When a developer announced last week that he planned to build what would be the tallest building in Canada on the southwest corner of Yonge and Bloor, Toronto seemed unimpressed. Many who wrote online comments about the proposal wondered why on earth this city needs yet another glass condominium tower, even a dramatic 80-storey one designed by the firm of celebrated British architect Norman Foster.
"Imagine all of the birds that will be killed," said one. "The congestion, the sun block, the sheer ugliness of the structure adds another blight," said another. "The Manhattanization of downtown Toronto is completely out of control," said still another.
Toronto, it would seem, is still not altogether sold on tall buildings. This city is seeing a wave of high-rise development unlike any in its history. The most recent report from city officials says that no less than 91 high-rise buildings are under construction, the most for any North American city except New York, which is building 167.
The One Bloor condos, right across the street from developer Sam Mizrahi's Foster-designed 80-storey proposal, will rise to 75 storeys. The two towers of the Harbour Plaza residences down by the waterfront will go to 66 and 62 storeys. Then, of course, there are the Mirvish-Gehry towers planned for King Street West that, while 92 and 82 storeys, would be shorter, measured in feet, than the Mizrahi building.
Toronto, grumbled one newspaper writer, suffers from an insecurity complex that forces it to prove itself by throwing up towers in every available space. That is one way to look at it. Another is that Toronto has finally found the confidence to act like a big city.
Back in the 1970s, Toronto was so fearful about density and development that city hall slapped a temporary 45-foot (13.7-metre) height restriction on new construction in the downtown core. Over time, planners have come to understand that if the region is going to absorb hundreds of thousands of newcomers without succumbing to endless urban sprawl, it will have to grow up rather than out. Now the boom in condo construction and the vogue for downtown living has made it possible to build a denser, livelier urban core. If central Toronto is starting to feel even a bit like Manhattan, it can only be a good thing.
The high-rise boom isn't the Wild West free-for-all that many people seem to think it is. You can't just slap together a glass box on any street corner. High-rise proposals go through months, more often years, of scrutiny. Officials look at how the building relates to the street around it, how much shadow it creates, what the developer is willing to contribute to the "public realm," even what kind of materials the building will use.
Most high-rise construction is going just where planners want it: at strategic crossroads like Bloor and Yonge, Yonge and Eglinton and new South Core below Union Station that are well served by mass transit. We aren't building forests of towers in the Beach or Little Italy.
"We're growing. We're maturing as a city. We are learning to do better tall buildings," says David Pontarini of Hariri Pontarini Architects, designers of One Bloor. "For us it's a never-ending educational process."
That is true of the city, too. A dynamic, growing, modern city has to learn to be comfortable with tall buildings. Judged on much of the reaction to recent ones, it still has a distance to travel.