Height: Adjusting to reality!

Despite my weariness with nimby* types at such events, I attended a public meeting the other night in Roncesvalles Village to consider a potential 8-storey office building. The design is striking, modern, interesting architecture, “out of character” for the neighbourhood.

“Out of character” is one of the objections easy to anticipate. Many really want their aesthetic environment to remain the same (usually within their own narrow time frame). But as one of the neighbours commented, ‘world class cities’ like London have wonderful, dramatic newer architecture amidst the urban antiquities. Of course they do. Would New Yorkers not want their Guggenheim? If we reject change, at which era should we stop evolving?

Bring it on, I say. Offices will complement the large number of residential condo developments we’ve been through in recent times. It will mean more people can walk or bike to work. We need more density, more walkability, and some new, exciting architecture amongst the old.

The first voices to speak (and one in particular) expressed the usual strong, negative sentiments, in tones that suggested confidence they were speaking for “the community”. It was the classic “nimby” message.

But, unlike all previous meetings I’ve attended, new voices spoke up for change, for progress, for newer values: mixed-use; walkability; densification, and getting people out of cars. Jane Jacobs must have been smiling in her grave. Not just one or two, but perhaps a half dozen spoke — articulate, knowledgeable, aware of the issues, and diplomatic. For once, it was exciting instead of depressing.

In the end it seemed a majority understood the need for change, regeneration, economic investment. They recognize Roncy as not just an “urban village” – but as part of a bigger picture, not an isolated precious little jewel that must be protected, as is, forever. Contrary to my negative expectation, many of the newer arrivals seem to ‘get’ that bigger picture.

At most meetings, I hear strong concerns about heavy car traffic on our neighbourhood roads. Many of those cars are out specifically because of poor walkability – a byproduct of density and ‘mixed-use’ development. The objectors imagine that building eight floors of offices will increase the car traffic. On the contrary, it is more likely to increase the proportion of people who can bike or walk to work – or take the streetcar right to the door. This we need.

The height of buildings is another big issue locally. As an urbanite to the core, I have no problem with height, per se. Height, like “beauty”, is a relative thing. Development can happen only two ways: vertically or horizontally. When the property or footprint is small, the building must be higher.   Development is unprofitable otherwise. And if we don’t want to keep covering green spaces, then we need to ‘go up’. A height of eight stories is not, after all, a skyscraper.

The neighbourhood objected strenuously to height in the case of Turner & Porter’s redevelopment, so now a different developer will construct a shorter building instead – but with a bigger footprint. The profitability of such projects is, after all, fairly straightforward arithmetic.

When we contemplate the bigger picture – 50-100,000 new residents a year arriving in Toronto – the logical direction of most development should be high, mixed-use, and preferably ‘green’. There simply isn’t space to expand horizontally, and expand we must.

We need to stop judging proposals on the self-centered basis of what we want to see when we look out our own window. Solving bigger-picture problems is also in our own interest. We also need to keep reminding ourselves there’s a bigger historical event taking place out there – the urbanization of the human race. They have to go somewhere, and that somewhere is up.

If we find it too overwhelming to think of the big picture, surely we can at least think about those newcomers we need, and our own next generation.   If we don’t develop a lot more density, they will not be able to afford Toronto at all, let alone our beloved neighbourhood – unless we can all leave them a sizeable inheritance!


* “not in my back yard”

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Posted in affordable housing, densification, Roncesvalles Village, sustainability, urban life, walkability | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments