I already knew better.
But, as a new retail/residential building owner on the Danforth, I felt I should attend the community meeting, especially since it concerned a proposal for a rental apartment that was going to kiss my eastern wall.
And, as suspected, every single person who raised a concern questioned its height, even though the building in question would reach only seven storeys. Oh, yes, there was the one lady who grilled the developers on what they were going to do about overcrowding on the subway.
Not one attendee asked about the pedestrian experience, about the building’s retail at grade, or what things (if any) the developer would give back to the community.
This, architect Naama Blonder says, is par for the course. As a new Torontonian – she arrived from Tel Aviv with husband Misha Bereznyak, also an architect, five years ago so he could complete his master’s degree – with a keen interest in the development scene, she attends community development meetings all the time.
“Every time I hear this discussion about height,” she begins, clearly frustrated, “I just wish I could shift the discussion to the things that matter.”
We’re standing on the southwest corner of Bloor Street West and St. Helens Avenue, a light mist covering everything in dewdrops. To further illustrate her point, she points east, where construction cranes dot the horizon: “Let’s look around, and you will tell me if you know if that’s a 30-storey building, or 33, or 29,” she says. “The discussion should be on the public realm – that is what we should push for.”
It is, indeed. We should also push for density where it makes sense, such as on top of subway lines like the Bloor-Danforth (now known as “Line 2”). From where we’re standing, Lansdowne station is 200 metres away and Dundas West station is 750 metres. Ms. Blonder and Mr. Bereznyak’s freshly minted company, in fact, is called “Smart Density” because the thirtysomething couple want to make that their life’s work. To that end, they’ve completed an unsolicited study of the “underutilized” parcel of land on the southwestern corner of Bloor/St. Helens to shine a spotlight on what could be done.
It’s an interesting candidate: A Value Village thrift store sits surrounded by an asphalt ocean that wouldn’t look out of place in Scarborough. While single-family homes line St. Helens to the east and spread south, to the west are GO train tracks and a 15-storey apartment tower (and further west is the changing landscape of the formerly industrial Sterling Avenue); to the north are low-rise, factory-type buildings. Because Bloor Street dips down to allow for the tracks to pass overhead, the site sits on an unintentional concrete plinth, which creates a desolate, wind-swept plaza. Pedestrians, as they submerge, seem to quicken their pace as they walk beside the three-metre wall towering over them.
More interesting: Scheduled to open in five years is a new GO station that will carry commuters all the way north to Barrie, and 500 metres away is the West Toronto Railpath, a cycling and walking trail that may be extended south to Liberty Village.
The couple, both in the process of becoming registered planners, propose a number of things. First of all, by using the guidelines already set for heights and angular planes at the old Honest Ed’s site, they propose two towers, a north tower of between 23 and 29 storeys, and a south tower of between 19 and 26 storeys. These would occupy the eastern three-quarters of the site and allow for a long, linear park on the western portion to greet GO users as they get on and off the train. Inviting retail, such as coffee shops or boutiques, would face the park, and the buildings themselves would cradle a protected green space for residents.
The concrete wall facing the Bloor sidewalk would be opened up to house less impulsive retail, such as a grocery store (that is, something people need rather than want, although one could argue that coffee is a need), and cycling infrastructure could be built to cross Bloor and link up with the West Toronto Railpath.
“That’s why we love this example so much,” Ms. Blonder says. “When you have a larger site, it has a little bit of meat … you get to really shape a little piece of the city.”
It’s a city the new parents have grown to love deeply in their short time here, as much for its growth potential as for its odd quirks, one being the abundance of single-family home neighbourhoods in the downtown core.
“It’s something that I found very, very surprising when I moved here,” Ms. Blonder says, adding that one would be hard-pressed to find that in Paris – a city she had the pleasure of working in – or even in Montreal. As Toronto continues to welcome tens of thousands of new residents each year, it’s clear we’ll have to adopt a more European model to house them. We must build a great deal of mid-rise, and high-rises where appropriate, such as at transit crossroads. Living at these hubs, she adds, would mean less commuting and more quality time with one’s children, who would be just as happy playing in an urban park as in a private backyard.
“People have a sense that a tall building is the opposite of ‘community’ and it’s not the case,” she finishes. “Community is created when people see each other over and over in the public realm.”
And one last thing: To really get things right, more developers need to work with firms as passionate as Smart Density … because they know better.
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