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cityscape

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="http://www.flickr.com/photos/clickr12345/6193285656/"}Tony Lea{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}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.

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