In a recent article on the Torontoist, Toronto's relatively new chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat proposed that Toronto's need for increased density in the downtown core could be met by easing the approval process for mid-rise construction. Nothing gets us going like a good urban planning issue, so we made mid-rise developments the star of This month's Sam Talks.
There is still a lot of antagonism towards developers coming from resident groups when a mid-rise development is proposed. How can this be changed?
The best way to do that is to engage residents early on, well before making an application to the city. There's nothing better than presenting the facts. Sometimes it might take a number of meetings for people to understand exactly what we're proposing. We try to inform residents and engaging the right stakeholders: the people who are going to be impacted directly.
Can mid-rise developments solve the problem of a lack of density in the city while curbing urban sprawl?
Mid-rise is one of the solutions to a lack of density downtown, but it won't solve the problem on its own. You need high-rise development as well as other forms of development to increase density while giving people a choice in where they live.
That's very much what we're doing at Widdicombe & Eglinton with stacked townhouses. The density is much greater than a traditional townhouse development, but it still has the characteristics that people like about low-rise development. We have to be creative when looking at solutions for different types of people and different sites.
Technically W&E is viewed as apartments. But I think it's more like a townhouse. There's no interior corridor and no elevator, both of which people typically associate with apartments. But the various forms of housing are treated differently by the city in terms of zoning and applications.
Our reason for building this form of housing is to provide something affordable in the marketplace. A lot of low-rise housing is no longer affordable. That's when people turn to condo apartments. We're trying to fill that gap. Townhouses have also become unaffordable for many family and stacked towns could be a great solution for them.
Affordability is a huge issue. The lower the development charges and the lower the financial municipal obligations the better able we are to provide an affordable housing alternative.
How can mid-rise developments offer amenities with fewer resident pooling their condo fees?
The problem with medium density or smaller buildings is that there is a limit to the amenities that can be provided. Lack of space is obviously one issue. But amenities that involve labour costs, like concierge services, become more expensive for everyone. The idea is to try to gauge what the most valued amenities are.
Concierge services are highly valued by residents. A gym is another one of the most desirable amenities and the money spent is recouped by not having to pay for a membership elsewhere. You also need a multifunction room, somewhere to hold condo meetings and parties. Beyond those few things, we're looking at bells and whistles. By focusing on amenities that people really care about and truly deliver a return on investment, mid-rise developments can work for both residents and the neighbourhood.
Can downtown neighbourhoods maintain their cozy feel if mid-rise developments become more common?
Absolutely. I think they can even be improved through animated use of the ground floor. It can be argued that housing a vibrant assortment of shops, restaurants and cafés is more important than using that space for amenities. It adds to the street experience for everyone walking by in a way that amenities can't.
In Italy there is the custom of the passeggiata, or going for a walk in the evening after dinner. It's a time to relax with family and friends while taking in the neighbourhood ambiance. Making neighbourhoods pleasant to simply walk through is so important in developing healthy, happy communities.
Should zoning rules be changed to make it easier to build mid-rise?
I think zoning rules and guidelines that are applied city wide are problematic in general. It creates monotony. Whether a building is five or seven stories doesn't really matter. Height is just one physical attribute of a building and it's far from the most important one; it's just the easiest one for most people to understand and it's easy to regulate.
When you have regulations that determine how far buildings have to be set back and their height and other attributes, everything ends up looking the same. It gets to the point where you don't even need an architect anymore because the city has already made all the decisions and creativity is eliminated.
I advocate for hiring a good architect who will take a site and try to understand its context and come up with something that's perfect and perfectly unique for that particular site. This how we get visually diverse streets and vibrant neighbourhoods.
Sam Crignano, President of Cityzen, regularly contributes to the
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