Go Gardiner Go

As in "please fall down". I can't spare the hours to retell this tale from the beginning, but the Toronto Sun does a surprisingly good job of summarizing the current situation regarding Toronto's unloved waterfront elevated expressway. Not bad writing on long-term planning and case studies for a tabloid that usually loves cars and whatever cheap thrills are at hand.

Tear that sucker down and all of a sudden Toronto really is a world-class city. Seriously.


O Happy Day

I've waited a long, long time for this... a new large office tower for downtown Toronto. And even better, there may be more coming.

This site is just behind the excellent Simcoe Place tower and has been awaiting development ever since the construction of that Tower. There is already a PATH connnection planned.

This new tower is going to continue to shift the skyline to the west, something that was already happening with the CityPlace condos. The CN Tower was once well to the west of the downtown skyline -- now it looks well-integrated.

This is all being done without the kind of financial giveaways that are used in places like New York to entice commercial development. That's good, but I still think more should be done to incentivize large towers that will keep office jobs downtown, where they belong. Times are good; now is the time to build so that when the next downturn arrives firms won't flee to Mississagua.



A simply excellent essay about past trends in dense city building, aka Manhattanism, as compared to new trends in dense city building, aka Vancouverism. Interesting collision of random factors that pushed Vancouver to the fore, but I agree that they hit on something that is now referred to across North America as "Vancouver-style". I don't agree with some of the specifics, but the overall posit that Vancouver is leading the way for 21st century cities is a viable one.

A quick review of what sets Vancouver apart. Concocted instantly in the late 1870s as a land promotion scheme for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Vancouver is the continent’s youngest major city – younger than Seattle and Denver, even Phoenix and Calgary. Always a place of innovation in urban planning and housing design, Vancouver has seen its downtown population double in the past 15 years. The continent’s youngest major city with its highest residential density? – iron rule number one of North American urbanism broken.

Broken rule two is just as important. Vancouver is the only major city in North America without a single freeway within its boundaries. Citizen activism in the late 1960s saved Gastown and Chinatown by stopping a roadway with the Orwellian name of the “East Downtown Penetrator,” followed by significant investment in elevated rail public transit.

Rule three is that Vancouver’s current planning decisions are almost entirely insulated from interference by city councilors and mayor. This does not mean unbridled power for planners (land use policy remains politically accountable), but it does allow for decisions in the long-term interest of the city to often prevail over the short-term needs of getting re-elected. Born of our geographic situation wedged between mountains and sea, Vancouver has had a historical legacy of relatively high-density living, taken to new heights by a political culture in which more people per block is thought to be a positive nearly as often as often as a negative.

Rule four has to do with one of the urban forces most difficult to discuss: race. While having immigrant and non-white population ratios comparable to New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, Vancouver has escaped many of the striations and frictions that come with neighborhoods sorted by ethnicity. The shame of our city is not a racial ghetto, but a chemical one: indeed, the Downtown Eastside is one of Vancouver’s most multi-cultural, multi-racial neighborhoods, one linked by a culture and economy of drug dependency. The Downtown Eastside’s tragedy may well have been exaggerated by urban planning policies that have concentrated social housing and front-line poverty agencies in this district as densely as condo towers are concentrated only six or 10 blocks to the west.

Rule five has to do with the role that developers have in providing the social, cultural, and recreation infrastructure in new and renewed neighborhoods. For nearly 20 years, Vancouver has used a form of social bonus zoning, in which extra density in housing developments is granted in return for such public amenities as cultural facilities, parks, schools, and social housing. After resisting it at first, our development industry likes the current system, one where density is traded for a better public realm, because they find such investments increase the value of their projects.

Read more at ArchNewsNow.


Arty Condos III

Well, that didn't take long.... another win for Team Academic Starchitect!


Arty Condos II

The crystal ball strikes again -- no sooner do I comment on the trend in collectible academic architecture than The New York Times echoes me in an article on a new project in Vegas:

It also reflects a growing consciousness among developers that many people want to live in high-profile buildings.

"Buyers love that," said Bobby Baldwin, chief executive officer of Mirage Resorts. "They love the fact that they're living in a Rafael Viñoly building."

In New York, for example, the architects Richard Meier, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Charles Gwathmey, Santiago Calatrava and Enrique Norten have recently added their designs to the skyline.

Ah yes, Steven Holl and Enrique Norten. Should have mentioned them yesterday as well. Neither has ever done a condo (in the US) , but it can only be a matter of time. Actually, I think Enrique has a few on the drawing boards...


Arty Condos

In Manhattan, where condos regularly cost well over $1000 per square foot, the marketing evolution of using starchitect power has long moved on to the super-starchitect. As of a couple years ago, it was no longer enough to get a fancy condo design by a top firm like Richard Cook or even the better-known Michael Graves. You had to up the ante and get the celebrity power of a supername better known for their museums or institutional work -- Gehry, Libeskind, Meier, Gwathemy, Foster et. al. Someone even trotted out a bland looking glass building and claimed it to be the last design of the late Philip Johnson. And we've all heard about the stunning townhomes-in-the-sky scheme by Calatrava.

This trend has been well documented in various media articles over the last year. What I see now is the next stage -- desperate developers uncovering obscure academic architects whose lack of built projects makes their condos all the more desirable as collectibles. "Now that everyone has a Gehry, let's collect someone new!".

This is best exemplified in New York by a new, very expensive condo on the Lower East Side (!) called Blue. The design is by Bernard Tschumi, who has never, ever done a condo before. He has done some great work (like the Columbia student center) and is well known in the chain-smoking, black-turtleneck design crowd, but a sixteen storey condo? Wow.

Can lofts by Rem Koolhaus, townhomes by Zaha Hadid or condo slabs by Diller + Scofidio be far behind?


Stadium Coin Toss

After a ridiculous saga of back and forth stadium games that undermined faith in the ability of Toronto to actually plan and build any kind of important big city-building project, the famous soccer stadium is back for one last kick at the can.

Site selection is down to two: Downsview Park or the Canadian National Exhibition. According to news reports over the last few days, the Canadian Soccer Association is now favouring the Downsview site. Apparently the mighty Maple Leafs are also involved, because they now want an MLS team for Toronto.

The furor over which site is more appropriate is an excellent debate for urban planners and architects. Let us examine the strengths and weaknesses of each site:

Below are two satellite images (thanks, Google) of the sites at the same scale. Exact stadium position (*) is not known but estimated using past history as a guide.

DOWNSVIEW PARK: This is either the future heart of the city or a colossally screwed-up lost opportunity, depending on how you look at it. A large site in the northern centre of the city was preserved for future park use when an airbase was closed. A subway station (the current end of the line) was built in the 1990s on the corner of the site. However, the surrounding area is mostly single-family residential with 6-lane arterial roads clogged with strip malls and light industry. The truncated Allen Expressway runs along one side. Central Park West it is not. However, the area will densify over time, and in this spirit an ambitious plan was launched after a top-notch international design competition in 1999. That plan has been horribly underfunded (thanks, Canada!) so nothing much has actually happened other than selling off chunks of the park to big-box development to cover costs while using the barren open spaces to host the odd mega-crowd event like papal visits or SARS-stock. The idiots in charge don't seem to realize that you can't make an uban oasis without spending money to actually build something lush and interesting, and you certainly can't do it when your Great Lawn-type spaces overlook a Home Depot parking lot.

PRO: Given the above mess, the site might actually do well with a soccer stadium. Something has to kick-start the further construction of the park, and there is a small chance that a stadium could do it. This is probably why the federal government prefers the Downsview site.

Also, soccer has broad suburban and city appeal, and this site sits on the fringe of both. Suburbanites will have an easy time driving on one of the many nearby highways to the site, and soccer-loving city residents (a high proportion of them recent immigrants) can commute via subway.

Architects wooed by the landmarking and ego-busting possibilities of the site may jump at the chance to do a stadium on a tabula rasa. After all, Munich seems to like their new showpiece-in-the-park. But is the designer and budget already set?

CON: The catalyst factor is a big if -- what Canadian construction project has ever included much landscaping in its design? A cheap stadium surrounded by parking lots would kill, not help, Downsview Park. If you have ever been to Flushing Meadows in Queens you have seen a great site ruined by the disastrous surrounding of the park in stadium parking lots and expressways.

The site surroundings may take decades to urbanize to the point where this is an attractive community. It is currently too suburban to support the kind of sports infrastructure -- bars, t-shirt shops, restaurants -- that make going to the game a fun experience that involves more than parking the car.

And, subway station aside, most fans are going to come by car. Where will all those cars park?

THE CNE: The Ex grounds are a legacy of Toronto's annual summer fair, the CNE, which are still in use today both for the fair and for a variety of other uses. The 1 m sq ft National Trade Centre dominates the eastern part of the site today and is heavily used for conventions. There is also a new minor-league hockey arena at the east end. For decades the old Exhibition Stadium held 40,000+ for football and baseball. The western part of the fairgrounds house permanent exhibition buildings that range in age from 50 to 100 years old, some used year round for restaurants, consumer shows, and a hall of fame. The overall feeling is a little confused, not quite as historical and green as it could have been, and a little messy with all of the scattered parking lots. The closest parallel would be the more cohesive Seattle Center. The lakefront expressway borders the site, and there is a substantial transit station for the commuter rail and two streetcar lines. The subway is not nearby and requires transfer to the streetcar or bus.

PRO: What worked for the CFL, MLB and the AHL should work for MLS. Highway access is good, parking is ample, and there although there is no direct subway access the location is central and tied into other downtown transit modes.

The Toronto mayor favours the CNE site.

Building a stadium on the grounds would also be a good catalyst for fixing the hole left by old Exhibition Stadium. New landscaping, new architecture, new energy.

Other stadium uses -- and there will be many, from festivals to concerts to one-off sports events -- would be much easier to run and more appealing to the audience if in a central location and not in the suburbs.

Most importantly, the Ex is just outside of the downtown core, with a view of the skyline and lakefront energy. How can you quantify that?

CON: Toronto in the last few decades has turned (famously) into "Vienna surrounded by Atlanta". With the distribution of middle-class soccer fans across a huge area, transit is not so important as most will now be coming by car from suburbs 45 minutes away and not simply trying to take a crosstown streetcar. To drive through city traffic to get to a game will deter many of them. The haute downtown condo crowd is unlikely to attend a soccer match, no matter how convenient. On this practical basis alone, Downsview is more accessible to the people likely to attend games.

The CNE is also capable of better placemaking, and it took years to get rid of hulking Exhibition Stadium. There may yet be a better use for such a prime site -- more exhibition halls, like Frankfurt, or more urban green space, or an attraction like an aquarium (also under consideration).

Finally, one reason the Ex was abandoned in the first place was the terrible wind and cold blowing off of Lake Ontario. (This could possibly be mitigated through clever stadium design.)

CONCLUSION: I was firmly against a stadium at the god-awful campus of York University when that site was first proposed. Downsview is better because of the subway and the chance to save/renew the park. The odds of attracting Joe Newmarket to a game there are also better. But I can't abandon my philosphy of putting public-image public-spaces downtown, where the symbology of the city identity is paramount and where there is the greatest chance of creating, and benefiting from, an overlapping infrastructure of the urban environment. The CNE is not ideal -- it's a fairground, not an urban street, and as deviod of bars and shops and pedestrians as the suburbs. But at least you can get a decent coffee a short distance from the main gates. Keep the centre of the city in the historic centre, rebuild and densify the CNE to be the best urban fairground site in North America, and put the stadium on the lake where it belongs.