Those ugly, grey, unimaginative residential apartment buildings scattered across the Greater Toronto Area are beautiful in the eyes of Graeme Stewart.
An architect with E.R.A. Architects Inc. in Toronto, Stewart has for months been talking a blue streak to anyone willing to listen about the boundless opportunities these dull, barren buildings and their surroundings provide. I caught his latest presentation before Toronto’s Pedestrian Committee at City Hall on Oct. 20.
The Toronto area contains the second largest concentration of high-rise buildings in North America. Stewart (who you’d expect to find standing next to you at a Nine Inch Nails concert and not at a City Hall meeting) will tell you the majority of these are modern concrete residential buildings, built during the City’s post-war expansion.
The Tower Renewal Project (TRP) he and his colleagues have scripted is in fact an imaginative, refreshing, and inspiring initiative. It’s designed to re-examine these buildings’ heritage, neighbourhood histories, and their future potential in a green and equitable Toronto. Among the recommendations the TRP makes with respect to rejuvenating Toronto’s estimated 1,000 tower apartment buildings are to make them environmentally-friendly. From an energy perspective, many of these apartment dwellings are more wasteful than a single-family home.
“We’re in the process of doing a regional study with the province to determine how many of these towers are in Mississauga or Hamilton, but the bulk of them are in Toronto and the inner suburbs,” Stewart said. “Because these buildings were built in the 60s, when conservation wasn’t an issue and energy was cheap; a lot of these towers have no insulation.”
Utilizing the vast green spaces that typically surround these apartment complexes and transforming them into bustling, attractive public spaces that incorporate both commercial elements and park-life character are other sound suggestions.
“These buildings were built under a specific set of ideas that had a lot of merit . . . but they’re trapped in an antiquated zoning environment,” he explained. “Nothing integrates or mixes . . . you have tonnes of space . . . how can we think about adding density, mix of use, and adding a real public realm?”
But there are challenges with this Utopian vision and they’re big ones. For starters, municipal bylaws would have to be changed to allow for growth. More onerous, most of these drab apartment towers are owned by private development companies or property management firms. Getting all of them onboard simultaneously and adhering to equal redevelopment costs and standards sounds about as easy as travelling to Mars and back.
“The biggest problem is 80 per cent of these buildings are privately owned,” he conceded. “But when you’re retrofitting a building and you’re reducing 50 per cent of its energy use you’re cutting 50 per cent of its energy costs.”
The initiative is a crowd-pleaser that cannot be denied. Ergo, Toronto established its own official Tower Renewal Office in January 2009. Project director Eleanor McAteer said the TRO is currently running four pilot projects designed to gauge what improvements should be made and at what cost to property managers.
“We have energy engineers looking at the buildings to see how these buildings specifically can be upgraded to substantially reduce their energy and water use. We also have experts in solid waste and recycling looking at how they can dramatically improve the amount of recycling they have,” she explained. “We’re also doing safety audits; audits of the community-use space and what could be changed on site to create community-use space.
“And from the perspective of someone who lives in these buildings, we’re also looking at what possible job opportunities might arrive directly and indirectly from tower renewal investment at those sites.”
The pilot projects will be completed over the winter months with final reports expected by next spring. McAteer said those reports would then be distributed to other tower property management firms across the city.
“That’s when we’ll get the practical feedback that we need (from property managers) to fully understand how to make these projects go,” she said. “They’ve (property management firms the City is working with) been extremely helpful and cooperative and interested, and that’s as much as we can ask.”