Globe and Mail: Jennifer Lewington
The Toronto region ranks second in North America for its concentration of concrete-slab high-rise towers built in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now, Mayor David Miller wants the city to be a world leader in renewing 1,000 or so viable, but energy-inefficient buildings – and transform underserved neighbourhoods in the process.
With energy-use rates 20 per cent worse than single-family bungalows, high-rises represent “an enormous challenge in our fight against climate change,” Mr. Miller said last week in announcing his Mayor’s Tower Renewal project. “But they also provide us with an incredible opportunity.”
It’s a tall order – even advocates for the project warn of political and financial obstacles – but it’s a challenge Mr. Miller will put to council later this month.
His plan offers no new financial incentives and, despite fast-rising energy costs, private-sector owners remain skittish about payback periods longer than three to five years to fund major renovations.
So what could spur some action? In a word, rezoning.
Many of the buildings are islands of high density, maxed out under existing zoning rules, but surrounded by green space with few services and little shopping or transit.
If the city loosened the rules, the building owner could develop the land around the high-rises for townhouses or commercial use, generating income to pay for retrofits and other improvements.
For this reason, one financing expert concludes, “the tower project makes a lot of sense and the timing is impeccable.”
Without zoning changes, adds Grant McDonald, managing director of Capital Underwriters Corporation, “there’s no motivation for anyone to put in any commercial shopping, retail or public services into those areas.”
Last week, the mayor’s proposal also got a boost from the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario, a management-labour group.
In a letter to the mayor, alliance executive director Andy Manahan praised the project but also urged the mayor and council to streamline approvals for “in-fill” projects, ease development charges and back tax breaks for reinvestment.
“It’s a great initiative,” Mr. Manahan said of the mayor’s plan. “It just needs the right tools to make it happen.”
Others warn against hasty moves to further intensify in high-rise neighbourhoods.
“It’s a potential Trojan horse for increased density,” said councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), who warns of a possible backlash from residents. “It has the potential to destabilize neighbourhoods.”
Architects Graeme Stewart and Michael McClelland of ERA Architects Inc., whose research on tower renewal led to the mayor’s high-profile embrace of the issue, view the proposed rehabilitation as just the means to a larger end of community renewal in low-income neighbourhoods long shortchanged on services.
“How do we turn these areas into neighbourhoods Toronto can be proud of ?” Mr. Stewart asked. “How can we enable every neighbourhood to have the same advantage as the Annex downtown?”
Toronto chief planner Gary Wright noted that the units of the aging high-rises, with two and three bedroom units, are larger than units built today, and are suitable for families.
“These are very valuable parts of our communities in Toronto,” he said. “The opportunity to keep and maintain these buildings for a much longer period of time [with retrofits] is very important.”
Just what the tower renewal project has in mind on zoning will unfold in four pilot projects, one in each community-council district of the city, over the next six months.
At a high-rise complex on north Kipling Avenue, one of three privately held buildings in the pilot, building manager Roslyn Brown is keen to participate in what she describes as a “landmark” project. The two 23-storey buildings, owned by Humber Properties, sit on about two hectares of green space ripe for redevelopment.
“I don’t know about the financing precisely at this time,” she said. “We will have many meetings to discuss what is going to be done when, the cost and who will bear the cost.”
This article by Jennifer Lewington was originally published by the by the Globe and Mail on September 8th, 2008.
Concurrent to Mayor’s Tower Renewal, CMHC and the City are funding a technical ‘Best Practices Guidebook’; focusing on building over-cladding for Tower Renewal. Lead by Profs Ted Kesik and Ivan Saleff at the University of Toronto, it is to be released in the winter of 2008.