The City of Toronto is known as one of North America’s leaders in the development of tall buildings. Not only is its physical structure unique in this regard it is also pioneering the preparation of planning policies and programs to facilitate hi-rise development.
Toronto has a track record for considering the impact of tall building development on the urban environment. In 2003 the city initiated a study of tall building policies and programs that resulted in its first set of guidelines being published in 2006. They were introduced on a trial basis for citywide application and consultation with stakeholders.
When the policy came up for review, the City initiated the Tall Buildings Downtown Project whose objective was to create a vision for tall buildings in Toronto’s downtown core with an emphasis on enhancing the pedestrian environment as well as introducing some tightly defined planning goals and regulations for such things as shadowing, sunlight, views and streetscaping.
In 2007 the City Council engaged planning consultants Urban Strategies Inc. and Hariri Pontarini Architects to produce a final set of recommendations that was published in April of 2010 in a report titled Tall Buildings, Inviting Change in Downtown Toronto (Visit the City of Toronto’s Tall Building page for more details and the report).
The report sets out three categories of regulation. First it identifies an area of downtown Toronto and streets where specific tall building policies apply. Secondly it provides heights appropriate to those spaces and thirdly it lays out the guiding principals and performance standards pertaining to those areas.
The Study Area and High Streets
The study defined an area in Toronto’s downtown where tall buildings are considered to be appropriate that are referred to as ‘high streets’. Along the high streets there are six height range categories 47 to 77 meters; 62 to 107 meters; 77 to 137 meters; 92 to 152 meters; 107 to 182 meters; and 137 meters and up.
Three Tiered Height Limit
In addition to the heights specified in particular sections of the ‘high streets’ the study then describes a three tiered height limit. The limits consist of:
(1) A base building height as established in the City’s Zoning By-law
(2) An ‘as-of-right’ height based on the prevailing height of existing buildings along a street segment.
(3) A maximum height that would be established in the Official Plan achievable through a site specific rezoning (with provision for Section 37 community benefits).
The report also sets out 17 proposed regulations, or performance standards, for tall buildings.
The most significant performance standards is a 3-storey podium and spire design requirement with spacing between spires when there is more than one. This standard is the corner stone of the policy because it is different from what some might consider to be a conventional design where a building is built to the edge of the sidewalk and rises vertically to its full height from there.
The podium and spire configuration facilitates access to light, the flow of wind and availability of views between buildings and overcomes some of the problems arising from conventional construction.
Some of the other standards written into the regulation include minimum lot size and maximum floor size regulations, tower set backs, shadow rules, view corridor requirements as well as restrictions related to historical buildings. It also has a variety of ‘at grade’ design considerations including permeable views of interior space, active street retail, ground floor ceiling height requirements and use of ‘human scale’ materials for landscaping in particular.
The report, Tall Buildings, Inviting Change in Downtown Toronto, was circulated for public input in a series of meetings held in Toronto in April that included a well-attended event at the Urban Land Institute in Toronto.
The next step is for the recommendations for a new Tall Building Policy to go to Toronto City Council in the fall of 2011.
Tall Buildings and Other Canadian Cities
Pressure to approve hi-rise buildings in Canada is increasing as cities and developers alike embrace urban intensification concepts and plans. Mid-sized Canadian cities are receiving planning applications from developers for buildings that are breaking new height limits, proposals that are more often residential towers than commercial ones.
The City of Ottawa, a traditionally height resistant city, has recently received two applications for condominiums that, if approved, will be two of the tallest buildings in the city. They are both located in parts of Ottawa with a commercial and residential mix but where at 35-storeys (Preston Street) and 36-storeys (Parkdale Avenue) respectively they would tower over the adjacent neighbourhoods. The tallest residential building is currently Minto Metropole at 33 storeys and 109 m. and the tallest commercial building is Place de Ville at 27 storeys and 112 meters built in 1971.
The City of Edmonton has approved a 35-storey residential building, The Pearl that is currently under construction. It will be the tallest residential building and one of ten highest buildings in that City. It was preceded by a 35-storey condo The ICON completed in 2010 and broke trail for the Bellamy Hill also a 35-storey building that has been proposed.
The City of Halifax has a 33 storey residential building under construction in the Kings Wharf area of the waterfront that will be the second tallest building after Fenwick Office Tower. Similar to Ottawa and Edmonton there is a 27-storey hotel and 27-storey residential building currently at the proposal stage.
Tall buildings are ‘in effect’ the anti-dote for urban sprawl and a natural policy successor to creation of green belts. City’s like Ottawa, Halifax and Edmonton that haven’t established tall building policies are likely to take a close look at whatever guidelines Toronto adopts later this year.
Toronto is articulating a mechanism for regulating tall building development that is straight forward, in some respects tested and repeatable. It seems inevitable that it will be replicated, at least in part, in other municipalities across the country.
Given the growth in tall building development and their capacity to contribute floor area as well as new residents in the case of residential buildings, and tenants in the case of commercial, a new tall building development standard across the country, and the buildings that would follow, will likely bring about a dramatic change to Canadian urban environments.