Let’s stop developers from designing our city

By Stig Harvor –

StigA welcome and hopefully fruitful civic debate is taking shape in our city. It has been in the background for some time but is steadily involving a wider audience. The debate asks the complex question: How can we improve the quality of architectural and urban design in Toronto? In other words, how can we improve the attractiveness and liveability where we spend our lives?

It is the sort of debate that becomes more urgent during periods of growth and change. While commercial construction has been dormant for some years, an explosion of large residential projects is occurring. Ordinary citizens are reacting against the sprouting of tall towers in various areas and neighbourhoods. There has been a strong reaction against “the wall” of new condos rising along our waterfront. There is a feeling we can and must do better.

Technology has had a major impact on the form of North American cities. Cars have clogged up the older, central parts and smeared the newer parts over vast formless tracts of land. As someone put it: “We move from the jam of the city into the jelly of the suburbs.” Elevators and steel-and-concrete construction have shot buildings skyward. The end result has been cities where the enclosure of space and any cohesive, overall appearance of areas have been lost.

Architectural and urban designs are separate yet intertwined. They are two parts of a larger whole. Architectural design deals with the form and appearance of individual buildings. Urban design deals with how the individual buildings fit together and how they create exterior spaces such as streets and squares. Urban design also looks at the detailed treatment of these spaces.

In the overall picture, urban design is the key to good planning. It is more important than the appearance of individual buildings. Many old cities in Europe and other parts of the world attest to this. Their buildings may be plain and ordinary but the scale, continuity and form of their streets and squares appeal to us. They possess a human quality.

Over the last century, North American cities have slowly evolved a set of rules for their growth. Different uses have been separated. Industrial areas have been isolated from residential ones by zoning. The size and height of buildings have been regulated as well as their location on the site. Street widths have been specified. Yet the end result has not been very satisfactory. Visual chaos abounds.

In Toronto under the leadership of former mayor Barbara Hall, the mainly industrial areas of King Street around Spadina and Parliament were freed to develop mixed uses of unlimited densities within restrictions on height. This has led to a welcome spurt of new buildings and renovation of old ones.

A problem of urban design, however, has arisen. Since density restrictions were abolished, a free-for-all for developers has evolved. They routinely submit plans for much taller towers than allowed under existing regulations. If city planners, politicians or citizens object, the developers appeal to the provincially appointed Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which has the final and binding say. Urban design suffers.

The situation has created calls for more control in order to promote better quality in both urban and architectural design. Our new, energetic mayor, David Miller, is talking of a “clean and beautiful city.” Last December, the Toronto Board of Trade (BOT) issued a similar call. While its main concern is to protect business interests, it realizes that an attractive, liveable city is essential to attract and keep businesses here.

BOT argues there is “a need for greater emphasis and accountability on issues of urban design in the planning and development approvals process.” It goes on to call for “the creation of a made-in-Toronto peer review panel to encourage stronger focus on urban design quality on the part of the city and the development community.”

The Toronto Society of Architects is sceptical of the effectiveness of BOT’s proposal to limit the review panel to a “non-intrusive” advisory role only. It favours a body with the ability and mandate to focus and advise on specific projects.

A major stumbling block remains to any form of architectural design control. It is the present Section 41 of the Ontario Planning Act. The Act specifically excludes control of building design features such as materials, texture, colour, windows, construction and architectural details.

Yet over 50 years ago in 1952, the province in its City of Ottawa Act granted that city the right to establish a Design Review Committee that could approve or disapprove projects. As a safety feature, an Appeals Committee was constituted.

Not all buildings were reviewed, only ones on major streets or in prominent locations and heritage districts. The Design Review Committee functioned for many years. With amalgamation in the 1990s, Ottawa city council—in a fit of cost-cutting and in response to criticism by a few architects and many developers—restricted its activity to heritage districts alone. Interestingly, there is now a movement afoot to again broaden the city areas of review.

Toronto has never had an Ottawa-style process for approving the appearance of buildings and how they fit into their surroundings. Toronto has an urban design group within the planning department.

The group issues design guidelines for various city areas. They discuss new projects with developers during the site plan review stage of the building approval process. The review involves design features but there is no mechanism available for enforcement.

Things are different in British Columbia where the quality of architecture is generally higher than in the rest of our country. The BC Planning Act interestingly allows control of building appearance.

The City of Vancouver sets strict regulations of zoning, density and height and enforces these. It also applies guidelines for design elements like floor size of towers, exterior materials, even colours.

High-rise condo projects outside the commercial core must have 3-4 storey residences along the street with retail space where appropriate. It is an application of Jane Jacob’s principle of “eyes on the street”.

The Vancouver design review process starts with an examination for conformity to zoning by a city planner. Buildings along main streets and in other prominent locations as well as all civic works, including roadworks and parks, then go before a 12-member Urban Design Panel of architects, landscape architects, engineers and planners. The members are nominated by their professional associations and approved by council. They discuss the proposed plans with the applicant from a design point of view.

The discussion can be hot and heavy. The panel is advisory and can only make recommendations of support, non-support or deferral to a development permit board comprised of three senior civil servants who make the final decision. There is no room for politicians in the process. Politicians make the rules for development; civil servants apply them.

What then about public participation? Citizens are involved in the political process that formulates the regulations. They, like the politicians, are not involved later. Since regulations and guidelines are enforced, the builders are entitled to proceed “as-of-right” without further public input.

British Columbia does not have the equivalent of the Ontario Municipal Board. Vancouver planners do not work under the threat of appeals of their decisions. Although the approval process can be lengthy and fraught with argument, it is co-operative and open to the public. With some inevitable exceptions, developers and architects generally agree the planning process produces successful results for them, the city and the public.

The BC government is respectful of Vancouver. Planning is not settled by an appointed board swayed by high-priced lawyers hired by developers. The city is allowed to plan the city. Can Toronto and Queen’s Park learn something from Vancouver?