ULI Toronto News

Learning how to create family-friendly environments in Toronto’s vertical communities


By Eunice Wong, EY Transaction Real Estate

On April 26, 2018, ULI Toronto brought together a panel of 6 developers, planners, designers, and urban families, to discuss how new City policy guidelines meant to promote liveable communities for families in the city’s downtown will influence how Toronto develops vertically.

Moderator Ara Mamourian, a residential real estate broker with Property.ca, started the discussion by sharing his own personal experience of raising a family in a downtown condo, mainly driven by the desire to maximize the time spent with his family.

Ann Marie Nasr of the City of Toronto was involved with the study and discussed how the design policy guidelines and planning framework was developed from an approach and methodology standpoint. Nasr posed an underlying question of the need to create housing stock that will speak to the diversity apparent in these intensified buildings where much of the growth is happening. Noting the public consultations, Nasr talked about the “CondoHack” approach where the study team visited 9 families living in vertical communities across the city and observed their challenges and opportunities of raising children and living in tall buildings.

Jeanhy Shim, founder of the Housing Lab Toronto, noted some recent projects that she has been involved with that are taking into consideration the experience of the family as development plans are incorporating a larger mix of family-friendly sized units, increased storage space, and deeper balconies. Shim had recognized the need for family-friendly infrastructure as the city’s population grew and it was apparent in her 14 month pilot project, the Children’s Discovery Centre. Living in the same high-rise building as panelist Leigh Judson, the two women shared their experience as they both moved from single-family houses to urban condos. Representing the perspective of a non-industry condo resident raising a family in an urban vertical community, Judson’s message to developers was for increased common areas that promote social interaction and provide functional space for storage and mobility.

CBRE’s Ruth Fischer shared her experience living in a micro-apartment with a family of 4 in a space as small as 500 square feet. “Stuff is the biggest problem,” Fischer said She also noted the importance of a backyard as well as common indoor or outdoor spaces, as important ways to support social interaction with the neighbours and promote active living. Anson Kwok, Pinnacle International, had lived in a condo for 15 years and shared his experience raising a young family in the downtown core. From the developer’s side, he noted that while Pinnacle does build larger units and has designated spaces for children’s play areas, the consumer response is typically seen in the resale market and more-so in master planned communities.

Paul Stevens of ZAS Architects expressed his support for vertical community living and, as one of the architects involved with some of the more family-friendly vertical communities in the city, he reiterated that the development objective cannot just be about the financial return — building communities also must be a focus. When working on the River City project, he was supported by Waterfront Toronto in placing a high degree of consideration on the family consumer, which resulted in a wide range of unique units and housing types.

Future-proof housing stock. The consensus among the panelists in how the industry should respond to the market shift to vertical communities was mainly about ensuring the availability of amenities and functional spaces that are flexible and convertible to adapt to evolving needs. As such, the importance is on the practicality of the space and how the flexibility can be incorporated into the design or the structure of the building.

Building communities. Not only do the buildings and units need to be functional and practical, the location and access are also significant. While communities can be viewed as the vertical community within the building, the public realm of the neighbourhood becomes an extension of the home. The panelists agreed that while urban living families may be challenged by the amount of living space, vertical living is considered feasible and desirable when there is a sense of community built into the surrounding infrastructure. Ann-Marie Nasr highlighted the importance of providing privately owned public spaces (POPS) if on-site parkland dedication is not feasible and if there is no park within 250 or 500 metres away from the new development site. POPS are viewed as an opportunity to provide a network of public space to support social engagement and programming opportunities.

Challenges. The panelists discussed their own observations within the downtown condo market of various buildings adapting spaces to the needs of the family. While there has been general support to adapt for the resident mix of the building, there are also concerns of timing, availability of bigger units, and affordability. Shim and Judson revealed that although their condo building has great proximity to parks and transit and a growing community of young families, a mass exodus occurs after a certain age due to the availability of high-quality local schools. While there are always going to be some concerns with any guideline shift, Nasr proclaims that there has been remarkable acceptance and innovation from developers, policymakers, designers, and consumers in support of the public good and the long-term goals of the city.

“There is a culture shift happening in the GTA and the onus is on everyone to advance this conversation,” said Nasr.

Many thanks to the event sponsor, Bennett Jones LLP.

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