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Our fixation with height

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Last summer a development application was submitted for a 57 storey mixed-use tower on the south end of Toronto’s historic Distillery District. 

It’s the tower on the right hand side of the picture above. The 2 towers on the left are existing, although they’re quite recent. The development site is currently a parking lot and it abuts a railway corridor to the south.

The reason I bring up this project now is because I recently saw this notice go out from the Gooderham & Worts Neighbourhood Association. It’s an announcement for a public meeting that I believe just happened earlier this week (I think they meant to say 2015 instead of 2014).

After I saw the notice, I decided to share the rendering on social media to see what people thought of the proposal. The general consensus seemed to be that the tower looked a bit cookie cutter (though to be fair it’s hard to tell from renderings like this) and that 57 storeys was simply too tall for the area. I got comments back like “enough is enough.”

Now, I’m not here to say that 57 storeys is exactly the right height for this building and this location (though it might be), but I am saying that I don’t think it’s as important as most people think it is. I think we’ve become over-fixated on height, at the expense of other important design issues.

Part of this has to do with how we communicate projects and how we tell the story. If you look at the city’s website for this project, you’ll see that this is how it’s explained:

The City has received an Official Plan Amendment and Rezoning application for a 57-storey mixed use tower and a 5-storey commercial building containing 496 residential dwellings, 5,048 square metres of retail gross floor area, and 21,243 square metres of office gross floor area. The 5-storey commercial building is within the Distillery District, and the 57 storey tower is immediately south west of the Distillery District.

About the only thing that I think most people (outside of the industry) would understand are the heights of the buildings. Everything else – from the Official Plan Amendment to the number of square metres of gross retail area – is likely lost. 

So it’s actually not surprising that most people just look at one or two renderings and the number of storeys, and then make a judgement call about whether or not it would be a positive thing for the city.

Now, I know why we communicate projects in such a clinical way. It’s to appear impartial. But there are so many other considerations when it comes to great city building. 

How does the building meet the street? What are the first couple of floors like at eye-level? What’s the materiality? What would the experience be like for someone having a coffee on a patio outside of the building? What kind of commercial tenants will there be? Is there a unique leasing/programming strategy? What’s the overall vision for the project?

Again, I’m not saying that height is completely irrelevant. I simply fear that we might be losing sight of the bigger picture. The Distillery District is a magical place in Toronto. It’s hands down one of my favorite places to be. In fact, I’ll be there this weekend for a Winterlicious dinner. But I honestly couldn’t tell you how tall the existing towers are. Are they in the 40s? 

I could, however, tell you exactly what it’s like to walk down the Distillery’s intimate cobblestone streets and sit on a patio with a beer in hand. It’s a beautiful thing.

Note: I have zero affiliation with this project.

Image: City of Toronto

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