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Toronto-based developer Hullmark cut the ribbon on a modest 45-unit mid-rise project to be built at 1151 Queen St. East, Toronto. Guidelines for building mid-rise housing in the City of Toronto vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, but city policy favours setbacks and a multitude of other design specifics that result in a pyramid-style structure.

Earlier this month, the Toronto-based developer Hullmark cut the ribbon on a modest 45-unit mid-rise project in Leslieville, a development that had been three years in the making.

Because the building is situated on an intimate stretch of Queen Street East, with single-family homes behind, the company had to adhere to a city urban-design policy known as the Mid-Rise Guidelines. These don’t pack the regulatory punch of formal zoning or official plan regulations, but nonetheless impose “performance standards” on such projects. Those frequently involve inclined step-backs – or “articulations” – on both the front- and rear-facing sides to prevent shadows and perceived privacy intrusions (known in planning parlance as “overlook”), while creating a visual transition to low-rise neighbourhoods.

If builders want to avoid a protracted fight with the city or local homeowners, they try to adhere to these guidelines. In this case, senior vice-president of development Leona Savoie says, Hullmark met 98 per cent of the expectations, which are itemized in a detailed document last updated by the planning department in 2016.

Yet, according to Ms. Savoie, the company encountered a quirk in these non-regulatory regulations. While the Mid-Rise Guidelines are ostensibly a city-wide policy, council approved a bespoke version just for Leslieville. Hullmark officials then looked at some of its other landholdings on West Queen West and discovered the planning department is working on a similarly localized version for that area.

“That was the first time we encountered a new neighbourhood-based guideline that took precedent over the city-wide policy,” she says.

While these revelations may sound like the development industry’s version of inside-baseball, they hint at an increasingly untenable economic dilemma embedded in the city’s long-standing vision for intensification, and therefore its ability to create new housing.

Developers make the investment case for mid-rise condos

For well over two decades, Toronto’s official plan has called for transit-oriented intensification along the “Avenues,” much of it expected in the form of mid-rise apartments that can be approved “as of right” – meaning without zoning or official plan appeals. Such buildings are often seen as more livable and human scale than 50- or 60-storey towers.

Yet, ironically, the highly prescriptive Mid-Rise Guidelines – combined with skyrocketing land, labour and building costs, as well as timelines that can run to six years for a mid-sized building – have turned these projects into pyramid-shaped unicorns, often filled with deep, dark and narrow units dubbed “bowling alleys.”

“The economics are so frail,” says architect Dermot Sweeny, founding principal of Sweeny & Co., who describes the angular plane requirements as “a massive cost” because they make the structure more complicated and expensive while reducing the amount of leasable or saleable floor space.

Other builders agree. “The Mid-Rise Guidelines have fallen short in what the city intended to do to provide more housing,” says Josh Kaufman, Starlight Investment’s vice-president, development and construction.

The critiques extend beyond the industry. Professor of architecture Richard Sommer, former dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Landscape, Architecture and Design at the University of Toronto, describes the controls in the guidelines as “very crude.” “They’re built around a mindset of deference to low-rise communities.”

Consequently, while Toronto has seen a continent-leading boom in very tall towers in growth nodes such as King West and Yonge/Eglinton, the development of mid-rises along arterials has lagged for years. According to statistics gathered by Urban Nation, the proportion of new condos in buildings under 12 storeys, compared with the total across all building heights, has inched up slightly in the past decade. But over all, only about 8 per cent to 10 per cent of all condos built in the City of Toronto – about 8,000 as of the first quarter of 2021 – are located in mid-rises, with the balance in 12- to 19-storey buildings or towers above 20 floors. (Even in the 905, where land is cheaper, projects under 12 storeys also account for the smallest number of new units by building size category.)

The unintended consequences – among them the push by builders for more height and density on constrained sites – should be on the city’s radar as the planning department embarks on a major overhaul of the Official Plan, planning experts and industry insiders say. As Prof. Sommers wonders, “How do we get out of this lock?”

Toronto’s fraught relationship with mid-rises is something of an anomaly. In many economically vibrant North American cities, such as Seattle, Portland, Boston and even New York, mid-rise apartments in the past decade became the fastest-growing mode of residential development, according to data compiled by RentCafé, a U.S. rental site. A few Google searches reveal that many of these projects are quite conventional in form – upright boxes or wider, lower-slung buildings that have drawn some criticisms for their architectural homogeneity.

Prof. Sommer points out that the core of many of those cities are denser because the main streets have seen cycles of intensification, whereas Toronto’s avenues are still lined with first-generation two-storey “mercantile” buildings, many of which are being designated as heritage structures.

In cities such as Denver, mid-rise apartment projects have been identified as good candidates for mass timber construction as an alternative to carbon-intensive materials such as steel and concrete, while a growing number of green developers are looking to use Passive House standards in mid-rises.

In fact, Hullmark – which has developed a pair of tall timber office buildings in Liberty Village – looked in to using wood for a possible mid-rise condo on Queen, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t structurally feasible with the required step-back form.

“The articulation isn’t conducive to timber construction,” says Ms. Savoie, who noted this problem to the planning department but didn’t get a response.

Mr. Sweeny adds that the stepped-back shape also tends to make mid-rise buildings less energy efficient and more prone to heat loss – a performance issue that seems to run counter to the city’s climate goals.

Industry executives like Mr. Kaufman have long advocated for various fixes in the policy framework, from relaxed parking requirements for such projects to financial incentives such as lower development charges and even a specialized unit in the planning department that deals just with mid-rise projects to ensure they don’t take so long to get approved.

But planning consultant Brent Toderian, former City of Vancouver chief planner, says mid-rise reform must go beyond the policy specifics, and ensure that the broader city building principles enshrined in official plans aren’t illusory. “Viability is critically important.”

Good urban design shouldn’t just focus narrowly on problems like sidewalk shadows and homeowner privacy, he says; it must address and balance broader goals, such as carbon reduction, housing affordability and transit-oriented development. “The truth is, we’re not balancing,” Mr. Toderian says. “We’re prioritizing detached housing.”

Kingston’s experiment with density by design

Before the City of Kingston last updated its official plan, a Toronto planning consultant had recommended appending mid-rise design guidelines right in the document. As with many municipalities in Southern Ontario, these were modelled directly on the City of Toronto’s rules.

Problem was, they didn’t take. Local developers didn’t like the 45-degree angular plane required by the policy, which was targeted initially for a transit- and pedestrian-oriented mid-town neighbourhood called Williamsville. They fought instead to build higher structures in an area where the city wanted four- to six-storey intensification along a main street. Those official plan rules created “building profiles that looked like an Egyptian pyramid,” says Paige Agnew, Kingston’s commissioner of community services and chief planner.

One of the pain points, she adds, is that such structures didn’t allow for wood-frame construction, which has been identified as a way of reducing carbon in a municipality that has declared a climate emergency.

The city retained planning consultant Brent Toderian to help come up with a made-in-Kingston policy framework, now under development, that ticks all the boxes.

“What Kingston understood is that good urban design implements all your public-policy goals,” he says. “Kingston has started the process of getting out of the business of angular planes.” As he adds: “A tool may not be working for a long time, but the city can keep using it.”