The slabs vs. the points: Toronto’s two tower booms

Courtesy of the archives of Uno and Sylvia Prii.

Modern towers by Estonian Canadian architect Uno Prii, Toronto’s northwest, 1960s.

The regional density of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is very high for North America—twice that of greater Chicago, for example. The pattern of this density, and the way it has taken shape, is unlike any other city in North America, due to a unique distribution of residential high-rise towers from core to periphery. Most of these towers were built during two massive development booms resulting from aggressive private-sector responses to unique regional planning policies. Each the largest of their kind in North America for their respective times, these two booms have caused significant urban change in a relatively short amount of time. The first boom saw the construction of roughly 2,000 monolithic concrete slab apartment high-rises from 1950 to the late 1970s; the second boom has seen hundreds of glass “point tower” condominiums built from the late 1990s to the present. (That number is, of course, still growing.)

The scale of these two booms, and the fact that they each represent a very narrow approach to built form and architectural typology, has resulted in a very particular urban character for Toronto. The legacies of these building booms represent unique opportunities and challenges related to resource management, transportation, population distribution, and the long-term health and resiliency of the city moving forward.

Boom one: The concrete slab

The first boom represents the Toronto region’s interpretation of the modernist, post-Corbusian housing movement that proliferated around the globe following the Second World War. This phenomenon was a fundamental aspect of Toronto’s suburbanization and a result of a highly planned approach to regional expansion in the North American context.

Photo courtesy of Graeme Stewart.

Typical modern tower and open space

After the war, Toronto’s metropolitan government created minimum density requirements for new suburban areas in order to maximize investment in infrastructure such as roads, transit, sewage, and schools. This requirement for high density was eagerly taken up by the development industry, which saw a clear demand for a mix of suburban housing.

At the same time, a number of international modernist planners became involved in Toronto as either public administrators or private practitioners. Shaped partially by these thinkers, the region became an experiment in the application of European-influenced approaches to mass housing within the context of the rapidly suburbanizing private market of North America. The resulting built-form guidelines and preferential financing programs encouraged tower development, and the GTA materialized into a unique hybrid suburban form consisting of some 2,000 high-rise buildings that peppered more traditional North American suburban developments. (For every single-family dwelling constructed in this era, two apartment units were built.)

Housing starts in the Greater Toronto Area by decade. Data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corportaion

Housing starts in the Greater Toronto Area by decade. Data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corportaion

Generally located along arterial roads at the edge of suburban low-rise subdivisions, these “apartment neighborhoods,” as they are officially described, contained at times dozens of tower blocks, each surrounded by wide swaths of open space. This “tower in the park” typology was superficially reminiscent of contemporaneous housing projects planned in the suburbs of Europe, yet as a component of private development schemes, the arrangement and ground plans of these towers were subject to property division, and the expectation that tenants would all own cars. The resulting fragmentation of open space and large proportion of surface parking are deviations from the more thoughtful approaches to landscaped open space achieved in publicly planned European and North American projects of this type.

Yet this model was an exceedingly important part of the narrative of Canada’s postwar wealth, growth, and emergence as a modern nation following WWII. The apartments were marketed to working couples, middle-income professionals, small families, and empty-nesters as an almost Jetsons-esque vision of the future. They were depicted as desirable enclaves featuring green open space, ample parking, tennis courts, outdoor pools, and a wide range of two-, three-, and even four-bedroom units (large by today’s standards) that offered panoramic views of their surroundings, and, of course, all modern conveniences.

Courtesy Greenwin Inc.

Courtesy Greenwin Inc.

1960s ads for Village Green apartments

Most important, these compounds were conceived of and planned as components of broader middle-class neighborhoods that also included commercial areas, office districts, schools, malls, and so on . . . all a convenient drive from home.

By the end of the boom in the mid-1970s, however, new housing options such as condominiums and low-rise subdivisions in the outer suburbs were becoming available. The tower in the park had been criticized by urbanists as an unsafe and unsophisticated urban form. Historic downtowns were also being reevaluated, soon to experience the beginning of the gentrification we see today.

In the face of more attractive alternatives, the old slabs quickly came to be thought of as simply “older apartments.” Today, the majority of these towers exist at the bottom of the private housing system.

However, despite the shift in perception of suburban high-rises, they continue to provide a vital resource to the region. As the nation’s immigration policy has expanded and the region’s population has grown, these towers have become very effective “landing pads” for hundreds of thousands of new Canadians. Their relatively large units have allowed these apartments to perform adaptively to a number of resident needs, allowing diverse household structures at affordable rates. Over the last thirty years or so our inner suburbs have experienced one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in Canadian history, and are today among the world’s most diverse neighborhoods.

But several problems have emerged. These neighborhoods weren’t designed for the city’s evolving needs. Most of the goods, services, and infrastructure that make Toronto an attractive “arrival city” are located far and away from these areas, and increasingly, largely due to issues of affordability, residents of high-rise neighborhoods do not own cars.

This simple shift has huge implications for how life is led in the inner suburbs. It means that the scale and range of the automobile, for which these areas were first planned, is no longer appropriate. Unfortunately, few to no amenities are located within walking distance of many of these communities. Zoning laws that assume car ownership have remained in stasis during these past decades, and as a result prohibit nearly all “non-residential” uses. Consequently, apartment neighborhoods of tens of thousands lack local shops, services, amenities, and life on the street. Even many social service programs, considered “institutional” uses, are prohibited by law.

This constraining situation presents significant challenges in building the social infrastructure, markets, small businesses, and community initiatives associated with thriving neighborhoods and local economies. It also means most residents have very poor access to fresh food, daycare, training, and employment. Related to these issues is the fact that these areas are also trending towards increased poverty and poor health, with measurably higher incidences of diabetes, for example.

Image courtesy of the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal and Toronto Public Health. From report: “Toward Healthier Apartment Neighbourhoods: A Healthy Toronto by Design  Report.” City of Toronto, 2012.

Tower blocks and prevalence of diabetes in Toronto

The restrictive nature of the outmoded legacy by-laws threatens the social and economic well-being of these neighborhoods and, by extension, the region as a whole. The failure of policy to adapt with the life of a city can have troubling, unintended consequences over time.

What is needed now is zoning reform, along with the means to facilitate investment in these dense, modern communities, in order to build a vibrant life from the ground up and to enable more self-sufficient and thriving vertical villages within the aging suburbs.

A number of dedicated advocates, planners, organizations, and community groups are now working with the city to reform zoning in apartment neighborhoods to permit grassroots intiatives; small-scale entrepreneurialism; new neighborhood economies; a new transportation infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit; and eventually, hopefully, the low-energy retrofit of existing structures and the addition of new mixed-use developments that will bring positive infill and more complete, vibrant communities. This collection of initiatives is known as Tower Renewal, and is well represented online and in the media. At the time of this writing, the City of Toronto has adopted new zoning as proposed by Tower Renewal.

Boom two: The glass point tower

But what about Toronto’s much-discussed current condo boom? Again we see a remarkable wave of high-rise development as a result of an aggressive private sector response to regional planning policy. In this case, the “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe” (2005) encourages the intensification of urban centers in an effort to curb sprawl, protect the Toronto region’s “greenbelt,” and provide walkable, mixed-use centers that do not rely on the car for transportation. Similar to the last boom, consumers are lining up, making Toronto’s condominium development industry larger than any other in North America today (in 2011, more than 28,000 units sold).

New Toronto condo towers

New Toronto condo towers

Contemporary developments are concentrated near transit access, particularly in and around downtown. Units in these buildings tend to be very small (in keeping with the high-density mandate), and are sold as affordable-yet-luxurious living spaces to young, single professionals and couples. Similar to the previous boom, developments of this type are marketed as the hippest, latest thing, but in this case the focus on diversity is crucial to the lifestyle marketing attempts to brand each building uniquely.

In reality, of course, as with their predecessors, there is little to differentiate one building from another. And, in reality, though the condos represent the most affordable purchase a new homebuyer can acquire, their small square footage also makes them some of the most profitable per square foot for the developer.

These developments are not necessarily a bad thing. They are helping to facilitate a new generation of people living downtown and in transit-supported areas of the city, and have reduced the need for car ownership and use. In contrast to the postwar slabs, they also generally benefit from mixed-use zoning that includes grade-related shops and other uses that may make positive contributions to the street life and public realm of their neighborhoods.

Again, however, there are problems to consider. First, new occupants attracted to the condos by the promise of an exciting urban lifestyle have in some cases found that much of the vibrancy they sought has been displaced by the sheer number of new residential condominiums. Less profitable building typologies—older loft warehouses, for example, which previously provided flexible rental space for innovative small businesses—tend to be demolished. Retail spaces become significantly more expensive, which means independent restaurants and retailers are replaced by chains and franchises. The original diversity and character of these neighborhoods are often threatened.

One of the many condo presentation centers scattered around the downtown core

One of the many condo presentation centers scattered around the downtown core

Second, many recent condos fall short on energy performance. While building codes are being updated to reflect a growing consensus around sustainable design, the new regulations were not in place when many hundreds of buildings were constructed over the last decade. One of the key selling features of the glass point tower is the glass, but these window wall systems, while providing panoramic views and the desired exterior sheen, provide little thermal resistance. Evidence shows, in fact, that many recent condominiums are only slightly more energy efficient than apartments built a half century earlier. If energy prices rise as predicted, the inefficiencies of some of these buildings could present serious challenges.

A third area of concern relates to the ability of condominium corporations to fund expected future maintenance, as well as to finance sustainable retrofits to meet expected revised energy efficiency regulations. Current legal requirements for reserve funds fall short of the anticipated required investment, and the current structure of condo governance presents challenges in raising maintenance fees to required levels. (The Ontario Condominium Act is currently undergoing a process of review to address these issues.)

A final challenge regarding the resilience of Toronto’s condos relates to their small unit size. As noted above, the majority of today’s condos are aimed at the lucrative demographic of the children of baby boomers (now in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties) or to downsizing boomers themselves. But as these young couples begin to multiply—as the “echo generation baby boom” starts wanting children—where will they and their families go?

To date, few workable solutions to these issues have been presented. Increased pressure for a limited stock of centrally located, family-sized housing is making home ownership in Toronto less and less affordable, and ever-increasing traffic congestion and policy objectives related to sustainability are making it less viable to seek housing at the periphery.

So where will the growing number of urban families find affordable and adequate accommodation? And what function within the housing market will the current stock of smaller unit condominiums play when the current high volume of young professionals and empty nesters for whom they were designed and marketed begins to wane?

The future

There is urgent need for innovation in the housing system, both in treating old stock and conceptualizing the new.

In the realm of new housing, several initiatives currently underway provide interesting opportunities for experimentation. The first relates to the efforts of Waterfront Toronto and its creation of a series of sustainable and, to some degree, family-friendly and mixed-occupancy communities along the former industrial waterfront. The first of these neighborhoods, the athletes’ village for the 2015 PanAm Games, is currently under construction. A deviation from the typical point tower that dominates the condo market, these communities offer a range of mid- and high-rise types that, in combination with high-quality public realm and mixed-use programming, may change expectations for urban housing. These projects themselves take cues from Scandinavian experiments in compact, low-carbon, vibrant, family-appropriate neighborhoods worthy of our attention.

Another large initiative relates to the introduction of light-rail transit along Eglinton and select arterial roadways in Toronto’s inner suburbs, and an associated program of “mid-rise” housing along these lines. Currently in the planning stages, zoning reform and other policy incentives aim to encourage street-related development to provide needed housing options in these vast areas of the city.

The final initiative brings us full circle, offering opportunities for new housing and mixed-use development within Toronto’s existing postwar apartment neighborhoods. This could provide needed family and mixed housing while catalyzing positive neighborhood change. Aided by the coming light rail lines mentioned above, with their existing high density and large areas of open space to accommodate new housing and local amenities, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, parks, playgrounds, cafés, restaurants, and all the other necessary mixed-use components of a vibrant community, these neighborhoods provide an ideal scenario for positive investment and urban revitalization. With effort, luck, and careful planning, Toronto’s postwar tower communities can continue to fulfill their intended function as high-density hot spots providing a housing mix throughout the region while satisfying twenty-first-century ambitions of equality, diversity, sustainability, and resilience.