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Releasing the shackles on mid-rise development

I love mid-rise buildings. I think they are an incredibly livable scale of housing, which is why I am looking forward to moving into Junction House when we begin occupancies next year. But as we have talked about many times before on the blog, the mid-rise economics are challenging in this city, which is why we also don’t have any other Avenue-style mid-rise projects in the pipeline right now. We haven’t been able to find land where the math works.

Here are two excerpts from a recent Globe and Mail article — titled “Toronto’s mix of planning rules limits growth of mid-rise housing” — that speaks to this dynamic:

For well over two decades, Toronto’s official plan has called for transit-oriented intensification along the “Avenues,” much of it expected in the form of mid-rise apartments that can be approved “as of right” – meaning without zoning or official plan appeals. Such buildings are often seen as more livable and human scale than 50- or 60-storey towers.

Yet, ironically, the highly prescriptive Mid-Rise Guidelines – combined with skyrocketing land, labour and building costs, as well as timelines that can run to six years for a mid-sized building – have turned these projects into pyramid-shaped unicorns, often filled with deep, dark and narrow units dubbed “bowling alleys.”

“The economics are so frail,” says architect Dermot Sweeny, founding principal of Sweeny & Co., who describes the angular plane requirements as “a massive cost” because they make the structure more complicated and expensive while reducing the amount of leasable or saleable floor space.

The critiques extend beyond the industry. Professor of architecture Richard Sommer, former dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Landscape, Architecture and Design at the University of Toronto, describes the controls in the guidelines as “very crude.” “They’re built around a mindset of deference to low-rise communities.”

My opinion is that, at a minimum, we need to revisit the “guidelines” that govern these kinds of projects and we need to make this scale of development “as-of-right.” In the same way that laneway suites work, where you simply apply for a building permit, we need to make it just as easy for mid-rise housing. There just too many barriers and too many opportunities for something to come up that could hold up the entire project for months or years.

Building at a variety of scales is important for the fabric and vitality of our cities. Unfortunately, I have all but made up my mind that small doesn’t work unless it’s as-of-right. I would love to build another laneway house and I fully expect that to happen at some point in the near future. But I just can’t seem to get my head around another mid-rise building right now. I wish that wasn’t the case. And it’s certainly not because of a lack of effort.

1 Comment so far

  1. Pingback: Speed and simplicity in Vancouver – BRANDON DONNELLY

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