By Tracy Hanes

The push for density means projects are going up—way up—in previously untraditional places

If  you’re in a city like Vaughan, Brampton or Pickering, look up—way up. It’s a bird! No, it’s a crane!

Residential construction activity is taking developments to new heights in the 905 and beyond, and at an unprecedented rate. Cities such as Kitchener, Hamilton, London and Oshawa are also awash in high-rise activity as Ontario looks to keep pace with its target of adding 1.5 million new homes by 2031, with even higher-density targets for 2051.

“Unlike American cities, Toronto and other Canadian cities have a long history of tall towers in suburban locales. It’s not new, although you are seeing them farther out,” says Richard Joy, executive director of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Toronto. “But towers in suburbs are a uniquely Canadian phenomenon.”

Joy says that at last count, 240 cranes were working on towers in the 416, which is not all that shocking. What is surprising is that more than 100 cranes were active in the 905, which is “an even more impressive number from a North American context.”

The provincial and federal governments are rewarding municipalities that are proactive in adding housing supply, and high-rises are a means to that end. The Building Faster Fund, a three-year, $1.2 billion program, provides money for community- and housing-enabling infrastructure. The money goes to municipalities that reach at least 80% of their provincially assigned housing target for the year, with increased funding for those that exceed their target. 

Brampton, the fastest-growing large city in Canada, received more than $25 million from the fund for breaking ground on 7,028 new units in 2023, or 85% of its target. Kitchener exceeded its target of 2,567 new units with 3,579 starts. Cities with targets of 1,000-plus units, such as Barrie, Hamilton, Milton, Ottawa, Toronto and Pickering, were either on track, met or exceeded targets. 

The $4 billion federal CMHC Housing Accelerator Fund, launched in March 2023, provides funds to local governments that make changes to facilitate new housing creation, and set three- and 10-year goals. The money is released in installments as each municipality meets its requirements, which could involve creating new programs or amending existing policies. Ontario cities receiving $25 million or more from that program include Barrie, Brampton, Hamilton, London, Markham, Mississauga, Kingston, Kitchener, Ottawa, Richmond Hill, St. Catharines, Toronto, Vaughan and Whitby. Many see towers as a solution to meet targets and tap into funding. 

Joy says the tall towers are rising primarily in areas of transit expansion. There’s already been a boom of them around the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre (VMC) and its subway station. And with plans to extend the subway line further north on Yonge St., both Markham and Newmarket will see a surge in tower developments—something that’s already happening around the Highway 407/Yonge St. intersection. 

Construction is underway on the VMC’s tallest unit yet, the 60-storey CG Tower in the Cortel Group’s Expo City. The project, which will connect Highway 7 to the new Edgeley Park and Pond, will also infuse art into the public realm. This may help address one of Joy’s criticisms of the VMC—that it has transit, density and height but is not yet a vibrant urban environment. 

“You can’t just have density for density’s sake,” agrees Karla Cruz Ruelas of BDP Quadrangle, the architectural firm that has designed the CG Tower. “You have to create a sense of community with the right elements. With Edgeley Park, there will be green areas and communal areas.” 

Calling Vaughan “very forward-thinking, Cruz Ruelas says there will be areas with retail and entertainment options within walking distance, and Expo City will be a site that will bring the community together at grade. 

Pickering is also undergoing a development boom, with many tall towers under construction or approved—most clustered around the GO station south of Highway 401, and Pickering City Hall and Pickering Town Centre north of the highway. 

Pickering’s Town Centre development by CentreCourt Developments.

There are big redevelopment plans for Pickering Town Centre, where CentreCourt Development plans to build 10 high-rise condos of up to 55 storeys to create a vibrant new downtown area on the 55-acre site. It will bring more than 6,000 residences while also adding public spaces.

 Chestnut Hill Developments has the seven-tower Universal City development underway on the south side of the 401 across from the Town Centre, a short walk from the GO station and just west of the multi-billion-dollar Durham Live Entertainment Complex. Chestnut Hill was a pioneer in bringing tall towers to Pickering, launching the city’s first master-planned community, San Francisco by the Bay, in 2007 despite stiff ratepayer opposition. The community features townhouses and three towers from 16 to 25 storeys.

Pickering’s population of 110,000 is slated to grow to 184,800 by 2041, making it Durham Region’s largest municipality. But Mayor Kevin Ashe has said rumours that 75 towers are coming to the city are overblown, although he admits council supports intensification and transit-supported development, including housing of all forms. 

Hamilton has a longer history with tall towers, with several 30-storey-plus structures existing or under construction and dozens of sky-reaching proposals. Landmark Place/100 Main, a downtown rental building completed in 1974, is currently the tallest in the city, at 43 storeys. However, a proposal looming large is a mixed-use, 45-storey condo tower at Pier 8, slated to be an urban waterfront community with 1,500 residential units, commercial and institutional space, as well as community amenities. Part of the city’s plan to create a world-class waterfront, the tower will be developed by the Waterfront Shores Corp. (Tercot Communities and Cityzen Development Group).

“If you’re driving over the Burlington Skyway Bridge, you’re going to see the tower,” says Tercot Founder and President Joe Valela. “This is the only tower in the entire community. It’s a one-off and will stand out on the water.”

Hamilton’s proposed Pier 8, a 45-storey waterfront tower by Tercot Communities and Cityzen Development Group.

The tower is a legacy project for world-renowned architect Bruce Kuwabara, who grew up in north Hamilton. “It wasn’t a density play” but more intended to create an iconic structure, Valela notes. “We moved the density around on the block. This was Bruce’s vision for a landmark. If you look to Europe, there are low forms and larger buildings, and every village has a high tower or church steeple, where the village congregates.” 

Having a prominent tower like that allowed the developers at Pier 8 to offer community benefits, including a second-floor public lookout.

“The city staff was very open and really listened to us. We had support from the mayor on down,” says Valela. “There were some detractors, but the vision for the community was worthwhile.” 


Kitchener, a diverse city becoming a tech corridor and the terminus for a light rail transit system, is a smaller centre unafraid of density and urbanization, says Joy. The new rules of its Growing Together and Inclusionary Zoning plans enable all housing types through a full range of building types, including missing middle, no density maximums, no parking minimums, requirements for a minimum number of affordable units through, and flexible built-form rules, including a zone without height limits. 

When completed in 2022, DTK Condos was the city’s tallest building. Now, several will eclipse that, including the 45-storey TEK Tower. 

Sherry Larjani, president of Spotlight Development, cites Kitchener as one of the most progressive municipalities she has worked with, “and the Region of Waterloo is just as supportive.” 

Spotlight is planning a four-tower, mixed-use, transit-oriented community at Courtland Avenue East and Block Line Rd., with buildings 15 to 35 storeys in height. While not in the city’s core, it is part of the broader ring of neighbourhoods surrounding the downtown. It’s called The Inclusive (Spotlight has a similar project planned in Toronto), as the goal is to create at least 1,500 affordable units among 3,000 residential units in all. It will be a “complete community with 24/7 daycare and seniors’, financial and employment programs,” says Larjani, who is partnering with several non-profit agencies to deliver its affordable units, including Habitat for Humanity Waterloo Region, Trillium Housing and Good Shepherd Ministries. 

“Density is the answer (to the housing crisis), but not the only answer,” Larjani says. “It’s also partners, and we have so many around the table. If you’re doing only one type of housing with only one not-for-profit partner, this type of capacity is not possible. The only solution is to do it at scale.”

There will be market condos and rental apartments in the development, as well as a bus terminal. It’s also steps from the LRT station, making it easy to get downtown or to Conestoga College, and a five-minute walk from a large outlet mall. Larjani says while transit is key, it is also important to have services and resources on-site, such as daycare, health care and resources for refugees, youth, the elderly and indigenous groups, among others. She says the goal is to create a place where people can thrive, and that it’s the benefits beyond the bricks and mortar that will make that happen.


Public investments, such as the one Metrolinx is investing in GO Transit’s all-day rapid-train service between Barrie and Toronto, “need density to justify them,” notes Joy. Barrie has suffered from a weak downtown but is now following the lead of other GTA cities where “density has done amazing things for them,” Joy says. With more than 100,000 immigrants arriving annually in Canada, he says centres like Barrie will be very much in line for height and density, especially with talk of a potential high-speed rail line that would run through Peterborough.

Atria Development has experience bringing modest height to Peterborough, and taller buildings to Toronto, Barrie, Hamilton and St. Catharines. It reintroduced condo development to downtown Oshawa for the first time since the 1980s with an office conversion/new build of 120 units completed in 2007. Atria followed that up with two high-rise rental buildings and has several other multi-residential projects of up to 20 storeys planned for the city (the municipal airport in the central part of the city restricts very tall buildings). In St. Catharines, it has proposed Skye, a development of 28-, 40- and 50-storey towers on YMCA Drive.

“We like towns with post-secondary education, manufacturing and hospitals,” says company president Hans Jain. “These are towns on their own, with a sense of community.” Some are eager to intensify, such as Oshawa, which is booming due to its receptiveness to taller buildings and other housing forms, Jain suggests.

Going into smaller municipalities for the first time with proposals for tall buildings will invariably be challenging, Jain concedes. “There may not be a lot of familiarity with the product, there’s skepticism, and you hear comments such as ‘You’re never going to build it.’ Ratepayers can be tough.” But Jain says Atria has established a good reputation in these types of communities, complemented by its use of top-quality architects and engineers, and thus tends to receive a warmer response.

“We’re noticing that the further out you go (from the 416), the bigger the resistance,” says Medallion Developments Director of Development and Construction Rad Vucicevich. “People bought their plots of land and were proud of moving to the suburbs, and there is still a stigma associated with higher density in those areas.”

However, he says that through education, media, and with politicians starting to push for more density and height, “there’s a lot less resistance than even five years ago. It’s not easy, but there is definitely change.”

Beyond Toronto, Medallion has several high-rise purpose-built rental buildings at various stages in multiple centres—upwards of 22 storeys in Oshawa and up to 28 storeys in other cities.

“A lot of times, we choose locations with transit-oriented sites,” says Vucicevich. “Durham Region is not that strong in transit, but it offers incentives to build, such as Community Improvement Plans (CIPs). It’s much more feasible in locations where there are financial incentives.” He says in Ajax, Medallion took advantage of a CIP and a CMHC apartment loan to create the three-phase Vision at Pat Bayly Square. The first two-tower phase, two 25-storey mixed-use rental buildings, were completed in 2020. The second phase, now under construction, will have 19- and 23-storey towers. The development includes a year-round public square with a skating rink, fountain, stage and “stores lining up” to lease the retail spaces. It’s minutes from the GO station, the Ajax Pickering Hospital, town hall and the public library.

Vucicevich says Medallion has learned to take a communication-first approach in smaller centres and will work with the community and city to formulate a plan before it submits a proposal. “Everyone then knows what’s going to happen. The resistance is still there, but a lot less.”


While hardly skyscrapers, Crystal Homes and partner Fernbrook have the eight-storey Nuvo Condominiums under construction in Oakville and are now planning a 12-storey version for Brampton. Both are set in low-rise residential neighbourhoods where multi-storey buildings are not the norm. 

“The Brampton project will be in a very residential area among estate homes, and we’ve had so many people calling to see when it will be released,” says Crystal Homes President Kathy di Silvestro. “What we’ve noticed with typical high-rises and mid-rises is that it’s all about transportation, and those buildings are on busy streets, close to the bus, train or subway.” 

However, more families are looking for high-rises due to affordability while still seeking family-friendly locations. “They want a residential neighbourhood. They want to be within walking distance of elementary schools and parks. So many people can’t afford to get into detached homes, and their children still need schools, parks and community centres. Their number-one motivator for buying isn’t transit.”

A case in point is how popular Oakville Nuvo is proving not merely for older move-down buyers but also for families with one child who have been buying one-bedroom-plus-den units, intending to use the den as a child’s room. 

But the majority of tall towers still favour transit and downtowns. Medallion has multiple rental towers of 20-plus-storeys in London, with more planned. Joy cites London as one city requiring more density, and Vucicevich agrees. “There’s a benefit of bringing density to smaller centres,” Vucicevich says. “You are providing housing, you are providing local businesses with more customers, you’re introducing new blood to the community, and a bigger population makes transit more viable.” Towers also offer young adults and older seniors the opportunity to afford to stay in their communities, he adds. 

“In many smaller towns, you see downtowns that don’t have enough density to support their restaurants and retail,” says Jain. “In places of low density, you’ve seen the hollowing out of downtowns. You have nice restaurants, but that’s it. You need people living there. When you have people walking around downtowns, security improves because there are eyes on the street, and the tax base increases.”

Jain has noticed some previously height-resistant municipalities changing their attitudes due to the housing shortage and the Ford government’s push for more density. And from a financial standpoint, the taller the better for many developers.

“The fixed costs to do small projects are almost the same as big projects,” Jain says. “You have to have a site superintendent, you have to put in elevators, etc. And when the project is done, if it’s an apartment building, you have to manage it, and that’s hard with a small condo or apartment. Municipalities have to realize that they have aging infrastructure and that height and density are a necessity. They need to be pragmatic.”

However, “height is not the solution to density in all cases,” says Joy. “Look to Europe, where Paris is one of the densest cities in the Western world and has no ultra-tall buildings. Some planning is happening south of Brampton and south of Barrie, where municipalities are looking at some amazing density without height. I think it warrants a discussion about how we can achieve density in other ways.”

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