Downtown Bureau

Corridor Planning Principles Should Lift Height Restrictions

We'd be crazy to spend three quarters of a billion dollars on LRT and then tell developers they can only go 12 stories high along the entire route.

By Jason Leach
Published February 23, 2012

this article has been updated

The City has released its Draft City-Wide Corridor Planning Principles and Design Guidelines [PDF], and planning staff are looking for feedback.

The draft plan emphasizes intensification of the city's identified corridors - like the east-west route of the B-Line LRT - to "stabilize and grow the population, helping to support local businesses, institutions and community facilities such as community centres, parks and schools, and returning vitality to these areas."

The document identifies the following corridor planning principles:

(a) Support and facilitate development and investment that contributes to the economic and social vitality of the Corridor and adjacent neighbourhoods.

(b) Promote and support development which enhances and respects the character of existing neighbourhoods where appropriate and creates vibrant, dynamic, and livable urban places through high quality urban design.

(c) Develop compact, mixed use urban environments that support transit and active transportation.

(d) Promote and support an innovative sustainable built environment that uses resources efficiently and encourages a high quality of life.

(e) Identify areas of change as the locations for new development along Corridors.

Related to these, the document identifies the following corridor design goals:

(a) Encourage new intensification and infill development by allowing flexibility and providing alternatives to minimize constraints and provide opportunities.

(b) Create streetscapes that are attractive and safe for pedestrians, transit users, cyclists and drivers.

(c) Minimize the negative effects of shading on existing adjacent properties, streets and public spaces.

(d) Minimize the negative effects of changes in building scale and character on existing streetscapes and adjacent properties.

(e) Minimize the negative effects of overview on existing adjacent private properties.

(f) Encourage a diversity of built form, neighbourhood character and development opportunities along the Corridors.

So far, so good.

Height Restrictions

Then the document defines three broad types of building form for corridor intensification for small, medium and large lot sizes:

12 storeys? The document goes on to explain the reason for a maximum building height: "New multiple storey buildings can have negative impacts on the existing character of neighbourhoods, streets and adjacent properties through shadows, overview and abrupt changes in scale."

It recommends limiting building heights based on property depth and street width "by a 45 degree build-to plane measured from the rear property line when adjacent to existing single detached, semi-detached or duplex residential."

Rear build-to plane for new intensification next to existing residential
Rear build-to plane for new intensification along corridor

However, the recommendation also limits building height from the front, based on the street width - again, "by a 45 degree build-to plane beginning from a line at grade parallel to the front property line at a distance of 80% of the width of the arterial street right-of-way."

Front build-to plane for new intensification along corridor
Front build-to plane for new intensification along corridor

Given that the purpose of the corridor planning is to increase density, they also have a minimum building height - but it's only two storeys, and for only 75 percent of the building's frontage.

Too Restrictive

I understand the goal of the height restrictions in a potential scenario where single family homes come quite close to the arterial street and could have 40-storey buildings built next to them, but these guidelines are too restrictive and for the most part, unnecessary.

During the B-line stakeholders sessions, a common theme coming back from the development community was that the parking demands and height restrictions for new buildings are both serious obstacles to seeing builders line up to construct new buildings along our LRT lines.

I'd like to see no height restrictions at all between Queen Street and Victoria Avenue, and perhaps a general restriction of 30 stories along the rest of the route - although I choose 30 floors quite arbitrarily, and in all honesty, don't see the need for any restriction.

If someone proposes a 30 storey tower at Wexford Avenue and Main Street East, I've got a feeling the neighbourhood will let their feelings be heard and city staff can evaluate the site to see whether it is compatible or incompatible.

If someone has assembled a big piece of land with no homes nearby, it could work. If the site is small and a huge tower will rise over small homes, it could be denied, or requested to be cut in half.

Huge Hindrance to New Development

I've chatted with many developers and architects who have pointed to this one issue as a huge hindrance to seeing new development in Hamilton.

In fact, I just wrote about this yesterday on Raise the Hammer. The example given from North Toronto is quite striking in that it's too far north to be on the subway line, and the site backs onto nice suburban homes with swimming pools, yet 28-44 storey towers are being proposed for the location because it is on a major, arterial road.

Anyone purchasing a home next to King Street should be aware of potential development on a major artery that should become Hamilton's Yonge Street. Holding back development along our most critical transit link and our most important downtown retail street is counterproductive to 21st century planning principles.

I fear that these restrictions could result in developers buying up a lot of adjacent homes in order to demolish them to make way for new towers. I'd rather leave the height open and deal with proposals on a case by case, site by site basis. No developer can accuse the city of being closed for business with this approach.

Even Burlington is allowing taller and taller buildings through their city, like the 16-storey Ironstone Condominiums and the 25-storey Strata downtown.

Much Higher Intensification

There is a proposal out there for two 30-storey condo towers at Upper James and Stonechurch. I can see the merits of such a development on such a huge street with huge properties due to all the parking.

These draft corridor plans could result in much higher intensification taking place on streets like Upper James and Queenston Road due to the large parcels of land that exist between those streets and the closest residential streets to their rear.

Downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods should be our most dense. Adding new obstacles to seeing them developed fully is counterproductive to this entire planning exercise and main reason for wanting LRT in Hamilton.

We'd be crazy to spend three quarters of a billion dollars on LRT and then tell developers they can only go 12 stories high along the entire route.


Update:

Jason received a response from Ken Coit, a city planner responsible for developing the corridor planning principles, to clarify that the draft guidelines are "not intended to apply to the Downtown or other Nodes where Secondary plans are in place" and that the city would "encorage" buildings taller than 12 storeys in those places.

Here is Coit's full response:

Thank you for your comments and for posting them on Raise the Hammer.

We just wanted to clarify that these guidelines are not intended to apply to the Downtown or other Nodes where Secondary Plans are in place (see 2.4). We would encourage higher buildings in the Downtown and at Nodes. The guidelines also allow for taller buildings on larger sites and on sites adjacent to existing commercial or higher density residential. Height is not specifically limited on these sites but would be determined through sun shadow and design studies (see 4.12 and 4.13). We will try to make this more clear in future documents.

Our collegue Allisa Mahood is presently reviewing the Downtown Secondary Plan and I would assume that building heights in the Downtown will be evaluated as part of that work.

Thank you for you ongoing interest and work on these issues.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

19 Comments

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 09:20:45

Bigger buildings result in a lower cost/unit to developers. Spreading their fixed costs over 12 floors of units rather than 20 floors of units will, in many cases, make building opportunities unattractive.

It's a positive thing that they're trying to retain sunlight at street level (I think that's what they're trying to do) but I really think they should at least address claims by developers that these height restrictions are too low - ignoring the developers concerns won't make our problems go away - it'll make our investment go away.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 09:28:13

I'd also like to point out that in Toronto, West of University, between King and Queen, many of the buildings are smaller (2-6 stories) and that's not stopping them from building 60 story condos between them. They seem to survive the "negative effects".

I can understand their concerns for residential neighbourhoods, but I don't see why a development on King, or James, or John, or Bay Street should be limited to 12 stories in the area around King and Main where there are no nearby residences and there are, in fact, many taller buildings already in existence.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 09:35:22

This seems like a great opportunity to implement Vancouver's tower-and-podium model, in which a moderately sized 'podium' - say, a two- to four-story building - frames the street at a human scale while a tall, narrow tower rising from it increases density significantly without destroying sunlight and sight-lines.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 09:42:10

Last comment for this morning, I really hope developers spend the time to write e-mails to the city about their "draft plan" because we can stand up for them all we want, but unless they also take the five minutes to express their displeasure, I fear our comments will fall on deaf ears.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 10:02:39 in reply to Comment 74695

I'm reminded of the development of the King-Spadina Secondary Plan in Toronto, proposed by a group of urbanists including Jane Jacobs, John Sewell, Ken Greenberg, Margie Ziedler and Bob Eisenberg and supported by supported by then-mayor Barbara Hall and city planner Paul Bedford.

They presented a planning framework that did away with restrictive, segregated zoning and instead emphasized high density development, mixed land use, and an urban built form compatible with the surroundings.

Developers liked the plan - indeed, hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment have flowed into King-Spadina in the past fifteen years - but wanted the height limit raised from around eight storeys to sixteen storeys. For the most part, they've been allowed to do this through variances, and the area has not suffered as a result of these tall buildings.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2012-02-23 10:03:29

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 10:35:19

Yeah. When I saw the propositions for the Westdale LRT-stop intensification plan, that was my response too... something to the effect of "screw the shadows, bring the skyscrapers".

Although I still think they should extend the 2-way streets to Macklin if they want more development around Main at Paradise.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2012-02-23 10:35:53

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By C'est la vie (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 11:04:20

I could not locate the link, but doesn't Paris have height restriction zoning, but is still one of the most dense cities in the world? I think Mr Ryan made this point in an earlier article.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 11:17:29 in reply to Comment 74702

Aside from the 324 metre (81 storeys) Eiffel Tower and the 59-storey Tour Montparnasse, which was completed in 1972, Paris inside the Périphérique ring highway is a uniform six stories in height on every street, from major boulevards to medieval lanes.

For Hamilton to achieve a density on the order of Paris (25,000 people per square kilometre) without going above six stories, we would have to replace all of our one-, two-, three-, and four-storey buildings on every street.

Allowing tall buildings on major corridors allows Hamilton to increase its density significantly without demolishing and rebuilding entire existing neighbourhoods.

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By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 18:16:23

Unless we some how impart to city staff the need to "get over" their seeming fear or prejudice against height, I fear Hamilton will become more resembling 1950's era Moscow with its endless low rise bloc house Gulag Chic bunkers.

It's up to council to direct staff. I would encourage everyone to contact their city councillor and voice their opinion on the matter.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 23:44:52 in reply to Comment 74711

Not disagreeing with you, but we do need to consider the time when most of those apartment buildings in Hamilton were constructed. The late-60s and early-70s were pretty stark, in terms of mass urban multi-storey architecture.

I can't help but think that some day, someone will be speaking the same way about some of the ubiquitous glass-tower condo farms growing in Toronto.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 18:28:17 in reply to Comment 74711

BECOME more resembling 1950's Moscow??

We're there bro. Check the results of the Google Image search:

http://www.google.ca/search?q=soviet+com...

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 23, 2012 at 20:37:10 in reply to Comment 74712

... I'm fairly certain at least one of the pictures in that GIS is Hamilton. Is "commie block" a local term?

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 22:49:44 in reply to Comment 74715

2 of the photos on the 3rd row are Hamilton. Commie block is a term used to reference the massive subsidized housing projects in the old Soviet Union...row upon row of rather ugly, utilitarian housing apartments for the masses. The fact that our skyline shows up so high in the search is kinda sad.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.ph...

Comment edited by jason on 2012-02-23 22:50:48

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By a big dose of reality (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 18:29:43

We'd be crazy to spend three quarters of a billion dollars on LRT and then tell developers they can only go 12 stories high along the entire route.

With the bitchfest in ward 3 over illegal conversions and absentee landlords lack of maintaining property standards this won't be an easy sell. In fact I'd venture to say getting anything approved over 6 stories will be tough along a very long stretch of the largely residential (80-90%) section east of Wentworth

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 22:58:52

I'm quite sure that the height restrictions in this document don't directly apply to the downtown area. The report states on page 7:

"Firstly, where specific secondary plans are in effect, other urban design direction may be included as part of the approved secondary plan. Where such direction conflicts with this guideline, the approved secondary plan should prevail."

So I looked up the downtown secondary plan - building heights range from 4 to 15 stories and there is a big area called "Development Permit Area" which seems to be related to provincial legislation.

Link to building height map: http://www.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/BA18...

Then I got worried that out of date secondary plans might restrict the changes being described in Nodes & Corridors. The secondary plan for Strathcona, however, has been put on hold pending the outcome of the Nodes & Corridors work.

From what I picked up at a B-Line public meeting, the intention seems to be to increase the allowable building height along the corridors and adjust the commercial/residential mix ratio to permit more residential. Certainly I don't think the city would be quite daft enough to limit downtown development to <6 stories considering the number of existing buildings that exceed that limit.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 24, 2012 at 07:19:19 in reply to Comment 74718

you're right Graham...the article has been updated with a response from Ken Coit.

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By Woody10 (registered) | Posted February 24, 2012 at 00:10:38

The height restrictions are foolish. If a city is to thrive it needs intensification and less restriction on developers will address this.

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By BB (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2012 at 15:46:08

Nice article and nice response from Ken Coit.

Why can't our mayor and HWDSB trustees respond in such a respectful and informative manner?

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By JP (registered) | Posted February 29, 2012 at 13:51:05

I actually support the 12 storey limit outside of the downtown core. I've worked on a couple of residential construction projects that were condos built on infill sites in Toronto. One particular project was just 14 storeys, had 142 units and had a construction budget of around $16 million. The project had a finished value of $29 million. It wasn't in a ritzy neighborhood and involved parceling 4 standard residential lots together. Builders CAN make money on smaller projects, I know firsthand.

I feel a 12 storey limit would create buildings that fit in better with the existing neighborhoods while still improving upon density. Think of that new condo on the corner of Dundurn and Aberdeen (the name escapes me at the moment) versus that really tall octagonal building on Charlton Ave E. We don't need a Parisian or Manhattan population density there's just no demand for it right now. Another thought is that the smaller the project, the less risk there is for the developer. Less risk might mean that more developers are willing to make a go of a particular project or site.

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