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Unlocking the Potential in Toronto's Suburban Highrises

The Tower Renewal project combines green retrofits with an ambitious rezoning plan. Will it be enough?

Suburban residential towers play a critical role in housing Toronto's low-income immigrants. (ERA Architects)

Between 1950 and 1980, the population of Toronto tripled, from 1 million people to 3 million. To house all those newcomers, hundreds of isolated, suburban residential towers were constructed.

Perhaps the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who moved to Toronto in 1968, found the proliferation of suburban highrises in her adopted home discouraging. But the inventor Buckminster Fuller was impressed, referring to them that same year as “a type of high-density suburban development far more progressive and able to deal with the future than the endless sprawl of the U.S.”

Mid-20th century promotional material for Thornecliffe Park in suburban Toronto. (Courtesy ERA Architects)

Still, by the late 1970s, car-dependent neighborhoods had started to fall out of fashion in Toronto. As developers looked to build yet more housing for a mobile, upper-middle class that wanted a more Jacobian set of assets (walkable, mixed-use, and transit-friendly), older towers emptied out and filled back up with low-income immigrants.

“This housing was ready and on the market at the same time that immigration was highly liberalized,” says the architect Graeme Stewart. “Floods and floods of people from around the world were coming to Toronto and there were hundreds of thousands of units that were relatively affordable, mid-market housing.”

Today, Toronto is home to nearly 6 million people, and its half century-old suburban highrises, built for a previous era, have long since begun to show their age. That’s where Stewart and the city’s Tower Renewal program come in.

Many of these towers now reside within official city limits after the amalgamation of Toronto with its suburbs, including York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough, in 1998. After years of site research and planning by Stewart and his firm, ERA, the city has begun to preserve and improve Toronto’s residential towers.

“This housing was never imagined to serve as newcomer settlement housing,” says Stewart.

Since 2011, Tower Renewal has focused on 1,200 residential highrise buildings built between 1945 and 1984. Together, they house a whopping 500,000 people, many of whom are low-income minorities living in buildings with outdated infrastructure and in neighborhoods with inadequate access to essential services.

About 90 percent of these buildings, Stewart estimates, are privately owned and operated. The improvements so far have been modest.

“The low-hanging fruit has been largely picked,” says Daryl Chong, president and CEO of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association, which represents building owners and property managers. “Those would be the energy efficiency issues that Tower Renewal pointed out from the early get-go.”

Financial assistance from the city helps landlords modernize their buildings. But, as Chong points out, “some of the more capital-intensive ones are difficult to fund.”

Perhaps the biggest potential lies, however, in rezoning. Thanks to the widespread application of single-use zoning, commercial activity in and around the majority of these towers has either been non-existent or operating illegally until now.

Powers of Towers, a profile of Graeme Stewart and Sabina Ali, from Spacing Magazine on Vimeo.

Take, for example, Thorncliffe Park, developed in the 1960s as a picturesque, affordable community for 12,000 people. Today, it’s home to 30,000 residents in the very same towers—many of them immigrants from South Asia. “It’s just people cramming into apartments,” says Stewart.

With that many people living in a relatively small area, Sabina Ali looked around her and wondered why there was so little street life in her community. So Ali, a Thorncliffe resident and member of its Women’s Committee, started a neighborhood market in 2009. The permitting process for a simple weekly bazaar wasn’t easy, but when it finally launched the market was an immediate success. Huge crowds were proof of just how much pent-up demand existed for more activities and commerce in tower neighborhoods.

Ali received the 2014 Jane Jacobs Prize, which goes to individuals “who contribute to the fabric of Toronto life in unique ways that exemplify the ideas” of its namesake. For his work on the Tower Renewal project, Stewart received the same award.

(ERA Architects)

Since then, the city has rezoned 499 sites to encourage small-scale commercial and community uses in and around the ground floors of towers. When the rezoning is fully implemented later this year, it will allow things such as small shops, food markets, cafes, and community centers to open, adding street life as well as entrepreneurial opportunities in neighborhoods crying out for both.

“People [that live in these towers] have brought their families halfway around the world for better economic opportunity,” says Stewart. “There’s nobody better to invest in, in terms of those people becoming economic agents.”

(City of Toronto)

Unlike the growth patterns that led to the kinds of buildings Stewart is trying to protect, Toronto’s newest towers are often found in dense areas. “You can look at a map and say, ‘where most of these [old] apartment towers are, there’s poor transit and high poverty. Where the condo boom is, there’s good transit and wealthy neighborhoods,’” says the architect.

Too many Torontonians who need better access to stores, services, and jobs can’t afford the housing that exists in such ritzy areas. So a full-scale reimagining of the suburban tower neighborhood has to happen. And soon.

“For 20 years, it’s been this process of managed decline and it’s hitting the point where it just isn’t working,” says Stewart. “If we keep on going as we’re going, we’re going to be in trouble.”

This story is part of the Highrise Report, in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. CityLab is proud to host the U.S. premiere of “Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise,” the final interactive documentary to come out of the HIGHRISE project, produced by the NFB.

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