One in an ongoing series on Toronto’s increasing density and its impact on life in the city.
The debate over how Toronto can absorb more people while preserving old landmarks is unfolding in two very different ways near the intersection of Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave.
Well-publicized protests over the sale of Postal Station K to a private developer highlight the traditional battle between heritage conservation and the demand for development.
But around the corner, on Eglinton Ave., city planners are testing a new concept to create more living space without destroying much-loved old buildings.
This type of hybrid architecture is being adopted in cities older and more dense than Toronto, such as London, England, and New York. The idea is simple enough: Create relatively small, contemporary extensions and slot them into and around historic mid-rise buildings. Design experts call it “a delicate adding of density.”
In Toronto, a new city planning policy that encourages this type of development is gradually gaining attention. “It’s the first time the city has been pro-active in terms of articulating the kind of development that we haven’t seen but that we want to see,” said Lorna Day, project manager for the Avenues and Mid-Rise Buildings Study, which was endorsed by city council in 2010.
The study takes the general guidelines set out in the Official Plan and applies to Toronto examples of heritage conservation techniques found in a number of cities around the world.
Through this process, the city has decided that Toronto’s so-called Avenues (main arterial roads such as Eglinton Ave.) should grow through mid-rise development. The plan is to implement zoning laws that enforce that decision.
“We certainly don’t need towers on the Avenues,” Day said.
The controversy over Postal Station K points to the widespread concern about losing significant heritage buildings to condo towers. Local residents rallied but failed to stop the sale of the postal station.
The site of Postal Station K, an Art Deco building built in 1937, has a long history. In 1837, it was the site of Montgomery’s Tavern, where William Lyon Mackenzie organized, launched and ended the Upper Canada Rebellion. The developer has promised to work with residents to find a solution everyone can live with.
Over the next few months, Day’s team will use these mid-rise performance standards to determine the new zoning regulations for Eglinton Ave.
“Addition” rather than just “renovation” is the name of the game.
Retaining a neighbourhood’s historical character while adding more density has its challenges. There are several reasons why the hybrid model is not characteristically seen in Toronto.
Renovating an existing building poses risks: The building may not be structurally sound and it may not meet building code requirements. Both problems can quickly complicate a renovation and spike costs.
Janna Levitt, principal at Levitt Goodman Architects, a Toronto firm with extensive experience in conversions of old buildings, said that 15 years ago, developers were unwilling to renovate and add to a historic building. But now, with land values so high, a developer may be willing to absorb the cost of working with a heritage building in a desirable — and thus profitable — location.
Even now, developers willing to restore heritage buildings will often do so only if they can incorporate it into a tall building that will yield the maximum amount of density.
“We don’t control the economics,” said Day. “What city planning can do, through council, is to give predictability and certainty … It doesn’t guarantee the development industry will build it, but it does help the speed with which a developer can go from an idea to a building.”
SHoP Architects, a New York City firm, worked closely with city planning officials there to complete two hybrid mid-rise projects: The Porter House, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, and the Garden Street Lofts in Hoboken, N.J. Both projects combine robust, historical warehouses with additions of contemporary residential units.
“A lot of these warehouses are incredibly flexible and can handle additional weight,” said Christopher Sharples, principal at SHoP Architects.
One Toronto example of this hybrid form is the Printing Factory Lofts, on Carlaw Ave. near Queen St., where an early 20th century warehouse was topped with a modern steel and glass extension that raised the entire building to a height of eight storeys.
Raja Moussaoui is a journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.