Toronto’s eternal condominium debate: how tall is too tall?
When it comes to building in Toronto the answer to the question of “how tall is too tall” is a little like that old aphorism defining pornography: ‘I know it when I see it’. The challenge for swiftly growing Toronto is that builders, planners, citizens and politicians all see things differently.
A case in point is a trio of towers proposed by Amdev Property Group for an area known as Etobicoke Centre, an area designated for growth. A plan dating back to 2002 calls for intensification and buildings between 20- and 30-storeys, and the city has been supportive of projects that go above that limit. But when Craig Hunter, president of TRIAGE Development Corp., which is a partner on the site, came calling looking for buildings that were between 32- and 38-storeys he was discouraged: “You’re almost there, they are just too tall,” he said he was told.
“The plan for this area has always been a cluster of tall buildings. If we had come in at 28- or 29-storeys … we’d be through the process quite quickly,” said Mr. Hunter. He is seeking building permission on two sites that are a stone’s throw away from similar or taller buildings. The problem he’s finding is there’s no one set of rules to follow when arguing over how tall a building should be.
“I may have worked on one or two projects the city didn’t think were too tall,” said said Mark Sterling, architect, urban designer, professional planner, University of Toronto professor and former Director of Architecture and Urban Design for the former City of Toronto. Mr. Sterling said there is a mess of planning rules and multiple over-lapping guidelines in different parts of the city. “At most of the sites in the downtown in the last decade or so we have not seen many buildings constructed that meet all the tall building guidelines. Frankly, [city planners] may not be all that happy with the city that’s being built right now. The city we’re building is not the city we’re planning.”
The Etobicoke Centre plan covers an area about 169 hectares. A street nexus called the Six Points and two subway stations define the site. The area is bounded by railway lines and hydro corridors and Dundas Street, Bloor Street West and Kipling Avenue funnel traffic through. For two decades, the city has been trying to unravel the tangled roadways and redevelop the area, with plans for public space and amenities to go alongside the private development.
“This is going to be incredible actually, this neighbourhood with the new civic centre [breaking ground in 2022], the library, childcare centre,” said Emilia Floro, Urban Design Program Manager for Etobicoke and York at Toronto’s City Planning office. “Now we’re really starting to see this evolution as a real true dense urban centre.”
The tallest towers in the plan are designed to be close to the subway and GO stations, with a skyline that steps down toward low-rise main street shopping areas that are described as “pedestrian scale.” But, even the city’s own pedestrian guidelines do not mention anything about building height being relevant to a good pedestrian experience.
“Height isn’t what makes it pedestrian scale and comfortable,” said Ms. Floro. “But I would argue we have different areas that make the city unique – Bloor West Village or Queen Street West –they have a different character, different quality. We don’t want everything to be like downtown … we can put greater heights in other areas.”
Mr. Hunter says height may be an abstract value to some, but it has real-world impacts. Less height means fewer new residents to populate a walkable neighbourhood the city has spent 20 years trying to foster. For his company, more height means more saleable units to pay for land and construction costs that are rising every year.
“Why is the city being so restrained in a place where they have tremendous opportunity?” Mr. Hunter asks.
Mr. Sterling argues it’s not the Planning Department’s job to consider that economic picture. But he says there’s almost a disincentive for the city to zone to the maximum because it can then use the rezoning process to wring out more community benefits from builders.
The reality is the as-of-right height restrictions are almost uniformly too short for today’s development environment – even the city’s own Housing Now initiative is seeking a rezoning amendment for its Etobicoke Centre site to get a taller building than the plan allows. Ms. Floro has approved above-guideline rezonings for Tridel and Concert buildings that will reach past 40 storeys, but says the process for any builder is to prove the extra height won’t create a negative impact.
“How high is too high? Usually that’s something like shadow impacts or uncomfortable wind conditions -those can all be measured and tested,” said Mr. Sterling. Mr. Hunter’s sites are currently embroiled in that planning process and he has made the case they won’t be casting shadow on nearby low-rise housing, but he also worries a rezoning could take two or three years. Similar frustrations lead many developers to bypass the municipal planners and go straight to the provincial cabinet for a Ministerial Zoning Order. Just such a move was made recently over development plans for Toronto’s West Donlands.
“It would be logical to say, ‘Screw it, I have a vision, I’m going to achieve this vision and work with the province,’” Mr. Hunter said. But his preference, he said, is to work with toward something everyone agrees with. “These are reasonable scale buildings, they achieve our private interest and the city should be embracing it.”
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