Transit-oriented developments in Toronto give way to transit-oriented communities in multibillion-dollar investments.
This article was published in the Spring 2023 Issue of Urban Land.
For any airline passenger making the final descent into Toronto, the view offers a riddle: can you spot the downtown? The skyline is almost certain to trip you up, and it is not because the city core is too small to find. It is because the Toronto region appears to have at least a half dozen downtowns. The cityscape is spiky, with high-rise clusters breaking the horizon in every direction. Many spring up in the midst of low-lying bedroom communities, with little in the way of mid-rise transition. It is as if someone decided to renovate small clusters of detached houses by adding an extra 40 or 50 stories.
Toronto’s true downtown is the one on the shore of Lake Ontario, capped by the iconic CN Tower. Just 25 years ago, that location was the region’s lone urban destination, an unmistakable and fast-growing hub.
Today, it has some fresh local competition: with towers sprouting in formerly sleepy bedroom suburbs like Vaughan, Markham, and Brampton, the region’s center of gravity is noticeably shifting.
“Downtown Toronto won’t lose its place in the local hierarchy, but it definitely won’t have the hegemony it had before,” says Toronto-based architect and consultant Ken Greenberg. “Many of these places are going to be very attractive once they are fully built out.”
Learn more about innovative Toronto development at the 2023 ULI Spring Meeting.
The change is no accident. It is being sparked by a massive C$62 billion (US$45 billion) transit investment by Ontario’s provincial government from 2020 to 2030, one that will radically redraw the regional mobility map. By the time all the pieces are in place, Toronto’s radial hub-and-spoke system of subway and commuter rail lines will be transformed into an expansive, networked rapid-transit grid covering more than 4,000 square miles (10,400 sq km).
All the region’s commuter rail lines, some of which once offered only six trains a day (three each during the morning and afternoon rush hours), will move to 15-minute all-day service. Toronto’s Union Station, which serves more than 200,000 passengers a day, will still be the region’s highest-traffic commuter hub, but travelers will no longer have to pass through it to reach their destinations.
That, in turn, is turning more places into destinations in their own right. “Transit-oriented development will change the way the Toronto region looks and the way it works,” says John Allen, executive director of the Toronto-based Future of Infrastructure Group. “When the transit expansion is complete, people will be able to commute to the suburbs or across suburbs for work, not just in and out of downtown.” Allen does not mince words about what is at stake: “Given the scale of the transit investment, it likely won’t happen again. Ever.”
Put another way: if a sleepy Toronto-area suburb has any big dreams for its future, now is the moment to make them come true. To judge from the view from an airplane window, they are not wasting the opportunity.
Making the Leap
On the ground, some of these suburban high-rise developments are desolate canyons while others are lively cityscapes, and neither luck nor fate is to blame. The best spaces are the result of a purposeful leap that developers and transit builders have to make together—from transit-oriented development (TOD) to transit-oriented community (TOC). “TOD is a forest of towers beside a transit station,” says Matti Siemiatycki, a professor with Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Cities. “TOC is exceptional places that people want to spend time in.”
Siemiatycki says the difference can be boiled down to three ingredients: density, diversity, and design.
“Density means it will be animated with people at all times of the day,” he says. “Diversity is about lots of different uses, so people have lots of different reasons to be there. And design means beautiful placemaking” with such elements as public squares, parks, and promenades.
Siemiatycki’s recipe makes it sound easy. In reality, TOC is difficult to build from scratch atop suburban brownfields or greenfields, the kinds of places people are accustomed to driving through. One of the region’s most advanced TOC examples is in Markham, a once-monocultural suburb 21 miles (34 km) northeast of downtown Toronto. Thirty years ago, then-mayor Don Cousens approached the Remington Group, a local developer of single-family detached homes, with the idea of creating a downtown on a 243-acre (98 ha) greenfield next to a commuter rail station.
“When our owner, Rudy Bratty, decided to go along with it, people told him he was nuts,” says Randy Peddigrew, Remington’s executive vice president of land development. “He got a lot of side eye at the time.”
Today, Remington’s Downtown Markham development is home to more than 2,300 people in its mix of mixed-use mid-rise blocks and high-rise towers amid 400,000 square feet (37,000 sq m) of retail space and 850,000 square feet (79,000 sq m) of office space. When the project is built out, those figures
will quadruple—and all of it will be housed in LEED-certified buildings, a commitment Remington made from the outset—giving Downtown Markham a density that will rival that of downtown Toronto. The development is powered by district energy, which reduces community emissions by 50 percent, Remington says. The area also has been designated as a regional transit hub, with the refurbished Unionville GO rail station on its eastern flank and a Viva bus rapidway traversing the site.
Peddigrew points to the neighborhood’s condo-hotel—an increasingly common built form in urban cores, but an absolute rarity in suburbia—as a case study in the challenges and benefits that come with building mixed-use development in a nowhere geography. The design combined a 200-room hotel with a 300-unit condo development and multiple retail storefronts, which led to negotiations over who would be responsible for maintenance of the site’s underground parking.
“The condo owners say it should be the hotel, and the hotel says it should be the retailers,” says Peddigrew. When another condo tower, K2, goes up next door, it will use the same driveways, ramps, and parking garage as the condo-hotel. “We are being creative with easements and spreading the costs of that parking facility across as many users as possible,” he says.
Financing was another sticking point. “Remington is not a specialist in retail, so we don’t have a stable of companies who will sign leases with us on spec,” he says. “That led banks to say they wouldn’t finance the retail portion of the building.” Remington financed the retail segment itself, as it has done for all its mixed-use buildings to date. Peddigrew is hopeful that the municipality will be able to help finance retail space in the future when banks will not.
Regardless, today the building is fully leased and occupied, home to the Toronto Marriott Markham and a Ruth’s Chris Steak House as well as a selection of shops owned by local entrepreneurs, such as the Patisserie Fleur pastry shop and the Thai fusion restaurant Lanna—the kind of mix that makes Downtown Markham a unique destination rather than a franchise arcade.
Downtown Markham even features a flash of Parisian whimsy: a public carousel. Named the Pride of Canada Carousel, the solar-powered attraction is a $30 million piece of public art created by Canadian junk-art sculptor Patrick Amiot. “We eventually plan to develop that location, but when we do we’ll have to find a new home for the carousel,” says Peddigrew. “It’s incredibly popular.”
Record Immigration Growth
In the years since Remington broke ground on Downtown Markham, numerous other Toronto developers have mimicked the company’s transformation from suburban low-rise expert to vertical community builder. SmartCentres, once known primarily as the region’s exclusive builder of early-2000s Walmart power centers, is the driving force behind the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, a collection of towers at the northwestern terminus of Toronto’s University-Spadina subway line. RioCan, once solely a shopping mall operator, now redevelops its properties (and their vast surface parking lots) as mixed-use towers.
The shift in their businesses is being driven by Canada’s breakneck population growth. While many other countries have acted to restrict immigration in recent years, Canada has opened its gates. The country welcomed a record 431,645 immigrants in 2022—with more than 35 percent settling in the Toronto region—and it plans to keep setting records for the next three years, reaching a half million arrivals in 2025. “People are coming from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, they are well educated, they often have young families,” says Anton Katipunan, RioCan’s vice president of development. “That’s what informs the project type and the product type.”
These developers have not only had to learn a new way of building; they also have had to learn the logic of transit over cars. “Transit builders are from Mars and developers are from Venus,” says Allen of the Future of Infrastructure Group. “They don’t speak the same language.” A few years back, Allen noticed that the first legs of Toronto’s transit expansion had little development planned around new stations. “When we asked the government why, the answer was that transit builders were focused on their own deliverables and didn’t want to add that extra level of complexity.”
Those conversations led Allen to bring both sides into a room for relationship counseling. “The infrastructure people talked about the restrictions they face. The developers explained how their world worked. Everyone talked about the things that keep them up at night. It was a good dialogue, and with the support of ULI’s Toronto chapter, we’ve kept it going.”
The fruits of that dialogue are apparent in Brampton’s planned transformation of RioCan’s Shoppers World mall into the Uptown Brampton development, located 25 miles (40 km) west of downtown Toronto at what eventually will be the terminus of a new light-rail transit (LRT) line along Hurontario Street at Steeles Avenue. Brampton’s Vision 2040 calls for the city to add 136,000 dwelling units, 385,000 residents, and more than 185,000 jobs in the next 17 years. At the project’s center will be the 52-acre (21 ha) Uptown site—a dense, walkable, well-designed transit-oriented community with residences, office space, a school, a community center, a library, daycare, arts, and culture spaces, and access to nearby riverside parks.
ULI Toronto, in partnership with the Future of Infrastructure Group, wrote a recent report on the Uptown Brampton project, viewing it through different lenses—transit, economic development, climate, and social equity. They also held workshops for stakeholders and the public. “The idea was to try and address all these perspectives in the planning stages,” says ULI Toronto executive director Richard Joy. “The project stands a better chance of success in building a multidimensional hub with this kind of process.”
For the first phase of the development, RioCan plans to build 750 residential units close to the planned LRT terminal, and eventually spread housing from there to 5,000 units at full buildout. The development is still in its planning phase; the hope is to power the site with some combination of geothermal and district energy. Says Katipunan, “this will be a location where people can do everything they would want to do in their lives—working, shopping, learning, and living—without ever having to drive or park a car.”
That said, plans are still in flux as all stakeholders try to assess the lingering impacts of the pandemic.
“Post-COVID, there is a change in what people want,” he adds. “We are anticipating demand for larger units and different amenities.” The pandemic has also thrown the office market into upheaval, with 14 percent of the Toronto financial district’s leasable space now vacant. Katipunan says that could affect the residential/commercial mix for Uptown Brampton; a decision will not be made until the project reaches phase two. “No one has a crystal ball that can see 20 years into the future on this issue.”
Sizing Up the Issues
Post-pandemic market shocks are not the only kink still facing Toronto’s emerging TOCs. Another is how best to determine the increase in property values that transit expansion creates.
“In the last 10 years, it’s become clear that the value created by a new LRT station exceeds what gets captured in new property taxes,” says Rowan Mills of Colliers and vice chair with the Future of Infrastructure Group. Municipalities are looking to developers to return some portion of those gains to the community, be it through parks, public spaces or services, contributions to infrastructure costs, or investments in affordable housing. “There are many ways to do it, but the principle is now entrenched: governments are looking for ways to capture some of that value for the taxpayers who fund the transit,” he says.
Affordable housing also remains a thorny issue. Municipalities see it as a priority whereas developers see it as both a cost and an administrative challenge. This March, the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation rolled out its new MLI Select program, which offers lower insurance premiums and higher loan-to-value ratios to builders who make firm commitments to affordable housing, energy efficiency, or accessibility. RioCan is still working through the program’s points system to determine how it can help the company meet affordability goals in Uptown Brampton, Katipunan says.
Peddigrew, meanwhile, points out that suburban communities lack expertise in managing affordable housing. “I can build affordable units, but I need an operator to manage them,” he says. “That’s not a line of business for us, and the suburbs don’t have a lot of operators.”
Affordable housing is one of the reasons Greenberg believes the jury is still out on all these new developments. “The communities aspire to the right ideals, but they are all still works in progress,” he says. “I can’t yet point to a single place and say that it has all the ingredients, that it has hit the jackpot on community building.”
Even so, there is no doubt that change is in the air—and on the ground. A few months ago,
Siemiatycki went for a run westward from Toronto’s inner suburb of Etobicoke, through blocks and blocks of postwar arterial through-spaces. For much of the run, he was the only person on the sidewalks.
But as he got closer to Hurontario Street, and the forthcoming LRT extension, things started to change.
He emerged south of the Uptown Brampton site in a district where new development was already taking hold. More people were milling about, and there were more businesses facing the streets. He felt like he ran out of Toronto’s past and into its future. “We’re trying to retrofit more than a half century’s worth of deeply car-oriented landscapes into something completely different,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but it’s happening.”
Learn more about innovative Toronto development at the 2023 ULI Spring Meeting.
PHILIP PREVILLE is a freelance writer based in the Toronto region and a two-time winner of a National Magazine Award in Canada.