BLOG: Condoland: a conversation with Dr James White on Cityplace and urban development
Published: 13 Oct, 2023

We sat down with Dr James White ahead of the launch of his new book ‘Condoland: The Planning, Design, and Development of Toronto’s CityPlace’ next week, as he delves into the development of CityPlace, its urban design evolution, and the broader implications for urban development in Toronto and beyond. Don’t miss the book launch event on October 18.

What inspired you to delve into the development of CityPlace?

I decided that CityPlace would be an interesting case study in 2008, in fact, on my first visit to Toronto. I had just started my PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and travelled to Toronto for a conference. Vancouver is well-known in planning and design circles for delivering high-quality housing outcomes (albeit in a very unaffordable real estate market) using a ‘tower-podium’ model that had become known as The Vancouver Model or ‘Vancouverism’. This development typology has been delivered all over Vancouver’s downtown peninsula by various developers, but the idea first emerged from the planning of a mega-project on the city’s False Creek waterfront by the Hong Kong-financed developer, Concord Pacific.

As I travelled into Toronto for the first time back in 2008 I saw a cluster of towers under construction that seemed very familiar to those in Vancouver and, low and behold, it was the work of the Vancouver developer. I immediately thought this would make for an intriguing planning and design case study focusing on the transference of a policy and typology from one city to another, and as a means of understanding how design ideas evolve and adapt as they are introduced in a new context. The project grew legs from there and became a much wider exploration of urban intensification planning and design in Toronto told through the lens of its largest residential mega-project.

Could you share some of the key findings or insights from your research regarding the urban design and architectural evolution of CityPlace and its implications for urban development in Toronto and beyond?

One of the principles findings of the book is that Vancouverism in Toronto quickly unravelled. Toronto proved to be a very different planning context with contrasting policy ambitions and different approaches to negotiating the form of real estate development. In short, Toronto’s planning system proved less sophisticated than Vancouver’s. Not as much attention was paid to the importance of the public realm, the streetscape, and the height and density of towers: the result was a poor imitation of ‘Vancouverism’ that failed to achieve the same design outcomes that the same developer delivered on the False Creek waterfront. This starkly demonstrated how the developer adapted to a new planning context and prioritised the maximisation of financial returns over the creation of a high quality place – despite the fact that, in Vancouver, their work had been widely celebrated.

The book mentions the limited affordable housing and public amenities in CityPlace. How do you think this situation can be improved, and what lessons can other cities learn from this experience?

The case of CityPlace demonstrates the crucial importance of negotiation in the delivery of a large mega-project. In the book, we argue that the City of Toronto made a Faustian bargain with the site’s developer allowing a considerable increase in residential density in exchange for limited public goods. Before Concord bought the site at the tail end of the 1990s, the City of Toronto had, over many decades, expended considerable energy coming up with a plan for the site. They hoped to deliver approximately 4,000 residential units, of which 1,000 would be affordable, in a medium-rise neighbourhood, alongside some high-rise commercial towers. By promising ‘Vancouverism’ to Toronto’s planners, the developer was encouraged to amend these plans. The density increased, the tower-podium model arrived, and the commercial towers were shelved. In a process we theorise as “planning by concession” the developer subsequently chipped away at the original plans for the site by continuously seeking (and almost always being granted) small increases in density and height. The net result is a new urban district with more than 13,000 residential units, yet only 450 or so affordable homes and no additional parks or open spaces for the much larger population than was originally envisaged. While its too late to address this at CityPlace, the case is able to demonstrate how importance it is for city governing authorities to take a ‘big picture’ perspective on large developments that take a long time to deliver, and to push back against demands that, overtime, have a detrimental impact on place and design quality.

In your research, did you uncover any particularly surprising or unexpected aspects of the political economy of planning and housing development in Toronto that you believe have broader implications for urban development?

Perhaps the most interesting finding to emerge from the research was the fact that CityPlace and its design challenges are not the only story of large-scale development in Toronto. There are a series of projects in Toronto, delivered over a similar timeframe, that achieved ostensibly better outcomes: higher-quality urban amenities, more carefully designed density (often using mid-rise buildings), and higher percentages of affordable and social housing. The difference between these developments and CityPlace is that the City of Toronto (and/or its agencies) are development partners and have played a ‘hands on’ role – not just in the planning of the sites but also in their delivery and management. This sense of ownership has tended to drive higher quality and more equitable design outcomes compared to CityPlace where market demand mostly shaped the form of the neighbourhood.

Given the increasing trend of high-rise residential development in cities worldwide, including the UK, how can the lessons from CityPlace inform the discussions and decision-making processes surrounding compact city planning and vertical urbanisation in these new contexts?

Various lessons emerge from CityPlace that might be applicable elsewhere. First and foremost is the need to recognise that, just because a design typology works successfully in one place (in this case Vancouver), does not mean that it will readily transfer to another place. The lesson here is that an urban design ‘product’ is contingent on the ‘process’ and culture of city planning. Second, is that high-rise residential development tends to offer a particular type of living environment: one defined by securitisation and privately-managed common space. This has obvious benefits for the residents of the buildings, but can have a negative impact on the wider public realm because amenities once shared throughout a community are now restricted for the use of those who can afford them. Third, high-rise residential towers are large and complex building. The upkeep and maintenance of these structures is the shared responsibility of the many hundreds of residents or investors who own a unit. This arrangement demands hands-on management, which can be a particular challenge if, as in the case of CityPlace, the vast majority of owners are investors who don’t live in the buildings day-to-day. As these buildings age and the cost of maintaining them inevitably increases, the task of address maintenance and paying for upkeep can become harder to manage. Without hands-on management damage can occur and, in the worst case scenario, as the example of Miami’s Surfside condominiums demonstrated in 2021, result in a building collapse and loss of life.

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