In mid-April this year Toronto’s Planning and Growth Committee adopted a document called the Tall Buildings Design Guidelines to evaluate the design of new tall buildings in the city. I sat down for coffee with Robert Freedman, Director of Urban Design for the City of Toronto, at City’s Hall’s Café on the Square to learn what the new document means our cityscape.

Comparison of 1998 and 2012 Toronto Skyline. 1998 image by Lampo Professional Photos. 2012 image by Ruby Buiza/CBC

Freedman—like most city staff—have a lot on their plate to deal with these days. Mondays, apparently, are always a crunch at City Planning, but Freedman has a stack of documents with him for what is meant to be a quick 30-minute talk.

“When I first arrived at the city in 2002, the city was recently amalgamated and was trying to push the OP (the Toronto Official Plan) through to council. I remember having a conversation with Paul Bedford (former Chief Planner of the City of Toronto). We both knew we were going to be seeing increasing development pressure around tall buildings, and we would need to come up with more than what is in the official plan. We knew we were going to have to go into more detail.”

2013 example of "walkable" context analysis and "block" context analysis in the Tall Buildings Guidelines (2013)

The City defines tall buildings as those that are taller than the width of the adjacent right-of-way (ROW); for most sites downtown that would be those greater than 20m (5-6 stories) in height. The city’s 2002 OP tries to direct intensification into two main areas in Toronto: the pre-amalgamation downtowns – such as Yonge St. between Drewry and Highway 401 (North York), and the Avenues – major arterial roads that generally sport mixed-use buildings, such as Danforth Avenue and Queen Street. It was practically out of necessity that the OP couldn’t go into a great amount of detail over what might be considered appropriate development. Since the former downtowns were expected to see the greatest leaps in intensification, City Planning made the creation of guidelines a top priority.

The City would go on to organize some symposiums, the first on tall buildings, which was terrifically named “Higher Learning”. Experts were invited from cities like Chicago and New York, and the feedback was used by HOK Architects in the creation of the Design Criteria for the Review of Tall Building Proposals (2006). The guidelines were followed by Urban Strategies’ Tall Buildings, Inviting Change in Downtown Toronto (2010) which would lead to the Planning Department's Downtown Tall Buildings Vision and Performance Standards Design Guidelines (2012), which sought to clarify not only where tall buildings would be located, but also gave the City a set of design standards to test proposals against.

Comparison between Design Criteria for the Review of Tall Building Proposals (2006) and the Tall Buildings Guidelines (2013) #1

Having two design documents that may apply to development however, was inherently confusing, says Freedman. Additionally, since the time of the 2006 Design Guidelines, the city had seen almost 300 applications for tall buildings. And truth be told, the 2006 document needed a fresh coat of paint visually, especially following the release of the attractive Avenues and Mid-Rise Guidelines document (2010), which would help inspire the look of the new Tall Buildings document. The plan was to revise the Guidelines from their inception in 2006: “Council directed that we should come back with findings. You learn things you didn’t know in the beginning. It was always intended that we would update them." The 2013 document blends the two, while creating a new, smaller, Downtown Tall Buildings: Vision and Supplementary Design Guidelines document that is much clearer.

Through consultation with numerous stakeholders—including developers and rate-payer groups—Planning Staff began crafting a new document. Freedman describes his three favorite things about the document:

  1. Cleaner Language: “My aspiration was to get rid of much jargon as possible. We used direct language, and got rid of the ‘you shall, you must’, so the new document is much clearer, to be used by not only developers and the city, but by communities.”
  2. Better visuals: “It’s a tough exercise to boil down examples to diagrams. We used a better format for reading the document, and included OP references where we could. We’re quite proud of the graphical update.”
  3. Greater focus on the pedestrian: "We took a lot of feedback on the pedestrian realm. Our recommendation for sidewalks is now 6 metres. You can’t always achieve that, but you can try. The focus in staff feedback was not on height, but how do people experience the building? Even though there’s a tall building, does the scale feel ‘human’?"

Comparison between Design Criteria for the Review of Tall Building Proposals (2006) and the Tall Buildings Guidelines (2013) #2

If there is one component that City Planning has always had a difficult time with, it’s with educating the public on their new initiatives. As Freedman—and these guidelines—will tell you, each development is created in a very local context. It would be a herculean task to create a highly prescriptive guide to tall building construction in a city as big as Toronto, which is why the document tosses relatively few hard numbers around to guide developers, but there are some new guidelines in the 2013 document that were absent from the 2006 one.

The height of the base of the building being related to the ROW is one; public feedback seemed to indicate that in general, a base building as tall as the ROW could be overwhelming on a pedestrian scale, so – like the Avenues and Mid-Rise Guidelines – the document suggests using a height equal to 80% of the ROW instead, to a maximum of 24m. For the ‘middle’ portion of the tower, the document also now suggests a 750m floor plate as a soft 'maximum', which isn’t a new figure in the 2013 document, but uses stronger language compared to the 2006 one.  Another new section is on the treatment of balconies, to ensure not only greater privacy, but greater energy performance too.

These new guidelines can become problematic however, when opponents to a proposal latch onto guidelines as being concrete reasons to reject a proposal that breaks them. Freedman says that getting the public to constructively use these guidelines can be a problem, but that there’s a role for City Planning there.

“Getting the word out can sometimes be tough; one thing that’s unfortunate is when people show up [to public consultations] but don’t know the information. People need to be educated, and we’d like to do more outreach about how planning works. We hope that as we create a document, like the Design Guidelines, that those who are concerned and interested show up and leave feedback. The more they know how it works, the more productive meetings can be. [Education] is one thing that we need to do better. We’d like to do more outreach about how planning works.

Freedman points to Dr. Mike Evans, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital and YouTube celebrity, thanks to his videos dispensing health advice in a visually creative manner, as a model that City Planning could aspire to. “You get really good, general information in a quick and easy to digest format from him.”

Of course, problems with the Guidelines can come from professionals as well. The 2012 Downtown Tall Buildings Vision and Performance Standards Design Guidelines were criticized for "sterilizing” creativity. Freedman rejects the idea.

“When we were first working with HOK, architects were worried. But I don’t think they’re boxed in.”

It’s now been almost 45 minutes since we sat down for coffee, meaning our time has run well past the half hour block Freedman originally planned for. He gathers up the pile of mostly unopened documents he brought with him as I try and quickly collect my own things. He continues to talk (as I scribble furiously) as we get on the elevator.

Illustration of "X" the Condominium. Design by architectsAlliance

Getting back to the question, he points to the “X” Condominium as an example of a building that met certain tall buildings criteria, but not others.

“Perhaps you don’t get the checkmark for the base of your building, but perhaps you can get some on your tower design. They’re guidelines, not a checklist. There is still a huge amount of room for creativity.”

I thank him for his time as he steps off the elevator, stack of documents under his arm, surely on his way to a pile of work on the seeimingly neverending applications that are coming in.

Toronto continues to change. While any set of guidelines is not going to please everyone, after talking with Freedman, I’m reminded of something he said during the interview, that really hammers home why he’s so excited about the topic:

“The city is an unbelievable laboratory for tall buildings. We’re writing the book! Now we’re the city that’s getting calls from Chicago and New York; they’re looking to us.”