Jan Gandhi and Omar Jabri share a love of big-city life: the people, the architecture, the fashion, the logarithmic bustle of human energy that comes from high-density, high-rise living. They first met as articling students with different Bay Street law firms, introduced by mutual friends. Together they moved to New York, where Gandhi worked as in-house counsel for MTV and Jabri as an intellectual property lawyer, and they lived in an apartment in Chelsea. Gandhi became addicted to flash-sale websites, filling her wardrobe with deeply discounted designer fashions. Flash sales are enormously popular in New York. She saw an underserved market in Toronto, so she hatched a plan to return and launch her own site.
When they moved back in 2011 they were determined to live downtown. “We wanted a place where we could feel the energy of the city,” says Gandhi, who is 34 years old and striking. They settled on renting a glitzy, all-white 16th-floor unit in the Festival Tower, a brand-new 41-storey building by the developer Daniels. Their view was of the theatre district and, directly below, the rooftop deck of the TIFF Lightbox—the scene of many film festival parties. At night, the lights of the Gardiner formed a shimmering, suspended horizon. “It was bigger than the apartment we had in Chelsea, and it was cheaper, too,” says Jabri, who is 35. They signed a lease for $2,600 a month, with a view toward purchasing their own condo in the city core down the road.
Six weeks later, in mid-May, their ideal downtown life was shaken. “The property manager called me at work to tell me that a pane of glass had fallen from my balcony,” Jabri recalls. The manager couldn’t say how it happened. Tempered glass is designed to shatter into tiny pieces when struck, but what could have struck it? “The only thing we kept on the balcony was my bike,” Jabri says, “and I’d ridden it to work that morning.” Perhaps a bird, then, or something falling from higher up.
Jabri honed in on one question: “What’s our liability?” He wondered if anyone had been hurt, if any property had been damaged below, what his insurance policy would cover, and what it all might cost him. When he told Gandhi about the glass, she immediately thought of the amount of time she spent on the balcony. “We dog-sit for my parents when they go away,” she says. “Can you imagine? The dog could have fallen. A child could have fallen.”
By the time they got home, their balcony had already been secured with a plywood board where the glass had been. Within days a fresh pane of tempered glass was installed. No one hurt, everything back as it was, liability nil.
The couple didn’t give the matter another thought until the Tuesday evening after the August long weekend. Jabri was standing at the busy corner of King and John when he looked up at his building and was startled to see the debris from another pane of glass falling to the sidewalk below. The shards rained down like a hailstorm. People on John Street scattered to escape the pellets, some dashing into the middle of the road. “When I realized it was happening again, that’s when I thought it could be a design flaw or poor workmanship,” he says.
By then, all of Toronto had turned into a collective Chicken Little, convinced the sky was falling in the form of glass shards. At the 45- and 37-storey Murano towers at Bay and Grosvenor, built by the developer Lanterra, at least 15 panes of glass shattered and fell between April 2010 and September 2011. Balcony glass fell from another Lanterra development last summer as well, the prestigious One Bedford condo tower in the Annex.
The falling glass phenomenon continued into this year. In March, a pane fell from the Trump Tower, closing the intersection of Bay and Adelaide and snarling traffic for the better part of a day. In April, the developer Concord Adex, realizing that it used the same glass supplier as Lanterra and Daniels, decided to wrap all the balconies at three of its towers—one at CityPlace, two up at ParkPlace in the Sheppard and Leslie area—in mesh as a precaution.
Under pressure from city hall to ensure public safety, Daniels and Lanterra locked residents out of their balconies and erected protective plywood hoardings over sidewalks. The developers decided to replace the tempered balcony glass, at their own cost, with laminated glass (the kind used in windshields, which holds together and stays in place even following a full-force collision). But it’s not easy to get your hands on hundreds of large panes of laminated glass, and as of late spring the process of replacing the old ones remained unfinished.