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The pros and cons of height: Yonge Street panel stresses importance of great tower design

Density can be good, but only if it pays as much attention to design, its surroundings and the people it serves.

That was the message that came through at Yonge Street's public forum held at the ING Café last Thursday and sponsored by the Toronto Community Foundation and Waterfront Toronto.

Toronto Star columnist Royson James moderated a talk by architects Shirley Blumberg (the 'B' in KPMB) and Charles Rosenberg (of Hilditch Architects) and city planner Gregg Lintern.

Adam Vaughan and the Ontario Municipal Board were the thread that ran through much of the comments and discussion with the audience of about 100 afterwards, which highlighted one of the big problems with this rapidly evolving city: lack of public engagement.

Vaughan, councillor for Ward 20, where much of the city's development has been taking place, was lauded for his ability to mostly skirt the OMB by engaging both residents and commercial stakeholders, and getting consensus without having to resort to the OMB.

Rosenberg paid special attention to what he calls a lack of "generosity" among many of the towers being built. He would like to see more buildings set back a bit from the sidewalk to allow for creative use of storefront space, and lobbies that make up a proportionate amount of the ground floor. "Even if it's just for show," he said later, "at least there's a sense that people living in the building are reflecting their sense of the building down at grade."

He used the example of a building close to his office, a low-rise that’s been bought and is in line to be demolished in favour of a 30-plus-storey tower on Charlotte Street. The area, King Street West just east of Spadina, has been heavily developed in the past several years, with a number of towers added to the previously mostly low- to mid-rise neighbourhood. He tells the story about going into a not-for-profit agency that helps developmentally challenged people in the building slated for demolition, and asked the staff if any one of their hundreds of new neighbours had ever stopped by to ask about their services or offer to volunteer. The answer was no. Rosenberg says that as a result of the way many of these towers are being built, with little integration into their surroundings, and with little or no architectural engagement with the existing buildings, residents themselves have a tendency to feel disengaged. This, he says, leads to the disintegration of neighbourhoods. "I think to myself, I wonder how well this is going to work out in the future in terms of civic and public engagement."

He also questions the ubiquity of the city's current design dictate: the podium and point tower. He figures it was originally the result of lobbying from firms like Architects Alliance and Core, who made convincing that this sort of design would have the least impact on street level in terms of shadow and other problems the public often has with towers. But, according to Rosenberg, the city "didn't think about what happens when you put one point tower next to another next to another. I think it's time to go back and revisit that."

One simple fix Rosenberg thinks the city could make is with the design of their development notice signs. He figures they should tell people what density is allowed on the site, what density is being requested, and include a photo-realistic image of the proposed building in situ. This, he says, would give people a more immediate sense of what's happening to their neighbourhood, and might prompt a greater variety of people to become involved in the approvals process.

Blumberg pointed out in her talk that other cities solve their density problems in a variety of ways, with a mixture of high-rise, mid-rise and a low-rise approachs to urban planning known as horizontal density.

Rosenberg also discerned among the audience a sense of helplessness, partially from an ignorance of the admittedly complex system of planning, zoning and approvals, and partially because that system has a tendency, contrary to its own apparent intentions, of alienating the average city resident. He cites one couple who came up to him at the end of the evening. They lived in the Bloor-Lansdowne area. "They told me they felt they were the next target," he says, referring to their fear that their relatively low-rent yet central neighbourhood was about to be invaded by hoards of those big white rezoning notifications and the inevitable podia and point towers that follow. "They're right."

Yonge Street's next panel is March 22. More details soon.
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