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Tower renewal talk brings Australian expert to town

I once asked former mayor David Miller in an interview what excited him most about the city. I'd come to expect unusual answers to usual questions from this mayor, but still I was surprised when instead of saying the film festival or our wonderful multiculturalism or our scintillating high school football scene, he said "tower renewal."

Though deeply unglamorous, Toronto's program to give new life to its many old residential towers, built from the 1950s to the 1980s, by making them sustainable, more communal and prettier is, in fact, quite exciting. Exciting enough to bring Dr. Rebecca Leshinsky up from the Melbourne, where she teaches at the Catholic University of Australia, to talk this week on the subject at the Innis Town Hall.

Leshinsky is studying her own city's towers and what might be done to rehabilitate them. "We came across Toronto's tower renewal program and we thought there may be some learnings that each of us could teach each other," she said, shortly after landing in Toronto. "I think Toronto is ahead of Melbourne, but I hope through the research we do we can offer some of our findings."

Her talk concentrated on potential financial instruments that may be available—to landlords, tenants and the city—to finance improvements and retrofits.

Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects also spoke, mostly about zoning, which he's studied and reported on to the city. Endorsed by the city's planning and management committees, Stewart's report recommends easing the zoning bylaws associated with these slab towers, often in place since they were built, to allow all the same things main streets and commercial strips are allowed, especially easy development of commercial space to allow for the introduction of small businesses, retail and otherwise, that might cater to the communities of as many as 20,000 people.

Speaking specifically about St. Jamestown, but indicating it's the same situation in communities all over the city, including Thorncliffe Park, Rexdale and East Scarborough, Stewart told Yonge Street, "It's had a 40-year history of no commercial activity. It's not going to happen overnight, and it's going to take a lot of effort to get it started, but you can imagine, once you get it started, there will be a lot of demand."

Writer: Bert Archer
Sources: Rebecca Leshinsky, Graeme Stewart

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