Zoning for midrises

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In my article in the most recent print issue of Spacing, I argued that if the City of Toronto wants to properly manage building height in this city, it needs to update its zoning to accommodate reasonable densities. So I was very happy to read recently that Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat has proposed to start doing just that. She is planning to re-zone the “Avenues” to allow mid-rise buildings “as-of-right” — that is, developers could just build to a mid-rise height without having to seek special approvals.

It’s an excellent idea, as long as it is done right. The “Avenues” are the transit-heavy main streets designated in the Official Plan as places that have the potential to absorb more population growth and develop into walking, cycling and transit-supporting main streets lined by mid-rise buildings. However, the City has had a hard time getting developers to build there in the way the plan envisages.

Re-zoning would mean that developers no longer have to go through a time-consuming and expensive re-zoning process for each project in order to build mid-rises on these streets. It creates two positive incentives.

First, it means it will be simpler for developers to build on the designated Avenues than in other places, which will encourage them to focus their projects in the locations where the City wants them to build rather than in places where projects might be more problematic.

Second, it gives an incentive for developers to build to the height the City has designated for the street. At the moment, since the developer has to go through a re-zoning in any case, they may as well seek as much height as possible to maximize their profits. If, on the other hand, they can get a reasonable and profitable height quickly and without extra expenses, they will have an incentive to just build to the as-of-right height. Quick and painless building to a pre-established height would benefit everyone: developer, local residents, and the city as a whole.

The crucial issue, however, is getting the re-zoning right. First, the re-zoning has to adhere to the City’s new Mid-Rise Performance Standards. These were developed specifically to set a height limit that would increase density but still allow sufficient sunlight onto the street. They are flexible — the height allowed is dependent on the width of the right-of-way (essentially the street and sidewalk). Go beyond the height specified by the guidelines, however, and the Avenues would start to become dark canyons, losing the walkable destination character that is their primary justification.

That doesn’t have to mean all the buildings have to be the same height. Rather, it should mean that if a building wants to go higher, it needs to buy air rights from its neighbours (commiting them not to go higher), so that if one building casts a larger shadow, its neighbours allow more light in to balance it. This variation might actually be beneficial, meaning more light on parts of the street during winter months.

Second, the City has to commit to fighting tooth-and-nail against attempts to break the new height limits without air rights. The re-zoning has to be a rule, not a starting point for negotiation like current zoning tends to be. With a coherent and well-reasoned re-zoning, the City will have a much better case in front of the Committee of Adjustment and the Ontario Municipal Board, but it will still need to bring its full weight to bear on early cases. Once a precedent for holding to the re-zoning is set, it will be easier to keep. But if a precedent is set that lets buildings start to creep higher, the benefit of re-zoning would be lost and we’ll be on our way to getting canyons rather than avenues.

But since the chances of that happening are actually greater without a re-zoning, Keesmaat’s proposal to get ahead of the game offers the best hope of having the Avenues develop in the way envisioned by the Official Plan.

Image from the City of Toronto.

14 comments

  1. It’s definitely a good idea, but there are often low-rise houses on the side streets past the avenues where NIMBYs always complain about anything greater than three storeys being built on the main street. Also, I’d be interested in seeing if developers and planners would be interested in encouraging the replacement of non-heritage houses on side streets with low-rise (to a maximum of three storeys) walk-up apartments or condominiums.

  2. Another incentive to encourage developers to build this scale of building, would be revising the Ontario Building Code to allow (cheaper to build) wood frame construction up to 6 storeys.  

  3. What’s the deal with the advocacy for taller wood-framed buildings? Are they really going to last 100+ years? What about those big fires that destroyed entire neighbourhoods in North American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries?

  4. The complexity, expense and bureaucracy involved in revising the zoning on Toronto’s avenues is immense and will take far too long. The simpler and more immediate solution is for planning staff to support the increase from (what is usually) 16m to 20m through committee of adjustment rather than demanding a Zoning by law amendment on a case by case basis. If the mid rise guidelines are strictly complied with and other variances minor this would eliminate a huge amount of work on everyone’s part. 
    This is what we, at Quadrangle, did with Cube lofts but it preceded the mid rise guidelines. Bizarrely now that guidelines have been issued a more onerous and publicly open process is being demanded inc ZBA and often avenue segment studies. 
    If its made so much more difficult (to achieve what the city says they want) of course the developer will want some extra to compensate for the extra expense and particularly extra time. Margins for profit on these projects are slim and there’s no economy of scale to amortize those huge extra expenses. 

  5. Another important issue is what happens to the public consultation process when mid-rises are built as-of-right. A rezoning is automatically a public process. A site plan application doesn’t have to be (although I believe the Chief Planner has the discretion to require community consultation as part of the process. But this isn’t a statutory requirement.)

    Although technically a rezoning application only approves a building envelope and basic performance standards, in reality the public consultation aspect of the rezoning process (at least as it unfolds in Toronto) deals with many things that are properly site plan issues (like the building architecture, vehicular circulation, location of garbage storage areas etc.), and the public input on these site plan issues is taken into consideration in the staff recommendation and Council decision on the rezoning application.

    While the advantages of speeding up approvals for mid-rises are obvious, we need to make sure that public consultation remains part of the process.

    (Granted, even with as-of-right zoning, 9 out of 10 mid-rises will still need to tweak the zoning through minor variance applications which are automatically public. But a few may not.)

  6. The Edge, a new mid-rise condo building at 625 Queen Street East, has a lot of positives – it fits in to the neighbourhood quite well. Unfortunately even though it was built for mixed uses with decent street front retail, it has yet to fill it. A well-known local restaurant was interested in leasing the space, but many of the condo residents are trying to block its liquor licence.

    If you can’t walk to interesting retail and restaurants because the condo owners go NIMBY, I wonder if even midrise developments can have walkable destination characters.

  7. Hi, Junctionist,

    comparing to steel frame or structural concrete construction, wood frame construction is much simpler, cheaper, requires much less heavy machinery. It would allow smaller builders to get in the game and build a shorter building on smaller plot for a profit. It can be a great catalyst for development that would not otherwise happen.

    Why do you think a 6-storey wood-frame building would not last as long as a 4 storey one (many of which apparently have lasted well over 100 years)? As for your concern with fire safety, today’s fireproofing materials, construction practice and firefighting techniques are making that kind of fire we had 100 years ago much less likely. The risk of fire is and will always be a factor, but that is not limited to wood-frame buildings. In fact, those skyscrapers pose larger challenge in terms of fire safety, because the height makes firefighting equipments inadequate.

  8. Thanks for the reply, YU. Are most of our 19th century buildings in the old city of Toronto wood framed? Or are they brick masonry? Most have brick exteriors, so it’s hard to tell. I live in a 1940s brick masonry house. Wood frame buildings are obviously most vulnerable to fires, especially as we build more densely. A skyscraper fire may be a fire safety challenge, but a fire in a high-rise isn’t going to result in the loss of an entire block or neighbourhood.

  9. Hi, Juctionist,

    you are probably right in that most of them are not exactly the kind of woodframe building we are talking about nowaday. Most have structural masonry walls. But many also include internal structural wood framing, or has a mixture of masonry/wood structure on its envelop (my 1907 house has masonry wall on the first floor and wood-frame with siding on the second).

    As I mentioned, today’s material (like the fire-rated drywall) can help make wood-frame buildings much safer than the old days in the event of fire. Given the response time of today’s fire service, even in a major fire, while the building itself can still be completely gutted, the chance that it will spread to a whole block or neighbourhood is next to none.

  10. I share Sean’s concern. The more we concentrate all new residential growth on our main commercial arteries, the more people there are to be annoyed by all the external factors that accompany these businesses: late night noise, garbage pickup, smells, etc.

    Most neighbourhoods I see that are really successful have a range of housing options within the residential streets. Think Brunswick Street’s mix of victorian houses, mid-rise and high-rise buildings old and new, or the streets off Broadview Avenue south of Danforth in Riverdale with a similar mix.

    Not all people want to live on main streets and put up with all the accompanying hullabaloo, but not enough ‘off-main street’ housing options are available or affordable in those same livable neighbourhoods so attractive to people. Our main streets shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting. We should be focusing more on increasing the diversity of housing on residential streets. If we don’t, I think the long-term vibrancy of our retail strips is at risk.

  11. It’s great to see a discussion that is sensitive to the fact that the OP (and Keesmaat) direct mid-rise intensification to the designated Avenues, not just any street with a bus and some stores on it.

    Relatedly, I appreciate Reid’s observation that fast-tracking mid-rise on Avenues may “encourage [developers] to focus their projects in the locations where the City wants them to build rather than in places where projects might be more problematic”. Since April, members of the Ossington community have been dealing with just such a problematic project: 109OZ, a 21.5m (26.5m with penthouse), 9-storefront wide mid-rise that Reserve Properties wants to build at the heart of the Ossington strip, notwithstanding that Ossington is not a designated Avenue, and indeed at 17.5m ROW is 8ft below the minimum Avenue width.

    (It may be worth noting that, if Planning’s proposed Official Plan Amendment for Ossington is passed, Ossington will never be widened, though that was unlikely to happen anyway, due to the several historical designation buildings—including Toronto’s first library—on the strip.)

    The OP directs mid-rise development to the Avenues for good reason. There are obvious concerns about the impact an out-of-scale project like 109OZ would have (see scribd.com/doc/109555668/Views for a visual hit), both on Ossington’s laid-back “open sky” character and on the dozens of homes whose back windows and backyards face the affected portion of Ossington. Size, scale, and built form matter, of course, at least so far as architecture is concerned.

    Another way in which the introduction of one or more mid-rises into our eclectic independent business destination district would be highly problematic is that (as per the single 12K ‘AAA’ retail space in 109OZ) new mid-rise construction nearly always brings chain retail in its wake. Just go to Queen and Ossington, new home to Shoppers, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, and TD Bank, to see how quickly the character of an area can be erased.

    This last case-in-point, BTW, indicates that (as a recent column by Hume highlighted) it’s not all hunky-dory so far as mid-rise on designated Avenues is concerned, either. It’s time to acknowledge that a serious side effect of the OP’s green light for mid-rise on Avenues is the culture mining of many of our best hoods. The policy aims to encourage growth on underdeveloped “strip-mall-ish” portions of the Avenues, but developers do better sales-wise by building in already-flourishing cool areas, coming in with flashy “hipster” sales centres and leaving chain stores and shadow behind. And there is so much money in condo culture-mining that now developers are going after narrow non-Avenues like Ossington.

    Speaking of culture-mining, did you know that Urbancorp has bought up the MOCCA lands and the building to the east, and that MOCCA, the Edward Day Gallery, the Clint Roenisch Gallery, and the Mutt Animation Studios are slated to be replaced with a 9-storey, 151-unit condo with—you guessed it—a single AAA retail space? I’ve got a summary of the pre-app meeting on the Ossington Community Association website.

    For this and other news of the moment (including our Feb 28 Dance Party and Loveraiser—gotta pay Charlie Campbell), follow us on twitter: @OssingtonCa

  12. Hi, interesting post. I wonder about the feasibility of your requirement that “the re-zoning has to be a rule, not a starting point for negotiation like current zoning tends to be”. Ontario has the highly eccentric property that its zoning law is not “self-enforcing”.

    Suppose the City tells a developer “that goes beyond the zoning, so you can’t build it”; suppose the developer then goes to court, arguing that the City’s justification is arbitrary, and that the court should permit the developer to build. If this happened in Chicago, for example, the court would tell the developer to get lost: nothing is ever permitted outside of the zoning, so there is nothing arbitrary about the City’s action in this case. But if this happened in any municipality in Ontario, the court would tell the City to get lost: Ontario zoning laws have been adjusted thousands and thousands of times, so without any further justification, the City’s decision does seem to be arbitrary. 

    (As it happens, in Ontario, the developer would not need to incur the expense and delay, and the City would not need to incur the expense, of going to court: that is what the OMB is for. As an aside, those who argue for exempting the City from the OMB are therefore in effect arguing for one of two things: either send a huge raft of disputes straight to court, or compel the City to establish an in-house OMB-esque tribunal.)

    This is but the beginning of a complicated series of considerations. But it needs to be recognized at the outset in any discussion of zoning.

  13. … sorry, I posted without having followed up the links in your story, so I missed some crucial bits of context.

    Having processed the context, I would say that it is not clear to me what is novel in what Keesmaat is advocating: rather, it seems to signal a redirection of regulatory priorities from one sort of legally mandated activity to another. Let me explain.

    Following up my previous post: when Ontario zoning is efficacious, this is only ever because it is backed up by a higher level of law that says “and in this case the zoning is for real”. 

    Section 2.2.3 of the Official Plan addresses the Avenues (as you note, a technical designation in the OP, specified on OP Map 2). OP2.2.3 requires the City to establish, for the Avenues, a system of “zoning-and-backup”. In this case, the “backup law” is what is known as an “Avenue Study”. 

    An Avenue Study is in effect a detailed planning justification for updated “contextually appropriate as-of-right zoning”. The Avenue Study is to be drawn up by the Planning Department in consultation with the local community, and is to specify what would count as “contextual appropriateness” by addressing a big list of urban design considerations (these are found in OP3) for each identifiable segment of the Avenue. The lands within the segment that are designated “Mixed Use Areas” are then to be rezoned for contextually appropriate intensification.

    A noteworthy but infrequently recognized specification for the Avenue Studies is this: “Some, which function well and already have appropriate zoning in place, may not need further study at all. Some of the Avenues already serve as “main streets” that are focal points for the local community with attractive and bustling sidewalks. These traditional “main street” Avenues already have zoning in place to guide mixed use development in a way that fits with the neighbourhood, and will be a low priority for Avenue reurbanization studies. Ultimately, all Avenues should perform this “main street” role and become meeting places for local neighbours and the wider community. Avenues that are characterized by one or two storey commercial buildings, vacant and underutilized lands and large areas of surface parking will be the priorities for future Avenue Studies.”

    That is to say, the segments of Avenues that are to be rezoned are *not* those, like Roncesvalles or College in Little Italy, that already behave like downtown streets: rather, these are what we would think of as “pod mall country”.

    So the Keesmaat suggestion under discussion is not in fact a new idea. Its importance would seem perhaps to lie in its attempted redirection of the Planning Department’s attention — in its pushing for an accelerated preparation of the Avenue Studies.

  14. Midrises are needed in existing neighbourhoods in Toronto, not just on Avenues. Until the City comes around to that notion – i.e. major cities don’t have single-family houses in them, midrises won’t happen anywhere because the single-family NIMBYs have too much say.

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