When John Tory announced the 'Housing Now' initiative in December, 2018, it was with a sense of urgency that something needed to happen quickly to ease the growing affordability crisis in Toronto. The housing plan was to begin immediately with the development of City-owned land for new affordable housing units, and it looks like the City has not wasted any time on that front. Two projects have so far been submitted for rezoning, and both were presented to the Toronto Design Review Panel for feedback at their latest session.

As part of Housing Now, CreateTO has earmarked 11 sites across the city for redevelopment, 4 of which are currently in the works as the first batch of new housing. CreateTO is working through the rezoning process for the first 4 sites before going to market to find a development partner who will carry through with the design and construction of the buildings.

Over the 11 sites, the City is aiming to build a combined 10,000 new residential units, roughly 3,700 of which will be affordable units, with the remainder being offered at market prices. All 11 sites are located either a short walk away or directly adjacent to existing and future rapid transit stations, representing a collection of prime real estate ripe for development. In addition to residential development, the City is also looking to provide much-needed community services and infrastructure throughout the Housing Now sites, which may include things like parks and open spaces, day cares, community centres, and so on.

The Housing Now sites, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The 4 properties included in the first batch of Housing Now developments are located at 777 Victoria Park Avenue (directly adjacent Victoria Park station); 50 Wilson Heights Boulevard (directly adjacent Wilson station); 140 Merton Street (short walk from Davisville station); and at Bloor-Kipling (on the former site of the Westwood Theatre in the reconfigured Six Points intersection, and adjacent Kipling subway and GO stations). Preliminary massing concepts and layouts of the Victoria Park and Wilson Heights properties were presented to the Toronto Design Review Panel last week.

It is important to note that the designs presented below are massing concepts only; any architectural aspects are indicative and do not necessarily represent the final appearance of the buildings.

View of the 777 Victoria Park site, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Beginning with 777 Victoria Park, the City is proposing to build two towers on the site of a surface parking lot directly south of Victoria Park station, across from the existing bus bay. The towers are designed by Montgomery Sisam Architects and would rise 23 and 11 storeys, containing a total of 508 residential units, 254 of which (50%) will be affordable units. The proponents emphasized that both market and affordable units would be integrated together across both buildings with equally shared amenities, and that there would be no segregation between them.

Conceptual rendering of 777 Victoria Park, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The design team chose to break the site into two masses to avoid having a long overbearing wall fronting onto Victoria Park. The form of the buildings also step down in height at various levels to provide some variety and a smooth transition to the surrounding context.

Site plan of 777 Victoria Park, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Plenty of open space has been provided on the site, and much attention has been given to the definition of these open spaces. A generous setback along Victoria Park and Denton allows for a linear green space along those streets, ending in a transit plaza on the northwest corner of the site adjacent the station entrance. Between the two buildings is a forecourt, envisioned as a public space geared more toward community uses.

Public realm plan, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

To activate the open spaces around the buildings, the design team is proposing retail fronting onto the transit plaza, with community uses at grade level in both the north and south building fronting onto the linear Victoria Park green space. A daycare is situated on the ground floor in the south building, while amenity spaces fill the remainder of the ground floor spaces, mainly facing the bus bay to the east.

Ground floor uses, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The Panel's comments represented a mixed bag of reviews, picking out the accomplishments and shortcomings of the concept. The overall theme for all Panel comments, however, was that they wanted to see more from the design team: bolder, bigger, precedent-setting moves that would set the stage for all other developments to follow.

Many Panelists were pleased with the layout of the public realm, saying that the generous setbacks along Victoria Park and Denton provided good quality outdoor space for the residents and the larger public passing through the site. They were happy with the proposed character areas within the public realm plan, but a few Panel members questioned the viability of the Forecourt, saying that if it is not designed properly, it risks being misused and could require supervision.

West elevation of 777 Victoria Park, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Regarding built form, most Panelists approved of the design team's approach, but some pushed for more design excellence in the buildings' massing and architecture. They encouraged the proponents to think outside of the box and to try and break out of the oft-repeated tower-and-podium template. One Panelist even encouraged the City to go for more height and density, given the prime location and community benefits offered by the development.

Panelists also pushed the City to go beyond Toronto Green Standard Tier 2 and to bring sustainable design to the forefront of Housing Now. They also urged them to focus more on the contextual analysis of the area to help the buildings fit in and ensure they contribute appropriately to the neighbourhood, while also putting more emphasis on pedestrians and cyclists rather than on cars. The Panel felt that overall, it was a good start, but more work needed to be done to bring this project to the level of becoming a precedent as the first Housing Now development to move forward.

Conceptual massing of 777 Victoria Park, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

In North York, 50 Wilson Heights was the second Housing Now project presented at the DRP, this one substantially larger than its Victoria Park counterpart. The site is currently occupied by a TTC commuter parking lot located on the east side of the Allen opposite Wilson subway station, but features a pedestrian tunnel and bus roadway that pass underneath the highway that connect the site directly to the station.

View of the 50 Wilson Heights property, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Also featuring a design from Montgomery Sisam Architects, the proposal would see four buildings constructed across the 8-acre site along with a new public park at its centre. A total of 1,150 residential units are proposed, with roughly 488 (42%) earmarked as affordable units. The scope and size of the development is in line with the existing context, with the nearby Tippett Road Regeneration Area nearly built out just across the street featuring a slate of new mid-rise buildings.

Conceptual rendering of 50 Wilson Heights, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The 4 buildings include 6 mid-rise towers that rise to heights of 11, 12, 13, 16, 16, and 16 storeys. The three tallest ones are clustered together atop a shared podium in the southeast corner of the site that encircles a central courtyard used for vehicular loading and drop-off. To the west of that, a 12-storey mid-rise is oriented north-south, running parallel to the Allen with its south frontage facing Wilson. North of the 12-storey block is an L-shaped mid-rise rising 11 storeys, while to the east of that, following the diagonal of Wilson Heights, is a 13-storey slab building. A new public street provides access through the site.

Site plan of 50 Wilson Heights, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

As part of the master plan, the existing busway that passes below the Allen would be reconfigured and normalized as part of the new street grid; the proponents are still in discussion with the TTC as to whether or not this is possible. The existing pedestrian tunnel would be maintained.

To activate the ground plane, the design team is proposing a mix of retail spaces, community uses, a daycare, and residential amenities scattered throughout the buildings, all of which front onto streets or green spaces.

Ground floor uses at 50 Wilson Heights, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

In addition to the public park, a linear green space adjacent the Allen is proposed, along with generous setbacks along Wilson Heights and Wilson that would greatly improve the streetscape.

Public realm plan at 50 Wilson Heights, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Panel members were slightly more critical of the Wilson Heights proposal, taking issue with some aspects of how the site was laid out. While a few Panel members liked the master plan presented, others stated that the layout felt fragmented, with the green spaces seeming more like residual leftovers in between smaller pieces. They urged the design team to come up with a larger overarching vision for the public realm that would better define its character, and to produce a more cohesive plan for the building layouts.

Many Panel members took issue with the slab building along Wilson Heights, calling it rather boring. As for the overall massing and built form, Panelists questioned whether this was enough density so close to a subway station, and asked if it was possible to add more height. The proponents explained that the height of the buildings was restricted by the flight path to the adjacent Downsview airport, but the Panel countered that plans are in the works to redevelop the airport lands and that it may not be an airport for much longer, therefore the heights should be increased.

Conceptual massing of 50 Wilson Heights, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The configuration of vehicular access and loading was also called into question by the Panel. They noted that the central park was bordered by a street on two sides and by a service laneway on the third, effectively creating a ring around the park that may act as a barrier. They also questioned whether using the courtyard of the largest building for vehicular and loading uses was appropriate, and whether that courtyard may be put to better use as a communal public space or amenity for the residents.

While the Panel approved of the many streetscape improvements along Wilson and Wilson Heights, they also questioned the connectivity of these linear spaces to the transit station, and whether the existing easement along Allen Road could be put to better use. With regards to the Allen, the Panel also repeated one of their common concerns of addressing the many issues created by adding residential development adjacent to busy highways. They pointed out that neither the public realm nor the massing addressed the condition with the Allen in any way, and urged the design team to explore better ways of mitigating these issues.

Finally, sustainability was also pushed by the Panel, who urged the proponents to look for efficiencies in the planning and layout that could create a greener development. Suggestions included considering the site as a campus so that energy usage and heating and cooling loads could be shared amongst the buildings, which may help to inform the massing and layout. Stormwater management was also encouraged to be considered as a way to help better define and organize the public realm.

Conceptual massing of 50 Wilson Heights, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

In the end, the Panel shared the same sentiment as it did with the Victoria Park proposal: it is a good start, but there is still much work to be done. The Panel has high expectations for these two projects, as they set a precedent in terms of city building and sustainability, not just for the other Housing Now developments that will follow, but also for all future developments city-wide.

The remaining Housing Now proposals will all be coming before the DRP at some point in the near future, and the Victoria Park and Wilson Heights projects will certainly be back for a second review. In the meantime, you can tell us what you think of them by checking out the associated Forum threads, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.

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