Take two downtown Toronto buildings. One is a house on D’Arcy Street – two storeys, made largely of wood, a century old. The other is a 1960s tower three blocks away at 505 University Avenue: 210,000 square feet of steel, concrete and elegant limestone.
One of these two is likely getting torn down. And it’s not the one you would expect.
The owners of 505 University have applied for permission to demolish it and replace it with a new mixed-use tower. Because there is already a tall building here, Toronto planning rules allow this. But the house a few blocks away basically can’t be touched.
This topsy-turvy pattern has become increasingly common in the city. It represents a waste of material, carbon emissions and architectural heritage. And it’s the result of city planning policy that favours houses above everything else.
How so? It comes down to how planning shapes the real estate market. Many people want to live in Toronto. But apartment buildings are forbidden by city policy on more than 90 per cent of Toronto’s land, including its vast expanses of houses. That makes the remaining development sites highly sought after and very expensive.
Unfortunately, those sites already have things on them, such as 505 University – which, in my view, is among the nicest buildings in the city. It was first built in 1958 as the headquarters of Shell Oil Canada. The establishment architects Marani & Morris designed it, and added seven floors on top in 1966. This was a prestigious address. The building is a finely proportioned tower in a suit of Indiana limestone.
But today it is aging. The city’s heritage planners have never bothered to recognize it. The owners, Dubai-based construction and infrastructure company Dutco, see a depreciating asset. “The building was built in the fifties, to fifties standards,” says Dutco representative David McCordic. “You need to do some serious revitalization.” Its relatively small floors, he added, make it less desirable to some tenants.
But it’s still worth tens of millions of dollars as an office building. So why knock it down?
Because it’s worth much more as an empty lot where you can build condos. Dutco have hired architects BDP Quadrangle to design the replacement tower. This would include office space and add 704 apartments. This process would generate huge amounts of waste, and the construction and demolition process would consume huge amounts of energy, generating sizable carbon emissions. But it’s legal.
City planning will not allow the building to be converted to apartments, which would otherwise make sense. However, they see 505 as a site for “intensification,” explains Michael Goldberg of Goldberg Group, a planner working on the project for Dutco. “We are doing what the city wants,” he said.
That logic changes a few blocks to the west on D’arcy Street. In the early 1970s, the old City Of Toronto made a political decision to lock down its house neighbourhoods, which were then much more crowded and less wealthy than they are today. “You would never propose a project like [505 University] in a low-rise area,” Mr. Goldberg explains.
Today, this sends all development pressure into a few small areas, like a lake pushing through cracks in a dam. The result is an irregular cityscape: vast expanses of two-storey buildings, and then towers consuming towers.
This logic has already gutted the building next to 505 University Ave, another Marani & Morris that is being redeveloped. Now it threatens two more large buildings nearby. Across the street, 522 University is a high-quality Brutalist building of 14 storeys by John B. Parkin and Associates. Around the corner is 123 Edward, a beautiful tower by the architect Eugene Janiss.
Apartment buildings are vulnerable too – and in such cases tenants will be seriously inconvenienced, or worse. Again, that’s planning at work. In Toronto, it is legal to tear down a 200-unit apartment building and replace it with an apartment building. It is not legal to do that to a house. The result is predictable.
Unfortunately, the city’s planning department does not, or will not, see this connection. In a recent interview, Toronto chief planner Gregg Lintern suggested the picture is complex. “The city is the product of many years of systems and policy,” he said.
But how did those systems make it easier to tear down a 20-storey building than a two-storey one? “It is hard to assemble land in neighbourhoods,” Mr. Lintern explained, “given the high land values” and the fact that homeowners may not want to sell. He added in an email: “Generally, ‘development sites’ that can accommodate change more readily without any assembly are more commonly found outside of neighbourhoods.”
But that’s not a law of nature. It’s planning and politics, nothing more. It would be easy in commercial terms to “assemble” a few houses, paying the owners millions each, and build an apartment tower. Hundreds of buildings in Toronto were built this way from the 1950s to the 1970s; in the Annex, they hold the majority of the population.
Mr. Lintern pointed out that the city is “working to address the uneven pattern of growth across the city,” through policy changes that would open up more options in neighbourhoods. But the first of these, he said, will be “multiplexes,” small buildings that look like houses and have two or three units. In terms of the housing market, that is like trying to manage a flood with a teacup.
Mayor John Tory recently called for bigger change. Under the next mayor, that change must be very big indeed. Toronto’s houses must make room for mid-rise buildings, if not towers, on every single street. Allowing a flood of new people and money to spread across the entire city makes environmental and economic sense.
But Toronto, for now, is happy to keep the dam closed. And where the force of the water breaks through, big buildings get washed away.