What should go at street level? (part iii – more good)

Continuing on the theme of what should go on the ground floor of new condo buildings in the downtown neighborhoods, it is easy to criticize the faults of what was built.

But what about some examples of good stuff?

It’s pretty easy on main streets: put in commercial space. The building is going to be there for a 100 years or more, the downtown neighborhoods are most likely to get busier, and such space will be in demand for much of the next century.

Domicile’s Piccadilly building on West Wellington is pretty typical. It is currently two storefronts, but is doored and set up to be three storefronts:

All of the new condos along West Wellie have storefront units along the ground floors. When completed, the busy shopping mecca will be continuous, without so many of the dead gaps that characterised the street just a few years ago.

More storefronts increases the supply, which moderates rent increases. Affordable rents means there will be some innovative and locally owned shops. A scarcity of space leads to the crowding out of local shops in favour of franchised formats and their clones.

A few years ago the local associations opposed more storefronts in the Roosevelt/Golden Avenue area condos (they lost, and the street  now has more of what makes Westboro vibrant and wonderful); and under the building that became the retirement residence near the Keg Manor (they won, and the shopping street peters out unhappily, eventually turning into mini strip malls).

Whether along traditional main streets, their extensions, or side streets downtown, I’d prefer to see zoning that permits the ground floor to be any use — residential, storefront, office (and changeable over time, as the market requires  — but not parking garage nor “dead zones”.

If the ground floor is to be residential, then it must function was a residential unit that relates to the street. Consider phase 1 of LeBreton Flats, by Claridge. Both the developer and NCC boasted that the ground floor units would liven the streetscape. Alas, the ground level units in phase 1 are simply apartments with ground-level balconies, there are no entry features, closets, tile floors, or even lockable doors, so the the patios are very limited:

in phase 1, ground floor units have patios, but doors cannot be locked from the outisde, so they don't function as a way to come and go from the units

The phase 2 units on the Flats are much improved. The doors are more traditional exterior doors, with actual functioning locks so someone can exit and leave. Inside, there is a closet, tile floor, and other features that make the door functioning. The ground level entry spaces aren’t quite porches yet … they lack enough privacy and set back from the sidewalk, as evidenced by every single unit having a continuous window curtain. And the units are pretty much like the apartments above, dependent on the building central corridor for coming and going.

this design might fly in the Netherlands, but I don't think there is enough separation of private space from public walkway here, even once the vines grow on the wire privacy fences

 The Claridge design is getting better. Maybe in a few years some of those entry ways will get gates, planters on top of the walls, and other personalizing features that enhance their usefulness.

It isn’t as if developers don’t know what works. Consider the Beaver Barracks on Argyle Street. Built by CCOC, designed by Hobbin, and very much lifted straight out of the Vancouver design prescription pad, these ground floor units do everything right when it comes to making a lively street in front of residential ground floors:

Here’s what they did right: outside, the entry porch is elevated enough from the sidewalk to feel like a separate space; the rows of shrubs will give shelter and privacy; when sitting, the user is higher than the walking pedestrian or passing automobile; the porch is adjacent the front door and is likely to be used and cared for. The inside was also done right: these narrow units flow straight through the building, so the living areas face the street and bedrooms the quieter back of the building; there is no centre building corridor so users have to frequent the street/sidewalk to go anywhere, which means they contribute to street vitality (use the search box at the top of this blog to read more about beaver barracks).

Go back and compare the Beaver Barracks to the LeBreton condos, and decide which layout contributes more to the street life and which ones have private spaces more likely to be used.

So, what could we do with those buildings that already have residential units at the ground floor? In too many cases, I wonder why anyone lives in them, as they lack any visual privacy from the sidewalk right outside their windows (eg the Strand condo, the Laurier condos between Lyon and Bay…). A blanket rezoning of ground floor condos to permit a variety of uses, that could change over time without rezoning expense, would gradually see them convert to higher and better uses if that is what the condo boards and unit owners want.

Where residential ground floor uses do crowd the sidewalk, some imaginative landscaping can do wonders. Consider for example this elderly apartment building right beside Beaver Barracks, behind the Museum of Nature. There is an intensively planted zone out to the sidewalk, and then the street was given a bulb out that is planted wonderfully deep. This bulb out makes us realize how pathetic all the other bulb outs in the city really are.

From the pedestrian view shown above, the street is very unobtrusive: here it is:

The city is just concluding its infill housing review. Perhaps it could next shine its flashlight on ground floors of new buildings and revise its planning menu.

11 thoughts on “What should go at street level? (part iii – more good)

  1. “A few years ago the local associations opposed more storefronts in the Roosevelt/Golden Avenue area condos (they lost, and the street now has more of what makes Westboro vibrant and wonderful); and under the building that became the retirement residence near the Keg Manor (they won, and the shopping street peters out unhappily, eventually turning into mini strip malls).”

    From where did you come up with this?

    With respect to the Westboro Station development (Roosevelt-Golden), there was opposition to the height (naturally the developer proposed twice the limit in the zoning, so they ended up with about 50% more than the zoning) and there was also some opposition to the cash-in-lieu of parking / reduction in required parking for the commercial space as well as opposition to the developer’s early proposal to close Golden to traffic, but I certainly don’t recall any opposition to stores and I cannot find any evidence that there ever was on the part of the WCA. In fact, the corner of Roosevelt and Richmond was very dense in storefronts (check it out on Streetview while you still can) – more dense than it will be now. Perhaps you were misconstruing some opposition to the loss of these varied storefronts and their replacement by relative blandness as opposition to storefronts generally?

    As for the Amica development further west, the blame for that lies with the developer and the City, not the local associations. There is very little difference between what was proposed and what was ultimately built. There definitely wasn’t any proposal for ground floor storefronts for anyone to oppose (for its part, the local community association was probably relieved to finally have some developer respect height limits). No, something else is at work there. I think a factor with the Amica is that it is not quite part of Westboro – there’s a discontinuity in the streetscape starting at Golden with the apartment block west of the Exchange and continuing past the Rogers building. The Amica itself occupies what used to be a weed-infested verge and a parking lot to the former RMOC building behind it, so despite its flaws it’s definitely an improvement over what went before. My guess is that no one, from developer to City to the local community thought about what steps would be needed to make the Amica into an extension of the Westboro streetscape because it was mentally and physically just a bit too far away. It’s akin to asking developers and the City to build traditional mainstreets in the suburbs – they just can’t bring themselves to do it, nor, for that matter, can they seem to do it at LeBreton, or on Scott Street. They seem to “need” an existing traditional mainstreet to add to. Accordingly, perhaps if the Rogers building were to have been redeveloped first its closer proximity to Westboro might have induced an extension of the streetscape that could have continued on to the Amica site.

    A generally good post, Eric, but sorry, you just seem to have made stuff up regarding community actions in Westboro.

  2. As some of these condo buildings need life-cycle refits later on, you may start to see condo boards open up their eyes and minds to the possibility of replacing ground-level residential uses with income-generating ground-level retail or other commercial uses.

  3. David: I did not specifically research the storefront issue along Richmond, I was going by my memory (which has been known to lapse, have senior moments, and be otherwise faulty). The proponent for the building out by the Keg (before it became the Amica) most definitely wanted storefronts along Richmond and was opposed on the argument that it would somehow dilute or harm the section of stores to the east. I recall that the debate went on for some time and the mainstreet continuation was rejected. Eventually, I expect that the cableTV site would be redeveloped and made it a continuous strip, but until then the discontinuity would not have been much greater than on other sections of Richmond eg the current Loblaw and printing plant sites.

    I was at a meeting about a year ago when a speaker claiming to represent the local community assoc railed for several sentences about Domicile’s building at Roosevelt Avenue, objecting to its height, its so-called gateway function, and the unnecessary and greedy extension of the shopping main street westward. I was quite shocked at his comments at the time, because I thought the Domicile project was a very good extension of the main street. I’ve since heard similar anti-intensification stuff from the guy. So, I think my memories are reasonably accurate.

    Whether they are or not accurate, the result is the same: the area around Roosevelt is and will continue to be alive and lively with a mainstreety feel consistent with the variations found in streets that grow up over time. The area to the west is bleak and blah strip malls with nothing above them, and condos with not enough on the ground floors. It’s a pity they couldn’t have been blended together to give us condos up, retail down. Today we often do better, and that is what I was trying to show.

    thank you for reading and commenting.

  4. WJM: yes, the condo board COULD take the initiative, but it would require rezoning, perhaps fireseparation between the commercial and residential, rewriting the condo documentation (possibly several hundred sets…). Meanwhile … George Dark in the Centretown plan is proposing rezoning swathes of houses to permit ground floor commercial uses with residential above (alas, would / could the city enforce or police that??) and the conversion of rear yards into parking lots with consequent loss of trees and greenery. Much better, I think, to fix the ground floor condo problem AND the cheaper commercial space issue both at the same time by blanket rezoning, in a permissive way, the use of ground floor condos for a variety of uses. And cut off the issue in the future by allowing ground floors of NEW condo buildings to be flex space on the lower(st) floor(s).

    I target these comments at the ground floors of buildings like the Strand (on Somerset) or some on Laurier, where the ground floor units are right on the sidewalk and would probably function much better as non-residential users; and less at well-done buildings like Beaver Barracks where the ground floor residential works.

  5. I think the main problem with ground floor commercial in a condo is that commercial units tend to be rental, and somebody has to own the unit in order to rent it. If the developer doesn’t want to retain ownership of the commercial units, and the residents (in the form of the condo corporation) aren’t up to it, you can try to find a third party but I’m sure it gets complicated.

    1. I can’t see it as being any more complicated than anything else to do with the already reams of bureaucracy involved in building, owning, and managing the damn things. If they can hire contractors for the provision of other services and goods, they can hire a property management firm, too.

      1. Hiring a property management firm means you retain ownership of part of the condo and must keep an eye on the building and make sure your holdings in the building remain profitable. For some developers that’s just not in their business model and they’d rather sell the units to the condo owners, transfer to common areas to the condo association, and move on to the next build.

  6. It’s worth noting that the CCOC building at Bank/Gilmour is actually a condo with CCOC (residential) the major owner and Domicile owning the commercial spaces on Bank. The owner of the adjacent building (Royal Oak, H.H. Bloom, etc.) is also a minor owner for parking spaces.

    The legal guff to set this up filled a very large file but it works pretty smoothly.

    1. It’s also worth noting that CCOC’s building at 170 Booth (at Albert) has a similar arrangement and has difficulty keeping ground-floor retail tenants because of the “side street” location. (I don’t deny that 415 Gilmour’s retail is successful)

  7. 170 booth (at albert) is an interesting case. The storefronts are all slightly depressed, about 2-3′ down from the curb and sidewalk, which doesn’t help. Rather than their problem being a side street, the problem has to be that they have only half a catchment area or market to serve: the rest of LeBreton Flats north of Albert wasn’t built immediately following phase 1 (c1980) on the south side of Albert. Other corner stores in the area have failed over the years, there were too many for the lower-people-per-house in today’s world plus most people have cars now.
    The community builders in those days had some strange ideas too. There was also storefront space under the City Living project at the dead end of Rochester at Albert. Again, sunken down about 6′, and another storefront mid way along a private lane. The developer, influenced by Teron and Ian Johns the architect, pictured a local bar, the neighborhood gathering spot. No point in letting those low income spending dollars get out of the neighborhood! They also stuffed these into their upscale housing projects (eg Springfield Mews) which despite a celebrity chef (or was it celebretory owner?) also didn’t work out.

  8. Actually though your comment Charles about 170 booth demonstrates the value of surplus storefront space — the rents are low and space is rented to marginal users who cannot afford more expensive space. There was an inventor/patent troll that had space there for years, a financial planner, and number of corner stores usually run by new immigrant households, and a bicycle organization, an advocacy group for the mentally disabled, etc etc. If there is lots of commercial space available the supply keeeps rents lower and provides an opportunity for new, specialty, or marginal businesses/organizations to rent space.

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