Late in the evening of May 23, 2018, Toronto City Council voted and approved by a wide majority a rather hefty planning document, officially setting into motion what could be one of the most transformative city-building initiatives to pass across their desks in a generation. The document was the Downtown Secondary Plan, along with a pile of supporting strategies and studies, the culmination of four years of tireless work by City staff on what is known as TOcore.
The impacts of TOcore are already being felt throughout the city. You may have heard of the King Street Transit Pilot and Rail Deck Park: both initiatives are part of TOcore. Other proposals in the documents, both big and small, promise to be equally as impactful.
TOcore is a 25-year plan for Toronto’s Downtown that lays out a vision like no other, one that promises to build a Downtown for everyone to enjoy, and to create a core that strives to become the beating heart of a leading global city. UrbanToronto has undertaken the task of dissecting TOcore and highlighting its most important and groundbreaking policies, presenting to you below the new comprehensive vision for the future of Downtown Toronto.
What is TOcore?
TOcore is a catch-all name that encompasses a host of studies, reports, initiatives, and strategies that all culminate in the new Downtown Secondary Plan. Andrew Farncombe, Project Manager of TOcore at the City of Toronto, summarized the objective of the 25-year Plan as “a blueprint to manage growth, to sustain liveability, to achieve complete communities, and to ensure that there is space for the economy to grow”.
The Downtown Plan is an amendment to the Official Plan and applies to the redefined Downtown area, bordered by the Don Valley to the east, the Rosedale Valley and CP Rail tracks to the north, Bathurst Street to the west, and the Waterfront including the Toronto Islands to the south.
The Plan is the first comprehensive vision for the Downtown area since the Central Area Plan was introduced in 1976. Back then, Toronto’s Downtown had rapidly declined in both employment and residents as the post-war flight to the suburbs emptied the city centre and transformed it into a sea of parking lots. But since the implementation of the Central Area Plan 40 years ago, the number of jobs and residents in the Downtown area has consistently grown, a fact that most planners will be quick to tell you is no mere coincidence.
Fast forward to today and the city is being steamrolled by its own success. TOcore was initiated under the leadership of former Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and current Chief Planner Gregg Lintern (then Director of Community Planning of Toronto-East York) as a response to the realization that the provision of critical infrastructure in the Downtown Core could not keep pace with the current rate of development. With the population and job count expected to nearly double over the next 25 years, a new planning framework was needed to ensure that the vitality and success of Downtown is maintained.
Describing TOcore as comprehensive is an understatement. The Downtown Plan and its complementary strategies and reports detail policies and goals for everything that comprises an urban centre, including wide-ranging topics like liveability, transit, parks and public realm, streets, housing, built form, shadow impacts, community services and facilities, sustainable energy, water supply, climate change resiliency, and arts and culture.
The infographic below summarizes the basic timeline and structure of TOcore, highlighting the main documents and initiatives of the study.
The Foundations of The Downtown Plan
Behind the policies and guidelines of the Downtown Plan lies a set of principles and goals that form the basic criteria from which the Plan evolved. The Building for Liveability Study is an important component of TOcore that lays out some of these principles. Compiled by Perkins + Will, the Study aims to capture what exactly makes for a liveable Downtown and sets forth recommendations on how to maintain and improve quality of life through built form.
Paul Kulig, Urban Designer and Principal at Perkins + Will who led the Liveability Study, explained that, “Toronto is already a really liveable city, but the Study addresses how to maintain and preserve this liveability during growth”.
The Liveability Study takes a unique approach to quantifying the aspects of a liveable Downtown by avoiding hard numbers and prescriptive statements and instead using a more flexible principle-based approach. “We framed it as liveability, and not just as a series of metrics that frames how buildings are shaped and scaled,” explains Shawna Bowen, Senior Urban Designer at the City of Toronto. “We are building on principles of liveability that we want to sustain and enhance as the city continues to grow”.
There are five overarching principles used to assess liveability that are implemented through built form: Comfort, Vibrancy, Diversity, Safety, and Beauty. These five principles describe the user experience and appearance of the city, and represent a clear direction by City Planning toward a more holistic approach to city-building that considers both tangible and intangible factors. It also helps to describe liveability using terms that the general public can relate to, as opposed to a series of hard facts and figures that seem disconnected from lived experience.
“We did a survey of projects and literature across the world to establish a standard of liveability, which is how we landed on the five principles as base requirements,” Kulig explained. “The key objectives of the Study are to show that we can have both quality of life and tall buildings”.
“It was a really important part of the framing of the policy document,” Bowen added. “Before we go and start to model built form, we needed to ground it in those principles. It’s a groundbreaking piece of work to think that we can actually start basing these policies in some principles for all Torontonians”.
In addition, the Downtown Plan lays out five goals that it aims to achieve through its policies and guidelines that are common themes seen throughout the document. These five overarching goals are: Complete Communities, Connectivity, Prosperity, Resilience, and Responsibility. Taken together, these focus on creating a long-term sustainable future for Downtown that renders it a strong global economic force and a desirable place to live and work for all.
The goal of Responsibility is an interesting inclusion, and attempts to shift the development process to a broader vision by encouraging collaboration, not just between the City and other parties, but between developers themselves. It stems from the fact that the vast majority of Downtown development sites are small and individual in their scope, which has proven difficult to build a liveable city when considering only one piece of it at a time.
“It speaks more to the challenges of implementation,” Farncombe explained. “Master planning isn’t always an option when you have a concentration of people and jobs on a small site, and don’t have the on-site opportunities to address the infrastructure needed for liveability. The idea is that it’s about communication, it’s about building stronger partnerships to ensure there’s both a collective understanding and shared responsibility between the public sector, the private sector, and the communities to build a liveable Downtown, because we all will benefit from that”.
A final foundation to note of the Downtown Plan is the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples. Sprinkled throughout the policies of the Plan is language requiring planners and builders to consult and collaborate with the local Indigenous People on all relevant initiatives, to commemorate and respect the Indigenous history and stewardship of the land, and to recognize Indigenous needs in the design of the city. This signals another major step along the path to reconciliation and promises to provide a much more inclusive Downtown.
What You Need to Know
What follows now is a selection of policies and ideas taken from the Downtown Plan and its five Infrastructure Strategies that we believe possess the greatest potential to transform how the future Core is shaped.
The Complete Community Assessment
As part of the development process, applicants will now need to submit a Complete Community Assessment along with their development documents if they propose to build within a Mixed Use or Regeneration Area. According to the Downtown Plan, a Complete Community Assessment “provides an understanding of the subject site while demonstrating how incremental development and coordination with existing and planned development will occur in the surrounding area”.
In other words, the Complete Community Assessment forces applicants to study and quantify the impact that their building will have on the surrounding neighbourhood, and to seek opportunities to enhance its contributions to the liveability of the area. The size of the area studied will depend on the location and scale of the proposed development.
“The Complete Community Assessment would require development applicants to reference [the Infrastructure Strategies] and to better explain how the people and jobs generated by the development will be supported by the infrastructure,” Farncombe explained. “Is there the capacity of the infrastructure to absorb that, what new infrastructure is needed, how will it be provided...that will all become a part of the evaluation process of the development”.
Creating New Mixed Use Land Designations
Currently, the Official Plan defines Mixed Use as a catch-all land use designation that simply means more than one use may be permitted on that site, without defining any scale or parameters (these are defined by zoning by-laws).
The Downtown Plan goes one step further and splits the Mixed Use designation into four new categories, simply named Mixed Use Area 1 through 4, which represent four different scales that provide greater clarity and direction as to what the City wants to be built where. The distribution of these designations is based on both existing and planned context.
Mixed Use Area 1 is reserved for high-intensity growth areas that will typically see the greatest heights, largest proportion of non-residential uses, and a diverse range of building typologies and scales. These include areas like the Financial District, Yonge Street, and many master-planned communities, such as those along the Waterfront.
Mixed Use Area 2 is a designation for transitional areas that provide a gradation in scale between Mixed Use Areas 1 and 3. The scale and building typologies within Mixed Use Area 2 are less defined, and are meant to be site-specific in order to respond to their surrounding context.
Mixed Use Area 3 is reserved for mid-rise areas, and is considered a ‘Main Street’ scale and typology. Development within Mixed Use Area 3 is typically located along surface transit corridors, generally has a height no greater than the existing right-of-way, and will usually contain retail or commercial uses at grade with residential above. Examples of these areas include parts of Queen Street, Dundas Street, and Spadina Avenue.
Finally, Mixed Use Area 4 is a designation for low-rise areas located away from main streets and integrated within the neighbourhood fabric of the city. Development in these areas is limited and will generally not exceed four storeys in height. Examples of these areas include Kensington Market, Yorkville, and Baldwin Village.
Protecting Non-Residential Uses
The Downtown Plan takes a highly protectionist approach to non-residential uses in an effort to preserve the economic power of Downtown Toronto. Though this may seem a restrictive approach to some, the numbers speak for themselves: Downtown Toronto comprises 51% of the city’s GDP, 33% of the city’s jobs, and 25% of its tax base, all within a mere 3% of the total land area of the city.
“We want to make sure that the Official Plan is configured to support the vibrancy of Downtown as a place to live, but to balance that with the role it plays in the prosperity of the region and the jobs that it generates,” Farncombe stated. “The policies in the Plan are a response to the robust residential growth that we’ve seen in the Core, which has driven up land prices and has made it difficult for the non-residential uses to compete for land”.
The Plan identifies three business and institutional districts within which there can be no net loss of non-residential uses and where a net gain is strongly encouraged: the Financial District, the new Health Sciences District, and the Bloor-Bay Office Corridor. In addition, development in the King-Spadina and King-Parliament areas must replace all non-residential uses removed (which could be done on a separate site elsewhere in the district) or ensure that 25% of the new GFA on that site is dedicated to non-residential uses, whichever is greater.
Two further notable moves strengthen the protection of non-residential uses in the Downtown area:
Expanding the Financial District: The current boundaries of the District are Queen Street to the north, University Avenue to the west, Front Street to the south, and Yonge Street to the east. The new Downtown Plan expands this boundary into an irregular shape that now stretches east as far as Church Street, south as far as Queens Quay, and west as far as Blue Jays Way, John, and Simcoe Streets. The expanded Financial District reflects a thriving Downtown economy while protecting and reserving space for future growth.
Establishing a New Health Sciences District: Downtown Toronto is also home to some of the top medical and research institutions in the world, and the Downtown Plan aims to protect and strengthen these institutional uses through the establishment of a Health Sciences District. The new District is bounded by Dundas Street to the south, McCaul Street to the west, Queen’s Park and Grosvenor Street to the north, and Bay Street to the east. Within this new district, institutional growth will be prioritized and encouraged.
Larger Residential Units
For several years now, City Planning has been trying to figure out how to design a Downtown that works for families. A major issue is the size of available residential units, and the new Downtown Plan takes aim at ensuring a balance of unit types is maintained. The policies of the Plan now prescribe minimum floor areas and unit types for developments containing more than 80 residential units:
A minimum of 15% of the total number of units are required to be 2-bedroom units with a minimum GFA of 87 square metres.
A minimum of 10% of the total number of units are required to be 3-bedroom units with a minimum GFA of 100 square metres.
An additional 15% of the total number of units are required to be a combination of 2- and 3-bedroom units of unspecified GFA.
Previously, the City only required a minimum of 10% of the total number of units to be 3-bedrooms, with no restrictions on their size. Now, a whopping 40% of the total number of units must be 2-bedrooms or larger with minimum floor area requirements, which will certainly have a significant impact on development proposals moving forward.
Five Transformative Moves: The Parks and Public Realm Plan
The Parks and Public Realm Plan is one of the five Infrastructure Strategies that supplement the Downtown Plan, and proposes five transformative moves that promise to improve the quality, quantity and connectivity of the parks and public realm in the Downtown Core. Compiled by Public Work, the comprehensive and rather beautifully illustrated document completely reimagines Downtown’s public spaces in a layered, hierarchical structure described below:
Transformative Move 1: The Core Circle
The Core Circle refers to a continuous ring of existing natural features that encircles the Downtown Core, composed of the Don Valley to the east; the Rosedale Valley and Davenport Escarpment to the north; the Garrison Creek watershed to the west; and the Waterfront, including the Toronto Islands, to the south.
This Core Circle, currently existing as several disparate elements, is envisioned to one day be “connected with a continuous pedestrian and cycle route that provides users with an immersive natural experience”. Not only does it capitalize on existing green spaces, it also recognizes and acknowledges the landscapes of pre-settlement Toronto and their Indigenous histories. The concept of the Core Circle brings to life the hidden potential of Toronto’s unique geography that has been lying in plain sight.
Included with this concept is the idea of Portal Parks, which are public green spaces located at the edge of the Core Circle that provide physical and visual access into the adjacent natural features. These include places such as Corktown Common, Riverdale Park, Ramsden Park, and the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, among others, and are envisioned to be incorporated as important entry points within the coherent design of the Core Circle.
Transformative Move 2: The Great Streets
Honouring Toronto’s post-settlement historic street grid, the Plan picks out 12 Great Streets that “hold cultural and historical significance” and are considered to be destinations in themselves. These Great Streets are prioritized in the Plan for public realm improvements that enhance their civic role while creating a unique identity for each that recognizes their importance within the city.
The 12 Great Streets are, in no particular order: University Avenue, King Street, Jarvis Street, Parliament Street, the College-Carlton-Gerrard Street corridor, Bloor Street, Bayview Avenue, Front Street, Spadina Avenue, Yonge Street, Queen Street, and Queens Quay.
The Plan does not say specifically what the makeover of the streets might entail, but a conceptual rendering illustrating a linear park replacing the east side of University Avenue indicates the grand scale at which some of these Great Streets may be reimagined.
Transformative Move 3: The Shoreline Stitch
The Shoreline Stitch is fairly self-explanatory, and is described as an effort to bridge the north-south divide between Downtown and the Waterfront created by the rail corridor and the Gardiner Expressway. It also proposes to enhance east-west connections between Fort York and the Don Valley.
The Shoreline Stitch is a long-term project proposed to be done via a series of large-scale and small-scale interventions. Two notable aspects are already being talked about or are underway: Rail Deck Park and The Bentway. The removal of the Yonge-Bay-York offramp of the Gardiner and establishment of the York Street and Rees Street Parks are also efforts to reconnect Downtown to the Waterfront.
Also included in the Shoreline Stitch is the concept of the Blue Park, which recognizes the Inner Toronto Harbour between the Waterfront and the Islands as an important civic space. The Plan proposes to increase recreational use of the Harbour, increase public access to the water, and improve access to the Toronto Islands as part of the Blue Park.
Transformative Move 4: Park Districts
Transitioning from the larger street grid into more focused neighbourhoods, the Plan defines Park Districts as “cohesive local networks of streets, laneways, parks and other open spaces centered on one or more community parks or open spaces that serve surrounding neighbourhoods”. The Plan identifies 23 Park Districts within the Downtown area, the purpose of which is to design each District as a cohesive and connected public space network with a unique identity that focuses on supporting community life.
The Plan places special emphasis on the Queen’s Park Precinct and the Civic Precinct (the area around City Hall) as two Park Districts that have greater provincial and city-wide importance than the others. Both are centered on important governmental uses and are also major draws for tourists and the general public alike.
Transformative Move 5: Local Places
The Local Places concept is small-scale in nature but should not be overlooked. Local Places focuses on the many “smaller, under-utilized and sometimes overlooked spaces embedded within the fabric of Downtown neighbourhoods that offer opportunities to improve the public realm and supplement the parks and open space system”. This concept proposes using the untapped potential of places like laneways, schoolyards, churchyards, cemeteries, and institutional open spaces, among others, to further contribute to and enhance the local public realm.
The ‘Land First’ Approach
When it comes to acquiring new land for public parks, the City has three options it employs during the development process: on-site dedication; off-site dedication; or cash-in-lieu, where applicants pay a sum of money to the City in exchange for no parkland dedication.
While these three options are currently not ranked, the new Downtown Plan sets out a ‘Land First’ approach, where the acquisition of on-site parkland will be prioritized by the City when assessing development applications. If it is determined that on-site dedication is not possible, off-site dedication options will be explored before the final method, cash-in-lieu, is even considered. This ‘Land First’ approach promises to deliver more park and public spaces in the long run for Downtown.
Prioritizing Pedestrians, Cyclists and Public Transit
The battle over Toronto’s streets has been ongoing over the past few decades, and while the political and public will to transform them into more pedestrian, cycling, and transit-friendly environments is growing, there is still significant pushback from many drivers and political opponents. The Downtown Plan, however, makes no mistake: clear and direct language states that from now on, pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit will take priority on Downtown streets.
“There are some strong policies included, to say that we believe that we have to prioritize active transportation and transit,” Farncombe stated. “Already, 75% of people in the Downtown Core are commuting by walking, cycling or taking transit, so it’s a really healthy modal split, but we want to encourage that trend to continue”.
Many policies are included that aim to create a more walkable Downtown and develop a long-term cycling network through public realm and infrastructure improvements. Policies also go so far as to say that “priority for surface transit will be implemented on all routes to favour public transit over private automobiles”.
The King Street Transit Pilot is an early initiative that demonstrates the direction that City Planning wants to head in, and despite its controversies, it has so far proven successful. “We really felt that we needed to pilot this,” Farncombe said. “It’s a big change, and we wanted to see what would happen on the busiest transit route in the city. We wanted to learn from that and go from there”.
Sunlight Protection for Parks
The issue of sunlight protection on parks and streets is often a hot-button issue that elicits angry calls to reduce the height of proposed developments. The City acknowledges this, and has provided many policies in the Plan that aim to preserve access to sky views and sunlight throughout the Downtown.
Of particular note is the designation of 44 important parks and open spaces throughout the Downtown area where there is no net new shadow permitted to be cast from adjacent developments. These protected parks will certainly have an impact on what can get built where in the Downtown Core.
Protecting Fine-Grained Retail
A common complaint of current development is the banality and repetition of new retail spaces, with many critics referencing Toronto’s historic main streets as ideal examples of the vibrancy that is lacking in newer developments. While the Downtown Plan does not prescribe retail requirements, it does take a few small steps to try and influence the type of retail that gets built Downtown.
An interesting policy is included in the Plan: “When the local context contains a fine-grain pattern of retail uses at grade, development that includes larger stores must locate and design these stores to protect the prevailing character.” It then goes on to suggest ways of integrating larger retail units, including locating larger units on the second level or above with an appropriately-scaled entrance lobby at grade; wrapping larger units with smaller, street-facing retail around the perimeter; or incorporating multiple entrances to larger units to allow for future flexibility if the space is broken up. The Plan also designates Priority Retail Streets for where retail spaces are projected to grow.
“We see so often the typical retail going in, and part of what we want to encourage is the design of those spaces and how they address their context,” Bowen explained. “Whether it’s the rhythm of how many doors there are, or the rhythm of the windows, we want it to fit in and not feel like it’s sticking out from that context, because that is part of the success of our main streets Downtown, it’s that fine-grained retail condition”.
There are many policies focused on shaping appropriately-scaled built form and enhancing the public realm, and one of the most impactful is the City’s move to widen sidewalks through the development process. Toronto’s Downtown streets are notoriously narrow with often overcrowded and constrained sidewalks, but the City is seizing on this opportunity to push the boundaries of the public realm further by requiring a minimum 6-metre setback from the curb to the face of new buildings. The setback, of course, will be appropriately adjusted to the existing context, but the policies described signal a clear move that land for public realm improvements is the new priority Downtown.
Bowen elaborated that this policy “is to make sure we are getting pedestrian clearways, space for street trees, space for street furniture, and all those other things that come with a vibrant city and a comfortable public realm”.
Consideration for the Skyline
With the scarcity of land in the Downtown Core, development proposals are becoming taller and taller, and with an increase in height comes an increase in visibility. In line with the holistic approach of other policies in the Plan, consideration must now being given to the impact a building will have on the city’s skyline. Proposals for tall buildings will need to “demonstrate how the proposal fits within and complements the overall Downtown skyline” and “should be designed with their contribution to the overall skyline in mind”. Everyone loves snapping pictures of Toronto’s iconic skyline from all angles, and the Downtown Plan will ensure that these views remain iconic.
Live Music Venues and the Film Precinct
Much like its protection of businesses and institutions, the Downtown Plan also provides strong language for the protection of cultural spaces, as these are seen as integral for the continued economic and creative prosperity of Downtown Toronto. Among the policies encouraging cultural development are some aimed directly at protecting live music venues, which have been slowly disappearing in recent years. The Plan goes so far as to institute policies stating that developments containing residential units that are located within 120 metres of a live music venue will be required to advise prospective purchasers or tenants of the potential noise prior to signing any agreements, and that developments in close proximity to or including a live music venue must incorporate appropriate measures for acoustic management in their construction.
Furthermore, a new Downtown Film Precinct will be established, stretching from Bathurst Street to Bayview Avenue between Queen Street and Front Street, where a vast majority of current filming locations are situated. The purpose of the Film Precinct is to support the film industry through the design of public spaces, such as providing built-in infrastructure like outlets and conduits or considering areas for temporary film trailer parking and loading zones.
Sustainability and Resiliency
The Downtown Plan also delves into green initiatives, aiming to reduce the strain that future growth will have on existing electricity and water supply networks. Policies in the Plan include supporting expansion of thermal energy networks, such as Deep Lake Water Cooling; encouraging a goal of near-zero carbon emissions; and encouraging the integration of green infrastructure throughout the public realm.
“Toronto has one of the largest Deep Lake Water Cooling systems in the world, and most of the commercial buildings in the Financial District are cooled by the cold water drawn from Lake Ontario,” Farncombe elaborated. “There’s over 100 buildings right now that use that, and we want to see the expansion of that system, because it addresses peak energy, particularly in the middle of the summer when our system is strained”.
Furthermore, the Plan aims to safeguard the city against climate change through resiliency initiatives such as promoting back-up power sources in new residential buildings; integrating stormwater management into the public realm design, such as bioswales and permeable surfaces; and improving water-related services.
So What Happens Now?
The Downtown Secondary Plan lays out the vision of Downtown 25 years from now, while the five Infrastructure Strategies go into a bit more detail about what that vision might look like. The problem now is, how will this all be implemented?
This is a question that the City is now working to find solutions to. One of the first steps after the approval of the Downtown Plan is to develop an implementation strategy that involves ranking the proposals of the Plan in terms of small initiatives that can be done quickly and easily, and longer-term goals that will require greater investments of time and money. There is no simple solution as to how to make it all happen; some policies will be implemented piecemeal as the opportunities arise, such as gradual improvements to the streetscape or public realm, while others will require one grand move, such as Rail Deck Park.
“We know where we want to go,” says Farncombe. “The journey has yet to be fully determined”.
If there are any doubters, the way the Downtown Plan is written implies that the City is committed and determined to seeing these ideas come to life. The language of the document is surprisingly strong, concise, and direct in its purpose, and in some areas, does not hold back its punches. This is clear in one of our favourite hidden jabs in the Plan, a policy which states that “the siting, massing, height and design of a building on a site will not necessarily be a precedent for development on an adjacent or nearby site”.
“Sometimes, you have to state the obvious,” Bowen adds with a laugh.
Regardless of how or when some of these initiatives may materialize, the Downtown Plan lays out a clear framework and vision for how Downtown will develop over the next 25 years, and from now on, all development and infrastructure work in the Downtown area will be guided by these transformative policies.
What is described in this article represents only a very small fraction of TOcore, and we at UrbanToronto encourage you to delve into the copious amount of planning documents mentioned above, all of which are publicly available on the City’s website here. There is much more to discover and oodles of fun facts and proposals to explore.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for some of these policy shifts in the development applications that pop up over the next few years. With every new initiative and building proposal that comes, you can bet that the Downtown Plan will have a major influence on how it is shaped.
You can tell us what you think of TOcore by checking out any associated Forum threads, or by leaving a comment provided on this page.