to the LRT, and Crombie has previously campaigned on building a major east-west rail corridor closer to the north end of the city.
The Lakeshore plan is not as ambitious, but Crombie said it is a start. “If you asked me what keeps me up at night, it's congestion on Lakeshore,” she chuckles. While the area desperately needs alternative transportation — with the build up of the massive Brightwater development in Port Credit and Lakeview Village with 16,000 units at the east end of Lakeshore, Crombie said the corridor needs significant transit expansion, including more GO Train service.
Along with new transit corridors, Crombie has overseen the greening of the transit fleet. The City has become a leader in transit electrification; nearly 60 percent of the MiWay fleet will be hybrid electric by the end of the year, way ahead of cities like Brampton which have failed to make similar investments in clean transportation.
To speed up Mississauga’s transit electrification it was allocated $339 million in federal funding and $282.5 million in provincial funding through the public transit stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Plan in 2019, with a required city contribution of $226 million. Mississauga’s application for the Bus Replacement Program was approved in the first quarter of 2022, providing the necessary funds for MiWay to purchase 358 hybrid electric buses between 2022 and 2027.
“The one area we always continue to invest in is public transit,” Crombie says. “We've put what used to be called our gas tax money into public transit and any enhancements that you look at our budget in the increases, the added investment is always funding that goes to enhance our public transit and our road network but also our transit network.”
In October 2021, Mississauga council approved $183.4 million in capital spending for 2022 and 2023 to purchase 165 hybrid electric buses, bringing MiWay’s total to 206 electric buses, or about 41 percent of its fleet. In March 2023, council voted in favour of allowing Transportation and Works staff to pre-approve $85.2 million for the 2024 Capital Budget for the purchase of 82 hybrid electric buses.
The 82 buses acquired for this year, equivalent to 16 percent of the City’s fleet, will replace older diesel buses that are at the end of their lifespan. The purchase means by December approximately 288 of MiWay’s 500 buses will be hybrid-electric, about 60 percent of the overall fleet.
A staff report from the City notes that procurement of zero emission buses could begin as early as 2025.
Public transit has been supported by Crombie’s prioritization of dense, modern residential housing including mixed use and affordable units.
“This [Ontario] government's idea of building houses has been limited to what I call tall and sprawl. So what we really need is mixed use, we need a variety of housing shapes and formats to accommodate everyone,” she says. “We're not building single family homes here anymore. Not unless the individual purchases a lot and then wants to rebuild their home on it. We're building higher density, everywhere we go. We can't build it fast enough.”
The PCs have handed down dozens of Minister's Zoning Orders (MZOs) to facilitate growth and development in municipalities across southern Ontario. The controversial tool under the Planning Act allows the province to override municipalities to speed up approvals for proposed developments. They were once rarely used — approximately once per year — for extraordinary circumstances, but under the Ford government MZOs have become commonplace.
Mississauga is currently opposed to two MZOs, one that doubles the number of units in Lakeview Village, and a 50-storey tower on Hurontario that was given the green light without submitting a development application to the City.
“If [the MZOs are] for higher common good, like affordable housing or long-term care, we would request them, but we don't need to incentivize market housing here in Mississauga,” Crombie says.
An example of a fourplex that Bonnie Crombie wants to see more of across Mississauga.
Instead, Crombie used her powers as mayor in a sweeping decision to bring back a housing motion that was rejected by council, to allow fourplexes as of right on single dwelling lots across the city. It was her latest move to replace sprawl with gentle density, the missing middle housing she has often advocated for.
The original motion was brought forward by Councillor Alvin Tedjo and seconded by Councillor Carolyn Parrish at an October 11 meeting. The councillors, Crombie stressed, argued that if the City could allow for triplexes as of right — mandated under Bill 23, the PCs’ housing Act — then a fourplex would not be much different. Fourplexes are being pushed by the federal government, which is requiring them if a municipality wants to receive funding through the Housing Accelerator Fund.
“The examples they gave us is, it looks like a large home, which is not atypical in Mississauga. Two doors in the front. And so you have two units on the main level. And instead of one unit on the upper level, you have two units on the upper level that look very proficient, clean and affordable,” Crombie says.
The Housing Accelerator Fund is a tool implemented by the federal government to aid municipalities in providing missing middle housing and gentle densification. When Mississauga voted against allowing fourplexes as of right, it was made clear the city would not receive any funding through the federal program.
Crombie, who was on leave while on the campaign trail for the Liberal leadership when the original fourplex motion was voted down, issued a mayoral directive under her newly granted strong mayor powers to bring the motion back for a second vote. When the motion was voted on again in November, once she was back in her mayor’s role, it passed.
“There was a bit of a cooling off period, but starting to understand that there was a time pressure, because I think in the initial vote, they didn't understand that the clock was ticking, with the federal funding allocated dispersed elsewhere, if we didn't claim it,” she explains.
Her bold move brought more than just $113 million in federal funding for the city. Crombie emphasizes it’s the kind of housing Mississauga wants to continue building, to create density that can support transit and complete, walkable communities, the type she grew up in.
Bonnie Crombie came to Mississauga council with a desire to create a unique urban identity.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The changes in Mississauga’s development landscape are a reflection of its changing demographics Crombie says. She sees herself as a bridge between the older generations who grew up and thrived in McCallion’s Mississauga, and the younger councillors and residents who share her vision of sustainable growth.
“I have younger, more diverse, dynamic, energetic councillors that are more open to doing things differently.”
She said she hears from older residents who say they chose Mississauga for the large single-detached homes and wide boulevards, and while she understands what those older residents cherish, the current economic, social and environmental reality is moving Mississauga in a different direction.
“Change is hard,” she acknowledges. “But Mississauga today is not the Mississauga of 25 years ago.”
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