Stay Connected and Engaged: Upcoming ULI Webinars
Stay Connected and Engaged: Upcoming ULI Webinars
On Friday, February 28th, ULI Toronto, in partnership with the City of Toronto and the Tower Renewal Partnership, hosted a group of North American experts who had been working tirelessly through the previous four days to deliver a comprehensive and actionable set of recommendations on resolving one of the city’s biggest housing and resilience challenges.
Retrofitting Toronto’s aging apartment towers is an issue that has long suffered from complacency, inaction and division. Any broadly implemented strategy will require deep and sustained public and private sector collaboration, as well as involvement from multiple levels of government.
It’s no small task, but getting it right is critical for so many Torontonians, as well as the long-term health of our city. As Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão noted in her introductory remarks for the event, there are more than 400,000 city residents living in older high-rise rental towers. These buildings — 986 in total, with 188,283 units housing 13 percent of the city’s population — are an essential component of Toronto’s rental stock, especially for those in need of affordable housing options.
The weeklong process that culminated in the February 28th event tapped into the Urban Land Institute’s global Advisory Service Program, which has, to date, supported over 700 communities in identifying independent, strategic and practical solutions for sophisticated land-use challenges.
In supporting Toronto on its tower renewal journey, seven ULI volunteers from across the US, along with three ULI staff members, travelled to Toronto to take part in four days of site visits and stakeholder interviews to develop their recommendations, which they delivered to a sold-out crowd at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto at the end of the week.
“How can the public and private sector work together to unlock required investment, and drive retrofits of Toronto’s towers while maintaining existing rents?” was the question posed to the expert panel before they began their work in the city.
Following Deputy Mayor Bailão’s remarks, Amy Buitenhuis, Resilience Lead in the City Manager’s Office, Graeme Stewart, principal at ERA Architects and founder of the Tower Renewal Partnership, and Aderonke Akande, Manager, Tower and Neighbourhood Revitalization at City of Toronto, took the stage to position the importance of tower renewal in the City’s resilience strategy.
They paved the way for the ULI Advisory Service Panel to take the stage and begin outlining their findings from the past four days. The panel consisted of seven experts:
The advisory panel was supported by Deb Kerson Bilek, Vice President, Advisory Services, Monika Henn, Manager, Greenprint Center for Building Performance, and Michaela Kadonoff, Senior Associate, Meeting & Events, all of whom are ULI staff members. Mark Guslits, Principal, Mark Guslits & Associates and Faculty, George Brown College, and Laurie Payne Vice President, Development, DiamondCorp, acted as advisors from ULI Toronto throughout the process.
Jim Heid, the panel chair, began the presentation by noting the significant challenge around renewing the huge number of towers in the city. Making improvements to safety, comfort and sustainability while simultaneously avoiding any increase in rental costs will be no small feat. He also cited Toronto’s untenably low vacancy rate as a major obstacle to economic success within the city and the dangers of allowing the safety concerns around the buildings to simmer for too long. The fire that displaced hundreds of residents at 650 Parliament in August 2018 is, as Heid put it, only “the tip of the iceberg.”
“The time to act is now. The time to act was actually 10 years ago, so you really have to move forward,” he said. “If we’re going to solve this thorny question of how do we get all of those things that you want to do and do it without raising rents, we’re going to have to look at the whole capital structure, the way we look at returns, and the way we measure success very differently than everything that’s been done before.”
Heid went on to identify four specific questions to ask to help reframe the broad question of his team was tasked with providing solutions to:
While the panel’s insights built around each of these four questions could warrant four separate write-ups, I will try to capture a few of my biggest takeaways from the presentation and encourage you to watch the video recording of the presentation here and flip through the presentation deck here.
Purnima Kapur and Elizabeth Propp followed Heid on stage to share the simple message that tower renewal is not a “de facto housing strategy.” The towers cannot be the sole component of an affordable housing strategy for the city.
Kapur plainly articulated what has been clear to many for years that the current rate of new purpose-built rental housing construction has lagged behind population growth for far too long. Across the board, Toronto must remove barriers to expanding its housing supply by making the approvals process shorter and more predictable, reducing the cost of housing development, and reducing taxes and other financial burdens shouldered by developers.
Furthermore, Propp argued that it is essential that purpose-built rental construction be made more attractive to both public and private developers. This can be accomplished by developing financial tools to increase construction loan proceeds, reducing planning lead times to make rental returns more attractive, and reviewing the HST for condo development versus rental development (essentially, condo developers face less of a tax burden when compared to rental developers).
Later in the presentation, Laura London discussed opportunities to animate the “software” — the people and places in between the existing towers — that can be initiated today. The creation of Tower Enhancement Districts (TEDs) was a key takeaway from London’s recommendations. TEDs are a low-cost and quick-to-deploy concept that can support the acceleration of change in the disused space between the towers. Conceptually, TEDs are a blend of business improvement associations and residential master-planned communities that would be open to tenants, owners, businesses, local institutions and service providers to participate in. The objective is to create a perpetual place-based organization to enhance the livability and resilience of the community.
Bill Lashbrook closed the presentation by striking an urgent yet optimistic tone on the prospect of tower renewal for the city.
“You’re incredibly fortunate. Who would have thought that you have a 60-year-old gift and it’s incredibly valuable to you?” he said. “You’ve got poured concrete, high-rise buildings. Absolutely fantastic.”
Lashbrook praised the Toronto Community and Housing Corporation for its work toward tower renewal and noted that private owners could benefit from those efforts. “TCHC has diligently gone through an awful lot of work to inventory their properties, as an owner, against their mission and has come up with a gameplan to be able to improve those properties and serve that mission,” he said.
“Is that a private mission? No. But are the buildings essentially the same? Yes. So what do you have? A fully-funded game plan that’s ready to kick off. Publicize that. Celebrate it. When we come back in 75 days, I want to hear that the plan has been announced,” he continued.
Lashbrook concluded by encouraging those in the room to seize this opportunity to make Toronto a global leader in tower renewal. Housing planners and policymakers from around the world would come visit the city to learn about our innovative approach to tower renewal, instead of Toronto experts visiting other cities searching for solutions.