Building The Cities That We Want

As cities grow, and developable land becomes sparse, the question becomes how cities plan and manage for more development. How do the urban centers of cities take on greater density while remaining livable, attractive, and maintaining services for their populations?

Both New York and Toronto, global cities and the hubs of economic activity in both of their respective countries, are both grappling with the need for more density. How dense is too dense? How many tall buildings are too many? What scale should the tallest buildings be? How quickly can development keep pace with intense growth?

Toronto is already rapidly growing, with many new condo and office towers springing up in downtown and along Lake Ontario just in this century. On October 1, David Mirvish unveiled a plan to build one of the largest developments in Toronto’s history, with three towers of more than 80 stories each, a mix of 2,600 residential units, and cultural uses such as a gallery, theater, and classrooms. Mirvish has hired Frank Gehry to design the development, which would be built along King Street West.

In an October 2 op-ed in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, Toronto urban designer Ken Greenberg offers an insightful look at the questions Toronto has to ask itself as it grows with significant developments such as this. Greenberg is one of the best minds when it comes to cities and urban planning. I know from my own experience as an urban designer working under Greenberg in 1999 to 2000, when Greenberg was a partner in the Toronto firm Urban Strategies.

In his article, Greenberg acknowledges that “downtown Toronto is going through a metamorphosis of extraordinary proportions, both in the number of projects now eclipsing other North American cities and in the move to buildings of a scale we haven’t seen before.”

But given that change, the question is how does the city manages its growth and thus manages its future. Sure, it is easy to be tantalized by the forms of the Gehry design. But, for other developments yet to come, Greenberg asks, “Will there always be big-name architects and will they always do wonderful projects? In this case, we have a distinguished architect and a rich cultural program. But what about those situations where that isn’t the case? How can we be protected against “bait and switch”? How will we make key qualitative distinctions in reviewing design? Mixed use, yes, but does every new cultural venue have to be topped by condos? When is that appropriate? And how do we ensure that the thousands of new residential units provide a sustainable mix of options capable of forming viable communities over time, not just the repetition of tiny units serving a transient population?”

Greenberg notes that the pace of development happening in Toronto now is akin to Manhattan decades ago. “There’s an echo of Manhattan in the mid-20th century, when wave after wave of building radically altered the form of New York and produced the kind of hyper-dense, hyper-animated environment that makes that city unique.”

Allowing for Greater Height in Manhattan

Unique, yes, but New York is unable to grow today at the pace that Toronto currently is. To that end, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing a plan to allow for taller builders within what is now the densest portion of midtown, Midtown East around Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, and the Waldorf=Astoria.

A New York Times cover story on Sunday, October 7, describes how Bloomberg would like to allow for a rezoning of an area bounded roughly by 39th Street to the south, 57th Street to the north, Third Avenue to the east, and Madison Avenue to the west, that would make it easier to tear down older builders to build taller towers with more open floorplates. The Times article notes that, within this area, “300 of the roughly 400 buildings are more than 50 years old. These structures also lack the large column-free spaces, tall ceilings and environmental features now sought by corporate tenants.”

Bloomberg would like City Council to adopt the new zoning by the end of 2013 when he leaves office. The city estimates that new, taller buildings in this area alone would allow for an additional 16,000 employees in the area. Opponents of the plan note that Midtown East is already dense, subway service is already overburdened, and public services would need to be improved.

The Times describes the Bloomberg plan: “Under the proposal, the city would essentially sell the right to build bigger towers, especially near Grand Central Terminal and along Park Avenue. In a first step, builders would pay the city an unspecified amount for a “district improvement bonus” in order to go 20 percent above the existing limits. The revenue would be used to improve subway connections and public spaces in the neighborhood. A developer could then buy additional development rights from the city or from landmarks like Grand Central Terminal itself that have unused development rights.”

Cities will inevitably continue to grow. It’s exciting to witness the evolution of two of North America’s most significant cities. But clearly the role of sound planning and urban design principles have to align with real estate needs. And the cities we build must be the cities that we want to live in.

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