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Toronto developers hope to build a better townhouse

A rendering of a low-rise condo proposal on Sheppard Avenue East, near Markham Road.

Diamond Corp.

When developers Daniels and Diamond Corp. began looking at a large development site on Sheppard Avenue East, near Markham Road, in the northeastern reaches of Toronto a few years ago, the two firms could have gone high, as most builders choose to do in this market. The property, culled from the holdings of Build Toronto, a city agency that sells surplus municipal real estate, will someday be served by rapid transit and was zoned for 12 to 18 storeys and as many as 357 condos. A high-rise went up just to the south a few years ago.

But as the developers and their architects pondered the site and its surroundings, they opted to go lower – in this case, a project that will consist of mid-rise tall wood towers and 56 one- to three-bedroom stacked townhouses tucked in four blocks behind the two towers that front on Sheppard.

Les Klein, a principal with Quadrangle , which is designing the project, said the total number of units is comparable (343) and the construction costs are lower. “When you have more than 25 per cent of the units with access to grade, it changes the living experience,” he added. “There’s less of a sense of being removed from other people. That’s an important element of community building.”

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Townhouses – individual, stacked and back-to-back – are hardly new to Toronto. Mr. Klein said Quadrangle’s first such project, near King Street and Strachan Road, went up almost 30 years ago.

But in the past few years, city planning officials have seen a surge of this kind of infill project, with many squeezed next to apartment towers, onto marginal pieces of land and along older downtown streets in place of former industrial buildings.

The Daniels/Diamond Corp. project on Sheppard East will include common garden zones, a greenhouse and a set of walkways that will provide pedestrian access to both Sheppard Avenue and Orchard Place Drive.

Diamond Corp.

Indeed, while the city is pushing intensification, developers know there’s a strong market for low-rise dwellings, especially among families with younger children. “We’re seeing a great interest in grade-related units,” City of Toronto director of urban design Lorna Day said. “We want to make sure these [projects] are a positive part of every neighbourhood.”

In recent years, the profusion of new projects has led to mounting concerns within the city’s planning department that developers were packing too many townhouse units into too little space, creating cramped or permanently shadowed common areas and haphazardly designed internal streets. In some cases, city officials said, developers have not paid enough attention to finding ways to deal with bulky trash bins, hydro meters or the entrances to below-grade parking. The result, Ms. Day says, is an accumulation of clutter in internal areas ostensibly meant to remain open.

An earlier set of townhouse policies, dating back to the early 2000s, couldn’t accommodate the surge of recent projects, which have become increasingly varied in configuration due to the proliferation of applications and the building industry’s push to pack as many units onto a site as possible. “When the buildings facing each other are too close together, no sunlight gets into the front windows,” Ms. Day said.

After a multiyear consultation process, Toronto City Council earlier this month approved a new set of urban design guidelines meant to establish clearer urban design policies for townhouses, such as minimum front-to-front distances between units, set-backs and connections to surrounding communities.

The guidelines, although not binding, will give planners additional leverage to push builders to incorporate easily neglected urban design details, such as ensuring spatial separation – e.g., a few stairs or a delineated front-yard area – between internal streets and front entrances so residents have a sense of transitional space between the privacy of their own homes and the public parts of these complexes.

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BILD GTA, the development industry association, was heavily involved in negotiating the new design standards, and signed off on the final report approved by council. “What the city is trying to do is create uniform guidelines that everyone can follow,” said Diamond Corp.’s executive vice-president, Bob Blazveski. “These guidelines will provide more direction and clarity.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the city’s approach, however. “The public sector thinks every site should be the same,” Mr. Klein said . “I had an issue with the city issuing guidelines, which are then used as regulation.”

A recently-completed Diamond Corp. project in south Etobicoke has 148 stacked back-to-back units.

City of Toronto

But city planning and urban design officials stressed that they canvassed local builders and projects to develop a set of guidelines that reflect best practices, among them one of Diamond Corp.’s townhouse projects in south Etobicoke – a triangular 3.5-acre site surrounded by single-family residential neighbourhoods and backing onto a rail corridor. Completed two years ago, the site has 148 stacked back-to-back units with 13.5-metre separations. Most of the townhouses are two- or three-bedroom units with more floor space than a comparable condo.

For the Daniels/Diamond Corp. project on Sheppard East, the urban design will include common garden zones, a greenhouse and a set of walkways that will provide pedestrian access to both Sheppard Avenue and Orchard Place Drive, an east-west side street that forms the southern boundary of the project.

As Mr. Klein noted, the additional at-grade open space becomes commercially feasible because the development economics of townhouse projects are quite different from tall buildings, which are more expensive to build due to the need for space-consuming elements such as elevator shafts. “It’s one of the attractions for developers who are prepared to give up density. Everything you build, you can sell.”

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