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Toronto Planners face huge hurdles in trying to create ‘vibrancy’ in Scarborough’s quasi-downtown

One thing seems clear after this week’s chaotic Toronto transit discussion: The Scarborough Subway Extension is still likely to get built.

But the city hasn’t thought enough about what we get for our $3.9-billion and counting. Toronto – or at least Premier Doug Ford – likes big infrastructure and big plans. The question is, now that Scarborough is getting a subway station or three, what kind of cityscape will they create?

Not a very good one.

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Plans are well under way for a Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE). To justify its massive expense, the city is encouraging dense development around Scarborough Town Centre, bringing new people to ride the train. This means transforming a scrubland of parking lots, big boxes and small factories into a “vibrant, urban and pedestrian-friendly” neighbourhood, as a city planner working on the area told me recently.

There are two big promises here: that the subway will make part of Scarborough “urban” and will get more people out of their cars. Yet these tasks are extremely hard, and the promises may well never come true.

The new station at Scarborough Town Centre is to be accompanied by a massive plan to reconstruct the shopping mall and the surrounding area, 180 hectares in total. If it all works out, this zone will house up to 40,000 residents in a new neighbourhood, city of Toronto planner Kelly Dynes told me this week.

City planners and private-sector planners – led by Urban Strategies for the mall owner, Oxford Properties – have been imagining this for years now. In Scarborough, Ms. Dynes is leading the planning effort along with Xue Pei of the Urban Design division at City Planning. When they discuss it, they talk about “vibrancy” and walkable streets with “character.”

To achieve that, the city is planning a new public square at the entrance off the new subway station. And a new set of roads, slicing up the large area into smaller chunks. And new parks. It’s a massive set of public works that will take a generation to build.

At the mall, Oxford is trying “to grow it slowly with interesting places and experiences that are different from what people can get elsewhere in Scarborough,” says Craig Lametti, a partner at Urban Strategies. The subway could bring a walkable outdoor shopping strip that he compares to the Distillery District.

Okay: The city planners are doing their best. But they are starting with two problems. One, they are crowding a lot of people into dense buildings. This means big condos by big developers, hemmed in by the belching 401 and fast arterial roads. Two, they want people to walk places. But where is there to walk to? The mall, yes. The nearby civic centre and beautiful library. New parks, someday. And as Ms. Pei points out, the area has the ravine system of Highland Creek; the planners aim to create new walkable streets and pedestrian paths to connect new residents to it.

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But let’s be honest: That doesn’t add up to much. People walking a kilometre to go to the park is not how you get Jane Jacobs’s “sidewalk ballet.” And the people who live here, in new market-rate condos, will probably drive to work in Markham or Richmond Hill or North York Centre. This is exactly what has happened along the Sheppard subway, where condo dwellers around Bessarion and Leslie stations predominantly continue to TTC – Take The Car. It’s been more than 16 years since those stations opened.

Maybe this time is different. But probably not. There are few if any examples in North America where urbanizing the suburbs with big new “downtowns” has been done successfully.

Even the very architecture of the subway station will hurt the neighbourhood. The station buildings, designed by architects with the engineering behemoth AECOM, are totally uninspiring so far. And the station’s huge bus terminal, which will bring in buses from a wide area to feed the maw of the subway, creates a deep trench that cuts right through the heart of the area. Ms. Pei is trying to figure out how to fix this mess that the TTC has commissioned.

So why are we proceeding this way? Because Toronto politicians don’t talk much about land use. And transit policy is run by people who travel in Escalades.

Remember, the SSE was not born as a city-building exercise. It was born because Rob Ford liked subways, subways, subways; they wouldn’t get in his way on the roads. The late mayor, ignorant of how LRTs actually work, killed the Transit City LRT plan. That project would have brought more spread-out growth near, and in, existing neighbourhoods – neighbourhoods that are good places to live, and that in many cases are losing people. At Scarborough Town Centre, the single-family neighbourhoods a stone’s throw south of the subway are untouched in the city plans.

It could be different. Without the Fords, Scarborough’s seven-stop, $1.48-billion LRT would be done by now, providing better service to more people in more places than the SSE, and seven opportunities for creating new homes and workplaces. The results would be more modest, less flashy, but located in real places that don’t need to be created from scratch.

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Since Premier Ford is set on this subway – and maybe more subway stops in Scarborough, which would be even worse for place-making – we seem to be stuck with this new quasi-downtown. Here’s hoping the city and developers make it as good as possible. But that will be an attempt to salvage the best from a bad situation. Which is no way to build a city.

DETAIL

0

10

KM

Scarborough Centre

secondary plan

boundary

Toronto

Lake

Ontario

HIGHWAY 401

MCCOWAN RD.

BRIMLEY RD.

Scarborough

Town Centre

Mall

BELLAMY RD. N.

ELLESMERE RD.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: city of toronto; googlemaps

DETAIL

0

10

KM

Scarborough Centre

secondary plan

boundary

Toronto

Lake

Ontario

HIGHWAY 401

MCCOWAN RD.

BRIMLEY RD.

Scarborough

Town Centre

Mall

BELLAMY RD. N.

ELLESMERE RD.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: city of toronto; googlemaps

DETAIL

0

10

KM

Scarborough Centre

secondary plan

boundary

Toronto

Lake

Ontario

HIGHWAY 401

MCCOWAN RD.

BRIMLEY RD.

Scarborough

Town Centre

Mall

BELLAMY RD. N.

ELLESMERE RD.

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: city of toronto; googlemaps

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