Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

For new condo buildings, forget about height – focus on design

A condominium under construction is shown in Toronto on Saturday, February 4, 2012.
A condominium under construction is shown in Toronto on Saturday, February 4, 2012.

In my growing neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, applications for new condo buildings are almost as numerous as the raccoons. And with each new “coming soon” sign comes the same question from many of my neighbours: how tall is it?

The height of these proposed buildings is almost always the start of the conversation. Sometimes it’s the entire conversation. Over the last few years, I’ve watched community groups in the Beach and Queen & Ossington neighbourhoods head to the barricades to oppose six-storey buildings.

This squabble over height between community groups and developers is frustrating. Because here’s the thing: height doesn’t really matter that much.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no difference between an eight-storey mid-rise building and an 80-storey behemoth. Obviously there is. But, standing on the street, is there really a noticeable difference between, say, a six-storey building and a ten-storey building, or a 24-storey building and a 28-storey building?

I don’t believe there is.

But badly-designed buildings – the boring ones that look out-of-place — are easy to spot, regardless of height. If residents really wanted to make sure new buildings work to improve their neighbourhoods, they would worry way less about height and way more about design.

It’s a necessary shift, because Toronto has a design problem.

It’s hard to disagree. Too many of the city’s new buildings come from the dull glass box school of architecture.

Changing that means breaking neighbourhood obsession with height and focusing more on quality architecture. It also means accepting and encouraging riskier design – like buildings with colours that aren’t grey.

This focus on design shouldn’t end with the aesthetics, either. It’s about functionality too. Residents should be considering how the proposals will affect urban life.

Look at things like the width of the sidewalks adjacent to the building. Look at whether there’s a provision for tree planting, and whether there’s room for tree roots to grow. Look at whether there’s plans for public space on the property. (And then make real sure that space stays public.)

And look especially at the design for retail spaces. So many buildings are constructed with small, low-ceiling, limited-access retail units that can only realistically accommodate nail salons, dental offices and, if you’re lucky, a Subway sandwich franchise.

These design considerations are among the most important factors for new buildings, but I worry they are too often lost over the furor over the number of storeys. For a more functional and less bland city, forget about height — design should be on top.

This post was originally published at on 2016-08-22T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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