Toronto

Why the age of the 'Mayan-pyramid' tower could be coming to an end in Toronto

You see them all over Toronto: high-rise developments that look like wedding cakes or Mayan pyramids. They could soon be a thing of the past in at least one part of the city — if long-time opponents get their way at city hall.

Get rid of '45-degree angular plane' requirement, Danforth planning study recommends

Mark Richardson of Housing Now TO stands in front of a building featuring wedding cake-style architecture. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

You see them all over Toronto: high-rise developments that look like wedding cakes or Mayan pyramids. They could soon be a thing of the past in at least one part of the city — if long-time opponents get their way at city hall.

At its meeting this week, council is set to consider removing the 45-degree angular plane requirement in the Danforth neighbourhood west of Coxwell Avenue to help address the city's affordable housing crisis. It's a recommendation from the Danforth Study, a look at planning for the area from the Don Valley in the west to Victoria Park Avenue in the east — "one of the most recognizable and major avenues" in Toronto, the city's website says.

The guideline, in place for more than a decade, mandates that towers on avenues outside the core have floors steadily set back as the building rises from the street to diminish shadows on nearby single-family neighbourhoods or public space. Advocates criticize it for creating fewer, smaller units that are more expensive to build, a cost that gets passed down on the consumer.

"If we have a housing crisis, we're going to need to be willing to upset the neighbours," said Mark Richardson, the technical lead for Housing Now TO, a data and advocacy organization.

He refers to the towers as "Mayan pyramids" and "wedding cakes" and says the guidelines "were crafted with no comprehension or care for the impacts that would have on affordable housing, accessible housing, family-size units," and to placate local groups in single-family areas.

The guideline says towers on avenues outside the core should have floors steadily set back to diminish shadows on nearby properties or public space. (Paul Borkwood/Toronto)

"They were 100 per cent done to keep the neighbours and neighbouring single-family homes happy when you build multi-family housing near them."

The problem with "wedding-cake" structures is the higher the floor, the more it becomes like a custom build, which presents more work and room for error on a project, says Naama Blonder, an architect and urban planner at a Toronto firm called Smart Density.

"What makes something more complex to build makes it more expensive," she said, adding these costs end up falling on Torontonians who need a place to live. They also mean less floor space to build accessible units or larger units for families, Blonder says.

"It means that we prioritize a backyard over someone's place to call home."

'Very different challenges'

Blair Scorgie, a Toronto planner and urban designer who helped create the guidelines more than a decade ago, is now one of their biggest opponents.

"I think we face very different challenges today," he told CBC News. "Where we were primarily concerned with sunlight access, preserving sky views, maintaining privacy, we now have a housing crisis."

Ana Bailão, a deputy mayor and chair of council's planning and housing committee, says the policy was created to strike a balance, but she adds it's become clear the city needs to re-examine it because it's interfering with building more housing.

Wedding cake structures make a project more expensive while creating fewer units, says Naama Blonder, an architect and urban planner at Smart Density. (Smart Density/Submitted)

"There's a full generation that now feels they're not able to afford to live here. And I think we're going to hear from them more and more," she said. 

She supports the softening of the angular plane guidelines proposed in the Danforth Study, allowing developers to build more units in a building of the same height. There will be an eight-storey limit.

"I think that's the direction we need to start going more and more," she said.

Housing crisis 'needs to be the first priority'

But some housing advocates aren't ready to give council a gold star.

Even with the softening of the angular plane, the Danforth Study fails to foster appropriate density, something needed to ensure everyone who wants to can live within the city limits, says Eric Lombardi, the founder of More Neighbours Toronto, a group pushing for more multi-family housing in the city.

Toronto city council is considering removing the 45-degree angular plane requirement, depicted here, in half of Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Lombardi says his organization wants the angular plane guideline gone, not just on The Danforth west of Coxwell, but everywhere. And he says plenty of other rules need to go, as well.

"Toronto has tons of these rules that were created, like 10, 20 30 years ago. They didn't make sense then and definitely don't make sense now," he said.

"We are in a housing crisis and that needs to be the first priority."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.

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