Last week, the owner of the land at 1 Bloor West (the former location of Stollery’s, plus some adjacent property) unveiled a proposal for a dramatic 80-storey tower at the corner.
Bloor and Yonge is an iconic intersection in Toronto. That status, however, comes more from being the meeting point of two major streets and two subway lines than the intersection itself, which has long been both ugly and lacking in attractive public space. One advantage it did have for many decades, however, was being sunny, thanks to a long stretch of low buildings on its south side.
With a new building currently going up on the south-east side and this one proposed for the south-west, the ugliness may be mitigated, but a lot of the sunlight will be lost. On the south-east corner, the new building currently under construction has been stepped back from Yonge St., presumably in part to ensure more sunlight on the intersection at the height of the day.
The new proposal for the south-west side, however, has no such step-back — the building’s look is designed to be right at a major corner, and doesn’t appear amenable to stepping back. There does seem to be a potential solution, though. The new design includes a wing of a few storeys on the west side, which seems a bit extraneous. A solution could be to remove that wing and move the whole main tower back from Yonge Street. That would allow more light onto the intersection at the height of the day and simultaneously give this iconic intersection the bit of attractive public space it has always needed to really fulfill its promise. In all likelihood, that public space would also draw people and stimulate use of the retail space in the building. (The odd west wing might have something to do with the development rights of the neighbouring property — in which case the proposal below might be relevant).
This idea also brings up the issue of what will happen south (and west) of the new building. The striking design looks good in renderings in part because the buildings on the same block immediately around it are all currently low. But, the way our current planning approval process works, there’s a good chance that will change. The Ontario Municipal Board tends to treat tall buildings as a precedent for nearby properties, meaning that if one property is allowed to build tall, then others nearby should also be allowed to do so. Indeed, to some degree there’s an underlying fairness argument in this — after all, why should one property owner arbitrarily get the major profits of building tall but not its neighbours?
But if we do get a series of tall buildings beside this one, it will undermine the appeal of this location. The spectacular architecture will be hidden. A wall of tall buildings could leave this iconic intersection and shopping street is in near-permanent shadow (and wind), much as the financial district is. It will be a less appealing place for people to spend time on the sidewalks (and shop). There’s also a question of infrastructure capacity (for example, the subway going south is already full to capacity during rush hour).
This problem brings to mind a potential solution I wrote about in a past issue of Spacing — the idea of local transferable air (or density) rights (which are used in some other cities). Applied to this case, if 1 Bloor W. was able to build tall by buying air rights from its neighbours, it would ensure that neighbouring property owners reaped the value of their land, while at the same time this tall building was balanced by shorter buildings around it. As well, the city could set an overall density for the area that was appropriate for the location and infrastructure. Toronto would get iconic architecture and increased density at a key intersection, but balanced by some open air and sun, alternative routes for wind, and perhaps some preserved heritage buildings south along Yonge. For the developer, it would help sell condos at a higher price if the buyers knew their view would never be blocked by a neighbouring development. Air rights have issues too, of course, but making them part of the development process could help ensure that Toronto can intensify appropriately, evenly and with less constant conflict while keeping some balance in terms of heights at specific locations. It’s something to consider.
A final thought relates to the 8 storeys of retail the new building proposes. Stacked retail doesn’t seem to work very often – even second level retail is generally less valuable than ground level, and it’s hard to imagine shoppers going up 8 storeys. What would make a great deal of sense, however, is a few levels of commercial property. The subway is desperately crowded on the Yonge line by the time it gets to Bloor station in rush hour — it would be good to have more people getting off there to go to work (offices have greater density of employment than retail) to balance the people getting on to go work in the core. Or even better, it could mean people live and work within the same area.
The developer’s public proposal is an opening gambit — it had not even started the official process when it was unveiled. At such an iconic intersection, it’s important that the City works to get a building that enhances the public spaces around it as much as possible.
Note: after this post was scheduled for publication, Urban Toronto published a detailed assessment of the plans for this building, which explains some of the wind planning and, in part, the proposed role of the side building.