The Evolution of Condo Design

It’s interesting to see how cities evolve, what elements they retain over time and which ones they erase. Torontonians in particular feel they’re special in having razed many historical structures in favor of bland modernity and in having a dozen or more failed plans for every one that sees fruition.

And yet, that’s got to be just about every city everywhere. Some years back on a trip to Seattle, tour guides cheerfully mentioned their city’s history as pretty much one bad idea after another, years of political wrangling for every inch of progress made… sound familiar, Toronto? Company may not make us any less pathetic, but it does mitigate our civic misery.

So, condominiums.

Developers are quick to point out the various reasons why condos are they way they are. Local by-laws are partially to blame; as much as the city professes to desire mid-rise buildings, the zoning rules actually make it much easier to build tall ones. Developers swear that they build what the market wants and will bear. The people want floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize natural light, so they get glass boxes in the sky.

And yet there is variation. The plain glass box has given way to slightly different glass boxes. Hardly a massive leap in architecture, but still, an indication that nothing is stagnant. For a great example, look at the Distillery District, where the Pure Spirits development went up in the early 2000s:

pure_spiritThe tower is your basic glass box; at the time, the promotional literature described the podium as paying homage to the historic district, while the use of glass on the tower was a deliberate attempt make it transparent and unobtrusive. The point of the Distillery District is the history in its bricks, not the towers above. Let’s not kid ourselves though; glass box fever was all over Toronto at that point and it’s not like the developer was about to try and build anything else.

The two towers going up on the Distillery’s east end are also made of glass, but the design now includes glass fritting and articulated balconies that add some visual punch:

gooderhamStill glass? Yes. Arguably dull? Less so. But it is a new take on the box. Design evolves.

One aspect of condo design getting a lot of attention these days is how they “meet the street.” Will it have a deadening effect, built as close to the edge of the sidewalk as possible? Will there be stores or walk-up townhouses, or some visual appeal? Will it draw in pedestrian traffic? Many critics correctly point out the fact that developers will always seek out the most staid, boring and reliable retail tenants, such as banks and dental offices.

My main criticism is that no condo retail space offers the kind of personality that more interesting stores would want to occupy anyway.

Let’s talk streetscapes.

kensingtonJane Jacobs was a big fan of old buildings. They are flexible, varied spaces, inclined to host any number of enterprises over their lifetime. They also make for a street that is, well, interesting. The signs are different heights and colours. Some storefronts protrude into the sidewalk, others recede. Some spaces have high ceilings, others are cramped. Every city block offers a different mix.

movadaThat’s where I live, and I’ll be the first to say that the retail at the bottom is boring as all get out, and I’m more than prepared to say that the reason is uniformity. The signage is the same colour and the same height. The doorways are all the same design. The entrances are all at the same depth. The only personalization permitted is on the interior of each space.

berwickWhy can’t the same go for townhouse developments? The above rendering is for a development going up near me, and while I personally feel that these townhomes actually look quite pleasant, I wonder if there’s a specific need for them to be so uniform. Obviously it saves on construction and design cost, but at the same time, imagine the premium a developer could charge for unique units, each with its own personality built in. Not unlike boutique hotels with each room assembled by a different designer, a single development could lend vitality and value to an entire block.

My hope and prediction is that the next evolution of condominium design will be to break up the street-level engagement with pedestrians. Treat the lower portion of each building as a block plan, with varied height and depth to add some visual punch. This would certainly make for an uneven floor inside the building, but that could easily be worked into an asset. A multi-level party room perhaps. This is not to say that every condo has to do this (mandated differentiation can be as tacky and overdone as anything else), but it would be nice if a few did. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

There’s a world of possibility out there, and design can welcome it with open arms or send it running for the hills. Condos, it’s time to think about your next leap forward.



An Open Letter to Toronto City Council

Dear Mayor and Councillors,

I write to you concerning the Porter Airlines’ desire to add jet travel at Billy Bishop Airport.

To my eye, the implications of jets on the waterfront are complicated, probably more than I know. Putting this letter and its author in context: I am liberal-minded with an appreciation for conservative ideals. I was not in favour of cuts to the library system, though supported the agreement made with unions early this term. I love what’s happening on the waterfront, support using public money to continue that process, and regularly visit Waterfront Toronto’s projects by foot, bike, TTC and car to check out what’s new and under development. I have a university degree, live in midtown Toronto and work in Markham.

I have a number of problems with the discourse surrounding waterfront politics, ones that were brought to the fore during last week’s flurry of news coverage surrounding Porter and its jets.

Many point to Chicago as the standard for urban waterfronts, and wish to duplicate it here. Others have said that an airport has no place in a thriving, people-oriented waterfront. An argument has been raised that with the Union-Pearson Express, the airport’s proximity to downtown is soon to become obsolete, and that flight paths will limit building heights on the waterfront. Some are worried about a slippery slope of jet travel; as soon as one jet is allowed, louder, dirtier ones must follow. There’s been at least one wholesale rejection of “paving over the lake”. And some councilors are fully in support of Porter’s plans, full stop.

To the first point: Toronto is not Chicago, and never will be. That ship has sailed, if it was ever in port to begin with. Chicago’s waterfront is an outstanding achievement of public realm for the public good to be sure, but it does Toronto a disservice to apply rose-coloured glasses to what others have and we do not. In the interest of fair play, I have a few legitimate complaints about Chicago’s waterfront. A major roadway not unlike Lake Shore Boulevard runs along the much of their waterfront, separating swaths of it from the city. With such a wide tract of park space devoid of development, there’s a hard border between park and city; comparatively fewer people live and work close to that wonderful space. It takes more work to get there. I mention these supposed drawbacks not to actually hold them against Chicago’s waterfront, but to point out that nothing is perfect and free of criticism. It does Toronto political discourse no good to hold anything up as a flawless standard to which all comers must aspire.

Let’s also not forget that Waterfront Toronto’s plan has won numerous awards and received much acclaim, not unlike Chicago’s. Why should we be so quick to copy Chicago when, by many accounts, our spin is just as successful in its own way? Toronto’s plan is integration, porousness, and accommodation. We’re putting businesses, residences and even some industry on our waterfront, thousands more employees and residents alike within a stone’s throw of our shores than those of Chicago. Our waterfront will draw people to it through a network of streets, each one lively and vibrant, until they open up visually and spatially to Lake Ontario and the Toronto Islands. With provision for cars, bikes, pedestrians, transit and yes, airplanes, Toronto’s waterfront invites all and declines none.

To the second point: Who’s to say what has a place on our waterfront? In addition to Waterfront Toronto’s plan at large having drawn widespread praise, one of its showpiece parks has done likewise for embracing an industrial use of the waterfront. When the design competition for what is now the wildly successful Sugar Beach took place, some entrants were rejected for attempting to hide or ignore the Redpath sugar refinery. Sugar Beach, in contrast, invites visitors to see industry in action, witness a cargo ship trade supplies and otherwise carry on as it did before. When looking for a condo, I considered the ability to walk to an airport a huge draw; one unit featured a fantastic view of planes landing and taking off, a major plus in my opinion. I have listened to a concert in the Music Garden and been no more distracted by airplanes than I was by Queen’s Quay traffic. Besides, the island airport serves more than just Porter. It’s a vital location for recreational pilots across the city, even more so now that Buttonville in Markham is due to close.

The waterfront plan already embraces all kinds of uses, including transit. Queen’s Quay is due to become one of Toronto’s marquee streets, to believe the hype. Why not bring visitors right onto one of Toronto’s proudest achievements instead of the perpetual traffic jam of Pearson? Why not maintain the rather friendly notion that you can walk to an airport in a big city? In my experience, the airport has added to the waterfront’s attractiveness as a place of business, residency and recreation, not detracted from it.

As to the “need” for an airport in downtown Toronto once the Union-Pearson Express opens: the UPX will definitely shorten the ride to Pearson. If you have $20+ to burn. And if you live close to any of the three stations, which most Torontonians do not. The UPX is of little use to most citizens.

And the slippery slope of noisier, dirtier jets worming their way onto island runways if the C-Series gains access? The airport already operates under severe noise restrictions. Presumably, every airplane operating out of Billy Bishop must do likewise, meaning that a noisier jet would never be permitted to land there. New rules governing environmental standards may be enacted, guaranteeing that any jets landing on the island meet the latest in decibel and cleanliness standards.

If it seems that I’m coming down heavily on the pro-jet side, I’d have to agree – from my experience both on the waterfront and with Porter, I’m in favour.


I do have a number of questions:

  • Porter says that adding onto the existing runways will keep the airport within its existing legal boundaries. Is this true? While the runway would be in existing boundaries, would existing safety zones suffice, or would they have to be expanded?
  • Porter and Bombardier say that the C-Series engines will operate within existing noise restrictions. The plane takes its maiden flight in a few weeks; surely the truth of that claim can be verified.
  • Will the number of “slots” available for flights into and out of the airport grow? (i.e., Can the airport can ever become busier than it is, jets or no jets?). Will jets make the airport busy to the point of ruining the balance as it is, or will the existing balance of planes to people remain constant?
  • It has been argued that allowing one type of jet onto the airport is an open invitation to all jets. Is this true? Do the current rules (such as decibel restrictions) prevent that? Can we introduce rules governing the types of jets allowed, so noise and environmental concerns are respected at all times?
  • Will flightpaths required by the jets restrict existing plans for waterfront development? If so, how?
  • Does the type of noise a jet makes carry farther than propellers? Is it more distracting to the human ear, more disruptive to waterfront activities? Is there more to noise violations than simply measuring decibels? Maybe jets shouldn’t be allowed after all.
  • Do jets have a negative impact on birds that turboprops do not?
  • Transport Canada will soon enforce new regulations requiring longer runways anyway. To what extent to Porter’s requests coincide with/differ from those soon-to-be-imposed changes?

I am just a layman, so my questions must be the tip of the iceberg. I wish I had seen these and more last week when the news first broke. Instead, I read many knee-jerk yay or nay decisions, from fear-mongering over whether or not the lake would disappear under a layer of concrete to full-fledged support, with neither case backed up with evidence. Again, this is a decision that has huge potential effect on the future of Toronto’s waterfront. It deserves consideration, not grandstanding. Evidence, not emotion.

As a traveler, I love the idea of being able to fly to the west coast after a short trip down Bathurst Street, but I’m not blind to potential dangers of doing so. And I’d be willing to give up that convenience for the right reasons.

As a citizen, I care a great deal about the waterfront and want to see the Waterfront Toronto’s vision realized, existence and operation of the island airport included.

As city councillors, you all have a duty to find and analyze all the relevant facts before rendering a decision on Porter and its jets, to balance the needs and wants of everyone who has a stake in what the waterfront is and will be.

Please consider wisely.

Yours truly,

Michael Spiar