Toronto Celebrates Mid-Century High-rise Residential Retrofit: Can St. Louis Do the Same?

{high-rise residential in Toronto}

St. Louis never experienced the love affair with high-rise residential during the 1950’s-70’s that dominated urban residential construction in much of Europe, Canada and elsewhere. But the city does have Plaza Square bordered by 15th Street, Olive, 17th Street and Chestnut downtown.

Perhaps it was the short and inglorious 18-year life of the Pruitt-Igoe complex that helped to ensure more would not be built. But the absence of high-rise residential likely owes much more to middle-class flight from the city, demand for single-family suburban housing, systematic redlining of urban mortgages and the building of the Interstate highway system. Because high-rise residential composes a significant proportion of Toronto’s housing stock, the problem of aging towers there is an immediate concern.

Toronto Mayor David Miller wants to see the city’s high-rises revitalized, linked to mass transit and surrounded by community gardens. The effort has an excellent website at The Tower Renewal Guidelines PDF provides a good summary. What can St. Louis learn? For one, the Tower Renewal’s “Prime Directive” reads:

In the past, urban renewal was synonymous with the destruction of existing urban fabric and the massive displacement of inhabitants. The demographics of high-rise apartment towers in Toronto are largely skewed towards economically challenged tenants who cannot afford to re-locate to market housing during renewal activities. This limitation also applies to tower owners who cannot afford extended periods of vacancy while renewal work is being performed. In view of this reality, these guidelines focus exclusively on exterior retrofits according to the Tower Renewal Prime Directive:
Zero displacement of occupants.
Limited intrusion into the day-to-day lives of tenants.
Minimal impact on vacancy rates.

High-rises or not, such a recognition of the impact of (re)development on existing residents would be a simple, but extraordinary step for Paul McKee’s NorthSide. But back to high-rise residential. Research cited in the about PDF estimates the replacement cost of a typical concrete slab 20-story tower at $50-60M. A comprehensive retrofit is estimated to cost $4-5M. In addition to increased energy efficiency, retrofits could consist of over-cladding and combining small units into family-sized units.

One-sixth of the Plaza Square Apartment towers have been redeveloped as Blu CitySpaces by developer Steve Anrod. The six towers are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places which makes them eligible for historic tax credits. The towers date from 1961, have a total of 1,090 units, were designed by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum and feature underground parking.

Today the towers are not in danger of demolition and not showing significant deterioration. But their future is uncertain. Plaza Square was never entirely successful. Just four years after completion one tower was converted to a retirement community. Today, the five towers that have not been redeveloped are once again in foreclosure. It is the second foreclosure process since 2004. With the condominium market slow and many new apartments downtown it’s unlikely that the remaining 800+ units will be redeveloped soon.

What is needed to successfully redevelop Plaza Square? Additional mass transit options? Redevelopment of the Kiel Opera House and Ford Apartments? Relocation of the NLEC and other homeless support centers? Or are St. Louisians simply still not ready to celebrate mid-century high-rise living?

{another view of Toronto high-rises}

{a view from Blu CitySpaces}

{another view from Blu CitySpaces}

{interior of Blu City Spaces}

{exterior of Plaza Square Apartments}

{image from Plaza Square promotional brochure}


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