Midrise housing has bright future in Toronto — whether residents like it or not: Hume

It seems every time a midrise development is proposed, it is treated as if it were an affront to civic good taste and municipal well-being.

As Toronto planners tell it, midrise development could well be this city’s saviour. Lining the main streets with four- to 11-storey buildings, they argue, would provide housing for thousands without overwhelming the neighbourhoods of which they are part.

So why are so many midrise projects greeted with howls of outrage by disapproving locals and/or unimpressed planners? Each one is treated as if it were an affront to civic good taste and municipal well-being. Getting the go-ahead for something as benign as a six-storey condo can be as arduous and expensive as a 60-storey tower.

The latest example is, of course, an eight-storey condo proposal for 321 Davenport Rd. It has turned neighbourhood luminaries including author Margaret Atwood and businessman Galen Weston into nattering nabobs of NIMBYism. Opponents of the project insist it will ruin the Annex and destroy their quality of life.

Hmmm. This isn’t the first time such arguments have been heard. Who could forget the saga of 109 Ossington Ave? Though not as august as the Annex, neighbourhood NIMBYs came out in force to fight the six-storey, 85-unit, condo. Though it replaced a used-car lot — a used-car lot! — residents complained it was too high, that it would block the sun, increase congestion and contribute to the gentrification of a street whose inhabitants apparently revelled in its griminess.

Naturally, the fight ended up at the Ontario Municipal Board, which added years and considerable expense to the process. Finally, in 2015, the OMB approved it with minor modifications. Now, as buyers move into the recently finished building, it’s clear the condo is one of the best things to happen to Ossington this century. Given the quality of much of the architecture on the street, 109 stands out for just one thing — design excellence.

Hard to say whether 321 Davenport will reach the architectural standard of 109 Ossington — drawings depict a showy glass slab — but don’t be surprised if it also ends up at the OMB.

“Building midrise is always harder because you’re going to be in someone’s backyard,” notes Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale – High Park), veteran of many a midrise battle. “The impacts are more intimate. Towers are easier. With midrise there’s a lot more fiddly work involved.”

To make matters worse, though the city supports midrise development, it can’t always see its way clear to approving it.

“It’s very difficult to get anything done,” laments Toronto’s acknowledged midrise master, architect Roland Rem Colthoff. His practice, RAW Design, the go-to firm for residential that isn’t tall, has completed projects across the city as well as Hamilton, Ajax and beyond.

“I love my work,” he says, “but there are a lot of frustrations. Planners can’t see past their own policies. When I started, midrise guidelines were fresh off the press. I went to many meetings where city planners extolled the virtues of midrise. But after a two-year honeymoon, we were back to the same old routine; the proposal is too tall, too dense, too this, too that . . . It doesn’t allow them to approve buildings that are generally good and generally in compliance. The guidelines are treated as hard lines.”

Though informed by the best of intentions, those guidelines have become as much an impediment to city-building as an impetus, a limit as much as a liberation. Colthoff recalls being hauled before the Ontario Municipal Board in a dispute over a three-foot difference in the height of a building.

Toronto’s midrise study states: “Through an as-of-right zoning strategy . . . the City will provide a level of certainty to the development process . . . Land owners and developers working within this new regulatory framework will know how much they can build and the general timeframes they can expect for the application process. In return, they will be expected to build to a high standard of design excellence.”

As Lorna Day, director of Toronto’s urban design department, points out, “The city has started to rezone areas to give some predictability to developers. Typically, midrise sites are more embedded in the neighbourhood.”

Those sites, she adds, are restricted to main streets, or, in city parlance, avenues. The idea is that midrise structures will serve as a buffer between the busyness of the avenues and the quieter neighbourhoods behind. St. Clair West, Eglinton and Dupont are avenues, but Ossington is not. Neither is Davenport.

Regardless, the future of midrise is looking up. “There have been 171 applications or approvals since the guidelines were issued in 2012,” says Day. We’re starting to see a constituency of people who find midrise a desirable way to live. The neighbourhoods have already marketed themselves.”

By CHRISTOPHER HUMEUrban Issues and Architecture
Tues., Aug. 29, 2017