At the most recent session of the Toronto Design Review Panel, City Planning presented the latest progress on their city-wide Retail Design Manual, a new document which aims to "provide guidance on developing successful ground floor retail spaces". The intent of the document, as the draft states, is "to provide aspirational retail design best practices to inform, guide, inspire, and educate architects, retail designers, City staff, and the development community".

The initiative is in the late stages of development, with a full draft of the document completed, and a final draft scheduled to appear before the Planning and Housing Committee in January. It should be noted that nothing in the manual described below is final, and as it is it still a work in progress, it is subject to change.

Example of retail design from the Retail Design Manual, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The Retail Design Manual takes on a similar form to the City's Tall Building Design Guidelines and the Avenues and Mid-Rise Buildings Study. The Manual falls somewhere between stating the City's objectives regarding retail design and acting as a resource for industry professionals to consult. The document is not statutory and does not represent hard restrictions to retail design, instead presents a series of best practices.

The document is divided into three main sections covering a range of scales moving from the macro to the micro. The first section starts off larger-scale and focuses on the design of the building. It includes suggested best practices for building massing and geometry as a way to accentuate retail; using the materiality of the building to differentiate the retail components; designing overhangs, canopies, and awnings; and recommended dimensions of retail spaces, such as depth to width ratio of the floor area and ceiling heights.

The second section of the manual focuses on street design and retail frontages. This chapter includes suggested best practices for the interface of the retail with the sidewalk, touching upon design of the public realm; the design of the retail frontage, including creating a hierarchy of frontages and providing continuous frontages with differentiation between adjacent units; the design and location of entrances and display windows; and the design and location of branding and signage.

The third section digs into the details of the retail space itself, offering suggested best practices for lighting design; the integration of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; accommodations for loading and services; and the placement of structural columns.

Example of retail design from the Retail Design Manual, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

All of these are intended to provide a roadmap to producing high-quality retail spaces that are flexible and adaptable to different uses which can then be applied to a variety of different retail scenarios across the city. Illustrated with precedents from around Toronto and a generic building model used to visualize the best practices, the manual lays out a clear vision of the City's ideal retail establishments.

The Panel had some "serious reservations" about the document that was presented. Their biggest concern was that the manual was too prescriptive, offering in some cases recommended dimensions and sizes of different aspects of retail design that they felt waded into dangerous territory. They advocated for a more principles-based approach to laying out best practices, rather than getting into hard figures and details, as a way to present a more flexible and adaptable document that did not risk straying into the zone of imposing exact requirements on retail design.

Panel members also criticized the manual for having a "very particular perspective" on retail design while ignoring other variations, saying that this ideal scenario was rarely seen in developments. This singular vision was supported by the use of the same generic model for all of the diagrammatic illustrations. While the manual paints a detailed picture of street-facing retail on urban main streets, the Panel pointed out that it did not mention other retail formats such as units facing onto POPS, parks, or laneways; big box stores; container shops; food truck and 'street meat' vendors; or market and temporary vendors, among others. They argued that there are many successful solutions to retail design beyond what is pictured in the manual.

Another subject the Panel felt was missing from the document was an analysis of where the best practices of the manual intersected or interfered with other in-force planning documents. An example given was that the recommended ground floor height for retail use may conflict with zoning by-laws in some areas of the city.

Example of retail design from the Retail Design Manual, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Overall, Panelists felt that the Retail Design Manual was "way overly prescriptive" and needed to take a higher-level approach. They felt that the proponents needed to ask what the problem is that they are trying to solve with this manual, as the document "brings up things that we don't need to be reminded of". The Panel encouraged the proponents to be more aspirational, and to "inspire, don't instruct".

As the document is nearing completion, and as the Panel's comments are not binding, it is unclear if the Retail Design Manual will be revised before it is released to the public next year. We will keep you updated as it progresses, but in the meantime, you can tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum thread or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.

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