This week, we bring you PART 2 of our two-part series with award-winning architect, Clifford Korman of Kirkor Architects. This time, we look at Clifford’s views on planning, the impact that Hullmark Centre is having on Yonge and Sheppard, and the future of Kirkor Architects.
NIH: With your experience in planning, you must have some thoughts on our current planning structure in Toronto.
CF: The problem with the planning regulations is they are so rigid. The tall building regulations are here to stay. As an example, Markham has tall building studies – I designed a beautiful building on highway 48 for a client, with a very specific look, right to the regulations. There is another developer who is building a tower very close to us that displays the exact same type of characteristics. He yells at me saying ‘Why does this building look like the other one?!’ Well, due to the regulations, I had to use the same precast, I had to use the same stone, I had to have the same type of retail footprint. It’s all dictated to us. Now I have nine of those buildings that all share the same type of look.
I’m doing a study with the mayor now that shows that if you build a significant amount of buildings with the same look, you’ll end up with a cookie cutter neighbourhood. It can be a really good principle, but it takes all freedom, interpretive skill, and talent out of the equation. It’s a shame. We have some very talented architectural teams in the city, but when you mandate them all to do the same thing, you’ll take all creativity out of design. By the time you go through the process and everyone gets a kick, you can’t help but give in. Design becomes mediocre. You just can’t help it.
Why does every building have to be the same? If I was Bach or Beethoven, would I write every song the same way? No, you’d distinguish yourself. You need diversity. We have to have diversity where we build. It can’t just be the same thing on every corner.
Our other issue is the politics of planning. We have NIMBY (not in my backyard) counselors in Toronto, because it makes sense – politically – for them. They need to be re-elected, so they have to fight planning in order to satisfy the NIMBY tendencies of locals. Planning should trump council, but council trumps good planning, many times, for self-interest. That’s backwards, and hurts our planning and vision.
NIH: What was it like planning at Yonge and Sheppard?
CF: It’s a great location. You have two subway stations. We started with a surface parking lot, and were allowed a four times density, with a bonus six times density based on the location, as per the official plan. The city wanted a road to the north of the project, which we were happy to provide.
The City wanted a public square, which we agreed was a good idea. They wanted buildings to the street and mixed use, so we brought the buildings to the street and incorporated office space into the design. This all happened in February 2005. Once we submitted the plans, the local councillor at the time said no residential. The rationale being that it was an employment site. It took a year for us to work through that. We ended up with 33 percent non-residential.
With the city roads, it took us a year and a half to see that through. We were happy to give the land, however we had to do environmental tests 1 and 2, and clean it before we can deed it to them – it took roughly two years for that to occur. From there, the official plan change and rezoning took three and a half years to get approved.
Access to the TTC was huge. To be able to provide access to the TTC, it took us over a year and a half, just jumping through the hoops. First we did an official plan and rezoning application, which took upwards of 20-30 meetings. We had a design proposal from a landscape architect from Montreal, because the city didn’t think that anyone from Toronto was qualified enough. Then at the urban design panel, we had to prove why 45 storeys works at Yonge and Sheppard, because the zoning only allowed 33. Much like my example with Bach and his music, we did a design that showed that North and south heights seemed to converge at the corner. It made sense that it be taller, especially given the two subway stops. So that took upwards of 6 months, and to be fair, the urban design panel loved it.
Then comes the marketing, perhaps a year and a half of successful marketing to see the project. After that, it takes nine months to get a building permit. And then you finally start construction.
Seven years from start to finish, and we’re still two years away from completion – the red tape all adds up. That’s the strength that you have to have in not wavering on your beliefs and vision for the site. There is a lot more that goes into a building than just the design.
NIH: That process sounds frustrating, being a designer.
CF: When this building is finished, I’m nine years removed from when we started. I’m now nine years ahead of where I was when we first designed that building. Nine years ahead in my mind, my aesthetic, my technology, will be nine years behind when that project rises. So my best work is just starting.
NIH: Do you feel that we are expanding at Yonge and Eglinton and Yonge and Sheppard? Pushing the downtown core out?
CF: There is no question that we are. Toronto has five north to south main streets and maybe seven major east to west streets. We have a bit of a bottleneck once those north to south streets hit the 407. We are building all of these people up in Richmond Hill and Markham, but we can’t feed them down into the city. Conversely, the pressure of Toronto is moving northward. One day, Yonge and Steeles will be Yonge and Eglinton; it may take 10 – 15 years. Yonge and the 407 will be a major corner. Yonge and Major Mackenzie will be next. It’s all moving north.
NIH: Do you find that there are easier planning regulations the further north you go?
CF: Actually no. The people who worked in Toronto now work up north, and bring the same vision up there. It’s the same issues. What we are trying to do is create that sense of community – the live, work, shop feeling can also be had outside of the GTA. I think we will get there one day. The key, in a perfect world, is to have public transit connecting all these cores.
NIH: So, with visions of heading north, and the constant battle with planning, what’s next for Kirkor?
CK: The next thing for Kirkor is influencing the shift from single use employment zoning where it no longer functions, to mixed-use live, work, shop communities. Helping push planning in the right direction, that’s where our growth will come from.
The second push is reusing the land that we have, that we are not using to its potential. What happens is we always try to be as cool as we can be, but we get ground down by the system. As an example, we did a project in the east end of Toronto, a warehouse district. We created a base warehouse with some very dramatic curves to it. It had a drum in the centre, but it conformed to all the tall building guidelines. We convinced the client to spend the money and do something super cool. The urban designer and planner in the neighbourhood that we met with asked us to ‘dumb it down,’ because the city only wants rectangular warehouse shaped building. I almost fell of my chair. That is city planning at it’s worst.
We would like to thank Clifford Korman for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to sit down and chat with us about himself and the future of Toronto.Google+