From 2015 to 2017, UrbanToronto and its sister publication, SkyriseCities, ran an occasional series of articles under the heading Explainer. Each one took a concept from Urban Planning, Architecture, Construction, or other topics that often wind up in our publications, and presented an in depth look at it. It's time to revisit (and update where necessary) those articles for readers who are unfamiliar with them. While you may already know what some of these terms mean, others may be new to you. We will be (re)publishing Explainer on a weekly basis. This week however, we are bringing a story into the Explainer fold that was first published on its own in 2019, but which merits inclusion in this group! (Some of the renderings included in the story now represent out-of-date versions of projects that have since evolved.)

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Over the past few years, we have been bringing you stories from every session of the Toronto Design Review Panel, providing updates on planned developments and recounting insightful commentary from the Panelists. But through them all, there is one thing we have not really covered in depth: the Design Review Panel itself! Based on reader comments, we felt it important to clear up what exactly the Design Review Panel is: what does it do, how does it operate, and perhaps most importantly, why does it exist? Below we have put together a crash course on Toronto's DRP to answer some of your most burning questions.

View of Exhibition Place and Downtown, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

What is the DRP, and what does it do?

The Design Review Panel is an independent advisory group of design professionals whose task is to provide advice to City staff regarding both public and private developments. The DRP is integrated as part of the City's planning review process, commenting on major development applications and planning initiatives as they move through the various stages of planning approvals. They typically meet every three to four weeks, up to 15 times a year, to provide feedback on a wide range of proposals throughout the City of Toronto. The Panel is comprised of professionals within the private sector who volunteer their time to participate; they have no affiliation with the City, and are regarded as an objective third party for City staff to consult.

Rendering of 2075 Kennedy from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Why does the DRP exist?

The Toronto Design Review Panel began in 2007 as a pilot project in response to concerns over the state of the city's public realm, urban design, and livability. The idea of the DRP was based off of how it works in Vancouver, which had implemented a DRP of their own years earlier and which had proven successful in its goal of promoting design excellence. The Toronto pilot ran from 2007 to 2009 and was restricted in scope to certain areas as a test before implementing it city-wide. It became a permanent fixture at City Planning in 2009, after consultation with planners, developers, and designers confirmed that it was a positive addition to the process.

The Panel is mandated to provide professional design advice to ensure that proposed developments are meeting the objectives of the Official Plan. The goal of the DRP, according to the City's website, 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".

The key take away from that statement is the emphasis on "design excellence within the public realm". The public realm plays heavily into every project that is presented to the Panel, and directly influences how the Panel responds. This will be elaborated upon further below.

Rendering of Union Park from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Who sits on the Panel?

Currently, there are 17 members who sit on the Panel, which is comprised of 8 architects, 4 landscape architects, 2 urban designers, a heritage architect, a sustainability expert, and a transportation engineer. Each member adds their own unique angle to the commentary, ensuring a well-rounded critique of the proposals. In order to qualify for membership, Panelists are required to have a minimum of 15 years of professional experience in their respective fields. Each member serves for a minimum of two years which can be extended, though the City is currently in the process of reviewing member rotation. A full list of current Panel members can be found on the City's website, here.

Not every Panel member attends every session - in fact, it is rare that all Panel members are present - so commentary can vary slightly between each meeting. A minimum of 6 Panel members are required for quorum.

It is important to note, however, that the Panel speaks as one voice. While each member gives their own individual commentary, which may differ between them, the responses from Panelists are viewed as collective feedback that is not attributed to individual members. You will notice that in our articles, we never identify which Panel members give which comments, as it is intended that all comments come from the Panel as a whole.

Rendering of Cowdray Court form the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

What types of projects does the Panel review?

Not all developments in the city get reviewed by the Panel. Ultimately, whether a project appears before the Panel is at the discretion of City staff, but all the largest and most impactful projects do make their way there.

For private developments, the threshold to appear before the Panel has to do with their impact on the public realm and is targeted mainly within growth areas. The criteria from the City is as follows:

  • All large-scale development applications that fall within the designated Design Review Districts. These districts are: Downtown, King-Spadina, King-Parliament, St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, Fort York Neighbourhood, Humber Bay Shores, Mimico-by-the-Lake, Yonge-Eglinton Centre, North York Centre, Etobicoke Centre, and Scarborough Centre.
  • Applications with significant public realm impacts as a result of their location, scale, or architectural quality that are located along Avenues, Major Streets, or Surface Transit Priority Corridors (these are defined in the Official Plan).

These criteria for private developments encompass everything from master plans down to individual mid-rise or high-rise buildings, depending on how much of an impact they will have on their surroundings. Low-rise developments are typically excluded from this process unless they are part of a master plan involving larger towers and mid-rises.

Rendering of Union Centre from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

For public projects, the criteria are much more far-reaching. Significant new public buildings or major renovations that require rezoning or site plan applications must pass before the Panel. This includes community centres, libraries, transit buildings, civic centres, police stations, and fire halls, among others. The Panel also reviews all proposals for new or renovated parks, major infrastructure projects, major road redesigns, and higher-order transit initiatives.

They are also required to review policy documents that have implications to the public realm, such as urban design guidelines, major zoning policies, and planning studies. Others include environmental assessments and Official Plan amendments, such as secondary plans or general policy updates that impact the public realm.

Unfortunately, given the high volume of development applications at City Planning, the Panel does not have the opportunity to review every major development that gets submitted. City staff do ensure, though, that the largest and most impactful ones make their way there.

Rendering of the Northeast Scarborough Community Centre, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

How much say does the Panel have in development approvals?

The Panel is simply an advisory body, meaning they have no powers to approve or refuse any projects that come before them. They can only make recommendations and suggestions for improvement, but the power to approve development applications still remains with City Council.

Typically, proponents and City staff do follow the Panel's advice and revise their proposals accordingly. However, the Panel's comments are not binding, and their suggestions are not requirements. It is up to the proponents, City staff, and City Councillors to decide whether or not they wish to implement the comments made by the Panel during the review process, and there are certainly times when Panel comments are disregarded for a variety of reasons. Overall, though, many positive changes have resulted from the Panel's input, and they remain an important and influential part of the approvals process.

Rendering of 31R Parliament from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

At what stage of design do projects get reviewed by the DRP?

Normally, a project is reviewed twice by the Panel: the first time during the early stages of design, and a second time in the later stages of the process. For development applications, this typically corresponds first to the rezoning stage, and then at the site plan approval stage. Generally, the DRP only reviews projects that are undergoing development review; however, under exceptional circumstances, the DRP may review pre-applications.

In larger or more problematic developments, the project may end up making multiple appearances before the Panel. This may occur when a proposal changes drastically during rezoning or site plan approval and the City might want the Panel to take another look, or when there are many phases or components to a complex project, as is the case with multi-tower master plans. Occasionally, the proponent team voluntarily requests an additional meeting with the Panel, wanting to get their feedback to ensure they have the best possible design and to streamline the review process with the City. In some cases, proponents may request a Panel review before even submitting an application, as was the case with the recently presented Cloverdale Mall redevelopment.

Conceptual rendering of the Cloverdale Mall redevelopment, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

What happens during a DRP session?

In the days prior to a DRP presentation, Panelists are provided with a booklet that describes the development, typically made up of slides and descriptive text which will be presented at the meeting the soon follows at City Hall. On the day of the meeting, there is a formal procedure for the presentations and Panel commentary, with the Panel typically reviewing between two and five projects at each meeting.

A project review starts off with a presentation from City staff. The planners will introduce the project and explain the development context, providing details on applicable zoning regulations and planning policies; existing surrounding context; current and future development applications in the vicinity; past applications and approvals on the site; and any other pertinent information related to the development in question that paints a picture of the planning context.

Next, the proponents' design team presents the project to the Panel. The architect usually gives the presentation, which may also be supplemented by presentations from the landscape architect, planner, or urban designer, depending on the nature of the development. The design team will provide details on the project and explain their design process, showing plans, elevations, renderings, precedents, and occasionally a physical model. Typically, representatives from the developer are also in attendance with their design professionals, but they themselves rarely speak.

After the presentations are complete, the Panel has a chance to ask questions of clarification to City staff or the proponent team if there is any of the material that they do not understand or feel may have been missed. This is followed by the Panel commentary, with each Panelist taking their turn to provide feedback on the project. The Chair of the Panel gives a summary of the comments once everyone has spoken.

The final step of the review is a vote. The vote is not binding, and is meant only to affirm the Panel's stance toward the project. Not every project is voted on; typically, planning policies, urban design guidelines, and pre-application presentations are excluded from voting. The Panel may either vote Support or Non-Support for the project, with the option to attach a condition to the Support vote as a way to emphasize a certain aspect they feel needs to be improved moving forward. The final result is majority rule, with the Chair - who does not vote - stepping in to break a tie if the Panel is split.

Rendering of Cumberland Square from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

What do Panelists typically comment on?

The Panel comments are variable based on the nature of the project, but as you can guess from above, they usually revolve around the impact of the proposed development on the public realm. Usually, as part of the City staff presentation, the City will pose a series of questions to the Panel to highlight certain issues with the project and to help focus the ensuing discussion.

Topics that the Panel may critique and comment on include, but are not limited to, the effectiveness of aspects like the landscape design; building massing and setbacks; the interface of the building with the street or adjacent open spaces; building materials as they relate to the public realm; transit- and pedestrian-friendly design; sustainability; the layout of different components on a site; and building heights.

Framing the commentary is the City's Official Plan policies and guidelines. Part of the feedback is meant to ensure that developments are in line with the City's own objectives, and reference is often made to conformity with City documents, such as the Tall Building Design Guidelines or the Avenues and Mid-Rise Study.

The commentary is meant to be objective: whether any of the above subjects help or hurt the public realm, and whether or not they will lead to a successful project; thus the Panel typically stays away from subjective commentary like aesthetics. Only occasionally they will stray into the realm of aesthetics, like when material finishes clash with their surroundings, or when the massing or finishes feel disproportionate, or when an iconic proposal does not seem quite unique enough for its status. Often, though, these comments are framed as a matter of opinion rather than fact, particularly if the aesthetic qualities in question do not directly impact the public realm, and they usually carry less weight than objective statements.

Rendering of 33 Sherbourne from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Is the Design Review Panel open to the public?

Yes! All Panel sessions are public, with the exception of brief parts of meetings where the Panel discusses internal matters. The public cannot participate in the session, but all are welcome to observe the proceedings.

As well, the meeting agenda is posted on the City's website ahead of time which lists the projects being reviewed. Several weeks after each meeting, the minutes are then posted publicly on the website. Both agendas and minutes can be accessed here.

Rendering of One Delisle from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

What about the other Design Review Panels in the city?

There are three other Design Review Panels within the City of Toronto, each with a different focus. All projects that take place within these three other districts are not reviewed by the Toronto DRP, but instead go through their respective Panels. These Panels are listed below:

  • The Waterfront DRP reviews all projects within the Central Waterfront Secondary Plan area, which stretches from just west of Exhibition Place to the Port Lands, and includes Ontario Place, Tommy Thompson Park, and all of the waterfront in between. Like the Toronto DRP, the Panel is comprised of 12 independent private sector design professionals in a variety of fields. The Waterfront DRP meets monthly and all sessions are open to the public. All agendas and minutes - including proponent presentations - are posted on their website, here.
  • The Toronto Community Housing DRP reviews all developments led by TCHC. Created as part of the Regent Park Revitalization, the Panel now reviews other major TCHC projects throughout the city. The Panel is comprised of 12 design professionals from multiple private-sector disciplines, as well as 6 local residents who live in TCHC properties. The TCH DRP meets on an as-needed basis, and all sessions are open to the public, with agendas and minutes posted on their website.
  • The University of Toronto Design Review Committee reviews all major projects on the university's three campuses. The DRC is comprised of six appointed members - four independent design professionals and two members from within the university - and six permanent members, who occupy various leadership positions in relevant departments throughout the university. The DRC meets monthly or as-needed, but sessions are closed to the public, and agendas and minutes are not publicly shared.

Given the more focused nature of these three Panels, the mandate of each, while still focusing heavily on the public realm, tends to encompass a wider scope in terms of use, materials, and planning. They also review more smaller-scale projects in addition to the larger ones.

Occasionally, the City of Toronto DRP will hold a joint session with one of these Panels when a project that has a particularly wide-reaching impact comes along. This recently happened with the Exhibition Place Master Plan, and with the University of Toronto's Centre for Civilizations, Cultures, and Cities.

In addition to all of the DRPs in Toronto, most communities in and around the GTA have implemented their own, including Brampton, Vaughan, Mississauga, Hamilton, London, Ottawa, St. Catharines, and more. Metrolinx also has their own DRP to review Metrolinx-led projects.

Rendering of the Centre for Civilizations, Cultures, and Cities from the DRP, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

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Now that you have all the information you need about the Toronto Design Review Panel, stay tuned for plenty more articles coming in the new year! Until then, you can check out all of our past DRP articles, and join in the discussions on the respective project Forum threads, or just leave a comment here in the space provided on this page.

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Do you have other planning terms that you would like to see featured on Explainer? Share your comments and questions in the comments section below!

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