Skip to main content
lisa rochon: cityscapes

Imagine being forced to listen to the same piece of music all day – a gravelly heartbreaker by Nickelback or a high-pitched ditty from the Sound of Music – and the song keeps repeating, every day, every week, one season to the next.

That, to me, is what downtown Toronto is becoming: a monotone composition of lookalike glass towers and deadening streetscapes from which there is no escape.

Change the soundtrack. Play Kensington Market's tune instead: narrow storefronts housing a chocolate boutique, shiatsu massage, a cafe with outdoor seating and many original, ethnic restaurants. Unlike the grey concrete sidewalks that butt up against pale green condo glass in the new developments, colour is not uncool here. Pastel-coloured tutus swing above racks of vintage clothing, and a bright green sedan is parked like an installation. Astronauts climb up the fish-netted legs of a woman on one artfully painted brick wall. Red roses grace a garden arbour. People live, work and lounge here. You can imagine Bon Iver's Justin Vernon strumming his guitar in front of Wanda's Pie In The Sky bake shop. For kicks.

Big-box stores suck the life out of downtown streets. Small storefronts revitalize them. Look around this country and you'll see this is not mere romanticism but a contemporary urban fact. Like many creative neighbourhoods in this country, from Montreal's H2W in the Plateau Mont-Royal district, with its intimate three-storey streetscape, to Vancouver's diversified Gastown, Toronto's Kensington Market is a magnet for people who want to experience a sensory slice of city life.

It's not a straight-arrow existence from the Go Train to the office to the shopping concourse grocery store and home again, but one that wobbles and inspires and turns down mysterious back lanes. On Kensington's Fitzroy Terrace, the worker cottages were built a century ago; chickens were raised in the coops, and the bagels made in a back-lane house were sold on Kensington's streets, 10 of them stacked on a stick. Now, among the silver maple and sumach trees, there's a mix of historic and contemporary housing, including a light-filled,1,200-square-foot gem of a house by Superkul Architects.

Why do new condo developments typically rob us of the visual and textural experiences of architecture and streetscapes? Why can't we have tall towers that are exhilarating to look at, and colourful streets where there are outdoor food vendors and bagels being sold on sticks?

Downtown development doesn't have to be this drab. Not if every developer is required to integrate a deeply satisfying program for daily life in the city. At 65 storeys plus, like 1 Bloor East and several of the condominiuims going up near the Gardiner Expressway, these towers are instant mini-cities. There's no time to develop a program when they're already built.

Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez and developer Ian Gillespie actively, ambitiously redeveloped the old Woodward's department store in Vancouver's Gastown to include a beautiful, subtle patchwork of services that the neighbourhood critically needed: a daycare, a bank branch, a dentist's office, Simon Fraser University's downtown School for Contemporary Arts, market housing, assisted living units, a basketball court and a café. "You have to curate the amenities that go in, that's the only way to do it," Henriquez told me this week. "Otherwise, the marketplace is going to deliver 7-11 convenience stores or whoever is going to pay the highest rent. Development has no ethics. Individuals have ethics."

Done right, tall towers can enhance a street, but they have to be conceived with love and contexual smarts. Like the colourful 26-storey Paintbox condominum by architect Donald Schmitt at Toronto's Regent Park. And Teeple Architects is working on the 39-storey Picasso condo tower with its two-storey, Asian style retail base. The joint-venture owners, Goldman Group and Monarch Group, are dedicated to the overall impression their development will make on the neighbourhood. "It's part of their dream – they're really into it," says Stephen Teeple.

Vancouver planners deserve credit for demanding small, human-scaled storefronts for Yaletown during its development in the 1980s, despite lots of complaining from developers at the time. Now those small units are renting for as much as $100 a square foot. And, guess what? Toronto is now finally recognizing that banks and drug stores have dominated our streets for too long. (Developers in New York City have been moving banks and big box stores upstairs to the second floor for some time now.)

It may be too little, too late. There are more than 140 construction cranes now swinging in Toronto and the great majority of the towers will be complete by 2015. Still it's good to know that a comprehensive tall building design guidelines document is expected to be be complete this fall. Meanwhile, urban design staffers are studying ways to require smaller leasable spaces on the ground floor of new towers, effectively pushing developments to recast their street presence. "Small, diverse storefronts make for a much, much more interesting street," says the city's urban design director, Robert Freedman. "This is definitely something we are striving for. The tendency is for the large condo developers to go after large retail tenants who they can sign up well in advance of construction at high rents. There are very few, if any, small businesses that are willing or able to do that."

In theory, the tall building design guidelines should kick-start the use of more sophisticated construction materials, and the additions of more public space. Will the guidelines deter the bull-headed developer who wants to build in historically sensitive areas? Not likely. Despite the city's careful zoning and strongly worded recommendations, some developers set up chic sales centres for tall towers that sit outside of the prescribed downtown tall zone. An application for a 47-storey tower proposes the replacement of five historic buildings, including the Albany Club, on King Street East. Another proposed 25-storey tower at the corner of the delicate and historically handsome Colborne Street at Church street would obliterate the view of the exquisite Colborne Street heritage buildings.

Both proposals would increase shadowing over the historic St. James Cathedral. Hundreds of community members have come out to public meetings to oppose both proposals, most recently last week. Why? "There's no respect for the St. Lawrence design guidelines, no real public amenities, no protection for sidewalk pedestrians, and they will shade the cathedral's spire and stained-glass windows," says Richard J. Anobile, president of the condo board of 35 Church Street at Market Square.

My hunch is, if built, the developments won't inspire the sale of warm bagels on a stick.

Interact with The Globe