By 2041, the population of Downtown Toronto is expected to practically double, swelling from 250,000 to 475,000 residents. As the core's residential density increases, the clustering of employment is becoming even more pronounced, with the Downtown taking on a growing share of new commercial uses. Despite representing only 3% of the City's total land area, 37% of all residential growth and 45% of non-residential growth is expected to take place Downtown in the coming 24 years. For the City of Toronto's Planning Division, these projections—which exacerbate Downtown's already unequal economic contribution to the city—forms the basis of TOcore; an ongoing study to create a Secondary Plan for predictably managing growth to enhance the core' long-term livability in the core. But what exactly should the plan entail?
That question was posed to the City of Toronto's Design Review Panel on Thursday, February 9th. Following a round of public consultations and talks, the study has produced a Proposals Report, outlining a preliminary vision of long-term planning priories for Downtown Toronto. Offering some context of the work so far prior to the assessment, a presentation by representatives of City Planning and Perkins + Will—the architectural firm working with the City on TOcore—opened the discussion.
As a more fine-grained complement to the Official Plan, TOcore is intended as a Downtown-specific policy framework that takes into account a range of interrelated factors including building heights/massing, retail, heritage preservation, transit accessibility, affordability, parkland/public space dedication, green standards, resiliency, and street-level environs. Along with general policy provisions for new parkland and more transit—and pedestrian-oriented streets—the plan sets out to govern the concentration and scale of new development.
Calling for a more fine-grained mix of uses, with varied, pedestrian and bike-friendly streetscapes, the Proposals Report outlines three tiers of mixed-use areas. Tall buildings are to be concentrated throughout the Yonge/Bay/University corridors (dark red), with the high-density areas surrounded by 'transitional' pockets (medium red), while more gentle density is intended for the more intimately scaled 'main street' corridors beyond (light red).
Outside the three intensification zones, however, the plan calls for 'stable neighbourhoods' to be maintained as house-form areas. Citing the relative paucity of housing stock currently provided by these areas, which account for only 20% of Downtown housing—but much more of Downtown land—the Proposals Report argues that "it is important to increase housing in areas other than Neighbourhoods." The benefits of maintaining the built form and character of older low-rise neighbourhoods are noted in the Proposals Report, which identifies the diverse housing stock offered throughout these areas as a crucial benefit.
Alongside what's shaping up to be a relatively detailed set of built form policies, TOcore looks to maintain the Downtown core's concentration of non-residential uses, calling for intensification of exclusively employment uses in the Financial District, the boundaries of which are set to be expanded. Proposed minimums for non-residential GFA are also tabled for larger projects in the King-Spadina area, while greater concentrations of commercial uses are also planned for so-called 'Secondary Office Nodes' along Bloor, Sherbourne, and Jarvis.
Focusing the Panel's analysis, the City requested guidance on a number of more acute issues pertaining to built form and urban design. Specifically, the panel was asked to provide input on emerging built form trends, commenting on a series of "key challenges" while helping guide the study by identifying additional new trends.
The panel was quick to praise the overall direction of the study, with the comprehensive scale of the vision—which takes into account a very diverse range of factors—regarded as a major accomplishment. The strong focus on livability was seen a particularly encouraging sign, though the panel noted that a relative lack of precedents—few studies with the same goals exist—means that innovative thinking will be required. "There really aren't a lot of established planning guidelines that specifically focus on livability," one panelist noted, "we're going to have to invent some of them."
In assessing at the plan as a whole, one panelist noted that finding a balance of prescriptive regulations and more general guidelines will be key to the plan's success. "One of the reasons the Tall Buildings Guidelines work well is because they're guidelines," the panelist stressed, explaining that overly specific regulations can lack the flexibility required to address site-specific contexts. Instead of a rigid planning framework that sets out specific rules to follow, the panelist argued that much of TOcore's new Secondary Plan should present general guidelines, allowing the vision to be re-interpreted more generally, with room for case-by-case analysis.
To be sure, establishing a comprehensive planning criterion for such a large and varied area poses some risk. While a cohesive set of policies can help guide the City's growth towards a more sustainable and livable future, blanket regulations can threaten the granularity of unique urban spaces, potentially stifling the creative—and often unpredictable—possibilities of the city's evolution. A "balance between planned and unplanned" is sought through TOcore, while the panel's comments suggest that a combinations of guidelines and prescriptive policies can foster more flexible and innovative patterns of growth.
Along a similar vein, the panel admonished the City to be somewhat less prescriptive about building heights. "Why are we so focused on height?" one panelist asked, arguing that "more of a building's impact is on the ground plane." In lieu of the rather specific height ridges and clotheslines often favoured by City Planning, the panel called for more of the focus to be placed on configuring and planning the lower levels of new developments, and less emphasis on height alone.
The panelists identified a frequent lack of "relationship between built form and the public realm" as a crucial issue—one that can impact the street-level experience more than the height of the tower above. The panelists called on the City to develop policies that provide more specific policies to address public realm features across Downtown's unique neighbourhoods.
Turning to the areas identified mixed-use zoning plan, some panelists admonished the City to consider allowing some limited development along smaller streets in 'stable neighbourhoods.' "I think there's latent demand for developing smaller sites," said one panelist, going on to suggest that a blanket ban on redeveloping these areas could prove excessively restrictive. Indeed, with much of the city's core occupied by the so-called 'yellowbelt'—low-rise and increasingly wealthy neighbourhoods where intensification is essentially prohibited—adding new housing supply to these parts of the core is quickly becoming a more serious consideration. To maintain inclusive and mixed-income communities in the longer term, policies governing Downtown's prosperous house-form enclaves may need to be reconsidered.
The panel also stressed that the 'transitional' areas and mid-rise development nodes will be crucial to the city's evolution. With high-rises continuing to dominate much of Toronto's new-build construction, the panel argued that a strong planning framework to incentivize and govern mid-rise development is necessary. The panel called for "more emphasis on mid-rise development and mid-rise areas," encouraging the City to explore ways to promote more balanced growth.
Addressing some of the trends and challenges identified in the City's presentation—prepared by Perkins + Will—the panel agreed that small sites will require extensive analysis. With land values continuing to rise, proposals for "bigger towers on smaller sites" are likely to intensify, one panelist noted, warning that the City will need to determine "how tiny is too tiny for a tower." Diminishing supply and growing land values place similar pressure on heritage sites, the panel warned, noting that more of Toronto's older buildings will be subject to redevelopment applications. As such, strengthened regulations will be needed to protect non heritage-designated built form.
By the same token, the diminishing supply of Downtown land is likely to reduce the possibilities for developing point towers atop large podiums. While the panel cited a mix of uses and an effective ground plane as key components of successful podiums, the development of such structures will become more scarce as larger sites are redeveloped.
We will keep you updated as the TOcore study continues to take shape. More information about the study is available on the City of Toronto's official website, where a public survey is also available. On March 4th, Ryerson University will also host an open house, allowing members of the public to get a closer look at the the evolving TOcore plans. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment in the space below this page, or add your voice to the TOcore conversation in our Forum.