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City unveils new road-closure site

The city has just made it a little less infuriating to drive around.

As of this month, there's a city website listing all the road closures that might hamper you in your commute or daily errand-running.

It's just a list, but a useful one, compiled by city staff from information sent to them by workers in the field. It lists the name of the road, what intersections it's closed from and to, when the closure starts and ends, and what the extent of the closure is (one lane, all lanes, etc.).

As of the July 21 update, there were five closures on the site, which lists only “main roads,” which the city defines as those roads which are not “local roads.”

“Our staff in the field make a determination if construction on the roadway will be particularly impactful to the travelling public,” says Steve Johnston, who works in the city's communications department.

I say “a little less” infuriating because the city at the moment has no plans for an app, which would make it easier to check into such things when one is already on the road.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Steve Johnston

Short film highlights chief planner as a creative mind

Chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat is the star of a new short film by Freeman House Productions, a Toronto firm doing a series about creative people called The Guild. The project does Keesmaat, and the city, a big favour. In the seven-and-a-half-minute black-and-white film, Keesmaat  makes urban planning sound like fun.

“I believe we are inherently creative as a species,” she says at the outset. “I'm a city-builder. I build cities every day. That's my job.”

She sounds proud, and her perspective on the city is refreshing.

“It's really tricky for me to walk down the street without looking at the shape of a building, the way the entrances are shaped, the width of a sidewalk.”

Though people looking for Toronto specifics will be disappointed – this little film is all blue-sky, big-picture stuff – the way Keesmaat thinks about her profession, as a mix of engineering and art, should make us all sleep a little better at night as our city, as dreamt up by her, coalesces around us.

Writer: Bert Archer

Condo market, especially rentals, continues strong in second quarter

Condo sales were up 10.4 per cent over this time last year, and listings 4.4 per cent, which is great news if you're in the condo business.

But a quick comparison with single-family, semi-detached and townhouses means this could be good news even for those not yet in the market.

According to Jason Mercer, the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) senior market analyst, all this could end up meaning families may finally start moving into condos.

“Currently, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units (including “+ den” variations) are the most popular, “ he says, “both in terms of ownership and rentals. Moving forward, it seems reasonable that an increasing number of families will look to the condominium apartment market to meet their housing needs. Over the past few years, we have seen competition for low-rise homes increase as listings for singles, semis and townhomes have been constrained. This has made it difficult for some households to find a home that meets their needs. Some of these households, who were initially focused on low-rise home types, may expand their search to include condominium apartments.”

At the moment, the fact that 2+-bedroom and 3-bedroom condos are averaging over $400,000 has been an obstacle, but if the single-family dwelling market gets more and more rarefied, the larger condo inits may start to look more attractive, even at those prices.

But there will also be increasing opportunities to get around those prices, as the condo market is also showing signs of robustly stepping in to fill the rental property void.

“Over the past decade, we have not seen a lot of purpose-built rental buildings come on line,” Mercer says. “As a result, the market for higher-end rental units has been served by investors choosing to rent their units. As new condo apartment completions have trended upwards, so too have rental listings and rental transactions.”

According to TREB's report, 27.6 per cent of Toronto's condos are rentals, with a vacancy rate of just 1.7 per cent. It was 1.8 per cent last fall, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), and 1.2 per cent in fall, 2012).

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Jason Mercer

Midrise at Queen and Pape may have found its final developer--or not

You'd think a mid-rise condo at the corner of Queen and Pape would be a no-brainer.

You'd be wrong.

In 2012, the half-built structure was bought by the Rose and Thistle Group, a little-known Yorkville developer, after the original developer--whose name is lost in the mists of time but who confidently called the project the Film Studio Lofts--threw in the towel after beginning the project in – get this – 2006. Rose and Thistle then got embroiled in a fracas with diet doctor Stanley Bernstein.

The property, still unfinished, passed quietly into the hands of the similarly quiet, but somewhat more sinister sounding Kartelle Corporation. Work picked up again, and a new rendering was released, which seemed to picture the Queen streetcar driving north up Pape, which didn't bode well for the troubled property.

The 12-unit disaster doesn't look like it'll be going anywhere fast even now, however. After a month of trying to get a response from Kartelle, Yonge Street Media had to throw in the towel itself, unable to get a word out of anyone but the receptionist, who assured me in June that someone would get back to me. Several emails later and: silence.

So, no word on completion date, no word on sales, and no word on whether it wouldn't be a good idea to just blow the thing and start again with another developer. Streetcar, are you listening?

Writer: Bert Archer

Double Dwelling presents new option for multigenerational living

"It's an instrument for living."

That's how architect Donald Chong describes the so-called Double Dwelling at the corner of Huron and Howland in Chinatown, a house that's been raising eyebrows while under construction in the mostly Edwardian and post-war neighbourhood.

It seems like it doesn't belong, but given the living situation of many people in Chinatown, it couldn't be more apposite.

"If there's anything that's particularly Toronto that's apparent here," Chong says, "it's that any sort of social stigma that might have been there since WWII of living with your parents seems to be slowly eroding."

Formerly two houses on two lots, Chong was commissioned to design a house that would accommodate three generations of a single family, allowing them to benefit from living together, without living on top of each other.

"Really good design is an expression of a culture that's ready to change and evolve," Chong says, "and I think this city is ready for it. We're in the post-honeymoon of the Jane Jacobs era; it's starting to taper out as we're maturing and we can now embrace it without apology. It's the foreground now, not the background, with people pretending not to notice it.

"It's not about eyes on the street so much," he continues, referring to a basic Jacobs concept, "as the fact that we can see a city within the house. You could live like a village not just beyond your doors, but within your doors."

Chong, the man behind Blantyre House, Galley House, and the concept that small fridges make good cities, sees the Double Dwelling as a natural extension of Canadian multiculturalism, circa 1968, and a potential prototype for future designs catering to clients who see family differently from the Anglo tradition.

"There were two dilapidated homes that were barely rentable, more squats. The parents didn't know what do with them as they were aging. Their kids came to us and said our parents are part of it. It was a large enough property because it was on a corner, we have two faces to take advantage of for separate entries, which makes it possible to be rentable, should the parents move out or die."

Chong says the main challenge for the house was to "manage the paths of living," allowing the three generations to share what they wanted to share, but also maintain their own space. So the kitchen is shared, but the living quarters are separated by stairwells and sliding doors.

Chong says there's ample opportunity to alter existing Toronto homes along these lines, given how many of them were designed with alley entrances and smaller, separate spaces for servants.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Donald Chong

Planners in Public Spaces returns

The planners are taking to the streets again.

After a successful inaugural event in 2013, which saw city planning staff meet and talk with more than 1,700 Torontonians in 20 locations across the city, Planners in Public Space (PiPS) is returning with it's $5,000 budget to take city planning to the people.

"The information we received was broad and ranged from topics such as the Ontario Municipal Board to City governance [to] what worked (and what didn't) with respect to planning City-wide and in a local context.," says planner Giulio Cescato, who noted this is vital to informing the city's planning options. "As planners, our primary ethical responsibility is to the public interest, and PiPS helps connect us with the public in a way we haven't done before," he continues.

Perhaps PIPS greatest success last year was its ability to get up close with the public and educate them on what planning is, and what planners do. 

"An informed and educated public is key to effective public consultation, and the extent to which we value feedback from the community is based on our efforts to empower them. PiPS is a step to achieving that goal," Cescato says.

The initiative, modelled on something similar in Melbourne, Australia, is focusing this year on three planning programs, which the department's calling ResetTO, Growing Conversations and Feeling Congested.

"ResetTO is about bringing forward a Development Permit System, which is a more streamlined and predictable way of dealing with development applications," Cescato says. "Although its been in the Planning Act for a long time, it hasn't really been implemented before and there's a lot of confusion about what it is."

Growing Conversations on the other hand is City Planning's "new outreach program centred around how we undertake community consultation itself. Growing Conversations will examine how City Planning undertakes public consultation particularly in regards to Planning Applications. The initiative will see City Planning going to the community and stakeholders to ask how we could do it better.

Finally, "Feeling Congested is the ongoing consultation process on reducing congestion and improving public transit both from an infrastructure and planning point of view."

Cescato points out, however, that in addition to the focus areas, people are welcome to talk to planners about any issue that interests or concerns them.

PiPS runs until Aug. 27. Dates, places and times are available here.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Giulio Cescato

Yorkville gets a new gateway

A decade after the idea was first bruited, Yorkville has a gateway.

It's just about finished now, just where Bay runs into Davenport, in a convenient blank space in front of Jesse Ketchum Public School, leftover after the realignment of the intersection.

"The site was chosen in response to the community's request for a gateway into the 'Village of Yorkville'," says Lara Tarlo, the urban designer with the city's planning department responsible for the gateway. The re-alignment of the road at Bay and Davenport created a normalized intersection and "resulted in open space in front of the School and opportunity for a gateway."

Though the gateway is outside the boundaries of the Bloor Yorkville BIA, they were consulted, and are generally in favour of what is now the most prominent identifier for the neighbourhood.

"Generally, it is a gateway to the community, so it is good to have it identified with the signage, which has been installed," says Briar de Lange, the BIA's executive director. "It was [an unattractive] and rather non-descript space prior to the construction, so adding streetscape improvements and greenery to the area is certainly welcome."

According to Tarlo, the project was shelved for lack of funding a decade ago, and was revived when the decision was made to fix the intersection, at which point a working group including the Bloor Yorkville BIA, the local residents' association, Councillor Wong-Tam, city staff, transportation services and a cycling group formed and met over the course of a year to work through the options and details.

The budget was $160,000, and it should be completed by the end of June or beginning of July.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Lara Tarlo, Briar de Lange

Tonight's Pug Awards recognize commercial architecture still better than residential

We don't have to look to experts or polls to know that Toronto's residential architecture over the past decade has been a disappointment. But sometimes it helps.

"The vast majority of residential entries were banal, negative for our urban landscape, not additive."

That was Gary Berman, co-founder of the Pug Awards, whose annual ceremony celebrating the best residential and commercial architecture in the city is tonight.

But the awards started out as a way to call architects and developers out on the ugliest buildings in the city (as in pug-ugly), and Berman retains a good deal of that constructively negative tenor.

"One of my biggest complaints in the city has been buildings with large institutional budgets for which the landscaping is an afterthought," he says. "Take a look at the ROM: There's no landscaping in front of the addition. Even the AGO, there's no landscaping at grade, and I think that makes buildings less approachable."

As president and chief operating officer of Tricon Capital, Berman has been involved in the building of some of the city's most impressive residential projects, including Five St. Joseph. But he says that Toronto is, on the whole, residentially challenged.

"If you look at the building code and what the planning department wants, they want the point towers, they're looking typically for a rectangular massing that has a fairly small point tower, with something like an 8,400 square foot floor plate," Berman says. "All the buildings replicate that form. But I don't think that's an issue. I think the issue in Toronto is with the cladding materials, poor quality window wall systems, and I think that's in many cases unattractive, and creates a sense of monotony. I think the biggest problem, apart from the poor cladding, is that the interaction with the street at grade is not being thought out well enough. It doesn't matter if it's low-rise mid-rise or high-rise, the ones that have rectangular or cubic format, if they do a better job with cladding or at grade, they score well."

As for the Pug Awards, he's seen both the nominees and the results of the 40,000-50,000 votes received this year. His reaction? "The vast majority of residential entries were banal, negative for our urban landscape, not additive."

He says that, once again, the commercial buildings will be doing better at the Pug polls than the sub-par residential stock.

"Nothing on the commercial side is earth shattering," he says, "nothing that people from around the world should come and see; just decent, good buildings, which is a good way to build a city."

After the awards ceremony, which takes place tonight at the AGO starting at 6 p.m., this year's Pug Talk will discuss the architectural relationship between Toronto and Chicago.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Gary Berman
Photo: Courtesy of architect, Moriyama & Teshima.
 

Leslieville BIA makes the best of a big summer mess

Think of it as an east-ender's take on "Keep calm and carry on."

A few months ago, the Leslieville BIA was confronted with a conundrum that's becoming increasingly familiar around the city.

It's burgeoning strip, just a few years into its own, was going to be more or less shut down as the city and the TTC ripped up its very heart, the intersection of Queen and Leslie, to install new tracks for the new, bigger streetcars that will soon be streaming out of Leslie Barns to the south.

As a result, from May 12 to June 21, Leslieville, like St. Clair and Roncesvalles before them, was going to be in a form of municipally imposed suspended animation.

So they studied what happened on St Clair when the right of way was installed, and Roncesvalles when they got their tracks and much of their under-street infrastructure replaced over a period of months, and even went as far afield as Banff for ideas.

Then they hired a Leslieville designer, Kinnon Elliott, who came up with the poster for the "Take a Leslieville detour" campaign to keep people shopping, eating and strolling down their strip of Queen.

The BIA's co-ordinator, Cathy Quinton, says they used a bus shelter ad space donated by the TTC for one big poster, and the on-site TTC staff offered to put up other versions of Kinnon's work in place of their actual detour signs.

"The TTC themselves have been extraordinary," Quinton says, praising the weekly status update meetings they have together to keep the shopkeepers up to date during what can be very trying and frustrating times.

And to celebrate the end of the disruption, the BIA is organizing a Lemon Fest, following the theme of making lemonade when the city hands you a lemon.

On June 21, there will be neighbourhood lemonade stands between Vancouver and Booth, the boundaries of the BIA, a photo booth for people to give their best puckered faces, local framer Heliographics is offering a first prize of free custom framing for the best lemon-based image submitted by festival goers, and restaurants along the strip will feature a lemon dish of the day.

All proceeds from the day will go to Leslieville's family Red Door Shelter.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Cathy Quinton

Huge Distillery District data centre rises on Parliament

The Distillery district isn't leaving its industrial heritage entirely behind it.

The big building currently going up on Parliament just north of Mill – five storeys, 125,000 square feet, no windows – will be a data centre.

"The building houses mainly computer racks for storing data," says architect Nicola Casciato with WZMH.

In a quickly developing part of town that includes not only the Distillery District, but the new Canary District, Bayside and the rest of the burgeoning East Port Lands, a windowless building filled with machinery could really weigh the place down.

"The architectural challenge was to design a building located within a rich architectural neighbourhood that has no windows," Casciato says. "Architects typically use windows to provide urban animation, in this case, the animation was provided through a richly detailed terra cotta façade system that recalls early computer punch card technology and responds to the local brick environment."

Urbacon, the Toronto- and Montreal-based construction and development company in charge of the project, did not want to discuss the building.

The data centre is being built in two sections, and what's visible now are three of the first five floors of the first section.

Construction began in March, 2013 and is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Nicola Casciato

36 Hazelton getting its skin

It may seem like the old school on Hazelton being turned into a condo has disappeared. But, apparently, it's coming back.

A big selling point of the low-rise building at 36 Hazelton – other than the fact that Mark Wahlberg bought a unit – was the facade of the old St. Basil's Catholic school that stood there. But if you walk by today, you'll just see the skeleton of the new place – it's final form just filled out recently – with no sign of the old brick.

"As with many adaptive reuse projects, the challenges were many," says Les Klein, principal at Quadrangle, the King West firm behind the project. "They included keeping the heritage facade in place while building a new building (above and below grade) behind it; access to the site for construction. This required moving a portion of the heritage facade away for the duration of the construction process to allow access to the rear of the site."

As far as Klein is concerned, the facade, which should be back in place next year, is the key to the building.

"Change in communities should be organic," he says. "While the original use of the school was long out of date, its physical form provides a tie to the community’s historic roots. The new condominium points to the future of the neighbourhood, while being grounded firmly in its rich past."

Given both the scale and the high-end nature of the building, the owners of the unbuilt units demanded quite a bit of say in how their homes were being constructed.

"There were no 'typical' floor plans, and there were no 'typical' units. Each unit was an individually designed luxury home for a very sophisticated clientele," Klein says. "While each unit design has changed under the guidance of its owners, the building has such a strong character that it is able to accommodate the individuality of its owners without losing its identity or coherent design intent."

Klein expects 36 Hazelton, developed by Alterra and built by Zinc construction, to be ready for its new owners by 2015.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Les Klein

Competition invites young people to redesign public spaces

Development and design do not always play well together especially development as quick as ours has been over the past decade and more. But we've done pretty well with our new parks, especially down at the Waterfront, and the just-announced NXT City Prize is looking to build on that.

Developed by Distl, a "creative intelligence studio" working with the city and sponsors, the prize is for people under 30 and their redesigns for existing public spaces.

"Toronto is booming," says Distl's Christine Caruso. "We have cranes on every corner, and vacant lots are rapidly being snatched up and developed. Public space investment is more important than ever, as these spaces contribute to the vibrancy of our city. At the same time, young people are moving into the city – Toronto was recently ranked Most Youthful City – because of this growth, excitement and change. It's more important than ever to match this growth in our public spaces, and to empower the next generation to really take ownership of their city and our shared spaces."

With a deadline of July 31, the top prize of $5,000 will be judged on various criteria, including how implementable it is. But in order not to cap entrants' imagination, there's a second prize of $2,500 for most original submission.

In addition to the $5,000, the winner's design will, it is hoped, be made reality.

"Jennifer Keesmaat has been a huge advocate of this prize," Caruso says, referring to the city's chief planner, "and will lead a professional working group formed to support the winner as they move their idea from paper to the street. This group, comprised of City Hall professionals and other business leaders, will support the effort, help to build connections, and mentor them through the process."

This is the first year of the prize, but Caruso hopes the funding and enthusiasm will be sufficient to make it an annual occurrence, and to help it spread to other cities across the country.

The prize's sponsors include Rockport, Pinnacle, the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Tabia. In addition to Keesmaat, judges for this year's include Rahul Bardwaj, Zahra Embrahim and Sevuan Palvetzian.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Christine Caruso

Airport work brings people movers to a halt

The people movers have been moving fewer people around Pearson airport's Terminal 1 lately.

For the last several weeks, one or more of the moving sidewalks meant to abbreviate travellers' journeys across the vast expanses of airport nothingness have been shut down for maintenance and repairs.

The new yellow Express high-speed one was first, and though the Greater Toronto Airport Authority is providing no details, it seemed to have been down for several weeks.

And as soon as that one – which the GTAA's Patricia Krale says is the only one of its kind in the world -- was up and running the regular, slow-poke ones went down, and remained out of service until late last week.

Visitors to the airport will also have noticed some major construction going on outside in front of the parking facilities. Much of this, according to Krale, is the result of damage done to the roads during the especially harsh winter just past, in addition to terminal work being done for the new rail link to Union Station, which will, when finished, offer passengers slightly less than $20 alternative to the TTC's current $3 fare to and from the airport.

This all comes hard on the heels of the long-term construction project inside the airport to add more than a dozen new restaurant kiosks.

No word from GTAA on when any of it's going to be finished.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Patricia Krale

Artscape's Daniels Spectrum wins international design award

Toronto has two more award-winning buildings.

Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park community centre designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects and run by Artscape, and the Rotman School of Management at U of T (KPMB) have won Architectural Record's Good Design Is Good Business Award, which according to the journal is given out to "demonstrate how embracing design can benefit an organization’s bottom line."

It was one of 10 given out internationally this year, and Toronto is the only city represented twice.

An award for design and business is perhaps not so surprising for a business school. But a community centre is a little less intuitive a choice.

But Daniels Spectrum, developed by the Daniels Corporation, is in the business of community outreach, and according to Seema Jethalal, who heads the place up for Artscape, it makes good sense--business and otherwise.

"Daniels Spectrum has a modular design that lends itself well to users with different needs," she says. "The 6,000 square foot Ada Slaight Hall, for instance, has been set up in dozens of configurations thanks to its partition walls and a retractable seating system."

In any given weekm Jethalal continues, the space can be divided to suit simultaneous events with different needs--from dance performances, to cinema-style film screenings, to art shows, banquet-style gala fundraisers, and 10-piece band performances.

But what sets it apart is the involvement Daniels Spectrum's tenants had in the initial design. 

"Each of the tenant organizations at Daniels Spectrum worked with Diamond Schmitt Architects to design their studios with their respective audiences in mind. Native Earth Performing Arts has a unique ventilation system to allow smudging in Aki Studio (a 120-seat black box theatre), ArtHeart Community Art Centre has a built in kitchen in their art studio so they can provide free meals for drop-in participants, and COBA Collective of Black Artists' drumming and dance studios have been built with a unique sound design to limit sound bleed."

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Seema Jethalal

North York to get new medical offices at new Finch West subway station

Real Wealth developers have announced there'll be a new medical arts building going up in North York.

The eight-storey, 165,000 square foot building will be 200 metres from the future Finch West subway station, and also near the new Humber River Regional Hospital at Keele and Wilson, which is scheduled to open on Oct. 18, 2015.

According to their spokesman, Stephen Murdoch, the project has been in the planning stages since 2011, and construction on the site of a former gas station and Tim Horton's at Finch and Keele is set to begin this fall.

"Findings showed that there was a lack of supply, namely in relation to all that is happening with the new hospital and all that are relocating to it from around Ontario and the Country," Murdoch says. "Current office and medical facilities are old, maintenance fees high, and inefficient, surrounded by an aging population."

Designed by ACK Architects, the building -- to be called University Heights – will offer its 89 office spaces both for rent and for sale.

The building will also qualify for tier 2 of Toronto's Green Standard, and will include 7,100 square feet of green roof.

Murdoch said the building is scheduled for occupancy in June, 2016.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Stephen Murdoch
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