The highs and lows of mid-rise

 The highs and lows of mid-rise

It’s generally accepted that mid-rise development creates friendlier cities. BRANDON DONNELLY investigates why developers don’t build more of it.

Over the past decade and a half, Toronto has really come into its own. The high-rise condominium has dramatically transformed the city’s urban landscape and is continuing to inject new life and vibrancy into its downtown core, as well as the region as a whole. But Toronto’s condo story is not exclusively a high-rise one. Alongside the supertalls popping up in the city centre, there’s also a significant transformation happening in the form of mid-rise buildings. It’s happening in the “shoulders” of downtown Toronto, in the city’s older and more established neighbourhoods, and also in many other cities across Canada and the U.S. The urban landscape of North American cities has long been dominated by high-rise buildings in the downtown and low-rise single family homes all around it. But today we are seeing a shift. Policymakers, architects, planners, and developers have fallen in love with the “in-between” scale. That’s why in 2010, Toronto City Council enacted its Mid-Rise Performance Standards with the intent of guiding and promoting European-style “avenue” development all across the city. To a certain degree this is a shift that has been in the works for much longer. Urban Capital, for instance, has a long history of developing mid-rise buildings, dating all the way back to Camden Lofts (1996–1999) in Toronto’s Fashion District. And for partner David Wex, mid-rise is actually his favourite scale of projects. “It’s very urban, it frames and supports street-life, and it doesn’t overwhelm the streetscape in the same way that tall buildings can,” says Wex. “We’ve been doing mid-rise since Camden Lofts in the late ’90s, which kick-started the King-Spadina renaissance. We’ve developed mid-rise in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and now Halifax. All have been great contextual buildings that have added to their urban landscapes and community feel.”

But despite the rise of mid-rise, many people across North America are still scratching their heads and asking: Why aren’t we building more of them? What could be done to encourage more mid-rise development in my city? And why is Europe so damn good at this scale? The reality is that there are many challenges lurking in this type of development. 

Small is not always beautiful

The first challenge is, not surprisingly, financial. There are many fixed costs that developers incur regardless of the scale of project they build. Whether they’re building a 50-suite mid-rise or a 350-suite high-rise, they still have to put up construction hoarding, they still have to build amenities and a lobby, and they still need to pay someone to do the day-to-day project management. The list goes on. So there are “diseconomies of scale” associated with building at a more modest scale. Niall Finnegan, co-founder of Toronto-based development consulting from Finnegan-Marshall, believes these diseconomies alone could result in a $5 to $10 per square foot premium over larger size high-rise buildings — a significant amount in Toronto’s competitive condo market. From this perspective, bigger is better.

Oh, and parking 

Since mid-rise buildings are often built outside the core, adjacent to low-rise neighbourhoods and away from primary transit corridors, the requirements for parking can often be more onerous (on a per suite basis) than if one were building a high-rise building downtown. Also, mid-rise buildings tend to attract more “end-users,” people who are actually going to live in the building and want a parking space for their car, rather than investors who will rent to tenants without cars. This increased need for parking is problematic for developers because underground parking is often a “loss leader.” Some parking is needed in order to sell or rent the space in the building, but it’s usually sold or rented at a loss. Parking is one area where the North American landscape differs significantly from the European one. In many cities — Berlin is one example — there are no minimum parking requirements. Build what you need to build. 
This changes the economics and can make it much more feasible to develop and construct at the mid-rise scale. 

Mid-rise is hard work

One of Toronto’s Mid-Rise Performance Standards dictates that buildings adjacent to a low-rise neighbourhood must follow a 45-degree angular plane. Other cities may not formalize this, but the intent is likely there. It’s a way for the building to transition down to the adjacent low-rise houses and to minimize shadowing on people’s backyards. (It also sometimes applies on the side and even main street, to reduce shadowing there as well.) The result is usually some pretty spectacular cascading terraces. But it doesn’t come easily.” The mid-rise is particularly difficult in that units change on every floor,” says architect Roland Rom Colthoff, principal at RAW Design and the architect behind Urban Capital’s Southport project. “This means vertical duct runs and stacking of mechanical equipment as occurs in a [high-rise] point tower is not possible. These cumulative offsets add directly to costs and require close scrutiny by the designer to avoid unfortunate ceiling conditions.” Colthoff adds, “A typical mid-rise will also require 30 or more individual unit plans, versus a point tower with only ten to fifteen.” Of course, there’s something nice about having a more unique condo suite. And more floor plan types means more options for purchasers. But it unequivocally makes designing and building more complicated. And also selling it — often the increased options can be confusing for purchasers, and require more work by agents (who, let’s face it, prefer an easy sell to a hard one.) In the end, Colthoff says there are real cost implications: “The 45-degree angular plane, while creating some very desirable outdoor spaces, very significantly adds to the design and construction costs.” So there are real trade-offs between increased customization and sensible urban form on the one hand, and housing affordability and ease of building on the other. 

It can be difficult to find mid-rise sites to develop 

Along the main streets and outside of the downtowns of many North American cities — which is where mid-rise buildings typically live — the land parcels are often smaller and the pieces of land needed to put together a viable project might be owned by half a dozen or so different people. Getting them all on-side to sell can be a feat in itself, especially given that these sites are often the locations of viable local businesses, providing income to their land owners. And since we’re already talking about smaller projects with many other challenges, it may not make sense, or be worth the headaches, to even try to put the sites together. 
Finally, there’s the issue of NIMBYism

Anyone involved in cities and the built environment will know that NIMBY stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” And it has come to pejoratively represent anyone or any group who blindly opposes development and change in their local community. The challenge with mid-rise buildings is that they’re often literally built right beside people’s backyards. So while a new 80-storey tower downtown might not ruffle too many feathers, an 8-storey building down the street might. And considering that construction will also likely necessitate some level of cooperation from these same neighbours, it can sometimes be quite challenging to get a project like this of the ground. 
This last point can be quite frustrating for urban leaders and policymakers because growth has to happen somewhere. And frankly the alternative to growing up is growing out. So while it may seem like a win for some to stop even the most modest of developments, all it means is that that growth will be displaced to some other part of the city. And if that too isn’t possible, then eventually that city will face a housing shortage and ultimately an erosion of housing affordability. Right now, the North American poster child for this phenomenon is probably San Francisco. 

However, the challenges facing mid-rise are also paradoxically some of its greatest strengths. Its scale and typical positioning in established neighbourhoods allows it to offer a new form of housing — multi-unit — in locations typically characterized by predominately single family homes, providing people with the option of “downsizing” while remaining in their local community. And it also typically offers more affordable housing options in communities that might otherwise be out of reach of most people. 
These benefits will only improve as cities continue to work on “upzoning” districts to allow mid-rise building to proceed without laborious rezonings, and as provinces and developers adopt more cost-effective construction codes and techniques. Ontario, for example, recently started allowing wood-framed buildings up to six storeys. Previously the highest one could go was four. 
At the same time, mid-rise buildings are also a far more sustainable form of housing than the alternative (sprawl). They keep people living, playing, and working close-by, and they improve the viability of mass transit by increasing population densities. These are all huge benefits, particularly at a time when successful cities around the world are seemingly facing the same issues: housing affordability, inequality, and crippling traffic congestion. 

So while there are many challenges associated with building at the scale of the “in-between,” there are also many benefits for those who can get their head around them. But perhaps the most significant of all, which hasn’t yet been mentioned, is the simple fact that people love them (except maybe the people whose backyards about them, but they typically get over it). 
Some of the most memorable cities in the world — Barcelona, Paris, Stockholm — were built at a mid-rise scale. These cities manage to achieve urban density while at the same time maintaining their human scale. There’s something quite magical about striking that perfect balance. And it’s for reasons like this that architects, developers, planners, and policymakers around the world continue to look to the mid-rise building as the gold standard in city building. UC

Brandon Donnelly is an architect-trained, Toronto-based real estate developer. He is passionate about cities, real estate, design, and technology. His daily blog, Architect this City is aimed at city builders and is rated by the Guardian Cities in the UK as one of the best city blogs in the world.


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