Not just condos: the rise of expensive, art-like ‘concrete boulevards’

Toronto had been doing something ever since the shiny condo boom began in the early 2000s: it was building its way out of a housing shortage.

Toronto has used the expedited process to build some stunningly impressive structures over the years: such as the expansive, vertical five-storey building that took three years to build, with a massive open kitchen and living area that graced Toronto’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. Or the acropolis, a squat blue-and-white structure designed to resemble a bonsai tree that was built in 2017 — all standing five stories tall. Or more recently the stilts in Stratford Park that block the sun for summer — all of them situated on a simple steel and aluminum frame.

These structures — and many more — are “concrete boulevards”, says Rick Lester, a chartered architect in Toronto. “They are all-accessible, low to the ground and well-serviced by public transit,” says Lester, who is also the president of the Canadian League of Architects. Lester says they’re “beautiful and dynamic” structures that are “quite different” from the blocks on the edge of Toronto’s Barrie, Vaughan and North York suburbs that provide some of the city’s cheapest homes.

But these structures are also exceedingly expensive, Lester says. To obtain a permit, builders need to provide data on design quality, construction cost, neighbourhood and the like. “That’s really costly,” he says. And that, in turn, adds up. In 2017, 35,825 development applications came in for all kinds of housing (other than condos). Of those, Lester says, six were laneway houses, each costing more than $1 million. And even these so-called laneway houses are still more expensive than condos. “[Today] it’s practically impossible to get a plot of land,” Lester says.

Lester says laneway houses only became possible because of planning regulations imposed over several decades, the aim of which was to remove blight. “The idea was that these would be all public space. No parking spots. No moorings and trampolines,” Lester says. But this also brought a whole host of new environmental and social issues. As the few already built have demonstrated, it’s a particularly sensitive job; the laneway house has to be durable enough to survive years of constant use, but also adapted to a neighbourhood, or be so new that no neighbourhood exists. “You can’t be built on a tiny sliver of land on a short duration, and be a true green and greenest building project.”

Toronto does need more laneway houses, Lester says. Along with the vacant plots currently available, there’s the city’s lower land costs — on land as low as $1 an acre, Lester says — and the relatively low construction costs as well. The issue, Lester says, is that “this is not a high-profit investment,” which leads builders to put all their funds into larger projects. And, Lester says, many builders complain that there’s too much red tape for construction of a “smaller scale” project.

Addressing any future demand, Lester says, should be first and foremost about using conservation land. (If only this were allowed.) Lester also says that sustainability should be the focus of all construction, as these buildings are fundamentally “smart space” — they are designed to work hard in very limited amounts of space, such as a laneway house on a lawn.

So while Lester is impressed with the very few that have been built, he admits: “I’m not sure it’s the answer.”

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