The success of the Pan Am Games, combined with the summer unveiling of the revitalized Queens Quay, has renewed people's interest in city building and urban design across Toronto. Questions around the state of design and planning in Toronto today, and where we are heading in the future, are frequent topics of conversation among local architects and developers. Accounting firm Shimmerman Penn encapsulated these discussions with their 6th Annual Architecture, Engineering and Design Event last Thursday. Held at the Gardiner Museum, 'Creating and Sustaining Momentum in Toronto: Assessing outcomes and planning for a visionary future', brought together some of Toronto's leading minds for a dialogue about city building. 

Sugar Beach, image by Marcus Mitanis

Waterfront Toronto's President and CEO John Campbell opened the event with a keynote address outlining the work the organization has done in redefining the water's edge. He began by explaining that Toronto's waterfront planning woes date back over 200 years to the days of John Graves Simcoe, who dedicated land along the lake for use as green space, but much of which was gradually lost.

Today, a variety of factors influence waterfront planning. Public cynicism runs rampant, the difficulties with remediating contaminated brownfield land requires an extensive amount of time and money, and global competition is putting pressure on Toronto to do something outstanding.

That's why Waterfront Toronto created a design review panel to guide development and promote design excellence. Upon inception, it was only the third such panel in Canada, after similar bodies were established in Vancouver and the National Capital Commission. Since then, the City of Toronto has created its own design review panel which applies to new development on a much larger scale. Waterfront Toronto has received over 60 awards for the projects they have completed so far, including Corktown Common and Sugar Beach

Corktown Common, image by UrbanToronto Forum contributor Jasonzed

Campbell also noted that beyond design excellence, Waterfront Toronto's key goals are to bring transit and affordable housing to the area, especially the burgeoning East Bayfront neighbourhood. A number of developments are being constructed to create this new mixed-use community, including Daniels Waterfront, Monde and Aqualina at Bayside, which will all be served by an ultra-high-speed broadband network. Campbell explained that the network will attract tenants in upcoming office buildings like the Waterfront Innovation Centre. To ensure a lively water's edge, no residential uses facing the lake at ground level are allowed. 

All in all, Waterfront Toronto's $1.26 billion redevelopment has so far generated $3.2 billion in economic output and $622 million in government revenues. Moving forward, plans to naturalize the mouth of the Don River would prevent flooding of vibrant neighbourhoods like Riverdale and Leslieville. That would be accompanied by the Portlands revitalization, which represents another massive blank canvas in which Waterfront Toronto can exercise their vision. 

Queens Quay, image by Marcus Mitanis

A number of questions from the audience arose following the presentation. One attendee asked how Waterfront Toronto can reconcile the space being devoted to public uses with existing industrial functions, most notably the Redpath Sugar Refinery. Campbell responded by recognizing the need for ports, pointing out that marine travel is still the cheapest method of transporting goods. He also explained that ships docking at the Redpath plant frequently attracts a crowd. With some parcels of waterfront land currently dedicated for salt storage and concrete mixing, these are activities Campbell explains should be located close to the core for accessibility to downtown construction sites and roads. 

Inside the Redpath Sugar Refinery, image by Marcus Mitanis

While promoting the successful work Waterfront Toronto has done, Campbell also noted where improvements need to be made. He acknowledged that the popularity of the bicycle lanes along Queens Quay—which now see an average 600 bikes an hour compared to only 42 pre-revitalization—has created a need for further enforcement and clarification of traffic laws. Another audience member described how the waterfront still feels disconnected from the downtown core. Campbell admitted that most work has focused on land along the lake while the north-south connection to the downtown core has been "our failure." He hopes that a number of measures, including public art installations, can help liven up the often unpleasant walk under the Gardiner Expressway to the waterfront from the core. 

The address was followed up with a five-member panel discussion about the present and future of city building in Toronto. Moderated by the Editor of Canadian Architect Elsa Lam, panelists included Nicola Casciato, WZMH Architects; Mazyar Mortazavi, TAS Developments; Tim Jones, Artscape; Richard Joy, Urban Land Institute; and Peter Clewes, architectsAlliance.

The five person panel was moderated by Elsa Lam, image by Marcus Mitanis

On the topic of urban design and architecture, Mortazavi likened his firm's objectives to a dinner party. He explained that although architects only work on a project in a particular community for a short period of time, they "want to be invited back." Tim Jones explained that Artscape "responds to the needs of the community" and brings a "design sensibility" to its work, such as the Daniels Spectrum project in Regent Park. 

On the value that design review panels to bring to city building, panelists agreed that the architecture bar in Toronto needs to be raised. Casciato recalled the process behind the Parliament Street Data Centre, pointing out that the building design improved after its submission to the review panel. The idea of mandating design through review panels, thus allowing the local government to have much more control over the final look of a building, was raised by the panelists. Richard Joy agreed that "we allow banality", but explained that the idea of government-mandated design standards has faced pushback before from architects who believe such a move would limit their creative freedom. Joy would like to see more foreign architects create buildings in the city and across Canada, hoping it would spark a more diverse and appealing urban fabric. Casciato disagreed, stating that there should actually be less reliance on foreign architects, but agreed that review panels should be implemented to help elevate design. 

Peter Clewes talks about the state of design in the city, image by Marcus Mitanis

Peter Clewes chastised the City for being "too rooted in planning policy, not design." Large scale developments like the Pan Am Village, he said, have been coherently designed by a number of architects as opposed to site-by-site developments that often have no relationship with their surroundings. He pointed to the predictability inherent in New York City's zoning laws, explaining that clear rules around use, design, setbacks, height and shadowing are required to avoid confusion. Clewes stated that, in his assessment, Toronto's design review panel is bewilderedly tougher on architects who are trying to raise the bar than they are on firms showing little or no sense of ambition. However, he believes a stronger design review panel is "absolutely necessary" because "we need more than planners to build a city." 

Finally, the panelists discussed the state of heritage preservation in Toronto. Casciato said the design for the Parliament Street Data Centre needed to be sensitive given its proximity to the Distillery District. The end result mimics the warmth of the heritage warehouses to the south with a rich orange facade comprised of porcelain panels. Mortazavi explained that while heritage preservation is important, efforts should be focused on the protection of architecturally worthy buildings of their time, not just anything over 50 years old. Clewes agreed, stating that one should not "confuse heritage with nostalgia." 

The consensus was clear: the state of design in the city is weak but generally improving. Design review panels, whether a voluntary or mandatory part of the approvals process, can improve the aesthetic of a building to both fit within its local context and make an architectural statement. 

What did you think of the panelists' comments? What's your opinion on the state of city building in Toronto? Let us know by leaving a comment below! You can also check out the dataBase files for the projects mentioned in the article. 

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