West Don Lands and the Canary District, Liberty Village, and Concord CityPlace demonstrate urban renewal done well.
One area was a former rail yard. Another was home to a farm equipment manufacturing complex and appliance plant. The third was an industrial zone that had been vacant for nearly a half century.
Over the past two decades, all three sites have been transformed into 21st-century master-planned neighborhoods—the Canary District, Liberty Village, and Concord CityPlace. Each was developed with strict guidelines for design and sustainability and built with an emphasis on providing affordable, walkable housing for Toronto’s continually growing population.
“West Don Lands and Canary District, Liberty Village, and Concord CityPlace—among others—have set Toronto apart as a place that understands urban renewal and urban regeneration,” says Gregg Lintern, chief planner and executive director of Toronto’s City Planning Division.
“More housing is certainly needed in Toronto, and these close-in neighborhoods offer various types of housing for many types of families. Toronto is a jobs center with strong employment. Immigration is increasing. Residents want to live where they work, and that has driven more residential development downtown, increased livability, and provided additional amenities for greater city life that has attracted younger demographics.”
Like many neighborhoods with an industrial past, these three have gained favor because of their proximity to downtown and become some of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Toronto.
“We saw Liberty Village as an amazing opportunity to community build because we recognized that this neighborhood would become a great place to live, work, and visit,” says Jodi M. Shpigel, senior vice president, development, at Toronto-based First Capital Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), one of Canada’s largest owners, developers, and operators of mixed-use real estate and the largest landowner in Liberty Village.
“A successful community must have all the elements to thrive—employment, shopping and services, places to live, recreation, and access to transit. We saw that Liberty Village had the potential to become what we now refer to as a complete community.”
The Canary District, Indigenous Hub, and Foundry Park are part of the 80-acre (32 ha) West Don Lands development being transformed from former industrial lands into a sustainable, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, riverside community, following a precinct plan developed by Waterfront Toronto, a corporation funded by the Canadian government, the province of Ontario, and the city of Toronto. The goal has been to transform 35 acres (14 ha) of brownfields on Toronto’s waterfront into accessible, sustainable, mixed-use, pedestrian-focused communities and dynamic public spaces built around parks, with housing provided for all ages, income levels, and abilities.
Concord CityPlace is another example of urban revitalization, says Paul Bedford, former Toronto chief planner, current chair of the Waterfront Toronto Design Review Panel, and for the past four years dean of the ULI Toronto Curtner Leadership Program.
“With 30 residential towers and 18,000 residents, Concord CityPlace mimics Vancouver’s tower/podium architecture and green space—residential buildings with a few floors that fill up most of the block, [topped] by a much narrower, higher tower,” Bedford says. “It creates more street-level activity and gives pedestrians a more interesting vista.” Concord, the developer of CityPlace, developed the massive BC Place project in Vancouver, he notes. “Concord CityPlace has the look and feel of Vancouver.”
The three neighborhoods were developed at different times and at different levels of intensity than former industrial lands close to Toronto’s downtown core.
“Their transformation to predominantly residential communities injected new vitality into the central area, which has been positive for Toronto,” says Bedford. “However, I believe that residents have experienced frustrations over the lag time in providing supportive community infrastructure to support the residential population, such as transit, schools, and retail shops. These components have been addressed over time as sufficient density was developed.”
Working with real estate developer CanAlfa, First Capital REIT, and the city of Toronto, global architecture, engineering, planning, and technology firm IBI Group of Toronto is transforming a once-vacant 45-acre (18 ha) industrial brownfield site into Liberty Village, one of the densest and most desirable neighborhoods in Toronto. With access to several major transportation arteries, Liberty Village is a walkable, mixed-use community with parks, plazas, and a variety of amenities.
Located near historic Fort York, the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, and Lake Ontario, the site has had a variety of uses over the years—a prison, an asylum, a munitions production facility, an appliance manufacturing plant, and farm equipment factories. When the last company vacated the site more than 40 years ago, real estate developers sought to create a new mixed-use neighborhood by reintegrating the site into the city grid.
“Liberty Village was designed to be a new downtown neighborhood, a cohesive community where people can live, work, and play—all within a 90-plus Walk Score neighborhood,” says Trevor McIntyre, global director, placemaking and international, at IBI. “This intent and design for the Village resulted in the first significant development in this section of downtown Toronto in generations, with the first new office building to be built in almost 20 years, as well as new city parks and a grocery store plus a new east–west municipal road linking the Village to the surrounding communities.”
“Construction on the various blocks that comprise the Village has been continuous,” says Mansoor Kazerouni, global director, buildings, at IBI.
“Currently, there are three mixed-use structures under construction that are anticipated to be completed by fall 2021, with plans for two other buildings currently in the approvals process.” When completed, Liberty Village will contain over 5.6 million square feet (520,000 sq m) of gross floor area with about 6,800 residential units, plus a range of offices and various retail/service uses, he says.
IBI has been involved with the redevelopment of Liberty Village since 2000, securing the first set of planning approvals from the city two years later.
“At the beginning, connectability was crucial since there are no roads and/or services running through these lands,” recalls David Hastings, director and senior practice lead, architecture, at IBI. “The existing roads/services at the east and west boundaries of the site were used as a starting point that influenced the design of the five new streets that have been dedicated to the city. In addition, four new city parks have been integrated into the project and handed over to the city.”
Collaboration was extremely important throughout the process.
“All of the approvals secured to date have been obtained and supported by the approval agencies, which included many if not all departments within the city of Toronto,” says McIntyre. “The owners did not have to undertake any appeals to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, which has increasingly become the norm to secure planning approvals, not only in the city of Toronto but throughout the province of Ontario. This speaks to the success of the collaborative efforts among the owners, their design team, and the approval agencies involved with developing the Village.”
Liberty Village’s ongoing development has benefited surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole, Kazerouni says. “The redevelopment of this former brownfield site has resulted in substantial residential and business tax base increases for Toronto,” he says. “In developing the Village, the owners dedicated new municipal services, new roads, new parks, and [added] more than 600 street trees to the city.”
One challenge with developments like Liberty Village is that the ownership of land is fragmented. Each landowner has a different vision and a different level of interest in investing, says Shpigel. “Fortunately, we had acquired a significant amount of the land in Liberty Village, which allowed us to design and create the thriving retail, service, and employment that exists today,” she says.
“The growth of the residential, while fragmented, continued to support the businesses in Liberty Village. It’s very easy to walk the entire Village. It’s always active with people, making it a very safe neighborhood.” Liberty Village also benefits from being close to Exhibition Place, a destination for trade and consumer shows, meetings, conferences, and conventions, as well as a community space, which attracts more than 5.5 million visitors throughout the year and supports many nearby restaurants, she says.
Liberty Village was developed as a mixed-use community, but not necessarily with mixed-use buildings. “It would be good to encourage future developments to have a mix of uses in the buildings as well as the neighborhood,” Shpigel says. “It’s complex to develop mixed-use buildings, but when they are done well, they are very successful and create a vibrant, sustainable, and thriving neighborhood.”
McIntyre advises that entrepreneurs considering similar brownfield rejuvenation take these steps:
- Do your homework and undertake thorough due diligence so that all challenges can be comprehensively reviewed, assessed, and anticipated.
- Undertake development in a phased manner and ensure that those phases are logical. Continually build on the previous stage of work that has been completed so that the next phase can proceed as seamlessly as possible and move the project forward.
- Build and retain a strong design team and ensure that team members have the knowledge and tools needed to develop sound working relationships with the various approval agencies that will be involved in the project. This will help ensure that the approvals and building permits required can be obtained as collaboratively and efficiently as possible.
West Don Lands and the Canary District
The Canary District followed a plan by Waterfront Toronto for a pedestrian-focused community built around parks, with housing for all ages, income levels, and abilities. It was to be well served by transit, with plentiful retail and community amenities. It also was developed with stringent sustainability requirements: the Canary District achieved Gold certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.
The district, a project in West Don Lands by Dream Unlimited Corp. and Kilmer Group, began as a development for the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Games Athletes Village. Once the games concluded, Dream and Kilmer, a Toronto-based platform for business development and investment, transformed the village and have continued to develop the district, including construction of condominium projects—Canary Block and Canary Commons—with new residential condominium and rental buildings that continue to be added.
The Canary District integrates market units, affordable housing, and a student residence, among other elements, and includes the Front Street Promenade, a linear park—the spine of the new neighborhood—programmed with public art installations and linked to the district’s secondary network of mews, courtyards, and pathways, says Jason Lester, vice chair of development for Dream, a real estate company with C$9 billion (US$6.4 billion) of assets under management.
Today, the 35-acre (14 ha) Canary District has 1,480 residential units, including 253 affordable units, and 58,000 square feet (5,400 sq m) of retail space. The district includes the 18-acre (7 ha) Corktown Common Park and the 82,000-square-foot (7,600 sq m) Cooper Koo Family YMCA.
Ontario, which owned eight acres (3 ha) of undeveloped land in the West Don Lands, designated parcels for affordable housing and ran a broker-led request for proposals to attract experienced private-sector developers and operators, In 2017, Dream, Kilmer, and Tricon were selected and are building out a large-scale mixed-income rental neighborhood called Foundry Park that will include up to 1,500 rental units, of which 30 percent will be affordable housing. They aim to achieve a LEED Gold rating.
The developers are working with Denmark-based COBE Architects and Henning Larsen and Toronto-based architectsAlliance, with the public areas designed by Montreal-based Claude Cormier + Associés and Toronto-based Public Work. Financial incentives were provided by the city of Toronto’s Open Doors Program, with financing from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The project is under construction.
Dream, Kilmer, and Tricon also are planning to deliver Toronto’s first purpose-built Indigenous Hub in partnership with Anishnawbe Health Toronto, a community health center that provides not only western medical services, but also traditional aboriginal practices and access to health care practitioners from many disciplines, including healers, elders, and medicine people. The hub will include a four-story Indigenous Community Health Centre designed by Stantec, and a five-story training, education, and employment building designed by Quadrangle. The remainder of the block includes 13- and 11-story mixed-use condominium and rental residential buildings, offering a mix of housing types; plus a restored 30,000-square-foot (2,800 sq m) heritage building that will feature destination retail dining and office space. Quadrangle was also responsible for the overall site planning.
The project team also includes Indigenous-owned architecture firm, Two Row Architect, as the Indigenous design consultant for the entire block, including the Indigenous Hub and residential buildings.
Such development is a change from centuries ago, when the West Don Lands was part of the town of York, established in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of present-day Ontario. Within a century, most of the land was hosting an array of factories and warehouses, including a tannery, a metal processing facility, coke and coal plants, chemical manufacturers, and dump sites. By the 1970s, the land was largely abandoned. In the mid-1990s, Ontario acquired the site and the greater West Don Lands area from the city.
The mix of uses in the Canary District is carefully curated to drive new development, Lester says. The public realm of the West Don Lands was planned through a consultation and design review process, he notes. The Front Street Promenade, a wide, paved pedestrian promenade, has benches and planters beneath a thick canopy of trees, and there is a strong retail program focused on health and wellness, including cafés, bakeries, boutiques, and other stores, he says.
“This grand esplanade encourages community interaction and provides a vibrant, pedestrian-animated link between the neighboring Distillery District and the Corktown Common Park, which has evolved into a major attraction for the city,” Lester says. “Private central courtyards and public spaces are connected to public walkways, which seamlessly bond with the rest of the neighborhood and reinforce a fresh, open, and inclusive ambience.”
With mixed-use projects that bridge the old and new, Foundry Park will connect the Distillery District and the Canary residential development, says Gary Berman, chief executive officer of Tricon Capital. “Foundry Park introduces significant local employment opportunities in retail and office uses which were not previously considered,” he says. “It is expected to create 1,500 new purpose-built rental units, of which 30 percent will be affordable.”
With Foundry Park, the provincial government leveraged surplus land, designated it as rental-only lands (70 percent market-rate units and 30 percent affordable), and ran a broker-led request for proposals to attract experienced private-sector developers and operators, says Ken Tanenbaum, vice chair of Kilmer Group.
“With a crystal-clear plan on suite mix, affordable unit pricing, community benefits, and predetermined relief from city levies, the private sector competitively bid on the sites,” says Tanenbaum. “We view this market/affordable ratio as being an ideal mix to support the development of compelling mixed-income communities. The meaningful market-rate component supports the developer investing in high-quality design and resident experience that results in supportive, inclusive, and vibrant cohesive communities that will stand the test of time. We view this as a model for city building, and other government agencies with surplus lands are now mimicking this model in Toronto.”
Many cities have redeveloped large brownfield/rail industrial lands in prime locations, creating developments that include Hudson Yards in New York City, Porto Nuova in Milan, and Canary Wharf in London, Berman notes.
“As cities grapple with a need for more downtown housing to accommodate swelling urban populations—where jobs are located and to reduce the impact on stretched public transport systems—governments should work to unlock these lands’ density to catalyze housing supply,” he says. “That may mean governments taking the lead and sharing in the cost of environmental remediation, pre-zoning, transportation infrastructure, and development incentives.”
Concord CityPlace was formerly occupied by extensive railway lands that were relocated north of the city. “They were initially envisioned as an expansion of the downtown core for predominantly commercial uses but remained vacant for many years due to a severe recession in the early 1990s,” says Bedford. “The residential vision emerged when the lands were purchased by Concord, [which] proposed a high-density residential community over the 200 acres [81 ha], and the City Council embraced this new vision.”
One of the largest master-planned communities downtown, Concord CityPlace not only has more than two dozen residential towers, but also 120,000 square feet (11,000 sq m) of retail space, an eight-acre (3 ha) park, a library, schools, and a community center. Bordered by the Harbourfront/Lake Ontario and Fort York tourist areas, as well as the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (the former SkyDome), Concord CityPlace has a Walk Score of 96. With an average household size of 1.9 persons, the development has a nearly even mix of renters (55 percent) and owners (45 percent). Concord Adex, the developer, says residents are 25 to 44 years old, with an average household income of C$124,000 (US$87,500) as of 2016.
Like the West Don Lands and Liberty Village, CityPlace offers distinct benefits to residents, says Lintern, including high-quality housing near the central business district. “There wasn’t much pushback from neighborhoods in the traditional way, and CityPlace got developed on its own without political pressure,” he says.
The surrounding communities did not oppose redevelopment of these areas because their former industrial uses had generated serious environmental and pollution issues, Lintern recalls. Instead, debate and study focused on the level of residential intensity, the mix of commercial and retail uses, provision of community-supportive infrastructure, and obligations for environmental cleanup, he notes. “These and many other issues resulted in lengthy periods of consultation and inactivity,” Bedford says.
“The desire to create new residential neighborhoods was always envisioned in order to continue the desire of Torontonians to live in close proximity to the downtown that began in the mid-1970s,” he notes.
The primary ingredients of all three neighborhoods are the creation of sufficient density and their proximity to downtown.
“Each neighborhood has produced lessons of what has worked and what has not,” says Bedford. “I think one of the key lessons from all these initiatives is the critical importance of ensuring that complete communities are realized from the beginning and not over time. The fundamentals of good planning include streets, blocks, open space, land use mix, density, housing diversity for all ages, affordability, community infrastructure, public transit, urban design, environmental and energy considerations. The overall quality of the public realm is paramount and has to be of prime importance.”
MIKE SHERIDAN is a freelance writer in Richmond, Virginia.