Little boxes — and they all look just the same
City Hall Watcher #216: Contributor Adin Wagner looks at why Toronto's architecture is so samey, plus some charts from Toronto's development pipeline report showing big buildings with tiny units
Welcome to the limbo period.
City Clerk John Elvidge has announced a plan to set the by-election to replace John Tory for Monday, June 26 — right after Pride weekend. Under the Clerk’s proposed timeline, Council will declare the mayor’s seat vacant at their March 29 meeting. Nominations will open the following Monday, on April 3, and close on Friday, May 12.
These dates are “subject to City Council declaring the vacancy and passing a bylaw requiring a by-election,” so there’s the possibility for some shenanigans, but that possibility seems remote. Assuming Council sticks to the plan, there are 119 days until the election and 35 days until nominations.
In the meantime, City Hall exists in a leadership vacuum. I’d expect Council, led by Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie, to be reluctant to push forward with any big decisions, given the likelihood that the next mayor will come into office with big plans of their own.
So now we play the waiting game.
But the waiting game sucks.
Let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos. Or, er, let’s play a game where we talk about condo development in the City of Toronto.
I’ve got two main stories in this issue. The first is a contribution from writer and lawyer Adin Wagner, who looks at some of the barriers to getting decent architecture in the city — barriers that have become more fortified by recent provincial legislation.
I also have a look — and charts — from the City’s new report on the Development Pipeline. The coming implementation of inclusionary zoning has caused the data to get kind of nuts.
Let’s get into it.
⚡️ This issue runs a bit long. If you’re reading it via the Gmail web interface, you may want to jump over to the web version to ensure it doesn’t get clipped.
— Matt Elliott
Toronto’s architecture is bland and boring — and there are now new barriers to better buildings
By Adin Wagner
Let’s talk about the tall glass rectangles. Like other downtown residents, I have spent countless hours with my field of vision dominated by the Toronto skyline. And whether I’m looking through floor-to-ceiling windows out of some open-concept office, or up from the ground level within a maze of condos, the collective architecture of our city leaves me feeling empty.
Almost always, I end up gazing at row upon row of the same tall glass rectangle.
Now, with their sweeping amendments to provincial planning legislation, Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario progressive conservatives risk plunging our skyline further into monotony.
As recently as November 27 last year, City Hall had some discretion over the design aesthetic of larger buildings through the “site plan approval” process. Under section 41(4)(2)(d) of the previous version of Ontario’s Planning Act, developers of larger buildings required the City’s —or the Ontario Land Tribunal’s — approval of drawings displaying, among other things, “matters relating to exterior design, including without limitation the character, scale, appearance and design features of buildings.” Ford’s amendments removed that subsection and with it, City Hall’s ability to regulate the attractiveness of our skyline.
In speaking with the City Planning office, they emphasize that the City retains some of its ability to affect the exterior design of high-rise buildings, but those powers have certainly been curbed.
“In our interpretation of the legislation, it has to do with performance; it doesn't have to do with appearance,” explains Urban Design Director Emilia Floro.
As a result, the aesthetics of Toronto’s high-rise architecture under this new regime will mostly be shaped by zoning regulations, the building code and market forces.
Of course, it is questionable whether the City’s previous powers were used to substantially improve its high-rise architecture. Even with the previous version of the Planning Act in place, critics such as the Globe and Mail’s Alex Bozikovic argued that developers pushed lacklustre architecture through the system, knowing that “Toronto city planners have shown that they fundamentally don’t care about design details.”
Based on my time spent looking at the skyline, that rings true. Toronto’s slew of neo-modernist stepped pyramids and lopsided towers appear to have been shaped far more by the infamous “angular plane” guidelines than by any arbiter’s particular taste.
That is not to say that we are without inspired high-rise architecture. Upcoming projects like Frank Gehry’s Forma towers and the Timber House are promising, and the Toronto Dominion Centre remains a modernist masterpiece. But not every high rise will be designed by visionaries with a blank canvas. Most, in fact, will not.
With a nearly impenetrable housing market, and a significant boost in population expected over the next decade, Toronto housing is a crisis to be solved. Even if the next mayor continues the work of cutting through the city’s exclusionary zoning as John Tory promised, the housing shortage will still largely be sated by hundreds of new condo towers. And tall glass rectangles are — you guessed it — the cheapest way to build a Toronto high-rise condo.
Criticisms of the Toronto office aside, the tastes of city planning departments have been instrumental in shaping some of the most famous skylines around the world. Former chief planner of London Peter Rees, for example, is often credited with steering his city’s skyline away from sameness. His method was to use his office’s authority to involve himself in the early stages of development.
Yet in the name of expediency, Ford has sapped Toronto’s city planning office of its aesthetic leverage. Granted, the old development process took far too long, especially in the midst of a housing shortage, but the solution could have been to reform and fund our processes, not strip them of their substance.
Whether the exterior design powers were wielded effectively or not, at least they were there: a looming threat against shameless developers and a potential tool for future city planners with Reesian-like design ambitions. Now left unchecked, developers catering to renters and low-end buyers – i.e. the majority of Torontonians – can fill our city with buildings devoid of architectural style. The people that will reside in and around them deserve better.
Thanks to Adin for his contribution! If you’re a Toronto-based writer with something to say about City Hall, City Hall Watcher is always accepting pitches for paid articles. Get in touch with Matt.
Development pipeline explodes as developers get in before inclusionary zoning
City Hall’s Planning & Housing Committee meeting agenda this week includes one of my favourite reports of the year — an update on the state of Toronto’s Development Pipeline.
The headline news is, well, the chart above. In 2020, the city set a modern record, with the number of residential units proposed approaching nearly 80,000 that year. In 2021, that record was blown to smithereens, with more than 180,000 proposed units.
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