A City of Great Avenues
Robert Freedman - Director, Urban Design, Planning Division, City of Toronto
On my first visit back to Toronto, while I was living in New York in the early nineties, I remember being struck by how small our main streets looked and felt in comparison to the grand Avenues of Manhattan. Streets that loomed large in childhood memories - like Yonge, Queen, the Queensway, and Eglinton, suddenly felt under-scaled, like small-town Main Streets or typical strip malls on the edge of town. Toronto is not New York, nor should it try to be, but I do remember thinking what a difference it would have made to our quality of life if our Main Streets, (mostly the remnants of the mile-and-a-quarter concession road grid), had built out more ambitiously.
If Toronto aspires to become a City of great Avenues, we now have a policy tool that is designed to make that happen -- the Avenues Initiative in our new Official Plan.
The city's Official Plan, adopted by Council in November of 2002, and currently under appeal at the Ontario Municipal Board, sets out a coherent and ambitious vision for Toronto's 162 km of Avenues. They are part of the 25% of the city, along with the downtown, waterfront, and four centres, that will accommodate the growth and increase in population that is projected for Toronto over the next 25 years, numbers that range from a conservative half a million to over one million new residents. Some of these new citizens will move into existing residential neighbourhoods, others will choose to live in rental or condo towers, and the remainder, (according to the Plan), will be living in mixed-use, mid-rise buildings lining our Avenues. (140,000 condo units are either under construction or in the pipeline right now.)
The transformation being proposed for our Avenues is really one of scale and intensity, and not use. The Avenues identified in the OP are already functioning as neighbourhood commercial corridors, with a broad range of uses, including residential. They also act as the city's major transportation grid for automobiles and transit. With their broad diversity of character and the amount of continuous retail they provide, our Avenues amaze visitors to the city. They help to define Toronto and give it a unique identity.
Despite their success, there is no denying that our Avenues are under-built. As the city continues to grow, it is no longer suitable for our main arterial roads to be lined with two to three story mixed use buildings in older areas, and a jumbled assortment of single-story commercial buildings, strip malls and apartments in newer areas. We are now a large, amalgamated city, with over 2.5 million residents. It is time for our Avenues to grow up.
The Official Plan calls for the Avenues to evolve, building-by-building, over a number of years. The framework for new development on each Avenue will be established by new zoning by-laws and design guidelines, created in consultation with local communities. The consultation with local communities is taking place in the form of Avenue Studies, intense planning and design investigations undertaken by the city in partnership with independent consultants. The 13 Avenue studies the city has completed or underway thus far, provide a vision of Avenues lined by mid-rise, mixed-use buildings, with retail or other public uses at grade and residential uses above, supported by great public transit.
Intensifying the Avenues is crucial to the future development of Toronto for a number of reasons. Growth along the Avenues can happen in a way that will enhance, rather than disturb, our single-family neighbourhoods, while also providing much needed accommodation to aging residents who wish to sell the family home, but remain close by. As the city grows, so will our demand for the kind of neighbourhood and city amenities that the Avenues currently provide. Finally, intensification of the Avenues supports the city's green agenda. Providing higher density housing along transit routes helps reduce demand for housing in less well serviced areas of the GTA, providing a realistic alternative for those people who do not wish to be dependent on the private automobile to get around. Preliminary estimates show that if all 162 km of Avenues were to be built to an average of 6 stories, we could provide 120,000 housing units, accommodating approximately 260,000 people.
From an urban design perspective, lining the Avenues with mid-rise buildings is a concept as old as the city. Studies of great urban streets, from around the world, tend to exhibit a number of common characteristics:
The Avenues initiative is supported by a workable plan for implementation. A number of Avenue studies have been completed and more are on the way. Since 2002, applications for over 250 projects along the Avenues have been submitted, representing over 21,000 residential units. Having said that, the Avenues initiative is not exactly taking the city by storm. At current rates, it is going to be a very long time before we see our Avenues built out to resemble the transformational images that we produced for the roll-out of the Official Plan. So what's the holdup?
- Mixed-use buildings, with tall, transparent, ground-floor commercial spaces
- A common setback or build-to line (with occasional interruptions)
- An average height of buildings that is approximately as high as the street is wide
- Generous tree-lined sidewalks
- Good public transportation
- Buildings that frame the street, without overpowering the space or depriving it of access to natural light.
The policy framework is compelling but the Toronto development community has not fully embraced the mid-rise building type. By mid-rise, we mean buildings that are taller than a townhouse, but no taller than the street right-of-way, usually between 6 to 12 stories in height. These buildings are typically constructed of concrete, require common circulation, underground parking and elevators. The general feeling among developers in Toronto seems to be that this scale of building is just too expensive and therefore too risky to build in any great numbers at the present time. While the Toronto development community has "cracked the code" on point tower condominiums and long rows of townhouses, the secret to unlocking the mid-rise scale continues to evade us.
In order to better understand the issues, the city's Urban Design Section has teamed up with the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI), and the Toronto Society of Architects (TSA), to host a symposium on the subject, to be held on November 29. In preparing for this symposium, we have been talking to developers, architects, and market analysts who have suggested that the major issues fall into three broad categories:
- Policy and City-Wide Planning Issues:
- The policy is unrealistic. If there was a market for mid-rise buildings along the Avenues, the development community would be responsive.
- Required property assembly is too difficult, particularly in the older parts of the city.
- Parking requirements are too onerous.
- The City must lead with great transit to enhance the appeal of the Avenues.
- The City's expectations with respect to continuous ground floor retail are unrealistic.
- Nimbyism - People like the idea of mid-rise, but only if it is not adjacent to their backyard. They fear overlook, shadowing, traffic and parking impacts, and over- crowding within local community and recreational facilities.
Mid-Rise Building Issues:
- Mid-rise buildings are typically concrete structures with high construction costs that need to be supported by higher densities and building heights.
- The requirement to make ground floor units easily convertible into retail, restaurant or other public uses, can be difficult and expensive.
- The extent of common space required, for the scale of building, negatively impacts financial feasibility.
- A range of small building design issues including the challenge to design an efficient footprint, the expense of underground parking, accommodation of a second means of egress, the provision of expensive elevators and their ongoing maintenance, as well as onerous loading and garbage requirements.
- Expensive noise abatement measures (e.g., triple glazing) may be necessary to make street-facing units marketable.
Market and Economic Issues:
With all of these issues associated with mid-rise development, some critics have asked the very blunt and honest question - why bother? What makes this initiative different and therefore more likely to succeed than similar efforts in the past? To begin with, the amalgamated city includes newer, wider Avenues. These Avenues have the potential to accommodate taller mid-rise buildings; the parcels are larger, requiring less land assembly and making building layout and parking easier. There is also more room in the street for dedicated transit. Finally, Torontonians (for a variety of reasons including cost, convenience, and urban living) are buying condos at an unprecedented rate, not just as an investment, but also as places to live. With rising gas prices, mid-rise condo buildings are even starting to appeal to families, particularly if family friendly amenities like secure-roof-top play areas and parking spaces with garage doors are included.
- The market is finicky. The majority of potential condominium buyers want a unit with a view.
- Many people do not want to "live above the shop", and feel that there is a certain stigma attached to it.
- Some buyers like the idea of living on a transit line, others do not.
- Some see the Avenues as a great place for empty nesters and seniors, while others see it as a hard sell.
- There is a market for affordable housing, but it raises NIMBY issues.
- Ground floor entertainment retail, restaurant and bar uses are often seen to be in conflict with residential uses above.
- Small sized mid-rise buildings can be very expensive to build with poor economy of scale.
- The City's rezoning and development review process is too onerous and too slow. Banks are wary of mid-rise projects.
- There are no tax or financial incentives for this form of development, as there are in other Canadian and US cities.
- The Avenues begin to work and create synergy when there is a critical mass of buildings on both sides of the street. "Pioneer" builders are therefore burdened with greater risk.
- Townhouses are faster and easier to get approved and built, even if it means leaving density on the table.
- The "hipness factor" - the condo marketing machine has associated urban living with high-rise condos and lofts - whether for singles or empty nesters. Mid-rise on the Avenues is a tougher sell.
- Condo living has yet to catch on in a big way with the family housing market.
Despite the optimism of our policy framework, the success of the Avenues Initiative and the mid-rise building form are far from clear, at least in the short term. Many seem confident that, in the long term, the increasing cost and scarcity of land will make the numbers work. The real question is, how do we make things happen now? What can the City do differently, (or better), to kick-start this process? What do architects, builders and the development community need in order to respond? Our Avenues should build-out more ambitiously. On November 29th please join us at our Urbanizing the Avenues Symposium where collectively we can figure out how to make it happen.