Building Magazine


Feature

Suburbs in the Sky?

Is Canada's condo boom re-entrenching the struggles of suburbia into cities' urban cores?


We are manufacturing neighbourhoods again, but this time in the form of condominiums. While we are creating them as fast as it takes concrete to cure, some believe the only difference between our nation’s building blitz and post-WWII suburban sprawl is the direction . Are we replicating the same mistakes vertically?

Peel back the veil of densification and the similarities between suburbia and ‘condominia’  are there: uniform dwelling architecture; similar unit sizes; chain retail, restaurants and banks at major intersections; avenues designed solely for transience; a homogenous clientele. Some on both sides of the land development line are concerned about what’s being built and the problems we might inherit in the future. Condos, like suburbs, don’t change easily.

Ross Chapin, principal of Ross Chapin Architects and author of the 2011 book Pocket Neighbourhoods, feels the symptoms of suburbia are contagious because current condo designs passively allow “the realm outside the front door [to be] anti-social.” He believes high-rise condos function as “pocket neighbours” and, as such, need to be designed in a way that turns attention to public space. An inward focus  is the dynamic we’ve created with suburbs: structures and community designs that promote exclusion by celebrating private space and backyards.

Although contemporary condos may be one step ahead with their usually robust suite of common amenities, they, too, can fall victim to this segregated dynamic. For example, the street in a suburb and a hallway in a condominium are both designed to get us to and from our front doors as quickly as possible. “There is little reason to linger or gather in the hall, so it’s usually empty. Worse, there are no windows looking on, so it’s not a defensible space,” says Chapin, arguing instead for adding layers of communal space. “[With current designs] a person goes directly from public space of the hall through a multi-bolted door. For this reason alone, high-rises fail.”

Walkability

Car dependency is another major criticism of suburbia, but the perceived pedestrian lifestyle associated with condo living is not always a guarantee. If most trips out the door require a vehicle, then your condo may be a vertical suburb.

Using any metric, Toronto is undoubtedly the epicentre of Canadian condo development. The City reported 183 high-rise buildings under construction in March 2012 greater than 10 but less than 45 storeys. But in Toronto’s South Etobicoke/Humber Bay neighbourhood, the Walk Scores (an index developed by WalkScore.com to describe a location’s relative pedestrian proximity to amenities) for the 18 condo towers proposed or under construction in the area are worse than some notoriously suburban environments surrounding the GTA. The view of Lake Ontario may be dramatic, but a lack of mixed-use and podium planning has left South Etobicoke condo residents with few places within walking distance to work or shop, which creates significant challenges to community building.

Peter Clewes, partner of Toronto-based architectsAlliance, sees condos performing a different function in community building: “Suburbs are synonymous with land consumption, energy consumption and disaggregation of land use, while condominiums look to address these root issues and in doing so give us better foundational blocks with which to develop vibrant neighbourhoods.”

“Condominiums are neighbourhoods” says Toronto City Councillor Adam Vaughan. Representing Ward 20 in downtown, home to high-density projects like Concord CityPlace, Vaughan knows a thing or two about densification. “Without care, they can and are turning into vertical suburbs.” To create successful neighbourhoods and avoid the trappings of the suburbs, high-rise condos should be developed as communities and as parts of communities, employing the lessons of Jane Jacobs at every scale.

The Importance of Podiums

Toronto may have the numbers, but Calgary may be the place to watch. Statistics Canada figures released in February 2012 indicate Calgary is Canada’s fastest growing, seventh largest and 12th densest. Coupled with Brookings Institution’s assessment that Calgary’s per capita GDP was 17thlargest of any metropolitan area in the world (and the highest in Canada) in 2011, and the prairie city’s condominium market may soon be rivalling Toronto’s.

According to SkyscraperPage.com, a Canadian website dedicated to tracking high-rise development domestically and around the world, of Calgary’s 34 currently proposed or under construction residential towers greater than 12 storeys, 29 were located in neighbourhoods with an average Walk Score greater than 75. 15 of these reside in the Beltline district (Walk Score: 89) on the southern fringe of Calgary’s downtown financial centre. With walkability projections like these, Calgary doesn’t appear to be at risk of building a wave of vertical suburbs.

In the Beltline, resident Nicholas Hon, president of Hon Towers Ltd., wants be on the leading edge of Calgary’s densification by building the city’s tallest residential building in his own backyard. At 44 storeys, The Guardian  is set to contribute 321 units to the historic neighbourhood fabric. And in homage to the area’s manufacturing and rail history, the six-storey podium will not only contain traditional commercial space, it will also house 14 live/work lofts offered to artists or other creative professionals, further complimenting the ongoing revitalization of local warehouses and factories with agencies, restaurants and other suitable commercial/retail uses. “The entrepreneurial spirit is deeply rooted in the Calgary culture,” says Hon. “[The units provide] a certain storefront function, while being affordable enough to make their business models work.”

“I think our industry needs to focus more on the podiums not only to maximize those three to five storeys which have the greatest impact, but to better integrate the towers into the communities,” says Clewes. The better the physical connection, the more improved community connection can be.

Hon, whose family has been involved with land development in Calgary for 60 years with Jager Homes Inc., is conscious of balance when building something that carries with it the word ‘tallest.’ “The Guardian may become one of the most visually prominent structures in Victoria Park, and bringing close to a thousand residents to the neighbourhood will have an obvious economic impact,” says Hon. But being part of a long-term, entertainment-focused neighbourhood plan that includes the expansion of the nearby Stampede, creation of several hotels and reincarnation of the Cowboys Casino, Hon is excited to lead the development of this bigger picture. Since The Guardian is one of only two residential towers in the area, and he hopes the infusion of new people can further energize it.

The Importance of Common Spaces

Similar to The Guardian, another high-rise neighbourhood anchor will be Clewes’ own 35-storey, 328-unit Gooderham tower, set for completion in 2012. Located in one of Toronto’s most popular summertime tourist destinations, the Distillery District, the tower provides population stability in a neighbourhood dominated by seasonal activity, while a rich suite of amenities increases community building potential within its walls.

As Chapin suggests, common features provide the “layers of personal space” necessary for resident interaction to occur. For amenities to be successful they need to be diverse and well distributed throughout the building to improve the frequency and quality of interaction.

Amenity selection for the Gooderham is thorough. At a time when condo tower amenities are starting to become standard checklists, with most developers choosing only a few to build, it appears Clewes and his Gooderham design team has selected them all. The list includes the expected pool, rooftop terrace and media room, but also the less common outdoor yoga studio, demonstration kitchen and boardroom. However, the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy is not entirely accurate in this context. “Community is not developed by form alone,” says Clewes. “In addition to the residents themselves, management companies and condo boards also play a vital role in maximizing these spaces.”

A Clean Slate

Designing one residential tower for integration into an established neighbourhood is a delicate process, but creating multiple towers and a new eight-block neighbourhood in which they would reside was the unique challenge faced by the four-firm Integrated Design Team tasked with Toronto’s Canary District plan in the West Don Lands. The end product is a 35-acre, mixed-use neighbourhood featuring market condos, affordable housing, a George Brown College student residence, a YMCA athletic and community centre and retail space at grade, and all targeting LEED Gold certification.

The first phase includes two mid-rise, mixed-use condominiums (an eight-storey south tower and 11-storey north tower) which will yield suites ranging from 405 to 1,475-sq.-ft. The towers will actually get a test run as an athletes’ village when Toronto hosts the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games before being turned over to long term residents.

Where the Canary District plan has the potential to succeed at building community is in mixing use; providing an attractive array of accessible, shared amenities; and developing the connections of each building to their surrounding environments. The design employs an extensive pedestrian network to improve neighbourhood walkability and city/parkland connections; a transparent streetscape that capitalizes on the use of glass and open corners at grade to improve sightlines and ambiance; masonry on building podiums to texturally link to the nearby Distillery District; and Jane Jacob’s tenet of ‘eyes on the street’ through building balconies that overlook thoroughfares and gathering spaces.

The Canary District is a glowing example of how high-density neighbourhoods can look and function, integrating mid-rise residential with a host of other complimentary uses. Because the condo towers are designed as neighbourhoods and intelligently linked to the surrounding neighbourhoods, the likelihood of the Canary District becoming a successful community is high.

While the opportunities to design communities with a blank slate like this are rare, especially in brownfield locations, as existing urban and suburban neighbourhoods evolve, the same principles can be applied through their regeneration.

Size Matters (…but not the way you think)

Where condos such as The Guardian, Gooderham and Canary District Phase 1 might fall short is in the provision of family-sized units. With only 16 units greater than 1,500 sq. ft. between the three developments’ 1,018 units, established suburban families will be disinclined to come back to the downtown. “A sign of a healthy neighbourhood is families can live anywhere, and I just don’t see those opportunities in the condos we are building now,” says John Sewell, former City of Toronto mayor, who suggests Toronto’s recent push to vertical is the city’s “suburbia of the future.” “Are we thinking 30 to 40 years from now? Will we see another St. James Town?” he asks, referring to one of the last times Toronto built vertically at a significant scale and speed, producing Canada’s largest high-rise community, one of North America’s most densely populated and one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.

A lot of factors are at play in the failure of St. James Town as an urban planning experiment, but one Sewell feels is being replicated in 2012 is the targeting of a homogeneous audience. In the mid 1960s, the 19-tower community was intended to appeal to young, middle class individuals seeking an urban lifestyle — a marketing push eerily similar to that of condos today. “We’re building all the same housing for the same type of people,” Sewell observes. “If we are serious about condo living we’d be constructing buildings dedicated to large, two to three bedroom units suitable for families.”

Vaughan agrees: “We need to build mixed communities that have varied unit sizes that attract individuals with varied incomes. I’m willing to bet less than one per cent of new condo units have more than two bedrooms.” Vaughan might want to move all-in on that bet, at least when looking at Calgary. Of the 34 high-rise condo towers proposed or under construction where data was available, 99 per cent of the units have two or less bedrooms. According to the most recent census data from 2006, 66 per cent of the over 400,000 dwellings in Calgary had three or more bedrooms, suggesting the new high-rise condos being proposed for the city won’t appeal to a significant portion of the housing market, further aggregating certain demographic segments in certain regions of the city — a similar by-product of suburban development.

This aggregation is concerning, but Clewes points out some financial realities: “The Canadian condo market operates on a price per square foot basis and in many cases it is not cost effective to develop three and four bedroom units; they would be really hard to sell in most urban centres right now.” He cites Toronto, where fully or semi-detached three and four bedroom houses in neighbourhoods close to downtown are still selling for less than what developers could produce equivalent condo units for. Until house prices inflate above condo costs, there likely won’t be an influx of large condos into the market. “We’re starting to see this inflation now,” says Clewes, “so I expect we will reach a tipping point soon and transition in the next five to 10 years.”

Although Clewes sees in the future a market-driven progression to condo units with more bedrooms, he feels condos don’t need to replicate the square footage of suburban homes in urban environments to be appealing. In fact, the trend to tiny has a residual benefit for community. “[Small unit sizes] force people outside. They eat more at affordable restaurants, they shop more but consume less, drive less and improve the cyclical function of life,” he says, suggesting condo towers with smaller units can lead residents to live more outside their unit walls.

Who Leads?

Vaughan is wary about letting market forces dictate the visions of future urban centres. “The market only builds for tomorrow what sold yesterday, but developers need to think long term,” he advises. “There is a second wave of condo owners coming who have kids and need bigger units. Those who build for the future instead of today can reap bigger profits.” Sewell has more faith in the private sector. “We have a very, very innovative building community,” he suggests. “Give them a simple set of rules that can’t be amended and let them be innovative.”

Referencing how the public sector has taken the lead from government on environmental sustainability practices, Sewell thinks the same can be done for solving the unit size diversification issue. “Developers care about the city. It is in their interest to create good opportunities 15 years into the future, too.”

“Municipal governments must and provincial governments can contribute to a solution,” suggests Vaughan, conceding that the current approvals process passively promotes monoculture new developments both in suburban and urban areas. “City council needs to better address the complexity of built form and not just consider its quantity.”

The Jane Jacobs Condominium

If fostering community in condominiums is the best way to prevent them from becoming vertical suburbs, then the best design consultant might be the Grandmother of Urban Planning, herself. “How would Jane Jacobs design a high rise?” wonders Chapin.

“Let’s say the issues of neighborhood connectivity, mixed-uses and human scaled streets could be solved, the hallways might have front stoops, or benches and tables. Maybe kitchens would look onto the hall commons, with children playing floor games and men playing checkers. While she couldn’t have mixed-age dwellings, she would likely want mixed sizes — studios to 3+ bedroom units — to encourage a variety of household types.”

With shared amenities as pillars of contemporary condo design, towers like the Gooderham and The Guardian being built today in viable locations are not far off the Jacobs ideal. The Canary District, with its clean start, is even closer. High-rise condominium towers reserve great potential to become our cherished communities of the future, but can also quickly devolve into vertical suburbs without the appropriate location, design or management. To realize this potential, new condos should incorporate more mixed-use and units with more bedrooms but smaller footprints, while innovative management practices need to maximize common spaces, transforming them from places to invite your existing friends to spaces to meet new ones: your neighbours.




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