Tag Archives: rise developments
City planners talk up the benefits of low-slung buildings, but developers say red tape and high costs are working against them
By Kathy Flaxman – Globe and Mail
Until recently Richmond Hill’s charming Yonge Street thoroughfare was marred by the presence of a derelict strip club, housed in a pink-painted building with a large parking lot.
Today in its place stands a mid-rise condominium project that is among the jewels in the Ontario town’s crown. With 104 suites, four storeys stepping up to seven, it boasts a street-level courtyard and burgeoning commercial space now coming to life as businesses move in.
“This is a fine example of a mid-rise development,” says Patrick Lee, director of planning policy for the town. “It fits in very well with the context of Richmond Hill.”
Kelvin Kwan, director of development planning for the town, adds, “A mid-rise project like this that is terraced and takes design cues from the neighbourhood is a good addition to the community. Having commercial space at ground level helps to animate the street.”
Yet developers in Ontario can face significant hurdles when it comes to planning mid-rise buildings. Replace a strip club? Great, but the planning and approval process may still take years and send developers to municipal regulatory bodies for approval.
Human in scale, mid-rise buildings offer an alternative to forbidding phalanxes of high-rise towers that can block the sun and feel overwhelming. They are also an alternative to the urban sprawl of single-family subdivisions. There is no hard and fast definition, but usually a project between four and eight storeys, which may or may not include commercial space at grade, is considered mid-rise.
Before shovels hit the dirt, though, there’s the application process and zoning issues to contend with. Developers often complain that these processes are unnecessarily cumbersome and that rather than facing clear-cut guidelines, they must take on each project as a completely fresh start.
Their dilemma was given an airing at a recent Canadian Urban Institute symposium on the challenges of mid-rise development, attended by planning experts, architects and developers.
Steve Upton, vice-president of development and planning for Tridel, developers of the Renaissance, Richmond Hill’s mid-rise property, recalls the period of consultation and negotiation that went into the project, which started close to four years ago.
“We thought that since we were removing what we saw as a tremendous eyesore, things might go smoothly,” he says. But there were issues with the historic nature of the town, sightlines, the older buildings and churches and later on with access to water and sewage services.
“It is important to respect the needs, values and desires of local communities, but it is also important to note that a lengthy approval process stretched over several years takes time, energy and money,” Mr. Upton points out. And all those costs have to be reflected in the final price for mid-rise. The smallest suites at the Renaissance start at $420,000.
For developers, the challenge of building mid-rise is to conform to the provincial building code yet remain economically feasible. The Ontario Building Code stipulates concrete construction for buildings of more than four storeys. This adds about $100 per square foot to the construction cost.
Builders must meet requirements for elevators, wheelchair-accessible ramps and parking. Underground parking can cost as much as $30,000 a space.
Mid-rise developments cost the same to build as high-rises, using the same methods and materials, but they lack the extra floors – from say, nine storeys to 20 – that make up the gravy, or profit, for developers. The difficulties in coming out with an acceptable profit mean that developers are not as enthusiastic about mid-rise. “Buildings that are terraced back and have different angles are more inefficient to build,” Mr. Upton adds. “When you build straight up there are efficiencies that you tend to lose in mid-rise. Plus, in a high-rise, the upper floors sell for more per square foot than the floors nearer grade.”
The population of the Greater Toronto Area is expected to grow by up to a million people in the next 30 years, says Lorna Day, program manager, urban design, City of Toronto. They’ll have to live somewhere, not to mention shop and work.
Toronto’s ambitious Avenues and Mid-rise Buildings Study aims to expedite and encourage more and better designed mid-rise buildings in Toronto. The study is a major undertaking to encourage higher-density population in an attractive, planned way, and that utilizes existing and planned resources such as public transit.
Having consistent zoning, possibly pre-arranged and even a building code dedicated to mid-rise, is seen as very desirable. These measures would reduce hassles and costs and increase the popularity of mid-rise, and bring closer the vision of the Avenues study.
Changes are already happening elsewhere. In April of this year, British Columbia changed its building code to allow wood-frame construction on projects up to six storeys, saving that $100 per square foot.
Jeff Fisher, deputy executive director of B.C.’s Urban Development Institute, knows of two mid-rise projects that started in Vancouver as a result. “The code change was the result of a process that included studies and reviews by a number of stakeholders,” he says.
Malcom Freeman of Freeman Mason Architect and Engineers in Toronto says that in Europe, experiments are being conducted for wood-frame construction for up to nine storeys. “They are looking at everything including fire codes,” he says.
“I’d like to see the application process streamlined,” says Anne McIlroy of urban design firm Brook McIlroy Inc. “If there is a way to harmonize building codes across jurisdictions, that could be a good idea. The solution to encouraging more mid-rise development is going to lie in a number of large and small initiatives.”
Michael Collins-Williams, director of policy for the Ontario Homebuilders’ Association, says the planning process itself and working with local politicians can be roadblocks. “The community consultation process can go on and on. Some communities feel as if they have a veto and politicians will sometimes act to save votes rather than support a project that is a sustainable solution and will support pedestrian development.”
And yet, the projects are often welcomed with open arms upon completion.
“One thing I have noticed,” Ms. Day points out, “is that when these mid-rise projects are built, the very people that came out to meetings to oppose them are the ones who actually end up buying units and moving in. They see the value in staying in their own neighbourhood when they are ready to change to a lifestyle that doesn’t include shovelling snow.”
MAKING MID-RISES SOAR
Developers say it can be tough to make mid-rise buildings stack up profitably, and that high-rises offer economies of scale. Gary Goldman of Stafford Developments, however, has a portfolio of innovative, profitable projects of which he’s proud. Here are two ways he holds down costs.
Eliminate elevators: By building stacked housing, two storeys per unit on top of each other, Mr. Stafford has been able to market affordable mid-rise homes thanks to the cost savings of walk-ups.
Skip the amenities or put them outside: Workout rooms, indoor pools and the like are expensive to build and maintain. If they are eliminated, huge cost savings are possible. Developers can consider outside amenities such as seasonal swimming pools or tennis courts. Residents can always join a private fitness club instead.
The acquisition of Number One Bloor by Tuscany Ridge Developments Inc. – an affiliate of Toronto-based Great Gulf Group of Companies – is now official, paving the way for Toronto’s most prestigious address to soon boast a new landmark building.
“We are very excited that we are able to bring our expertise in developing iconic structures encompassing the highest standards of design to this superb location,” said Jerry Patava, President and CEO of Great Gulf.
At the heart of Bloor-Yorkville’s upscale shops, fine dining and entertainment district, Number One Bloor will be a mixed use project consisting of luxury condominium residences anchored by high-end retail uses at street level. Further details regarding this exciting development from one of the industry’s most trusted builders will be released this fall, as they become available.
Great Gulf Group is a fully integrated real estate organization with an established history of creating distinctive communities in the GTA and beyond. High-rise developments of note include 18 Yorkville, the “X” condos (Charles at Jarvis) and “Charlie” (King Street West at Spadina).
About Great Gulf Group of Companies
The Great Gulf Group (www.greatgulfhomes.com/ggg/index.html) includes Great Gulf Homes, Great Gulf Condominiums, First Gulf, Ashton Woods Homes, and Taboo Resort. Since 1975, Great Gulf Homes has been building residential communities that offer privacy, prestige and richly rewarding lifestyles. The company’s award-winning homes are designed to provide lasting beauty and value.
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