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Toronto’s new low-rise condos stake out the middle sky

As every observer of Toronto's real estate scene knows, hardly a month goes by without the launch of sales for yet another mid-rise condominium block on one of the city's important thoroughfares.

According to the wisdom now prevailing at city hall – wisdom that generally makes sense to me – this is an instance of the world's unfolding as it should. Mid-sized residential structures are to punch up at various spots alongside the avenues, interrupting forever Hogtown's familiar main-street rhythm of two- and three-storey mixed-use brick buildings.

We will lose valuable things in this process of necessary intensification – certain commercial streetscapes fashioned by our bewhiskered Victorian ancestors, for example, and, in some places, historic patterns of organizing urban space and time.

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But if I am reading the signs of the times rightly, the city also stands to gain something from the addition of mid-rise density on the avenues. It's a fresh layer of modestly scaled residential fabric with sound contemporary styling and even expressive flair, and freedom from historical pastiche.

The signs I am talking about are renderings and models of architecturally interesting mid-sized condo projects that have premiered in the last few months.

One is Quadrangle Architects' Duke, slated to go up on Dundas Street West, in the Junction area. Another is SQ, a design by Teeple Architects intended for a site near Queen Street just west of Spadina Avenue. (Both of these have been featured here in previous columns.)

The third and most recent is the nine-storey Nest, crafted by RAW Design for the Rockport Group, and scheduled to displace a church, a café and a KFC outlet on St. Clair Avenue West, halfway between Bathurst and Dufferin streets.

In their treatments of overall form, the authors of all three schemes have abandoned, to one degree or another, the precedent of the monotonous, standard-issue box and created, instead, irregular stacks of sharply delineated volumes that dodge back and forth from the vertical plane, or slip sideways out of the grid.

The architects are attempting to transcend the anonymous look of the more usual apartment block by breaking down the building mass into clearly articulated dwellings. And this sculptural expression of each apartment visibly declares, rather than conceals, the true nature of the residential mid-rise as a vertical neighbourhood inhabited by individuals, couples and small families with unique identities.

With Duke, SQ, Nest and similar structures, we may be seeing the start of a promising design trend in Toronto's multifamily housing market.

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I hope so, and I hope it continues.

Nest will comprise 122 units, most of them ranging in size from a junior one-bedroom (about 450 square feet) to a two-bedroom-plus-den at just over 1,000 square feet. The smallest suite is on the market for around $239,000, while most apartments are expected to sell for between $350,000 and the low $600,000s. A penthouse is available for $760,000.

In a considerate bow to local business owners, who have complained about the shortage of parking since the coming of the St. Clair rapid transit line, the developer will provide 44 public spaces for cars.

The design of Nest is more staid than that of either Duke or SQ, but it shares novel geometry with them.

Nest's façade rises from the sidewalk in two broad movements. Closer to the ground, the face abutting St. Clair is composed of oblongs strongly outlined by muscular concrete frames finished in what appear to be three shades of grey: very light, medium, charcoal.

This visual definition of each living unit is one thing that makes Nest different from a routine chunk of modernist housing, and it encourages the owners to think of their apartments as homes, places with addresses (and exterior appearances) all their own.

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Closer to the top, the tight, brick-like stacking of rectangular elements lower down loosens up, and the façade becomes glassier, lighter, more transparent. The grey-framed oblongs thin out up there, but the ones that remain thrust forward boldly from the building.

As was ever thus with structures taller than about three storeys, the lion's share of the drama in this project happens on its uppermost levels. But the bottom, which will be assigned to retail, is entirely devoid of architectural interest. It would be good if RAW found a way to bring some of the building's higher-up animation down to the sidewalk.

On the whole, however – and if it lives up to its renderings – Nest promises to be a worthwhile contribution to Toronto's next generation of mid-rise, main-street dwellings, and a good example for architects trying out new design ideas in this city's residential marketplace.

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