Supertalls: Super complicated and super interesting, their sheer presence is a statement in itself.
Supertall residential buildings bring housing density to a relatively small footprint, but present enormous challenges for all that ambition -- financing trouble, architectural and engineering feats, sky-high maintenance costs. Verticalizing cities is by no means an easy way out.
“I think, in the midst of a housing crisis, when you have the opportunity to build housing in a way that doesn’t sprawl out into our greenery, it is not a bad thing,” says Councillor Robin Buxton-Potts. She’s interim councillor for Ward 13 Toronto Centre, where the 95-storey Concord Sky project is landing at Yonge and Gerrard.
“We need to be looking at how we fit more people onto a smaller ecological footprint, and so I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with building up,” she says. “It needs to be done in ways that creates complete communities. And it needs to be safe.”
At nearly 300 metres, Concord Sky will be among the tallest in Toronto when it’s done. But this lofty title wasn’t earned on its first try -- original developer Cresford was forced to abandon the project last year before Concord Adex picked it up and resumed construction.
“You’re building a project that costs a billion dollars. Imagine what the financial cost is every passing month, the kind of financing costs,” Concord Vice-President of Marketing Isaac Chan said earlier this year. “[The original developers] were getting into a financial situation where they weren’t able to continue and if anything, that kind of sets the tone for some of these sites.”
Urban planning experts don’t exactly love towers, either. In its Density Done Right report, the City Building Institute explores the “Limits of Tall”: typically smaller units, burdened infrastructure, and lack of appropriate services or green space to match the population boom. Distributed density -- more variety in ground-based housing -- is the favoured child.
Peter Smith, partner at planning firm Bousfields, agrees that gentler and mid-rise density creates healthy, robust communities and Toronto needs more of them -- but supertall residential buildings absolutely make fascinating contributions to the core.
Bousfields has worked on most of the very tall buildings in the city, Smith says, whether “supertall” is defined as more than 250 or 300 metres. And Smith personally worked on the “visionary” Pinnacle One Yonge and Frank Gehry’s “homecoming masterpiece” Forma on King West.
“They are iconic buildings -- and that term ‘iconic buildings’ is sometimes overstated,” he says of the Gehry towers. “But they’ve been designed in a way that responds to the fact they are special buildings on the skyline. And there’s a contribution made to the identity of the city and the structure of the skyline. [Once completed] I hope that everybody looks at them and sees the responsibility of being a defining element -- not just simply being a typical glass box -- and that they’ve done something special.”
The engineering and architectural feats are immense -- from stability and minimizing sway, to vertical human highways that send residents soaring up 90-plus storeys. Once a building surpasses 50 or 60 storeys, Smith says, the game changes. That’s when an ordinary project becomes an extraordinary one.
“Once you get into those types of heights, and particularly with some of the very slender buildings, there are greater structural challenges,” he says. “The elevator cores start to take up so much of the building floor plate, there isn’t a lot of additional room beyond the elevator cores to actually accommodate the residential units themselves. Some of the buildings have to have these fairly intricate ballast systems at the top of the building in order to be able to minimize the sway.”
Of the unique challenges and their ingenious solutions, Smith says: “I may be a little bit too much of an architectural geek, but I think it’s brilliant.”
"An Opportunity to Really Rethink"
Community acceptance isn’t as hard as you might assume. Supertalls spring up in areas around other tall towers, Smith points out, so it’s not necessarily a shock to the locals. He says 25 storeys in Etobicoke or Scarborough could face stronger NIMBYism -- if the local context is mostly detached homes, a new tower can seem more threatening to the neighbourhood’s character.
“The super controversial [projects] have actually tended to be with buildings that are less tall,” Smith says, “but in a context where even any amount of height was very different than what has existed historically.”
Buxton-Potts wasn’t city councillor during the Concord Sky approval process but notes the usual issues were in play -- car and sidewalk traffic, shadows and transit usage.
“I think if you spend any time listening to Community Council, you’d hear the same concerns about six-storey buildings,” she says.
But big developments can create big opportunities. The new tower makes a good case for Yonge Street projects such as widening sidewalks and reducing vehicle footprints, Buxton-Potts says, and she hopes the retail addition can include a variety of shops and services for the local community.
“I think there’s an opportunity to really rethink what our what our street-level retail plan looks like,” she says. “The city can’t dictate what kinds of retail goes in. So I would like to see more support for small family-owned businesses -- as opposed to continuing to see some of the larger chain restaurants or cannabis stores -- to help maintain a really interesting public realm. I think some of that can be done through smaller retail footprints, rather than having these big box spaces, if you actually divide up the retail spaces into smaller units, it helps with affordability.”
"Completely Redefining That Area"
Pinnacle One Yonge was a bit different than Bousfields’ other supertall projects, Smith says. When they first started work on the proposal, there wasn't a lot of development east of Yonge, between the waterfront and the Gardiner.
“That development is sort of defining -- or creating -- an urban area down there. Most of it was surface parking,” Smith says. “And so that’s been an interesting project -- architecture, again, has been a big part of it, and community services and facilities that are being provided as part of that project are a big, big part of it. And that all sort of works together with Sugar Wharf, the Menkes development, on the former LCBO lands. Together with the Pinnacle One Yonge development, it’s obviously completely redefining that area.”
The Quayside waterfront development -- touted as contributing to the “economic and social recovery of Toronto” -- continues this stretch of explosive growth along the lake. Even Toronto’s Gen Z youth will find the area unrecognizable before they’re 30.
“That whole portion of the waterfront is really going to be transformed over the next number of years,” Smith says. “I don’t know if there are any great lessons out of all of that -- I think lots of important little lessons. Probably more than anything else, great architecture -- and make sure you get the portion of the building as it relates to the surrounding streets and public realm right.”
Unlike some of Europe’s great cities, North American urban cores have a tradition of towers, Smith says. As housing availability and affordability continues to be a complex issue in Toronto -- and a completely critical one -- intelligent intensification has many components. But supertalls have earned their place in the mix, he says.
“I mean, I’m not a marketing person, and I sometimes feel the term ‘world-class city’ is overused,” he says. “But I think they do add prestige. And I do think that’s part of -- certainly not only -- but part of Toronto’s appeal to North America and the world.”