The approvals process for new buildings in Toronto is a laborious one. It is all but inevitable that a zoning amendment is required for new projects to make economic sense in most corners of the city now: our zoning bylaws are a creature of the 1970s, with limits set before the province's Places To Grow plan required new levels of densification, and before the Greenbelt would limit untrammeled sprawl and set land prices within it climbing skyward. A developer will file comprehensive reports, respond to many questions from the public, take countless meetings, and try to satisfy numerous conditions before City Council is called upon to vote yea or nay to a proposal.

To tackle the amount of paperwork required for an application, a development team typically includes the architect, urban planning consultants, traffic consultants, and wind and shadow consultants. The work is tested by experts in several City departments, and the public are involved too through both legally required consultation meetings as well as occasonal more informal ones at early stages. The whole process from application to permits can take from many months to a couple of years depending on the complexity of the project. The last requirement of City Council before an application appears for a vote is the Planning Department's final Staff Report, which will either carry their recommendation of approval or of refusal.

One recent final report with a refusal recommendation has caught a number of UrbanToronto readers by surprise. The MOD Developments' project at 197 Yonge Street, the Massey Tower condominiums, is one of the absolute favourites of readers of this site, both in terms of the passion for it expressed in the posts, and in terms of the absolute numbers of people who have visited the related forum threads, the project's dataBase page, and the front page stories focusing on it.

Massey Tower by Hariri Pontarini Architects for MOD Developments

The Massey Tower, for those who know little or nothing about it yet, would be a 60-storey tower rising from behind the preserved façade and front rooms of the 1905-built Canadian Bank of Commerce building at 197 Yonge Street, across from the Eaton Centre. The building had sat derelict for over two decades, and was rotting away until being rescued and partially restored to create the presentation centre for the proposed tower last year. The lot is an irregular shape and includes a small parkette to the north of the former bank, plus surface parking and alleyway areas at the back which lead through to Victoria Street. The name of the tower was chosen to honour the famous concert hall to the north, and to reflect a closer tie to it: the developers will cede a portion of their lot to Massey Hall so that it can begin a much needed expansion and restoration plan of its own. Without the added space, Massey Hall's plan for revitalization has been a non-starter for years.

So what is it that the Planning Department is taking issue with in the Massey Tower application? They have identified the following concerns in the report;

a. The proposal represents an over-development of the property;

b. the proposed massing and profile are inappropriate for the development of the lands and creates negative impacts in terms of adjacency;

c. the proposal does not conform to the Official Plan including policies related to Built Form, Mixed-use Areas and Area Specific Official Plan Policy 174;

d. the proposal is inconsistent with Council-approved guidelines/policies such as the Design Criteria for the Review of Tall Buildings; and

e. the massing and profile of the proposal, if approved, has the potential to create a negative precedent for other applications within the downtown area.

Typically concerns c, d, and e above are not those which would, own their own, form the basis of a refusal, but are items which can be weighed in regards to mitigating factors specific to this application and this site. Concerns a and b appear to have the most weight here, so let's look at them more closely.

In regard to the over-development of the site, Massey Tower is situated in the middle of what is known as the Theatre Block. As already mentioned, Massey Hall is sited at the north end of the block, while to the east and a bit to the south of the Massey Tower site is the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. As nationally important heritage cultural jewels, these buildings will never be redeveloped. Immediately adjacent to Massey Tower to the south is the 1903-built, 8-storey Heintzman Building at 193 Yonge Street. The Heintzman is owned by Allied Properties, a Real Estate Inventment Trust who own dozens of office buildings in the city, usually of heritage stock. Allied's modus operandi has been to restore, update, manage, and preserve heritage buildings. As a long-term landlord they hold on to properties, technically in perpetuity, as opposed to flipping them for a quick profit.

193 Yonge is a designated heritage building with little chance of expansion. The heritage designation would normally be enough to ensure the preservation of 193 Yonge at its current size, but moreover the property does not abut a city laneway at the back which would be necessary to accommodate the vehicles required to service a larger development at 193. There is an easement across the Massey Tower site for servicing the rear of 193 Yonge which will be maintained in the Massey Tower redevelopment.

Canadian Bank of Commerce (Massey Tower site) and Heintzman Building to the south, Image from Google Streetview

Allied have stated that they have no intention of redeveloping their site, and have entered into an agreement with MOD Developments and have sent a letter of support to the Planning Department. In a recent conversation UrbanToronto had with Hugh Clark, Allied's Director of Development, he reiterated that they are looking forward to seeing the Massey Tower scheme approved. This agreement with Allied is especially important when considering concern b above, regarding the potential negative impacts in terms of adjacency.

In other words, concern b refers to Massey Tower rising right along the 197/193 Yonge lot line, with windows facing south across it. The City does not typically allow windows to be built on a lot line as it impedes the owner of the adjacent lot from redeveloping it someday. Typically the answer is to build a blank wall along a lot line instead, but a 60-storey blank wall would be unheard of. Tall buildings, therefore, are normally built back from the lot line, with setbacks stipulated that suit the situation. In this particular case the Massey Tower site is not large enough to incorporate normal setbacks. Does its letter of support from abutting owner Allied and its adjacency to protected heritage properties mitigate that problem? Planners are concerned with the precedent that approval here would set, but City Councillors will have to weigh that, as the exceptional circumstances on this block are not likely repeatable elsewhere in the city.

Tower separation is another concern for the Planning Department, but this can be understood through the lens of an unredevelopable 193 Yonge and Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre complex. When those properties are taken into account, the distance between the Massey Tower and the existing 20-storey Manulife Building at the very south end of the block is within the standards of the Tall Buildings guidelines set by the City.

In effect, the Planning Department's recommended refusal of this application does not acknowledge the uniqueness of the site nor the challenges in developing something here, evidenced by the site's vacancy over the last 25 years. It ignores the city-building aspects of the development in its presevation of heritage aspects of 197 Yonge, and its gift to Massey Hall. The department seems willing to risk losing this important opportunity to revitalize these buildings and this block in order to preserve the purity of their rules, worrying that their support for Massey Tower might be used against them by other developers on less unique sites.

Restored Canadian Bank of Commerce as new entry to the Massey Tower

There are other reports for City Council to consider regarding this proposal, all of which have been in favour of the application:
  •  The Community Consultation meeting last spring was described by one of the attendees as a “love-in” which attracted overwhelming support from the public. (Despite this, the Planning report only refers to the few negative comments received.)
  • The report from Preservation Services to the Preservation Board on February 14th was approved unanimously, with the chair calling it a “good day for heritage”. Local City Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Adam Vaughan both sit on the Preservation Board.
  • The Design Review Panel on September 22, 2012 called the plans by renowned Hariri Pontarini Architects “convincing”, “well-executed”, “masterfully-done”, “awesome”, “extraordinary”, “a catalyst for regenerating the area”, “elegant” and “thoughtful”. The following are longer quotes from the report: 

Building Form and Articulation: Members were unanimous in expressing appreciation for the design, and the moves to "unlock" the site's development potential. Some comments expressing this sentiment were as follows:

The proposal turns a complicated problem into an elegant solution [the proposal is a] beautiful building with masterful architecture It is well mannered, simple and strong, deftly handled, and has the potential to become a landmark.

The submission is commendable for creating a sensitive design solution for a challenging site, using an ingenuity that matches that of the design of adjacent heritage buildings.

Expression and Articulation: Members were supportive of the base building expression, proportion, form, and materials, describing the white fritted glass as an elegant veil/canvas emphasizing the significance and quality of the nieghbouring heritage buildings. They felt the lobby was well integrated, and that the height of the base – linking into the heritage context - was also appropriate.

The Planning report will be debated at the Toronto and East York Community Council meeting coming up today, Tuesday, February 26th, at City Hall. Councillors considering it will have the chance to speak with the planner to have any questions answered about it, as well as hear from any of the parties involved. The developer will undoubtedly speak on behalf of the project, and other members of the team may speak as well. Citizens are also free to voice their opinions at Council. Once the debate on the item is finished a vote will be called to indicate the Community Council's recommendation to a subsequent full City Council meeting where the City's final decision on the project is made. It is at this stage where, if the development is turned down by the City, a developer may take the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board to try to appeal it.

For further images of Massey Tower, choose the UrbanToronto dataBase entry, linked below. Want to have your say? Leave a comment here, or get in on the discussion in one of the associated Forum threads.

Related Companies:  Cecconi Simone, ERA Architects, Hariri Pontarini Architects, Isotherm Engineering Ltd., Janet Rosenberg + Studio, MarketVision Real Estate, MOD Developments Inc., PRO-BEL, RJC Engineers, TUCKER HIRISE Construction