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Telling the Story of Tower Renewal

As part of a panel on tower renewal, a bunch of wonky planners had important things to say about how best to revitalize Toronto's high-rise apartment buildings.

Photo by {a href=""}Tony Lea{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Tuesday night at Innis Town Hall, planners, policy wonks, and concerned citizens filled an auditorium to hear about the state of Toronto’s urban tower renewal program.

Launched in 2008, the urban tower renewal program was designed to revitalize high-rises built between the 1950s and 1980s, which often suffer from deteriorating conditions because of poor building materials, weathering, and bad planning. The theory behind tower renewal is that a little investment in upkeep can help aging high-rise communities become more vital, more liveable, more energy-efficient, and less costly to live in.

The project was close to former mayor David Miller’s heart, but it hasn’t received as much love from Rob Ford. When Ford took office, his then–chief of staff, Nick Kouvalis, expressed dismissive skepticism upon learning about the program. His exact words: “The tower renewal program—what is that?”

Around 20 per cent of Torontonians live in one of the city’s 1,200 high-rise apartment towers, including 40 per cent of Torontonians who live in poverty. In other words, these are functional buildings, where low- or middle-income people can afford to live.

ERA Architects associate and former Miller staffer Graeme Stewart was on Tuesday night’s panel. Afterward, during an interview, he argued that the towers need to be a bigger part of the city’s conversation about itself.

“High-rises are a fabric of the regional DNA,” he said. “I think a lot of people understand this [issue]. They grew up in Scarborough or North York, wherever you lived you see them. I think it’s just not part of the mythology of Toronto. A lot of our work is saying, ‘Let’s make this part of Toronto’s story.’”

Even if the dividends from retrofitting are great, it can be a tough sell to building owners. Stewart stressed an incremental approach, so as not to scare people off the with high up-front capital costs. He likes to show off case studies of successful retrofits. (Europe, in particular, is ahead of the curve.)

One strategy for making real change in high-rise communities without spending a great deal of money is to focus on zoning regulations. Panel moderator and urban-planning guru Ken Greenberg referred to former mayor Barbara Hall’s quiet legacy of embracing mixed-use zoning. Many residential buildings currently have limited zoning from decades ago that only allows them to have a convenience store on-site, but that’s starting to change; doctors offices and community centres are among the types of businesses that Toronto’s city planners are starting to think about integrating with high-rises, in place of storage rooms and ground-floor housing.

Rebecca Leshinski, a law lecturer at Australia Catholic University in Melbourne, was also on the panel. She spoke to the importance of zoning to community planning, and expressed frustration at the limited powers Melbourne derives from its state, Victoria. This is a frustration familiar to our planners, who complain about the Toronto’s limited flexibility under provincial law, despite an expansion of the City’s powers in 2006.

But there was also a hint of warning. Both Leshinski and Greenberg referred to the next wave of work that will need to be done, on condo buildings built after the 1980s. Many of these buildings aren’t made with the best materials, and condo boards aren’t saving enough reserve funds to cover major upgrades. The condo board structure makes it even more difficult to effect change, because each building is essentially its own tiny government. It will be important, in coming years, to engage condo-dwellers in thinking about the future of Toronto’s cityscape.

It might not be a sexy story to tell, but it’s an important one.


  • Treptower

    So, exactly how many towers have been renewed since 2008?

  • Anonymous

    So, the proposed financing method is to allow some of the green space around the towers to be converted to commercial uses. Everyone wins! (Providing sufficient green space is kept)

    • Anonymous

      Green space is wonderful and all, but I never see anyone using the lawns or yards around apartment buildings around here. If there’s a bench or path you’re pretty lucky, but these aren’t parks: no large old shade trees, just grass. And maybe a water fountain (equal odds it doesn’t work).

      • Anonymous

        Sufficient as in “sufficient to meet their needs”… which in your example, is very little

        • Anonymous

          If these vacant tracts were treated more like parks they would probably be used more like them by residents (and no-good hooligan children), which would probably do more to improve the community than turning them into 7-11s.

    • Treptower

      Don’t get too worked up about this. Just another proposal that will result in nothing but endless consultant reports, meetings, online discussions, flashy renders etc. Toronto leads the world in proposals, trails Uganda in results.

      Since it appears that nothing has been accomplished over the last 4 years, I doubt that any more than 2 or 3 towers (of the over 1,200 that are currently rotting] will have been ‘renewed’ by the end of the decade.

      Actually, I’ll be shocked if more than 2 or 3 are ever completed.

      • PlantinMoretus


      • Anonymous

        My, my, everything is negative with people like you..have you ever thought of living elsewhere?

  • PlantinMoretus

    Yikes. “Telling stories” about Toronto’s high rises is a good way to waste a lot of time and achieve nothing.

    This idea of converting storage rooms to commercial space really stinks. Storage spaces are part of the tenant agreement. You can’t just take away an amenity like that without compensating the tenant through a rent reduction – which would probably have to be equivalent to the cost of renting a storage locker. And you can’t convert storage space in bits and pieces as various tenants move out.

    After almost 5 years, it’s a shame they haven’t come up with better ideas.

    • Canadianskeezix

      Calm down. They aren’t necessarily talking about tenant-assigned storage lockers in the basement, and not all buildings lease the storage space. It’s one example they gave, and they’re talking about ground floor space generally, which was not always particularly efficiently or well designed in the 1960s when land was cheap, which can be converted to more useful amenities for today’s residents. Some of the displaced space can be recovered elsewhere (a lot of these buldings have under-utilized underground parking garages, dating from an era when the parking ratios in the zoning by-laws were much more onerous than today).

      • PlantinMoretus

        I doubt there is much unused storage or parking space in Toronto, not enough to make converting it a viable strategy for anything.

        • Sam

          How do you know that? Have you done parking usage assessment of the 1960s-era slab towers? Have you even looked at the reports that have been done? Have you reviewed the ground floor plans of these buildings? Have you read all the background reports that went into this strategy? Have you examined precedents in other cities on which this is partly based?

          • PlantinMoretus

            Have you? Why so prickly about my comment?

        • Canadianskeezix

          You’re basing that conclusion, and your consequent dismissal of the entire initiative, on what exactly?

          • PlantinMoretus

            What are you basing your defense of the initiative on?

          • Roger B

            It’s not just putting retail into the buildings themselves. These are often towers in the park with tons of empty surrounding space. While drivers tend to want stores farther away from them, non-drivers tend to appreciate things within a walking distance. Replacing some empty space with in a new mid-rise apartment or even one storey street retail (recently in St. Jamestown) can save residents from long hostile walks, or paying for bus or taxi fares to reach retail, doctor’s offices.
            Leaving existing zoning in place not only makes people’s lives inconvenient but makes people do everything they can to buy a car in a hostile auto-oriented landscape.

          • Canadianskeezix

            I’m a land use planner that works on these sites all the time. I explained above why I thought that this one small aspect of the overall initiative is worthwhile- just review any city planning staff reports from th last 10 years dealing with site intensification. Lots of good examples on Jane and Rohampton (reports I mean) in particular.

          • PlantinMoretus

            So you don’t actually have any information on the amount of unused storage or parking spaces in Toronto high-rises.

            I guess you just took offense at my having doubted there was much of it. You’ve got awfully thin skin for a planner. You don’t honestly expect that the public will be won over by every planning idea, do you? And that they won’t voice their opinions?

            Also, just review any city planning staff reports for the last 20 years, and then compare them to what has actually happened in the city. There is essentially no relationship between them. Planning reports get ignored all the time. I certainly do not feel obliged to take them as gospel.