Hamilton Spectator – By Natalie Paddon
A well-known local developer is moving toward building his final – and tallest – instalment in a five-highrise, multimillion-dollar venture that has changed the skyline of downtown Hamilton.
Vrancor Group, headed up by Darko Vranich, recently received conditional site plan approval for a 32-storey luxury apartment building with commercial and retail space at the corner of George and Caroline streets.
The building, 20/22 George Street, will be Vranich’s highest yet and, at 106 metres, is expected to be among the tallest buildings downtown when complete.
The first of Vrancor’s neighbourhood structures, Staybridge Suites, opened in 2012. Since then, the company has followed suit with Homewood Suites – located on Bay Street South – along with highrise condominium project 150 Main St. W. and Bella Tower apartments, which are right around the corner on Main Street West.
They’re part of a growing cluster of highrises – proposed, in development and built – popping up around the core as interest in downtown living continues to rise.
The demand for height has ignited discussion on the issue and prompted the city to develop a Tall Building Study, which was released in draft form last spring.
But how tall is too tall for Hamilton?
There isn’t a black-and-white answer, most experts agree.
“The mantra I always use is ‘density without design is disaster,'” says city planning director Steve Robichaud. “If you do it successfully, you don’t even know the building is there.”
For Robichaud, context is key when it comes to planning these structures. In which neighbourhood will it be built? What impact will it have on traffic?
The city’s study, which came about as a way to evaluate the impact of tall buildings locally, tries to take these factors into account.
It’s broken down by downtown neighbourhoods because height can affect areas differently, said Alissa Mahood, a senior planner with the city who authored the report.
“Downtown is our urban growth centre,” she said. “We want to see intensification there.
“But there are all these other things we need to consider.”
Things like monitoring how tall buildings could impact emergency service response times, making sure to maintain parkland and community gathering spaces, and ensuring new construction doesn’t block views of the Mountain, Mahood added.
The city also considers the impact that shadows created by buildings will have on public spaces below, and how those could be minimized by designs incorporating step-backs and terraces.
“Architecturally, if they’re designed appropriately, we can have really great spaces,” Mahood said.
When gathering feedback for the Tall Building Study, a couple of the same points kept coming up, Mahood said.
“Generally, the public was saying, ‘We are OK with tall buildings, but they have to be respectful of the neighbourhood.'”
Residents voiced loudly and clearly that new developments should not be built taller than the escarpment so as not to block their view, Mahood said.
“Respecting that height” is something that is reflected in the tall building guidelines, she said.
On the whole, Hamilton’s tall buildings are not so tall when compared to other municipalities. While Toronto’s highest structure is the CN Tower, its tallest habitable building is the 72-storey First Canadian Place, which was built in 1975.
Head west on the highway and you’ll reach Absolute World – better known as the Marilyn Monroe Towers – in Mississauga. One tower has 56 floors; the other has 50.
Move outside Canada, and you’ll find the world’s tallest building in Dubai, stretching 163 storeys high.
Tall buildings contribute to the vibrancy of a city by showing it’s a happening place, says a professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of planning.
“It’s important for a city to have a skyline,” said Pierre Filion. “It shows that it’s a place of action and it’s a place of urban intensity.”
Overall, Filion believes too much emphasis is placed on the height of a building when the focus should be on what’s happening at ground level.
“How often do you go up and look at what the top of the building looks like?”
Filion cites the example of Second Avenue in Manhattan, which is essentially surrounded by apartment buildings 30 storeys and often higher.
But at street level there are coffee shops, grocery stores and bakeries.
One concern often raised is that when you build up, you lose the sense of a neighbourhood, but not so in this case, Filion argues.
“You do have the feeling that you are in a neighbourhood because of what’s happening at the ground level despite the presence of those very tall buildings.”
That’s not to say there aren’t factors that need to be taken into account when considering tall buildings in residential neighbourhoods, like their impact on privacy and traffic, Filion said.
But some believe certain neighbourhoods are no place for tall buildings at all.
A proposal for a 19-storey residential building to be constructed near Stoney Creek Optimist Park was recently shot down at the city’s planning committee, despite planning staff recommending its approval.
One of the issues raised with respect to the 219-unit building at 860 Queenston Rd. was that residents would have to use the same entrance as nearby Battlefield Plaza to the west of the property.
But height – and what that would mean in terms of density for the area – was the main concern about the proposal, which recommended a structure several storeys higher than what is currently permitted at that site.
“Stoney Creek is not the place, especially in the older areas,” ward Coun. Doug Conley said at the January meeting.
Despite tall buildings typically being clustered downtown, Stoney Creek has a handful of its own already. A few are sprinkled along the waterfront on Green Road and others teetering around the 15-storey mark are situated in the Riverdale community in nearby east Hamilton.
Other areas of the city – the Mountain, Westdale and Durand – have their own small pockets of tall structures, too.
Height is a popular way to achieve density as planners work to intensify urban centres as per the province’s 2005 Places to Grow Act, Filion said. For developers, building up is the most lucrative way to do that, he added.
But Hamilton’s tallest building was built long before this provincial legislation came into play.
The Century 21 building – now called Landmark Place – was built by Alfonso Frisina and is more than 40 storeys high at the corner of Main Street East and Catharine Street South.
Frisina, who arrived from Italy in 1950, fought hard for financing, but once complete, the building wowed the city. Champagne and shrimp were served at a topping-off party held in February 1974.
On the day he finished the tower, he was near tears.
“To me and my family, this is the Empire State Building of Hamilton,” he is quoted as saying at the time.
But receptions are not always so warm nowadays.
Nearby municipality Burlington is currently locked in a battle with a local developer before the Ontario Municipal Board over a proposed 26-storey condo to be built downtown and near the lakefront.
The city, which has faced similar discussions as Hamilton around building height and developed its own tall building guidelines, believes the project represents “overdevelopment” and does not reflect “good planning.”
Coun. Marianne Meed Ward, who represents the ward where the condo tower would be built, is of the opinion that shorter, less dense developments make for a better community and it’s up to the municipality to preserve this standard.
“We can have developments that are taller without being so tall that they make our community unliveable and unrecognizable,” she said. “We don’t want to be hyperintensified.”
For her, Burlington’s height should be concentrated around its GO stations, where there is ample access to transit and other amenities like grocery stores, but not downtown.
“Tall buildings don’t belong everywhere, and that’s got to be really clear,” she said.