Toronto's unprecedented building boom has resulted in a vast sea of new developments which have transformed the urban landscape of the city forever. On their journey through the planning process, many of these developments have received the careful scrutiny of the City of Toronto's Design Review Panel (DRP). While the panel continues to judge the design aspects of new proposals, the exact purpose of the panel, or even the very existence of one, has been unclear for many people. UrbanToronto recently had the opportunity to discuss the panel's history, objectives and future with the Chair, Gordon Stratford, and the former DRP Coordinator, Hamish Goodwin. 

Gordon Stratford is the Senior Vice President and Director of Design for HOK Canada. His work on the City of Toronto's Tall Building Design Guidelines with former Director of Urban Design Robert Freedman led him to his position as Chair of the DRP. Hamish Goodwin, who also worked on the Tall Building Design Guidelines, studied environmental planning in Brisbane, Australia. His previous positions with ERA Architects and Heritage Preservation Services prepared him for his role as DRP Coordinator. 

The DRP meets at Toronto City Hall every month, image by Marcus Mitanis

How did the DRP start off?

Discussions had been ongoing since 2003 about the state of Toronto's public realm, urban context and livability. These discussions referenced Vancouver, which had implemented a DRP years before, as an example Toronto could follow. The concept of a DRP was initially adopted as a pilot project in 2007. The panel had a comparatively small focus, targeting specific geographic areas as a means of determining the feasibility of a city-wide rollout. An evaluation conducted by the City in 2009 deemed the concept beneficial to the planning and design process, and thus, the current DRP was born. 

The panel acts as an advisory body to City staff and deals with several issues, not strictly the architecture of a particular proposal. It does not decide which applications are approved and rejected, but helps aid City Planning in their determination of good design. It focuses on public realm issues such as shadowing and the pedestrian environment in addition to the specific design elements of the building, including massing and height. As stated on the City's website, the mandate of the DRP is to "improve people's quality of life by promoting design excellence within the public realm, including the pursuit of high quality architecture, landscape architecture, urban design and environmental sustainability." 

All publicly-initiated projects containing "significant visual and physical public realm impacts" fall within the scope of the DRP. Large-scale site plan and rezoning applications captured within designated 'Design Review Districts' are also reviewed, as are applications containing "significant public realm impacts" located along an Avenue, a Major Street or Surface Transit Priority Corridor as outlined in the Official Plan. Projects falling under these criteria will be reviewed twice, giving the panel the opportunity to provide design input while the proposal is still being fleshed out, and once more following implementation of the panel's recommendations, if any. 

The established Design Review Districts, image courtesy of the City of Toronto

The City of Toronto's DRP is not to be confused with the several other DRPs which operate within the city's boundaries. Several government-created agencies, including Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, have instituted their own DRPs. Projects within their specified scope are only reviewed by the respective panels; the City's DRP reviews proposals outside these areas, though on occasion, a joint review may be conducted. 

Meeting up to 15 times annually, the panel is composed of 14 volunteer members, each with a two-year term. The current panel boasts six architects, three landscape architects, two urban designers, two members representing engineering and sustainability, and one heritage architect. New panel members are introduced every year to replace the outgoing talent, with the objective of maintaining the consistency of the DRP's multidisciplinary approach while bringing in fresh ideas and new energy. "One of the successes of the DRP is the result of it being a multidisciplinary body," said Hamish Goodwin. "It draws on expertise from architects, landscape architects, urban designers, planners, heritage specialists, engineers. You can get a really comprehensive analysis of the project from all these different perspectives." 

On the specific successes of the DRP, Goodwin recalled one of the very first projects that came to the panel, the TTC's Kipling Station Redevelopment. The project was seeking to shift bus activities from Islington station one stop west to Kipling, integrating them within the existing terminal. "It was a project that was not well received by the panel at the time. The plan was based on functional deliverables like bus turnaround rather than balancing that with the needs of pedestrians and the public realm." Now being administered by Metrolinx, the plan has changed as a result of constant DRP input. Goodwin noted that the proposal came to the panel about four times, "probably the most" out of any other project in its history.

Great Gulf's Yonge + Rich project evolved after a visit to the DRP, image courtesy of Great Gulf Homes

Though the DRP has been a staple of Toronto planning for less than ten years, its legacy is already apparent. "I think you’d be hard pressed to find a project where no changes were made having gone to the DRP—but it’s not just through the DRP by which changes are made," said Goodwin. "The comments provided by the DRP often mirror the comments provided by urban design and community planning staff. Having those comments reinforced by this independent group of experts provides an extra incentive for developers to listen up, pay attention and take stock of their objectives and think about where they’re going."

The volume of development in Toronto has meant that not all projects can receive proper scrutiny. "It’s not a situation that every project which meets the triggers has to come to the panel. It’s often a function of the panel’s capacity," said Goodwin. "They meet on a monthly basis, they’re all volunteers so there’s only so much time they can offer to the process. Each project, to give it a fair review, takes at least an hour. For most meetings, there’s only capacity for four or five projects. It comes down to a determination of priorities from a city-wide perspective. We try to make sure that there’s an equal sprinkling of projects from the suburbs so it doesn't just become a downtown focused panel. There is a starting point and then there’s a decision making process that takes place to determine which projects end up at the meetings." 

Gordon Stratford stated that examining more projects would be beneficial. "I think the issue is how to scale success, how to see more projects. We’re seeing just a slice of development that’s happening in the city." 

The City of Toronto's DRP scrutinizes many new development proposals, image by Marcus Mitanis

Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat is supportive of expanding the panel's capacity while also ensuring the public maintain access to the discussions. "We have made very big efforts to ensure the panel is as open and transparent as possible. It’s important these discussions aren't held behind closed doors so people are able to attend," said Goodwin. "It also plays a very strong educational role for people interested in the design of their city. It gives people a chance to learn about the planning process and the importance of good design in the city. It’s more than just the cladding on the building, it’s about sun on the street and the park, wind’s all about the livability of the city. It’s really important to take a step back from a site specific perspective to really consider the cumulative impact of those buildings and how they impact the urban environment." 

Stratford commented on 400 Front Street, a project which voluntarily came to the DRP earlier in the process than most projects normally would. "We didn’t look at Spadina and Wellington at first, now we do. We're starting to see projects in conjunction and the City knits it together. At first when we started out, there was pushback. Proponents thought it was a roadblock. But it changed very quickly. They were coming, they’d listen to us, then they’d come back and they were actually incorporating our ideas. The proponents have bought into the process and they’re comfortable enough to be able to frame their designs forward."

400 Front Street West, image courtesy of State Building Group

Stratford also commented on the evolution of the panel's scope. "From the day we started back in early 2007 until now, there have been things that have changed, but that’s been good. It has allowed us as a panel to become intrigued by not only change happening downtown but change out in Scarborough Town Centre as an example. We're connecting dots between places that were suburban that would become urban and suburban development ideas that were making their way downtown. It makes for a more dynamic conversation."

Goodwin hopes that through public engagement, some of the misconceptions about the panel will be cleared up. "I go to quite regularly—it’s a very useful forum and I see a lot of comments in the discussion threads—seemingly a lot of frustration about the panel and their interpretation of good design," said Goodwin. "It seems to be the case that most of the discussions at the panel are more about urban design issues, not so much about architectural details. It’s more about the placement of the building, its shape, scale and massing. It’s really important to get those right early on. The panel looks at contextual fit first and foremost. I think it’s really important that those details are ironed out before the discussion leads to the quality of design and the architecture itself."

Stratford believes cities across Canada need to consider having a DRP. "I think any city that wants to be a great city needs to have design discourse. It needs to be embedded, it needs to be woven into city-making policies. Otherwise, the discussion and the feedback and the comments won’t amount to anything. I think Toronto needs it because we want the city to be better than it is. I think that any city that doesn’t have a DRP needs to think hard about having one. I think it makes a huge difference."

Where do I find DRP reviews of buildings?

You can read the minutes of DRP meetings by downloading PDFs from the DRP's archive page. There is no index of projects, but by downloading several of the meeting minutes, you will be able to follow some the evolution of some projects. First and second appearances before the panel are typically many months apart.

If you want to leave your thoughts on Toronto's Design Review Panel, please use the comment space below this article.

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