One block from Yonge-Dundas Square, in the heart of downtown Toronto, Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management campus sits over a big-box Canadian Tire store.
Hailed as a success story at the time for combining the public realm and retail, the corner looks drab and feels uninspiring by today’s standards.
“It leaves a lot to be desired on what is a pretty prominent intersection,” said Coun. Brad Bradford.
In fact, too much of the growth and development taking place in Toronto is unremarkable, says the former city planner, who was elected to office in 2018.
“I think we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to architecture, when it comes to urban design, when it comes to public realm.”
The Ward 19 Beaches—East York councillor was behind a recent motion, approved by council, that would see the city adopt practices aimed at producing a better-looking city and a more functional one.
The motion includes ideas that will no doubt prove contentious — including a plan for a public design competition to solicit ideas for increasing density in neighbourhoods now zoned for single-family homes.
Council voted to ask staff to include the plan in an upcoming report to the planning and housing committee.
The motion also asks CreateTO, the agency in charge of managing Toronto’s real estate portfolio, to look at using open international design competitions for major and transformational projects in which CreateTO is the lead developer, including public housing.
That means that instead of issuing a prescriptive requests-for-proposal, the city would be putting the onus on applicants to come up with inspiring new ideas.
The motion was adopted by council and has the support of Mayor John Tory.
“Toronto is a global centre for architectural, planning and design talent. However, the city hasn’t always tapped into these vast resources as effectively as we could,” according to the summary of the motion, which was taken from a letter Tory wrote to the city’s planning and housing committee.
“With these initiatives and several others I am interested in (pursuing), I hope to unlock and activate architects, landscape architects, planners and students in these disciplines to help build a more beautiful and engaging city.”
Toronto is forecasted to grow by an estimated 537,000 people over the next 11 years, according to Toronto Official Plan documents, and that’s an opportunity to create a more inspiring, functional and attractive urban landscape, Bradford said.
“I think it’s high time here in Toronto that we push applicants, we push developers, and in fact we push ourselves to do more with what we have,” said Bradford.
There are already some procedures in place to insure against utter disasters being built, but they don’t catch everything and sometimes the way a space is going to be experienced can’t be entirely worked out until it’s built. Often, compromises must be made.
The condo tower on top of the Royal Canadian Military Institute on University Avenue was one of those compromises — the developer saved the facade of the decaying historic building and preserved important parts of the interior, including a prized library. Walking by the building at street level is pleasant — it’s experienced as a heritage building. From across the street, it’s less attractive — a narrow modern tower sprouting from the top of a building of a different era.
These days the building is often cited as an example of “facadism,” said Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who was the city councillor for the ward at the time.
“It was never going to be an architectural masterpiece, but it wasn’t trying to be,” said Vaughan.
“I don’t think there was a great solution on the site.”
The site is so narrow the builders couldn’t include parking for tenants, instead providing hundreds of bicycle racks, proving that it is possible to sell condo units in Toronto even if they don’t come with parking spaces. And the library was maintained.
“It’s a building full of lessons,” said Vaughan.
The city has a comprehensive planning framework grounded in the official plan and outlined in its design guidelines and zoning bylaws. Every new development application goes through a thorough development review. All applications go through public consultations, which in many cases include the city’s own design review panel, according to City of Toronto spokesperson Ellen Leesti.
Joe Berridge, a partner at Urban Strategies, a global urban design and planning consultancy based in Toronto, thinks more regulation may not be what the city needs to improve.
“I wish that great architecture could spring unbidden from city council motions,” he said, adding that he thinks Toronto needs to lighten up — literally and figuratively.
Get more City Hall in your inbox
Get an inside look at what’s really going on at City Hall in our Hall Monitor newsletter.
He’d like to see more use of colour in buildings and less uniformity.
“I’d like us to ban grey and dark glass. We are a winter city, we’re a grey city, and it’s so depressing, particularly a lot of the new waterfront developments, the East Bayfront section. It’s very dark and frankly, it’s depressing.”
In Europe, design competitions are mandatory for most public buildings that involve public funding, including social and public housing, said Berridge.
“You want to make sure that the competition is structured so that extraordinary, remarkable, interesting things can happen. Sometimes the rules can be so constraining that you don’t let that creativity emerge.”
Heather Rolleston is a principal at the architecture firm Quadrangle and a member of the City of Toronto’s design review panel. The city has begun learning from mistakes that were made with earlier condo communities, said Rolleston.
She points to retail at the foot of some condominiums as an example of something that could be done better. As it stands now, retail space in condo buildings is typically occupied by dry cleaners and convenience stores, because builders used to be reluctant to invest extra money in building techniques that create larger and more effective retail spaces at ground level.
“Large columns coming right to the ground doesn’t make for good retail spaces,” said Rolleston. “That’s why you see pokey little dry cleaners and small variety stores because it’s actually quite cumbersome to try to conduct decent retail in space that has giant columns.”
That kind of thinking is changing, said Rolleston, but she thinks opening up big projects to international bidding would add more diversity to the city’s architecture.
“I think every good city has lots of diversity. And I think Toronto could use more, actually.”
Historically, Toronto has been cautious when it comes to planning, says Richard White, author of “Planning Toronto: The Planners, The Plans, Their Legacies, 1940-80.”
Councils throughout history have not been keen to spend too much money, for one thing.
But sometimes lack of planning — or a failure to carry out planning — can have an upside. In the 1950s there was an attempt to turn Old Toronto into an arts precinct, White said. The plan included tearing down many of the existing buildings. It was abandoned before it advanced too far.
“Toronto has historically been quite cautious with these large-scale projects, and I’m not convinced that the city has been ill-served by that,” said White.
Some residents are more skeptical still, especially when it comes to increasing density.
“Our feeling is that this is definitely being pushed by the development community,” said Geoff Kettel, co-chair, federation of North Toronto Residents’ Association.
And he has a bone to pick with the emphasis, when it comes to design, on being unique.
“When it comes to design … it’s also about the repetition of the ordinary. There’s a beauty in that simplicity,” said Kettel.