The future of Tower Renewal

The Tower Neighbourhood Renewal plan (aka Mayor’s Tower Renewal) is an ambitious initiative with great potential to increase the quality of life of residents across the city through the combination of best practices in building retrofitting and neighbourhood revitalization. Despite recent overtures by the mayor-elect’s transition team hinting at its perilous future, the program’s momentum continues to slowly gather.

Last Monday, the University of Toronto Cities Centre held a symposium to convene academics, architects, planners, engineers, community organizers, artists, students, and politicians to discuss the future of Tower Neighbourhood Renewal and exchange ideas. The symposium attempted to benchmark work done to date, identify gaps that need to be filled to move forward, and re-energize the conversation around the Tower Neighbourhood Renewal plan.

At the heart of Tower Neighbourhood Renewal is a combination of actions to renew Toronto’s stock of apartment towers, which include: re-skinning buildings to increase energy efficiency, infilling open space around towers with new community services and housing to meet evolving demands, enabling better walkability and transit service, improving the quality and function of open spaces, introducing community food programs, and engaging the community in this renewal process. With such a large mandate, Tower Neighbourhood Renewal is an exemplary initiative that showcases the cross–disciplinary collaboration needed to achieve a more sustainable Toronto.

The plan is rare in its inclusive nature, and has the potential to have a positive effect on every ward in the city. As councillor Shelley Carroll noted at the Cities Centre symposium, “when Tower Renewal was first introduced, councillors paid attention because it is a plan relevant to all wards.” Despite the tone of the recent election, Carroll remains confident that the emotional investment from council towards Tower Neighbourhood Renewal is still present.

Toronto’s apartment towers are unique in North America in that they are quite prevalent throughout the suburbs, not just in the downtown core. Many of these towers, which comprise  half of the rental housing stock in Toronto, were originally built for a young urban population during a period of growth in the ’60s and ’70s, and now house many families and newcomers to the city.

These ubiquitous towers are now posing a unique problem as they reach the end of their life cycles, and are in need of substantial retrofitting to remain functional and serve their communities. Many towers consume more energy on a per square metre basis than a typical single-family home. It is estimated that it would cost roughly $56 billion to demolish and rebuild all the towers with new housing stock. Tower Neighbourhood Renewal relies on keeping the assets we already have, and saving money retrofitting instead of starting from scratch. The concept of building reuse is one that we’re still getting used to in North America, but which is common practice elsewhere in the world.

Tower retrofit in London, England

Tower Neighbourhood Renewal also has the potential to have an enormous economic impact for the city. Eleanor McAteer, project director of the Tower Renewal Office for the City of Toronto, estimated in her presentation that if all towers in the city were upgraded, it would create upwards of 30,000 jobs in Toronto. The City currently has four pilot Tower Neighbourhood Renewal sites, however these pilot sites have only been used to collect raw data, and there has yet to be any groundbreaking.

For such a strong plan, why has Tower Neighbourhod Renewal been slow to take off? The delay in action is the result of a few factors. To start, energy prices are not yet high enough to make serious retrofits in these aging towers an attractive investment. Another issue is that despite many towers being clustered around the city in groups of four or more, many of the adjacent towers are individually owned, and the cost to undertake the Tower Neighbourhood Renewal process is a large risk and financial commitment for an individual owner. For Tower Neighbourhood Renewal to work, a collective approach will need to be taken. Lastly, many towers and the large open spaces around them (lands on which towers sit are often 90% open space) are zoned as residential, and it is impossible infill the areas around the towers with amenities that could benefit the neighbourhood, such as urban agriculture, community services, and retail.

Despite the slow start, the symposium showed that the plan is maturing and people are taking notice. Kat Cizek, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, has been working on a project called Highrise: 1000th Tower and Out of my Window, which examines the lives of people living in Toronto’s residential apartment towers through their pictures and stories. Projects like the East Scarborough Storefront and the Walkability Studies are being used as inputs for potential community development using Tower Neighbourhood Renewal.

Even the Province has taken notice of the plan’s potential, and has commissioned ERA Architects, planningAlliance, and Cities Centre to go beyond Toronto and look at the stock of apartment towers from a regional perspective. They are examining the alignment between Tower Neigbourhood Renewal and provincial plans like The Big Move, Breaking the Cycle, Go Green, and Places to Grow, to understand the possibility for province-wide benefit of a tower renewal program. This report, Tower Neighbourhood Renewal in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, will be released later this month.

The Cities Centre’s symposium was the first of what will hopefully be many to continue the conversation and act as a catalyst to move the plan forward. Tower Neighbourhood Renewal is not a nimble, one-off piece of infrastructure. It is a massive, visionary plan that will require engagement from many stakeholders, not just City staff, and go through many iterations over its lifespan. The magnitude of the Tower Neighbourhood Renewal plan may be the reason it seems that it has been moving slowly, but as with everything of great magnitude, once it gains momentum it becomes difficult to stop.

Photos by: Kathryn Grond, Graeme Stewart, and Kevin Steele

Special thanks to Kathryn Grond and Graeme Stewart for contributing content

16 comments

  1. Has the project been renamed since Rob Ford was elected? Before it was (offically I beleive) called ‘Mayor’s Tower Renewal’.

  2. Thanks for the update! I was wondering how this was going.

  3. Glen: Tower Neighbourhood Renewal is what the Cities Centre calls it. We were vacillating on what name to use, so we chose that one. I like it better, personally.

  4. Just to play Devil’s Advocate, why should the city be funding retrofits for privately-owned buildings? As this article states, “energy prices are not yet high enough to make serious retrofits in these aging towers an attractive investment”.

    If we are talking about improved quality of life for residents of these buildings, we should be concerned about the unintended consequences of building upgrades. Presumably current tenants choose to live in these buildings precisely because they are cheap, otherwise they would live somewhere else. Some may choose to leave when rents rise following renewal, as they surely will.

    I am also not sure we should be subsidizing these poorly located apartments. It may look as though it is cheaper to retrofit than rebuild, but not if you include externalities such as the cost of new transit to far-flung locations or the commute time of residents.

    That being said, I think there is a lot of potential to use zoning as a tool to encourage property owners to add mixed uses.

  5. I too have mixed feelings regarding this initiative. On the one hand, sure, it’s great for landlords, tenants, and the city in general. However, I too live in an older structure, except that it’s a detached house, not an apartment. The house was built in 1953 and has no insulation (dual-layer brick with one-foot spacing in between, which is basically the “insulation” of that time). My house loses a lot of heat as a result, but there is no special grant for homeowners like myself. And, like me, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in older houses that could certainly use these types of upgrades to their homes. So, it begs the question: why the preferential treatment for people living in apartment buildings? Why are my property taxes being used to retrofit and insulate privately owned apartment buildings, but not privately owned houses such as my own?

  6. @Jonathan – certain retrofits make sense. Low-flow water fixtures should reduce the load each building places on water and sewer. Keeping a lid on gas and electric use means reductions in existing buildings can partially compensate for the loads new condo developments place on the existing network. While these loads are the responsibility of Toronto Water, Toronto Hydro and Enbridge, adding new trunk mains or high voltage lines is highly disruptive.

  7. Re Leo Gonzalez’s comment: “… However, I too live in an older structure, except that it’s a detached house, not an apartment. The house was built in 1953 and has no insulation (dual-layer brick with one-foot spacing in between, which is basically the “insulation” of that time). My house loses a lot of heat as a result, but there is no special grant for homeowners like myself. …” I also own an older, detached house, and there indeed have been incentive programs for private homeowners to improve insulation, energy efficiency, etc.

  8. While the Tower Renewal Project is directed primarily at rental units, I just wanted to draw people’s attention to a great energy efficiency program for condos/ high rises run by Toronto Atmospheric Fund as part of their TowerWise program (www.towerwise.ca).

    There are resources for download, as well as videos and an upcoming seminar directed to Condo Boards – on November 23rd. To register and for more info, please go to the website.

    With roughly 40 percent of Toronto residents now living in high rises and 90 percent of new residential construction in Toronto is condominiums, it’s important that we educate and arm condo owners with information about how to reduce their environmental footprint.

  9. @Leo Gonzalez: “My house loses a lot of heat as a result, but there is no special grant for homeowners like myself.”

    Oh yes there is. I got a $225 cheque from the city a few weeks ago from just such a program. I didn’t even have to apply as my energy auditor did so on my behalf.

  10. @Leo
    The federal government has had at least one incentive program for single-family home owners to do enrgy retrofits. And the city has offered on more than one occasion rebates for home owners switching to low-flow toilets. I don’t think we can complain that only apartment dwellers are getting government help.

  11. @ Leo

    A: Many of the privately-owned buildings are owned by landlords who won’t bother to invest in renewal, and the renters who live in them don’t have the option of doing it themselves.

    B: It’s more cost-effective. (That is, the same amount of money will benefit a larger number of people if it’s spent on high-density dwellings.)

    C: If you have enough money to own a detached house in Toronto, you probably have enough money to put in your own insulation. Low-income renters in high-rise towers, not so much.

    D: There are already various government programs designed to give homeowners tax credit for energy-efficient home renos.

    @ Jonathan

    It doesn’t follow that rents will rise following renewal. The landlords aren’t the ones incurring the costs. And while the retrofits mean the buildings will be more desirable, the improvements will affect all towers. Which means that no landlord can claim any benefit relative to other buildings, so the market will remain at equilibrium. (Ideally.)

  12. I too prefer the name Tower Neighbourhood Renewal, as the idea is about the towers and the spaces & services between and around them …

    As much as I appreciate the boost given by Mayor Miller, the idea is larger, and longer lasting than any mayor ….

  13. Well, looking through the Tower Renewal Financing Options report that’s on the main website for Tower Renewal, it looks as though a straight-up grant subsidy is not what they have in mind, which I think a lot of people have assumed. The report suggests that groups of renewal projects be bunched together, and money raised from the owners of those buildings into a large capital pool, supervised by a Tower Renewal corporation. This pool would be issued as bonds – so that the sale of bonds would fund the retrofits, and the bondholders would reap profits from the reduced energy costs. Essentially, the city would be using its size and financial abilities to allow building owners to do in groups, over time, what they couldn’t do individually or all at once. The city might help guarantee some of the loans (i.e. provide collateral) but they’d also supervise who loans were made to. Under this scheme, neither the city nor the landlords make or spend much money, but they end up with a stock of better buildings by teaming up to spread out the cost of investments. This is what is meant by ‘energy prices are not yet high enough’: the efficiency improvements that would pay for all this aren’t yet big enough in dollar terms to be attractive to bond-buyers. All this, of course, is just one part of the overall initiative, but it’s really the linchpin of Tower Renewal.

  14. The older buildings were structurally built to last. More steel and concrete than today’s buildings. Components within them such as windows and piping have been replaced at least once.
    Many were built with heat recovery wheels which recycled indoor air and were operated with demand meters (now known as smart meters). The meters and recovery wheels were disconnected back in the 80’s when Ontario hydro decided to eliminate this form of billing. So here we as a society back where we started 30 years ago and we make it sound like some new wonderful way of thinking.
    Increasing hydro rates for all building forms would of caused the necessary building improvements by owners. Metering rental apartments has not been an accepted practice and has been around for at least 20 years.
    There are far too many energy programs and not enough courage by our elected officials. It seems everyone thinks we need some special program or incentive like the Tower Renewal program. This is not rocket science but some would have you think it is. Consume more pay more. The trouble is Ontario has never seen the real cost of electricity and thanks to the Green Energy Act will have to wait again.
    No we just need simple common sense. That is impossible because there are just too many special interests to please.

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