The thickets of condominium towers growing up in Toronto are changing the face of the city at an astonishing pace. Less remarked on, but potentially as important, is the proliferation of mid-rise buildings on the city's main streets.
It has been the dream of city planners for at least two decades to build up the "avenues" – streets like Queen, Dundas, Bloor and Eglinton. Outside the downtown core, they have traditionally been lined with two- or three-storey buildings with shops on the ground floor and apartments or offices upstairs. That urban form has remained much the same for decades.
If developers could be persuaded to build up those avenues, replacing old buildings and empty lots with structures of five, six, 10 or 11 storeys, it would do wonders for the city. Toronto is expected to grow by 500,000 people over the next 20 years, reaching a population of more than three million. If the city is to remain livable, planners want as many as possible to live on or near key main streets, close to transit and community services.
A recent report said that the main streets have about 200 kilometres of frontage that could be filled with new mid-rise buildings. Those buildings could house around 250,000 people, half of the city's projected population growth.
For a long time, the avenues plan was just pie in the sky. Mid-rise buildings were not worth the hassle of assembling land and clearing hurdles at city hall. Developers much preferred to bang up a 40-storey glass tower on the site of an old parking lot. As a result, Toronto is a city of soaring towers and squat houses, with little in between.
Now, at last, that has begun to change. With the rise in real-estate values and the growing lure of downtown living, developers are flocking to build mid-rise buildings on the avenues that offer an alternative to high-rise condo living and single-family-home ownership.
City planner Lorna Day says the city has been "pleasantly surprised" to find that about a quarter of growth over the past few years has been on the main streets. "We've seen tremendous interest from every scale of developer," she says.
Consider what just one small architecture firm, RAW Design, is doing. On College Street in Little Italy, it designed Cube Lofts, a 21-unit, six-storey block that looks from the front like stacked glass cubes.
A few blocks away, its 1245 Dundas St. will replace an old garage with an eight-storey block marked by jutting overhangs. The eight-storey, 43-unit project plays on the rapid gentrification on Dundas, luring those who "who want to live in an intimate and integrated downtown neighbourhood." Across town in the Beach, the Bellefair condominium overlooking Kew Beach Park will take shape from the shell of an old church.
Projects like these draw people who want to enjoy the active street life of the avenues, but don't want to live up in the sky and don't want the expense or trouble of a house in a popular neighbourhood. "They're not blockbusters," says architect Roland Rom Colthoff, who teamed up with Richard Witt to form RAW in 2007. "By definition they have to fit into the neighbourhood."
The trouble is red tape. Despite all the earnest talk about intensifying the avenues – a goal set out in the city's official plan – city hall still places all sorts of obstacles in the way of developers who want to go mid-rise. Often they have to spend months or even years fighting for a zoning change. Once they get approval, they have to cope with restrictive, often nonsensical rules. One requires them to put a big electrical-transformer vault in the building, gobbling valuable space; another to build an "amenity space" like a gym or party room, often redundant in a busy neighbourhood with amenities all around.
"Their plan says they want to develop the avenues," says Mr. Rom Colthoff, "but they have an old set of rules that presents a big delay in bringing these projects to market."
If the city really wants to build up its avenues, it should learn when to get out of the way.