How to remake Toronto’s old neighbourhoods: low but dense
It’s got a brick façade. It has a sloped roof. And it has space for five families – in comfortable spaces – instead of two narrow houses. This is what the future of Toronto’s house neighbourhoods could look like.
This vision comes from Batay-Csorba Architects, a young and talented Toronto firm. Recently, I wrote about how planning regulations in Toronto are limiting new housing in the city. BCA responded to my request to come up with an architectural solution.
The most efficient way to add more housing would be with low-rise apartment buildings, what’s often called the “missing middle.” But that would be opposed by city planners and, almost certainly, neighbours and their city councillors. So I asked BCA to try something that might be more palatable. We chose at random a site near Bloor and Christie Streets that’s currently occupied by two semi-detached houses. The challenge: to add more good-quality housing units here, while roughly maintaining the visual rhythm and scale of the street.
“We began by wanting to challenge the spatial organization that you find in these neighbourhoods,” said Andrew Batay-Csorba, who runs the firm with his partner and wife, Jodi. “The basic structure of this part of Toronto is in these long and narrow lots. But what happens if the units are back-to-back, instead of side-to-side?”
The BCA proposal challenges a hypocrisy in Toronto planning, which defends the “prevailing character” of areas such as this. In short, as long as a new building is a house for one family, it usually ends up getting approved, no matter how big it is or what it looks like. If it has two, three, or four units, people tend to complain much more loudly – and in most of the postwar city, three or more units is totally forbidden. All that has to change.
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/art...ke-torontos-old-neighbourhoods-low-but-dense/“People in these neighbourhoods are very interested in the idea of context,” Mr. Batay-Csorba said. “But we want to challenge what it means to be contextual, to think about how people actually live now. And the architecture of these houses is ripe for reinterpretation.”
At the risk of contravening UT orthodoxy, I'm not overly keen on this.Interesting concept that the Globe and Mail explores, acompanied by some gorgeous renderings:
UT orthodoxy should be challenged and contravened regularly.At the risk of contravening UT orthodoxy....
So, all the back-to-back houses I've worked on had no windows on the sides of the rear extension. Only windows facing the laneway behind. They also all included backyards of varying sizes, some big enough to easily park four cars. That'd be thanks to the depth of lots in older parts of the city. This also means that adjacent backyards are not entirely lorded over. In fact, in some cases, the adjacent house has actually extended farther back into the lot than the back-to-back house.If you have a yard that's only 14-18ft wide to begin with, that could turn into a desolate space where many trees will not grow, where anything that needs sun would be challenged, and where one would feel on display in one's own yard, as well. (not that the latter isn't the case already, but its different if someone's side window is directly into your yard.
So, on the ones I've worked on, all water run-off has been directed to garden features in front or in the rear. No problems thus far, I'm assuming. I'm probably assuming correctly because in cases of water ingress, I'm usually the first to be called in.The other challenge here is an environmental one. How do you maintain permeability on a site like this? Where's the water going?
Hell no, thanks. Have you ever lived in a basement? In these older Toronto homes it's shit. Straight up. Terrible, dark, cramped, claustrophobic. Something no amount of renovation can mend....more and better basement apartments.
I've never understood why we don't capitalize on the last bit more, at a cost of in/around $40,000 for many city homes, underpinning and let's say another $45,000 for basic fit-out makes for $85,000 per unit for construction, that's much cheaper than most new builds per unit; but I am digressing!
The problem is a lack of stock compounded by outdated zoning laws and development rules.
In the case of affordable housing for low-income earners, it’s up to governments at all levels to work with partners, both for- and non-profit, to build the needed units.
But when it comes to market-based stock, Toronto and its overlords at Queen’s Park need to make way for mid-rise developments in city neighbourhoods that are zoned for low density and single-family homes, especially along streets that follow the subway system.
Toronto cannot put off this transformation any longer. It is growing too rapidly and has lately become a magnet for the tech industry.
The bulk of municipal land zoned for housing – at least two-thirds of it in many cities – is reserved for detached homes, while multiunit housing is restricted to small designated areas, generally in the city core but often far beyond or on abandoned industrial lands. That leaves the supply of housing artificially limited, particularly in areas near transit lines and city centres.
Meanwhile, owners of detached homes, who have the ear of elected officials, argue the so-called character of their neighbourhoods must not be disturbed. The long-standing status quo serves them well, effectively enriching them through government policy.
But the argument about character is a smokescreen. Where there is a neighbourhood of single-family homes, there was once a forest or a field. No one mourns the lost character of what had been there before. Character is wielded as a weapon against change. As Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic put it in June, “'Character’ means exclusion.”
There is an answer. It’s called the missing middle: small-scale, multiunit housing, from duplexes and triplexes to mid-rise apartment buildings. The missing middle is not a fix-all, but it is an essential step forward.
Minneapolis is a beacon of possible change. Last December, city council passed a plan that ended the dominion of single-family zoning. It is regarded as the first of its kind in the United States, but it’s hardly radical. Where a single house was previously permitted, a building with three units, a triplex, is now allowed. The rallying cry has been “Neighbors for More Neighbors.”
Oregon was the next to move. State legislators in late June passed a bill that will remake single-family zoning to allow fourplexes in cities of more than 25,000 people, and throughout the Portland region.
In Toronto, the story isn’t much better. The province in June approved new rules for downtown and midtown Toronto, after reworking plans the city had submitted, but the geographic reach of change is limited. There is no serious talk of rezoning what’s dubbed the “yellow belt” – the 70 per cent of available land limited to single-family homes.
Tokyo proves that housing shortages are a political choice
Another interesting note:
John van Nostrand, Founding Principal of SvN, was a presenter in our event this week, Innovations in Housing Affordability. A planner, architect and developer of many decades, he is highly aware of…www.citybuildinginstitute.ca
Those all have some grains of truth, but the bigger reality is much more complicated. It relates to our whole, modern understanding of cities and development. For about 100 years, cities all over the world have implemented an entirely new ideology that runs counter to how cities developed more naturally for centuries. This stark change was made on-purpose, based in thinking of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was responding to the shockwaves of industrialization. Part of that approach was the adoption of a model that commerce should be separated from residences, and part of it is a larger idea that cities and economies can and should be controlled from centralized agencies that are professionally managed. The latter sounds very common-sensical to us today, but it’s important to understand how radical of a shift that was, and what the actual results have been on the ground. Every choice or approach has consequences, and we tend to overlook the negative consequences to how we manage cities today.These combined forces have effectively created the dilemma that missing middle housing describes: with systems so complex, uncertain and expensive to navigate, the logical development response is either a single-family house (which never gets denied) or a very large apartment or mixed-use building that is bull-dogged through the system by a team of lawyers and consultants. All of the buildings in the middle were typically built by small investors, families or individuals, and in most cases the return isn’t worth the expense or risk today. Missing middle buildings may tick a lot of boxes noted by planners and architects, but it’s just too hard to get them built profitably in our modern systems. This is all without mentioning how our society has become so brainwashed as to the virtues of the single family detached house, that residents even in urban communities tend to oppose just about any project or code change that doesn’t protect single-family areas from change.
Builders in Toronto are facing something of a dilemna: Residents want fewer high-rises and planners are making available more sites suitable for more compact buildings, but costs are making mid-rise residential properties exceptionally expensive to construct.