Is Toronto drab? Council is pushing for a ‘more beautiful’ city


One block from Yonge-Dundas Square, in the heart of downtown Toronto, Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management campus sits over a big-box Canadian Tire store.

Hailed as a success story at the time for combining the public realm and retail, the corner looks drab and feels uninspiring by today’s standards.

“It leaves a lot to be desired on what is a pretty prominent intersection,” said Coun. Brad Bradford.

In fact, too much of the growth and development taking place in Toronto is unremarkable, says the former city planner, who was elected to office in 2018.

“I think we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to architecture, when it comes to urban design, when it comes to public realm.”

The Ward 19 Beaches—East York councillor was behind a recent motion, approved by council, that would see the city adopt practices aimed at producing a better-looking city and a more functional one.

The motion includes ideas that will no doubt prove contentious — including a plan for a public design competition to solicit ideas for increasing density in neighbourhoods now zoned for single-family homes.

Council voted to ask staff to include the plan in an upcoming report to the planning and housing committee.

The motion also asks CreateTO, the agency in charge of managing Toronto’s real estate portfolio, to look at using open international design competitions for major and transformational projects in which CreateTO is the lead developer, including public housing.

That means that instead of issuing a prescriptive requests-for-proposal, the city would be putting the onus on applicants to come up with inspiring new ideas.

The motion was adopted by council and has the support of Mayor John Tory.

“Toronto is a global centre for architectural, planning and design talent. However, the city hasn’t always tapped into these vast resources as effectively as we could,” according to the summary of the motion, which was taken from a letter Tory wrote to the city’s planning and housing committee.

“With these initiatives and several others I am interested in (pursuing), I hope to unlock and activate architects, landscape architects, planners and students in these disciplines to help build a more beautiful and engaging city.”

Toronto is forecasted to grow by an estimated 537,000 people over the next 11 years, according to Toronto Official Plan documents, and that’s an opportunity to create a more inspiring, functional and attractive urban landscape, Bradford said.

“I think it’s high time here in Toronto that we push applicants, we push developers, and in fact we push ourselves to do more with what we have,” said Bradford.

There are already some procedures in place to insure against utter disasters being built, but they don’t catch everything and sometimes the way a space is going to be experienced can’t be entirely worked out until it’s built. Often, compromises must be made.

The condo tower on top of the Royal Canadian Military Institute on University Avenue was one of those compromises — the developer saved the facade of the decaying historic building and preserved important parts of the interior, including a prized library. Walking by the building at street level is pleasant — it’s experienced as a heritage building. From across the street, it’s less attractive — a narrow modern tower sprouting from the top of a building of a different era.

These days the building is often cited as an example of “facadism,” said Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who was the city councillor for the ward at the time.