November 15, 2017
New Typologies in Mixed-Use: Coping With Urban Growth
A Q&A with Diamond Schmitt Architects on the role of mixed-use development amidst rapid urbanization.
For the past three years, Metropolis’s director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy, has been leading Think Tank, a series of discussions with industry leaders on issues surrounding human-centered design. On June 7, 2017, in Toronto, she spoke with architects from Diamond Schmitt and Claude Cormier + Associés, as well as developers from Build Toronto and Great Gulf Homes, about the indoor and outdoor implications of mixed-use building typologies in a rapidly growing city. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, prepared by Claudia Marina.
Claude Cormier, principal landscape architect, Claude Cormier + Associés (CC): I have to say that every time that I land in Toronto, I get an amazing positive energy. I’ve seen Toronto grow from a village to a real city in the past 30 years. When I compare it to Montreal, which is where Claude Cormier + Associés is based, I think Toronto is extremely open in terms of diversity.
Don Schmitt, principal, Diamond Schmitt Architects (DS): With 100,000 new arrivals in the city every year full of ideas, energy, and entrepreneurship, there is an extraordinary rise of potential in the city. Two projects, in particular, display this potential. The first is the redevelopment of Regent Park, which was originally 69 acres of a dysfunctional housing scheme from the 1950s. For the first time, there’s now a park and a 60,000 square-foot arts and culture center in Regent Park as well as new market-rate and affordable housing options in the area. This is an example of transforming an existing neighborhood in Downtown Toronto due to the needs of a dramatically expanding population. On the other side of that spectrum is this sort of intensification but in the suburban context through development and transit. At the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, on which we are working with Claude, we’ve incorporated new office towers, a YMCA, community library, and a dance space. All these elements are connected by the street infrastructure which really sets the stage for a compact, pedestrian community.
Alan Vihant, senior vice president, high rise, Great Gulf Homes (AV): The agenda at Great Gulf Holmes is really about urban growth and mixed-use projects. Twenty years ago, we saw offices leave the city for the suburbs because it was cheaper there. Now we’re seeing companies come back into the city because it’s where people want to live. The next generation of workers are going to be in more urban places along transit corridors. We’re now working with Diamond Schmitt on a mixed-use building that has both institutional and cultural use.
It will have a community base as well as a public parking garage, six stories of office space, and the residential part of the building will be divided into two types—smaller market-rate units and larger, family-sized units. That’s truly mixed-use—four, five, or six uses in one building. We’re seeing more and more of that in Toronto.
Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis (SSS): What you’re describing is a place that gives people an opportunity to connect with one another on different levels beyond, the elevator. There’s an impulse to connect and an upcoming generation really trying to figure out how to do this. Salima, let’s talk about your work with Build Toronto. I don’t know how a city can progress if we keep these old lines of segregation between neighborhoods and uses in place. Going forward it’s something that we really have to think about.
Salima Rawji, vice president, development, Build Toronto Inc. (SR): Build Toronto is a corporation of the City of Toronto that works with the city’s surplus assets. I have the incredible privilege to steward unused land that is in the public sector and bring it forward into the private sector for new opportunities. The private sector is telling us what is really the best use for these spaces. One of our recent projects with Diamond Schmitt was the Waterworks, once a historic water treatment facility and that is now to become a mixed-use building.
DS: Mixed-use is prominent now because people are looking for the energy and complexity of an urban context, and that diversity is being developed in the city in mixed-use environments. With Waterworks, we had to deal with restoring the heritage of a public works building that occupies a full city block. Inside there’s to be a 28,500 square-foot food hall that opens to a restored St. Andrew’s Playground. There’s also a YMCA as a core community asset, affordable housing and market condominiums, and we’ve retained the social services agency Eva’s Phoenix in the building.
SSS: In many of these examples we talk about walkability and the importance of street infrastructure. Claude, can you talk about what this idea of mixed-use means to landscape architecture?
CC: When we propose a mixed-use space for development, the public space is always in the foreground of the image we present. It’s a key element to make it work, but I don’t think we’re fully there yet as the approval process is quite challenging. Toronto has evolved tremendously to allow more room for it, but at the same time, Toronto’s parks department is its own enemy when it tries to preserve the idea of what a park should be. There are two types of parks. Public parks are owned and maintained by the city, and private parks, which are part of a development and are doing better because of their maintenance and their programs that allow for these spaces to be crafted to the needs of the people who live there. Take, for example, the value of Sugar Beach. That park was actually thinking outside the box because it doesn’t have the typical “play” structure. You could be alone in the city—you could be a watcher or you be watched, or you can bring your kids to play in the sand. You don’t need the structure of a traditional park. It’s pretty simple and straightforward, but it has a flexibility built in its program to do that.
DS: What’s interesting about this is the importance of the civic realm and open space, which is being recognized by the city because so many private philanthropists are dealing with public spaces. It’s that sense that we’re not going to wait for the bureaucracy to take care of it. We want to be proactive and engage because it matters to city so profoundly.
SSS: In cities, we’re much closer together than anywhere else. We feel this need to be part of our neighborhoods, and we feel responsible for them.
SR: There’s also this grassroots movement brought on by young people and the diversity of the immigrant population that contribute to it. The NXT City Prize, for example, calls on the energy of Millennials to propose urban ideas for the future. So many ideas come from the minds of young people who live in the city and notice these gaps of public space. There are ways we can use space in non-traditional forms that don’t just have to be one thing for one purpose all of the time. It encourages us to be open and think about how we use our city’s spaces. Then the other thing is what Claude mentioned—this incredible energy attributed to the diversity of our population. We talk about diversity as a strength, but it’s not an easy thing to be a diverse society. We have an incredible opportunity with spaces like Sugar Beach for people to come together and see their kids playing in the sand and think, “Though we look different and come from different places, we are actually more similar than we are different.” I think our city is starting to get that. We’re realizing that overprescribing and being very strict about our lines is not necessarily our future.
DS: I think our responsibility as architects and developers is to allow flexibility. Jane Jacobs said that new ideas need old buildings. By that, I think she meant flexibility and affordability—that ideas can emerge in spaces which can be chopped, modified, and transformed. There is that inventory of buildings as we saw with Waterworks, but newer buildings can embody this kind of generic simplicity and servicing that allow them to be re-interpreted because the current use for the first 10 years of the building will certainly morph into another use. How do we create a legacy, which is not only sustainable from an energy and an environmental perspective, but sustainable from the perspective of use and operation?
SSS: This idea of a new typology depends on things like the building’s materiality, it’s connectivity to nature and local culture, things that give it a sense of place. We’re talking global sustainability, but at the same time, intensely local solutions.
AV: From the development side, there are two ways to address this. We’re looking at systems to make the buildings more sustainable in how we construct them, such as where the materials are being manufactured and how we can bring in more local resources. Another way we try is to think about how we can increase density in neighborhoods. One of the problems in Toronto is that we either have very high density or we have a city of 175 neighborhoods of very low density. Although we try to build on the avenues, we’re not building nearly enough on these critical sites. I would like to see more three- and four-story high wood-frame apartment buildings be stitched into existing neighborhoods. We’re not talking about putting up tall buildings in those residential neighborhoods, but just a little more density would take a lot of pressure off. Currently a lot of schools in Toronto are just below capacity. If we move children around and remove a school, we’re also removing the playground beside it which is an important community space used in the evenings and weekends. If a neighborhood is short 100 kids, is there a way to think about how we can get another 50 or 100 families to move to this neighborhood rather than take away from the neighborhood?
CC: Sometimes I find that when the city has a problem, we always look elsewhere for the solution when it’s usually right in front of us. I think Toronto has an amazing answer for urban development in its ravine system. This is a natural park that exists in the city, and it’s largely dormant. In comparison, there’s a new park being proposed called Rail Deck Park, which will be constructed above the rail corridor in Downtown Toronto. The problem is that this space doesn’t exist yet. We’re going to pay billions of dollars for its development and the surrounding area, when we already have a city-wide ravine system that’s part of Toronto’s geography. Could you imagine the kind of neighborhoods we could build along this public space that are not only made up of high-rises and that actually engage with the park rather than turn their backs to it?
DS: I think local communities are actually being really demanding. They’re being proactive about wanting to be in the dense core of a city and having access to parks, schools, daycares, food, and markets. There’s an opportunity for this sort of municipal government to shift its attitude from being a controlling force that limits what can be done to actually enabling and educating new ways of engaging with the city.
SSS: A city is the most amazing human invention. I experience it every day. One of the things that was really key to me early on when I moved to New York was that I had these Hungarian cousins come visit from Budapest, and all they wanted to do was walk on the street. They said, “I can’t believe the people that we’re seeing. There’s the world coming at us and they’re beautiful.”
Watch a video of the discussion below:
Claude Cormier, principal landscape architect, Claude Cormier + Associés
Salima Rawji, vice president, development, Build Toronto Inc.
Don Schmitt, principal, Diamond Schmitt Architects
Alan Vihant, senior vice president, high rise, Great Gulf Homes
Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis magazine
The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with Corian® Design, DXV/GROHE, Keilhauer, Shaw Contract, and Sunbrella Contract Fabrics.