Pedestrian experience trumps building height in Toronto’s proposed development policy

The City of Toronto is experiencing nothing short of an extra-ordinary boom in hi-rise development. There are 123 buildings currently under construction and 181 proposed which combined is more than 10% of the 1882 tall buildings already built in city (ref: Furthermore the number of buildings doesn’t reflect the increased scale and height of a new structure compared to a typical pre-2000 standard.

Since 2006 there have been over 12,000 residential units completed per year in the City and after a stagnant decade for commercial construction in the 1990’s four major office towers have gone up in the downtown: the 43-story RBC Center at 155 Wellington St. W. 30-storey Telus House , 50-story Bay Adelaide Centre and 54-storey Maple Leaf Square (mixed use) at 55 Bremner Boulevard.

“The City of Toronto has seen enormous positive change in the past ten years. It has experienced sustained growth, and although people complain about it, it is better to be managing growth than to manage a city on the downturn” said Gary Wright Director of Planning and Executive Director for the City of Toronto.

“Construction of new buildings has contributed enormously to the vitality of the downtown. The streets are busy and full of people. Tall buildings are a piece of it.”

Tall Buildings, Inviting Change in Downtown Toronto

In the fall of 2011, following a review of its 2006 policies, Toronto City Council will consider the recommendations of its Tall Buildings Downtown Project. The results of The Project, a two-year study and public consultation, are contained in a recently completed report Tall Buildings, Inviting Change in Downtown Toronto.

Wright said regulation resulting from the study would create certainty about the location of tall buildings for the planners, the city, the politicians and the public. That certainty would alleviate the number of site-specific re-zonings by creating known opportunities for property developers.

Large sections of downtown Toronto currently have no height limit so market conditions have determined the scale of buildings, Wright said. While limits are being proposed for designated streets this policy is expected to remain in place for the downtown core.

Pedestrian Experience Trumps Building Height

From a pedestrian’s perspective, it is the lower floors that creates a buildings presence according to Wright. “If you don’t have a compelling reason to keep buildings to a particular height in an abstract way it doesn’t matter if its 15 or 25-storeys or more.”

Builders have indicated to Wright that there are technical and financial reasons to build below 38-storeys. Over this height the same issues dictate a significantly taller building such as 50-storeys or more he said.

Not surprisingly then many of the proposed buildings in the downtown now exceed 50-storeys despite their construction being a huge undertaking. Wright raised the example of the 75-storey Aura condominium tower currently under construction at 444 Yonge Street at the corner with Gerrard Street which is going to take three and half years to build.

Pedestrian Friendly Design

A key objective of the City’s Tall Building Downtown Project is to create a vision for the downtown core that puts an emphasis on enhancing the pedestrian environment. Achieving this goal has resulted in introduction of podium and tower design guidelines.

Podium and tower design is where the lower part of the building is a few stores, three in the City of Toronto’s policy, and the tower portion is setback on the podium. The design allows sunlight to reach the ground, reduces wind tunnel effects, creates views and permits people oriented retail space at grade. The Aura condominium and many of the new proposed hi-rises in the City are designed this way.

While other types of building would not be precluded from the new tall building guidelines Wright described the podium and tower configuration as “a good model’ that would likely become the dominant form.

Toronto underground path the longest in the World

Asked if demand for goods and services would result in retail space above the ground floor, Wright replied, “it is difficult to support second floor retail because you need a strong market to do it.” He mentioned that there is some on Queen Street West and on the north side of Dundas Square where there is up to four floors of retail space but in general Toronto doesn’t have a lot.

Implying that it is a better option to build retail below grade, Wright said that Toronto has the longest underground pathway in the World. It is 28 kilometers, with extensive sections of it bordered by retail uses. It is considered a marvelous attribute of the downtown Toronto by International visitors Wright has toured through the path.

Tall Buildings and the Official Plan Review

The type of regulation the City expects to introduce for tall buildings is yet to be determined says Gary Wright. The City is in the midst of an Official Plan review and it hasn’t been decided which of the recommendations will be guidelines, included in the zoning by-law or Official Plan.

How the recommendations are implemented will determine the extent to which they are confined to the study area defined in the consultants report, applied to other parts of the City or in the downtown.

Increasing Development Costs

The City of Toronto didn’t conduct an economic analysis of the development of tall buildings as part its study so the dynamics between planning policy and land development costs was essentially not considered. Wright however said that development and site related costs have been increasing aggressively for many years.

Costs have risen in spite of no building limit height limit in the downtown and a significant surplus inventory of residential building units. The City has approved over 20,000 residential units per year while only 12,000 have been constructed.

Wright speculated that growth in the demand for housing has outpaced the development industry’s ability to deliver units at a rate that would create vacancy or surplus in the market. He noted that while residential construction has taken off office construction is lagging and very important for providing employment opportunities.

The City of Toronto’s tall building policy shows a commitment from the City to growing upward and not outward. In spite of the City facilitating hi-rise construction there remains a seemingly insatiable desire to live downtown. Is there a better problem for a city to have?

As Gary Wright said, “People want to live in Toronto and it is great to live in a city that other people want to live in.”


Gary Wright is the Chief Planner & Executive Director for the City of Toronto. He oversees the largest planning department in the country and is responsible for Urban Design, Transportation Planning, Policy and Research and Community Planning initiatives across the city. In his 36 plus years with the City of Toronto, Gary has played a leadership role on major projects such as the Yonge-Dundas Redevelopment project, the harmonized zoning bylaw, and a review of the structure of the division.

Ann launched RENX in 2001 as a part-time venture and has grown the publication to become a primary source of online news for the Canadian real estate industry. Prior to…

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Ann launched RENX in 2001 as a part-time venture and has grown the publication to become a primary source of online news for the Canadian real estate industry. Prior to…

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