Even the residents of the York Quay Neighbourhood Association are getting their backs up about density downtown these days.
Dwell on that for a second.
The people who live in the cluster of glass and steel towers by the lake – whose homes contributed to one of the most dramatic changes to the city’s skyline in the last 20 years – are complaining about condos.
“We’re not averse to tall buildings on the waterfront, because we all live in tall buildings. We’re afraid of overcrowding,” said Ulla Colgrass, an association planning member. “In Toronto, we don’t have urban planning. Developers have taken over everything.”
Between 2006 and 2011, populations soared in parts of the downtown. The site of Concord CityPlace, which a decade ago was abandoned railway lands, saw a 434 per cent rise in those five years, according to Statistics Canada. The population density is 14,120 per square kilometre, compared to 1,586 per square kilometre in the largely single-family neighbourhood of Morningside Heights in Scarborough.
New buildings are reaching new heights to accommodate more residents: There are the two proposed 70-storey towers at 90 Harbour St. that concern Ms. Colgrass. There’s an 83-storey behemoth planned for 50 Bloor St. W., and, of course, the three 80-storey buildings proposed for King and John streets by theatre impresario David Mirvish and starchitect Frank Gehry. On Friday, Oxford Properties Group announced a proposal for a massive development on Front Street that would include a casino, hotel, retail space, parking and condos, with a price tag of more than $3-billion.
The lasting effects of all this construction will be far more dramatic than an altered skyline.
The increased density downtown means more people sharing limited green space, squeezing onto streetcars at rush hour and putting a strain on emergency departments.
“As planners, our preoccupation is with quality of life, and what the impact is on quality of life,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s newly minted chief planner in a recent interview with The Globe. “What is the impact on services? What is the impact on amenities? What is the impact on open space and green space?”
But the population increase has already taken a toll, and most service providers are in delayed-reaction mode. Ms. Keesmaat’s vision involves more density downtown and building for permanence. Will resources and infrastructure be able to keep up? The Globe took a look at where we stand now.
No matter how forward-thinking they are, hospitals can’t ever know how quickly their city will grow.
When St. Michael’s Hospital’s current emergency room was designed, more than a decade ago, it had the capacity for 45,000 visits a year.
Today, they’re at 70,000, said Douglas Sinclair, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
The population increase downtown in the last decade has hastened the need for a new ER, which has been designed but awaits approval.
But even if the hospital gets the green light from the province to expand to roughly double the size of the current emergency department, Dr. Sinclair said he might also need approval for operational increases, which would come with a hefty, ongoing cost of their own.
Toronto Emergency Medical Services is also struggling to meet the growing city’s needs – calls have increased 23 per cent since 1997, said Kim McKinnon, a spokeswoman.
“It has been increasingly busier on a daily basis and our resources are stretched to the breaking point,” said Ken Horton, a paramedic of almost 30 years. “It’s come to a critical and dangerous point.”
Last week, dozens of EMS workers removed themselves from the voluntary overtime list as part of a protest to get the city to hire 200 more paramedics, Mr. Horton said.
“We’re proving a point that the city is running this department on overtime.”
If the population increase downtown still seems abstract, hop on the 510 streetcar at rush hour. Crammed cheek-to-jowl with others heading to and from the core makes one acutely aware of ridership gains in the last few years – and this is with more streetcars on the road, too.
“We are essentially maxed out right now in the morning rush hour. We don’t have more streetcars and we really can’t even fit even more streetcars in the morning peak service,” said Scott Haskill, a senior planner with the Toronto Transit Commission.
It’s easy to see how condo development has changed service needs. On the 509 and 510 routes, which serve Queen’s Quay, ridership has increased almost 50 per cent from 2004 to 2011.
To keep up, the TTC is running at 25 per cent more service now than in 2004 and during peak times, it can often be a 50 per cent increase in service, Mr. Haskill said. These are all stop-gap measures until 2014, when the new fleet of streetcars (which have double the capacity) hit the road. But the new fleet won’t come close to answering all transit users’ woes.
While more downtown developments encourage walking and TTC use as alternatives to driving, car traffic will continue to slow down streetcars – even the high-capacity ones. Metrolinx predicts the cost of congestion to the economy (in terms of lost productivity) will go from $2.7-million in 2006 to $7.2-billion by 2031.
Toronto has faced some memorable blackouts in the last few years. As recently as July, the downtown area suffered through an eight-hour power outage. The previous January, another one hit the same area. In July, 2010, electricity failed from Etobicoke to Yonge Street. Toronto Hydro is scrambling to keep up with the strain on its resources, excerbated by the fact that the core of our city relies on antiquated infrastructure .
Four out of five stations hemmed in by Spadina, Bloor and the DVP operate at unusually high capacity – between 86 and 92 per cent, according to data published this spring by Toronto Hydro. Throughout the city, requests for electrical connections have increased 58 per cent since 2009.
Due to their age, transferring power from one station to another is costly and circuitous.
“Let’s say we lose a station downtown. It’s not like we would be able to transfer electrical load to another station downtown,” explains Tanya Bruckmueller, a spokeswoman for Toronto Hydro. Instead, the load would have to be transferred over from another station in the Golden Horseshoe, which would mean running expensive underground cables.
To keep up with the overwhelming power demands downtown, Toronto Hydro plans to build a new station just east of one of the densest areas downtown: Concord CityPlace.
As condo towers and their thousands of inhabitants have taken over previously uninhabited swaths downtown, the city’s planning department has been pushed to rethink green space, or “open space,” as it has come to be known.
“In downtown environments, a traditional park is obviously not what you’re going to find,” explains Ms. Keesmaat. “Things like plazas, pedestrian corridors, courtyards are going to be the kind of open spaces that you see.”
The most common measure of available parkland is how many hectares there are per 1,000 people. Much of downtown Toronto has less than 0.79 hectares for that population. By contrast, in the far east end of the city, the Highland Creek ravine offers each 1,000 residents three or more hectares of parkland.
Dave Harvey, the director of Toronto Park People, said the city lacks a strong, macro plan for downtown.
Ms. Keesmaat points to Canoe Landing, the eight-acre park built to serve residents of Concord CityPlace, as a shining example of a well-planned open space that serves its community well.
A good design can only take you so far, though, Mr. Harvey said.
“There’s been a real lack of maintenance on it and it’s really starting to fall apart,” he said of Canoe Landing. “Not only do you need these great designs … but the city does not have the maintenance funds and maintenance staff to keep them going.”
With files from Adrian Morrow