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Toronto Is Drowning in a Sea of High Rises

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Photo by Seattle Dredge via Getty Images
Photo by Seattle Dredge via Getty Images

When I mentioned to my New York real estate broker that I had relocated from Toronto he had one thing to say about the Big Smoke: "I've never seen so much construction in one place."

Statistically, he's right. Few cities in North America rival the sheer amount of high-rises that are currently under construction in Toronto. According to Emporis, a website that tracks skyscraper construction, Toronto has nearly 50 per cent more high-rises under construction than New York City. With the Blue Jays as perennial losers, the construction crane may as well become Toronto's ornithological mascot.

Most of the time we point to skyscraper cranes as proof of Toronto's growth, and more importantly its maturity: skyscrapers are like bedpost notches on Toronto's rise to global prowess. As with most things Torontonian, there's a little bit insecurity in all of this. Toronto is a city forever fearful of its own irrelevancy, and our collective construction crane count provides a physical reminder that we're still here. Toronto's obsession with height exposes a misappropriated belief: taller and thinner buildings are needed to fulfill some sort of civic manifest destiny.

Over the Christmas break I spent a good deal of time walking around my old neighbourhood of Yonge and St Clair. Downtown to some, uptown to others and midtown to most, Yonge and St Clair is one of those intersections that, in my amateur opinion, has been developed with a bit of class. At the crossroads of two important streets (and two important transit lines) Yonge and St Clair has a mix of tall buildings (anchored by 21-story Weston Centre), a smattering of condo buildings (which range from 14-20 stories) with a couple more currently under way. Even with additional construction the intersection has a nice homeostasis to it; it feels urban without being overwhelming.

I would have thought that Yonge and St Clair is the type of node that Toronto needs more of and is representative of the type of place that Toronto has traditionally excelled at. But this is no longer the type of place that Toronto seems to promote. The area has been stung by one of those ubiquitous white "development proposal applications" which are second to Starbucks locations for prevalence across the 416. A developer is hoping to build a 42-story condo tower just south on Yonge Street. While I would argue that indeed Yonge and St Clair is a perfect node for density, 42 stories (double the height, in feet, of the Weston Centre) isn't just intensification -- it is context changing.

Complete reinvention is how Toronto seems to wind up redeveloping most of its popular neighbourhoods, including Yonge and Eglinton and the Entertainment District. Remember Toronto's Entertainment district as a collection of warehouses turned into clubs and lofts? That place no longer really exists as it used to -- a collection of old 8-storey warehouse buildings -- instead it has become a forest of condo towers, the majority of which are forgettable and banal.

How far things have come since 1999 when area residents banded together to protest the construction of Festival Hall (the Scotiabank Theatre) fearing that the 10-story development would count as overdevelopment; today you can't find a condo proposal south of Queen Street, East of Spadina that isn't 40+ stories.

All of this isn't development in the name of intensification only, but a somewhat systematic evisceration of a former urban district into a sanitized, albeit slightly more urban version of City Place. There is good to this development, more people living downtown (and cultural perks too, such as the Lightbox), but there is also something off-putting to all of this focus on height. Why do we feel the need to recreate entire neighbourhoods from scratch instead of imposing smarter infill?

Over on Urban Toronto, a website devoted to Toronto's burgeoning urbanity, a 42-storey proposal for the corner of Madison and Bloor has sparked a lively debate, with one member proclaiming, "The more I think about it the more I'd like them to be bold and go for 50. Then on both the NE and NW corners of Spadina and Bloor you go for 65 storeys."

All of this is armchair development, a SimCity version of urban planning, but the overall mood is telling. or many the ONLY way for Toronto to grow is literally to grow up. There is vein of Toronto that likes to talk about all of this construction as part of its "Manhattanization" as if that's a thing that it is doing, or should be doing. However, putting up 40 story condos all in the name of density doesn't really emulate a misappropriated version of Manhattan -- it just leaves a city with a bunch of glass walled condos divided by horribly provincial marketing names perched on top of mediocre fitness centres.

Since the start of the condo craze the adage Toronto has been sold that height doesn't matter. Our current boom has been hatched under the guise that slim point towers placed above a 2-3 story podium are no more detrimental to urban form than the traditional Victorian commercial buildings which line our arteries. Christopher Hume, the Toronto Stars architecture critic, argued as much back in 2009, "The focus on the base has already changed how condos are designed and built. In most new projects, tall, thin, towers sit atop podiums of between two and five floors. These podiums are where buildings meet the city and become part of the urban fabric. This is space we all share. This is also space for shops, restaurants, bars, art galleries and so on."

City planners seem to have agreed and the mantra of "slap a podium" on it, approve any height, but provide space for a bank, subway sandwich shop and dry cleaner has come to dominate the urban landscape. The result is that that has became proselytized by the podium. And so I ask Toronto: how's that working out for you?

Five years later, most podiums are emperors without any clothes (they're being dry-cleaned) and instead Toronto has been left with too many high rises that don't create into a urban context (or provide homes for people with greater aspirations that 500 square feet). In Manhattan speak is the Casa-fication of Charles Street more like Manhattan's maligned Curry Hill (to-wit no one romanticizes Midtown) or more evocative of New York's famed West Village?

The truth, at least when it comes to Manhattanization, is that for every super tall tower under construction in Manhattan, there are countless (probably thousands) that aren't nearly as tall. Part of this is historical. New York came to its urban maturation point a hundred years ago and as a result the majority of the city south of 34th street isn't skyscrapers in the Toronto vernacular, but walk-ups and mid-rises. Toronto is a younger metropolis; at the same time as New York built its classic tenement walk-ups, Torontonians were building semi-detached Victorians not realizing that 80 years later Peter Ustinov would call Hogtown "New York as run by the Swiss" or that 100 years later its citizens would still be quoting that one moment in the sun.

New York therefore has the luxury of maintaining its scale. Near my apartment in New York a 14-story building is being built directly on 14th Street, a major east/west artery in lower Manhattan. This would be unfathomable to the urbanistas on Urban Toronto where the mantra is seemingly 50 or bust. Nearby the redevelopment of St Vincent's Hospital into five condo buildings is furiously nearing completion. The tallest building is 17 stories, this in one of Manhattan's most desirable areas, even at such a limp height neighbourhood residents feared over-development. Of course the West Village is unique (and overly litigious) but in recently rejuvenated and former industrial areas like the Meatpacking District or West Chelsea, both of which over look the Highline, newer buildings don't seem to rise more than 15-20 stories.

I realize that Toronto does not have the existing density of New York nor its superior transit system. It desperately needs a bit of both. But I'm not sure how we reached to the conclusion that 65 story buildings at every major intersection was the answer to fix what ills us. Some will misconstrue such anti-skyscraper mentality as NIMBY'ism.

Perhaps. But Torontonians should know that its DIMBY'ism (density in my back yard) does not have to be achieved solely with the construction of a 40 or 50 story skyscrapers. Developers like Peter Freed and Streetcar Development have managed to successfully craft net-new neighbourhoods chock full of mid-rises, which thumb their nose at typical Toronto height over all rhetoric. But these developers are the exception and not the norm. Toronto blindly wants to believe that there is an absolute correlation between density and height even if there evidence of an inverse relationship between height and urbanity.

The result is that when it comes to development Toronto really is crazy town, a city of manic highs and lows.

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