Toronto's residential skyline has long seemed unbalanced to me. Our dwellings tend to be either soaringly tall or, at just one or two storeys, very short. What's largely missing in our housing mix is the five-storey to 10-storey apartment block. This attractive building type has proven to be a successful design tool in many European cities. I like it because it brings desirable density to our important avenues, while not busting apart old, settled urban terrains.
For an example of a mid-rise project that might work out well in its context, take the condominium building now being proposed for the corner of Queen Street East and Kenilworth Avenue. The intersection punctuates the delightful commercial strip that runs through the heart of the Beaches neighbourhood.
You may know the site of the condo stack: A Lick's hamburger palace has stood on the spot for many years. If the developer (Reserve Investments) manages to win over city staff and politicians to its side, the architecturally indifferent home of this popular rest-stop for Queen Street East strollers will vanish and be replaced by a six-storey luxury apartment building designed by Toronto architect Roland Rom Colthoff, co-founder and principal of raw design.
Pitched to older, affluent Beaches residents ready to downsize but reluctant to leave the famously comfortable, walkable district, the 29,000-square-foot structure is slated to contain just 29 apartments. These will range in size from 600 square feet to around 1,200 square feet, with one top-floor suite coming in at 2,000 square feet. Intended to retail for around $700 a foot, these apartments will not be cheap.
The block would be built out to the limit of its rectangular site. Even the usual ramp to the below-grade parking would be eliminated: In Mr. Rom Colthoff's scheme, the cars of tenants go up and down between street and garage by means of an industrial-strength lift – an application of elevator technology you still don't see very often in residential architecture, but that's surely destined to become more common in mid-to-tall tower construction as city land-values continue to rise.
If put up as designed, the building will be taller and wider than its commercial neighbours on Queen East. Complaints about its height, the architect told me, have already been lodged with the city by local residents.
Though I'm not inclined to be sympathetic to it, I understand where their concern is coming from. The urban geography along this stretch of Queen East is characterized by low, small structures, with the ample windows of shops, restaurants, bookstores and such opening toward the street. You can find much the same visual effect – businesslike, various, and also inviting and human-scaled – on any main street in small-town Ontario, and indeed in many Victorian and Edwardian neighbourhoods throughout downtown Toronto. As desirable (and inevitable) as increased density on our through-streets may be, the fact that someone would object to a mid-rise building at Queen East and Kenilworth is not surprising.
And, for his part, Mr. Rom Colthoff has surely taken steps to guarantee that his design exerts as little negative impact on the area as possible. Hewing closely to the city's official guidelines for mid-rise blocks, and honouring the old-fashioned shop-front sense of this stretch of Queen East, he has established a row of tall-ceilinged retail outlets at street level. His building abuts the sidewalk with a façade four storeys tall, a height related to the width of Queen East at that point, above which the levels step back smartly, creating terraces for the suites on the fifth and sixth storeys.
Generally speaking, I dislike podiums and setbacks of this sort, especially in buildings as small as the one I'm talking about here. I know the city wants architects to make such moves, apparently out of a desire to make streetside structures seem shorter than they are. These gestures never work – a building is just too big to camouflage – and they are quite unnecessary, in any case, in a condo development no more than six storeys tall.
But Toronto should welcome the positioning of mid-rise, mixed-use complexes like this one, with or without those mandatory setbacks, on our principal streets. They can join urban living to thriving sidewalk culture, ending the separation between commercial and residential uses that prevails in the Beaches and in similar old places in the city. Done with sensitivity and design imagination, they can inject formal and textural variety into the streetscape – a play of small against somewhat larger, cozy against somewhat more aloof, antique against contemporary – and thereby enrich the public realm we inhabit and cherish.