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Skyscrapers make the city stand taller

Toronto may finally be getting over its irrational fear of heights

Marcus Gee
Globe and Mail
April 24, 2010

Yesterday, Mayor David Miller was on hand for the ceremonial ground-breaking of the tallest residential building in Canada. The 75-storey, 243-metre-high Aura condominium will be a dramatic addition to the city skyline, a blade-like glass-and-steel skyscraper that is the final stage of the College Park complex at College and Yonge. With 931 units and 1.1 million square feet of living space, it is the King Kong of condos, boasting more residential footage than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building.

Aura is a sign that Toronto is getting over its fear of heights. New office and condominium towers are popping up downtown like mushrooms after a summer rain. The Shangri-La hotel and condo on University Avenue will rise 66 storeys; architect Daniel Libeskind’s L Tower on the Esplanade, 57 storeys. The Ice condos down by the waterfront will comprise two towers of 65 and 55 storeys.

By 2014, Toronto could have close to 100 buildings over 400 feet tall, nearly double the number of a decade earlier. City councillor Kyle Rae says this city has become the “Manhattan of Canada,” a comparison that would have seemed absurd even a few years ago. For a city that used to quiver and squirm whenever a developer threatened to put up a skyscraper outside the financial district, it is a startling change.

Back in the 1970s, worries about congestion and overbuilding led Mayor David Crombie to slap a 40-foot height limit on downtown buildings. In the early 2000s, the city was consumed by a debate over the Minto project, a high-rise condo opposed by neighbouring homeowners. A couple of years later, developer Harry Stinson was forced to cancel plans for the spectacular, 90-storey Sapphire Tower on Temperance Street. It seemed too tall, too big, too flashy.

All that seems dated now. Though neighbours still complain about shadow impacts, traffic congestion and other often-imaginary problems with proposed tall buildings, Torontonians are coming to accept the merits of building into the heavens.

The thicket of downtown high-rises fits perfectly with the drive to promote urban “intensification,” planner-speak for packing people more closely together to save energy and counteract urban sprawl. The Aura project is right on the Yonge subway line, so thousands of people will be able to get around without their cars. It will bring new life to the tatty corner of Yonge and Gerrard and kick-start revitalization of the crummy Yonge Street strip.

Even so, the city at first failed to see Aura’s aura. The site was zoned for just 36 storeys and planners bridled at the notion of more than doubling that. When a City of Toronto planner first discussed Aura with Mr. Rae, a champion of urban density and downtown living, she called it a disgrace. “I turned to her and said, ‘Is that a planning term?’ and it deteriorated from there.”

But the city soon realized it was on thin ice if it hoped to oppose Aura. Both Toronto’s official plan and Ontario’s smart growth policies call for increasing density around nodes such as Yonge and College.

To ease the city’s concerns, developer Michael La Brier agreed to set up a five-member panel with leading U.S. and local architects to review the tower’s design. The result is a sleek and handsome building that will cost about half a billion dollars. The tower will stand on a three-storey granite-and-glass podium with high-end stores such as Bed, Bath and Beyond. More than 97 per cent of the condos have been pre-sold, says Mr. La Brier, though if you have $17.5-million in your pocket, there is still a penthouse available.

That a developer can charge such a sum for a condo in Toronto is a sign of confidence in the city and its vibrant downtown. Aura was financed in the midst of the world financial crisis and more than 85 per cent of the units were sold within six weeks, sight unseen.

The building’s dramatic height is a draw, not a drawback. Mr. La Brier’s remembers the fuss when College Park’s early phases went up, with towers of 45 and 51 storeys. “In those days, 51 storeys was as scary as 75 is today.”

With Aura’s unabashed embrace of height, the city has moved on. If we can get over our fear of 75 storeys, why not 80 or 90 or even 100? In this new vertical city, the sky is the limit.

Posted on Monday, April 26, 2010 at 05:13PM by Registered CommenterElaine in | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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