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New guidelines clarify what the city wants from tall building developers

It didn’t receive much media attention—how could something so innocuous compete with the circus that is our city hall these days?—but a couple of weeks ago the city passed a new set of Tall Building Design Guidelines. These new guidelines replace and in some cases build upon previous guidelines that were already in place.

Why do we need them? The city explains that tall buildings can help define the city and become important landmarks that are sources of pride and delight. Or, when poorly located and designed, they can have various negative impacts: overwhelming a neighbourhood, blocking sunlight, creating a wind tunnel effect, and contributing to traffic congestion, to name just a few of the potential negatives.

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Tall buildings must fit harmoniously with their surroundings, including contributing to the beauty of the skyline. Tridel’s Ten York (rendered tall building, centre foreground) was originally designed to be several storeys taller, but the Design Review Committee wanted it shortened to blend better with the other tall buildings.

So the aim of the Tall Building Design Guidelines is to help building designers, city planners and officials ensure that proposed buildings will fit within “their existing or planned context” with minimal impact and make a positive contribution to “the public realm.” A new provision has to do with protecting certain views considered “iconic” in Toronto. The new guidelines will help prevent developers from interfering with views deemed to have heritage value, such as the view of Queen’s Park from south on University Avenue.

The guidelines do not tell designers how tall the building may be, nor what it must look like, but rather help determine whether a building is “supportable” and represents good planning.

The intent, say the guidelines, is not to dictate a particular style and design, but to make sure that every building makes a “positive contribution to the public realm.” Buildings should fit harmoniously with their surroundings, be comfortable at street level for pedestrians, and offer a variety of functions to the public.

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These general principles—build whatever style or design you like, just be sure the building makes a positive contribution to its surroundings and the cityscape in general—seem flexible enough for almost any architect to work within. There are only two specific building types to be avoided:

  • Avoid free-standing towers that have no base building that connects them to the street. Why must there be a base building? To help the tall building fit within the existing “streetwall” context and provide a comfortable pedestrian scale. In mixed use contexts, the base building should be lined with commercial and retail: restaurants, shops, dental offices.
  • Avoid big boxy dominant massing and slab-like tower forms. Just look at hundreds of apartment buildings built all over the city since the 1950s and you will see the “big boxy dominant” types that are now to be avoided.

The guidelines themselves are, of course, much more specific, organized in sections that include Site Context, Site Organization, Tall Building Design, and Pedestrian Realm. The details presented in these sections are often quite technical, written for architects and engineers and urban planners, but efforts were made to produce a document that anyone could understand.

There is a lot in the guidelines about how tall buildings should be innovative and creative. They should also promote sustainability, longevity and leading-edge construction methods.

Tall buildings, particularly those that contain a mix of uses and are designed to accommodate the changing needs of occupants, can be an effective counter-measure to urban sprawl by encouraging a healthy, pedestrian-oriented lifestyle and promoting better use of transit. Improving the adaptability and flexibility of tall buildings also helps to ensure that these buildings remain functional and capable of addressing any shifts in demographics and market demands over the long term.

Toronto Tall Building Design Guidelines 2o13

There is also more emphasis on heritage properties, which are to be conserved and integrated. New buildings should be “sympathetic” to any adjacent heritage property. To illustrate the preferred treatment of heritage properties by developers, the guidelines contain a photograph of the restored James Cooper Mansion. This exceptional nineteenth century home was relocated from its original site just a few metres away and incorporated into the Tridel condominium development of the same name on Sherbourne south of Bloor. Residents can enjoy a game of billiards in the restored mansion’s billiards room. It also houses a board room and other of the building’s amenities.

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Heritage buildings like this one, the James Cooper Mansion on Sherbourne, are to be treated with respect and in a “sympathetic” way. Tridel moved this nineteenth century home from its original site a few metres away and restored it to become part of the condo development of the same name. The project is shown in the new Toronto Tall Buildings Design Guidelines as an example of how to treat heritage properties.

Developers and architects also have to consider the relationship a tall building has to other tall buildings nearby. A case in point was a tower proposed by Tridel at Ten York Street near Harbourfront. The original height was reduced by several stories after a series of consultations and submissions to the Design Review Panel, to make the building fit more harmoniously into the skyline. It wasn’t that there was anything objectionable about the building per se; the committee just felt it would look better overall if it were a little shorter.

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