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jozl

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I was speaking to a friend of mine who is marginally involved in a proposed small west end development. He told me that a developer had mentioned to him that the bureaucracy-permits, approvals, licenses, fees, etc.-required to build a four to six story building are the same as a twenty or thirty story building. I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not but it does make me wonder why there is so little low rise development happening in Toronto. The current city plan calls for low rise development along our main streets but most of the new development we are getting is high rise. Does anyone know if the city is actively encouraging the construction of low rise building with retail at street level and residential above? Seems it would work well on nearly all of our east-west main streets outside of the downtown core.
 

TrickyRicky

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jozl, I feel that your question or some permutation of it is actually one of the central questions facing, or rather not being faced, by the city today.

What you are taking about is a mid-rise form that is largely missing from our city and is not discussed enough in this forum which tends to obsess about tall buildings (so much so that people call buildings that are 10-15 storeys in height mid-rise!).

Why are mid-rises generally not built? Because they for all intensive purposes can't be. The bias against this form of development extends beyond the permits and beaurocracy and into fire, insurance, tax and primarily financing biases. So the answer is not that it's the city's fault, it's the whole system and the cities fault. To give you an example: a few years ago when they were giving out mortgages to everyone's dog, cat and dead grandpa on building type arrangements (such as highrise condos) that have little long-term proven track-record, no major bank in this country would take new mortgages on the kind of mixed commercial / residential building you speak about. We are talking about a built forum that makes up most of the urban landscape in cities around the world and that has a proven track-record of solvency and sustainability for thousands of years and yet in our time no major lender would extend financing. To be fair Royal Bank's commercial arm may do business with you now in 2011 and there are private and small sized lenders that will lend you the money (in exchange for high interest rates).

Any yet this "low-rise" built form is something that the general public I feel could accept as a means to densify the city while retaining the charms and quality of life of urban neighbourhoods. A public that, despite our enthusiasm here, generally dislikes tall buildings and the environments they create. It is a form of building that has a lower threshhold of financial entry that would encourage local people to invest and experiment in their communities rather then have massive corporate entities dictate the type and form of development.

So if there is any enthusiastic young person on this forum who is interested in a business or planning thesis topic I challenge you to take a look at the failure of the avenues plan and why 4-7 storey buildings are so difficult to build in Toronto today. You could make recommendations to the city as to how the regulatory and tax structure could be changed to encourage this kind of benefitial building type to flourish, or build a business case for financing the construction and mortgage debt for this type of building in Toronto a building type that is ubiquitous in the rest of the world.
 

jozl

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You understood me exactly TrickyRicky. You also provided some useful information I was not aware of. Thanks!
I think most of our east west streets, outside of the downtown core, are underdeveloped. For instance, Danforth is right on the subway line yet it is lined with many small two story buildings. Other streets have only one story buildings. It's such a waste of space. Many European and several older American cities make (or made) much better use of their "avenues" in terms of mixed use density.
 

junctionist

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At first, when you said that you were interested in low-rise buildings, jozl, I thought about new one- and two-storey buildings, which aren't that common anymore along the older major streets of Toronto. New three storey buildings are somewhat rare, but in the past few years, mid-rise buildings of up to 11 stories have become common. Initially in the recent condo boom dating back to the early 2000s, there was something holding back these kinds of projects, but we're seeing a lot of them now in the rare places where there isn't a heritage building or other lucrative property. Many are now proposed and under construction, but Ideal Condominiums at 457 College stands as perhaps a paradigm building of this scale which has been completed in recent memory. 60 Richmond Street East by Stephen Teeple is an architecturally bolder example.

There are also many high-rise buildings of around 12-16 stories that appear to be mid-rise with a good combination of setbacks and proportions, like District Lofts and East Lofts, and high-rise projects with interesting all residential mid-rise buildings like Tridel's Verve. We've seen plenty of all residential mid-rise development along residential streets, with projects like Freed's interesting condos on Portland and Shaw Streets like 66 and 75 Portland Street.
 
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W. K. Lis

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Gasoline stations have been disappearing from Toronto and being replaced... by single-story strip stores in the most part. I have yet to see them replaced with multi-story buildings of any sort.
 

jozl

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AlexBozikovic, Your link addresses a concern I’ve had about Toronto’s recent (past decade) building boom. You have hit the nail on the head. I think we may be heading for an odd mix of high density residential high rises and underused low density avenues. This article has given me hope that an effort to address this “problem†has begun. Thanks.
 

Jonny5

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Gasoline stations have been disappearing from Toronto and being replaced... by single-story strip stores in the most part. I have yet to see them replaced with multi-story buildings of any sort.

The only one I can think of was the Canadian Tire gas station at Church and Yonge, which is now the construction site for Milan.
Beaver Gas at Wellesley and Sherbourne was demolished for a porposed condo but I'm not sure it has been approved yet. The thread hasn't been update for a month.
 

jozl

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Here is an article by Adam Giambrone from the January 19 issue of Now Magazine. It addresses some of the concerns I mentioned in my original post.


Toronto’s arrested development
HIGH ON THE CITY-BUILDING AGENDA IS THE NEED TO FIND A SOLUTION TO THE MEDDLING OF THE OMB
BY ADAM GIAMBRONE
Bet you didn’t know that T.O. now has more tall buildings under construction than all the rest of Canada combined; at 110, it’s more than any U.S. or European city.

Only some fast-growing metropolises with populations already four to five times our size have more construction activity. And we have the largest condo market in the developed world, celebrated in pop culture by artists like T-Pain, who sang, “I could put you in a condo… all the way up in Toronto†in his 2008 hit song Can’t Believe It.

But few are happy with the development review process. Builders complain of long delays and uncertain outcomes. And residents generally loathe the Ontario Municipal Board, the subject of a meeting at City Hall Monday, January 16, hosted by the Moore Park and Islington residents associations.

High on the agenda was the need to find a solution for the unaccountability of the OMB, a creature from a time when municipalities were small and citizens needed protection from abuse by local town councils. Today, however, the body works mainly to subvert the will of the broader community and its elected representatives.

Here’s one way the OMB affects local decisions. A big problem now is that we have Let’s Make A Deal planning, a consequence of unrealistic zoning that allows way too little density, creating a situation where almost every application for a new building must go through time-consuming and difficult rezoning.

(Many local politicians actually like this situation, since it lets them negotiate with builders to get Section 37 benefits for communities in exchange for denser – usually taller – developments.)

In other cities, the trick to getting an application approved is to invest in a good architect and an innovative, high-quality building. In Toronto, money goes instead to high-priced lawyers able to shepherd an application through the City Hall labyrinth and ultimately past the OMB.

This city’s status as one of the world’s most high-rise-oriented, especially for its size (compared to frontrunners like New York and Beijing), is a result of the OMB, which is unique to Ontario. No other Canadian province or U.S. state has a body that can routinely override local planning.

Council is currently considering changes to the Official Plan, but the existence of the OMB makes both bureaucrats and politicians reluctant to do what should be done to improve it. What should happen, in theory, is a review of the current allowable zoning to provide for more density. Realistically, this isn’t possible, because everyone is scared that higher allowable densities will just become the new minimum at the OMB.

While Toronto can’t unilaterally eliminate the OMB, it can set up review boards for local committee of adjustment decisions, a prerogative recently granted. (Adjustment committees are panels of locals appointed by council to deal with minor variances to zoning bylaws.)

Many at Monday’s meeting argued for putting such review boards in place to demonstrate to the province that the city could handle a review body to fully take the place of the OMB.

Then there’s the need to hire more planners to allow an overburdened department to do more long-term planning, be more responsive to the community and make sure applications are processed quickly.

One final way we could encourage neighbourhood-scale development would be to create a special expedited process for smaller-scale developments that today go through the same process as 45-storey, 500-unit condo buildings. This would cut the costs of low-scale development, ending the disincentive to build anything other than large structures.

The negative economics in building are all about the delay in starting construction. The builder has to pay the sunk cost of design and marketing for a project, but a big expense is the cost of tying up property, and construction inflation can run as high as 5 per cent while the developer waits for permission. On a large project, an extra six months’ delay can lead to millions of dollars of added costs.

We could also change the development fee structure to favour more low-rise development by making it more costly (on a per-unit basis) to build taller.

The Official Plan calls for up to 150,000 more people (125,000 units of various sizes) to live on the “avenues†– major streets like Sheppard, Bloor, Danforth and Kingston Road. Most of these are fairly close to stable residential neighbourhoods, so large towers are just not appropriate. But low-rise four-to-six-storey buildings with stores at street level would create more dynamic streets and house people in a more neighbourhood- and human-scale setting.

The development industry is an important component of our economy, creating 250,000 jobs directly and indirectly, and the success of our housing market generates wealth that can be reinvested in the city. The trick is clear up our density ideals, facilitate the permission process, encourage low-rise options – and defang the OMB.
 

jozl

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Now that Toronto City Council has voted to ask Queen's Park to exempt Toronto from OMB rulings low rise (4 to 6 story) projects might become easier and cheaper to get off the ground. I just want to reiterate my concern that we are neglecting upgrades and intensification on our main streets outside of the downtown core. The old one and two story buildings along many of Toronto's main streets are not getting replaced. I'm concerned that we will, in time, end up with several dense high rise condo areas surrounded by decaying sections of old under utilized sections of our main streets. The section of Bloor West between Dundas West and Bathurst is an example of what I mean. You'd think that this section of Bloor would be teaming with new development due to its ideal location. This is a perfect area for low rise residential/ grade level retail development.
 

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