Tower Renewal Blog

Unlocking High-rise Potential: Consultations

The following article by Edward LaRusic was recently published in the Toronto edition of Novae Res Urbis:

The city is proposing a new zoning designation to transform the concrete towers of Toronto’s inner suburbs, typically poorly served by transportation, retail and other amenities, into complete communities.

If approved, the new zoning designation of “residential apartment commercial (RAC)” would loosen restrictive rules on high-rise apartment neighbourhoods that date to the 1950s and, it is hoped, attract small businesses and services to the densely populated communities cut off from their surroundings.

The city recently began public consultations on the new designation, potentially paving the way for a decision by city council in June.

The proposed RAC zoning is a key element of the city’s tower renewal project initiated in 2008 in the second term of then-mayor David Miller, with ERA Architects a key collaborator from the outset.

ERA associate Graeme Stewart said the proposed designation is a key lever to connect the concrete high rises of the inner suburbs to the rest of the city.

Graeme Stewart speaks to community members at East Scarborough Storefront

“The simplest way to describe it is that these [inner suburb] neighbourhoods were built, designed, and conceived in the 1960s for an entirely different demographic,” he told NRU, with the expectation that the high rises would be home to car-owning middle-class residents.

At the time, cities separated residential communities from commercial activities and employment. The demographics have changed so that, today, many of the high rises have become a “landing pad” for new Canadians.

Along with the demographic transformation, said Stewart, the city’s own policies have changed dramatically in recent years. The official plan calls for complete communities, walkable neighbourhoods and access to locally available grocers and other retail stores—none of which is reflected in the current zoning by-law for these properties.

“The zoning has not changed since the 1960s,” said Stewart. “There’s a complete disconnect between the ambitions of the city in the official plan and the reality on the ground.”

Councillor Pasternak at the Bathurst Finch Hub

This week at a public meeting in East Scarborough the city’s director of zoning and environmental planning, Joe D’Abramo , acknowledged how planning got it wrong in these areas.

“We were planning on a map,” D’Abramo told the meeting. “On any one of those sites, it might be a five-minute car drive, but a 50-minute walk.”

In recent years, research carried out by the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal and the United Way of Greater Toronto has argued for planning changes that give residents access to local amenities. “Strong neighbourhoods and complete communities: a new approach to zoning for apartment neighbourhoods,” a report by the two organizations written with assistance from Stewart, demonstrated the challenge for high-rise residents without cars to gain to local access to fresh food, employment, and social services.

Joe D’Abramo fielding questions at Thorncliffe Park

Stewart said that the proposed change in zoning could open up opportunities to link residents and local services. Under more relaxing zoning provisions, he said, health clinics would be allowed to locate inside high-rise buildings, with nurses on site to offer education sessions or to host flu-shot clinics.

As well, he noted, “you could have fresh fruit vendors, such as a food bus that could come [directly to the buildings]. They’re really simple things that could make a big difference.”

At present, he noted, such activities would run afoul of the current the zoning by-law.

“You can’t even have public health centres come and give a talk because that’s considered an education or institutional use,” said Stewart.

Calvin Kangara is a community engagement project lead at the East Scarborough Storefront , a multi service delivery hub that serves the Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park community. He told NRU that the RAC zoning would open up opportunities for local residents.

“People are already doing businesses in these buildings such as pedicures, manicures and hair salons,” he said. However, the entrepreneurs do not operate as a “legal” business. As a result, safety concerns arise on occasion. Kangara cited one resident who operates a hair salon from her apartment.

“She doesn’t want to wait on men because it’s her private space. It’s risky to invite a man in.”

Stewart said that the RAC designation would “legitimize” a lot of the businesses and activities that are happening out of sight.

“They’re vibrant, dynamic communities. They don’t look like it from the street, but there’s lots of entrepreneurial activity going on.”

Community feedback from East Scarborough Storefront public consultation

The new zoning category is not designed to introduce mixed-use infill into these tower neighbourhoods, according to D’Abramo. Instead, the proposed designation would allow small commercial uses, such as artist studios, medical offices, and grocery stands, within and near apartment buildings.

D’Abramo said that the goal is to create enhanced services for the local community. Each commercial use would be limited to 200 m 2 with a maximum of 1000 m 2 for all commercial uses in an area combined, creating useful services for tower residents, while being small enough to make it unlikely to attract outside residents.

“We want it to serve the neighbourhood, but not outside the neighbourhood,” said D’Abramo.

Some of these uses would need to be set back a short distance away—7.5 metres—in a separate building away from the apartment building, in order to limit impacts such as noise and odor.

After consultations wrap up in the first week of April, city staff will draw up a list of properties eligible for RAC zoning, with a final report and draft zoning by-law amendment to follow. City officials expect to schedule a statutory public meeting on May 29 at the scheduled planning and growth management committee meeting. Barring appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board, the new zoning would take effect by the end of June.

If adopted, RAC zoning would complement several city initiatives on tower renewal. In 2011, the city introduced “Sustainable Towers, Engaged People,” a program and toolkit to build leadership capacity among those living in residential towers. In 2013, the city introduced “high-rise retrofit improvement support” as a pilot project to improve energy and water efficiency in older high-rise buildings.

Stewart said that changing the zoning is only a piece of the puzzle for unlocking the potential of these neighbourhoods.

“We can’t remove all the barriers. It’s up to the tenants, residents, community members, agencies, entrepreneurs and social innovators to do their thing.”

Kangara is optimistic about the effect the new RAC zoning will have on communities.

“It’s going to open things up. Residents will be able to join hands and rent space. The community will walk together.”

Posted with permission of the Publisher of NRU Publishing Inc. Original article first appeared in Novae Res Urbis – City of Toronto Edition Vol. 18 No. 13, Friday, March 28, 2014.

Images included here are do not originate with the NRU article and are provided courtesy ERA Architects.