When the sod was turned for the 2015 Pan American Games athletes' village on Tuesday, it felt like a curse on Toronto's urban fabric and memory was being lifted at last.
The place where the village will be built was, until the 1960s, a busy railway terminal. Then came desolating capital flight, which turned the once-thriving industrial area near the mouth of the Don River into a zone of empty-eyed warehouses and fields of muck and ruin.
So it remained for several years. Then, in the late 1980s, new hope that something worthwhile might take root and grow in this barren spot flickered into life. Idealistic architects and urbanists, social activists and some city and provincial politicians proposed a large network of affordable homes, schools, offices and community centres for the site. But by the time the project was cancelled and wound down in 1992, Ataratiri (as it was called) had consumed some $350-million in public money - and produced not a single house.
Given this ill-starred history, it's not hard to understand why the doom-sayers were so noisy in the early 2000s, when the public development corporation that later changed its name to Waterfront Toronto became the landlord of the site, designated it the West Don Lands, and announced the agency's intention to transform it from a wasteland into a flourishing community. Nor is it surprising that, from that day until this one - and despite Tuesday's ceremonial start of construction - some Torontonians have been convinced that Waterfront Toronto's schemes will come to nothing much.
But even the most deep-dyed skeptics among these people would probably admit that something remarkable is afoot in the West Don Lands. For one thing, the management team is impressively strong and experienced. It is led by Dundee Kilmer Development Ltd., a partnership of Dundee Realty Corporation, which manages some $7-billion in assets, and Kilmer Van Nostrand Co., the private holding company of Canadian businessman and philanthropist Larry Tanenbaum. (The fixed-price contract between Dundee Kilmer and the Ontario government is reportedly worth $514-million.)
For another thing, the four Canadian architectural offices on side to execute the eight buildings in the 35-acre village make a good fit with this complicated job. They are the Toronto-based firms architectsAlliance, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB), and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects; and the Montreal studio of Daoust Lestage Inc.
Their task is to fashion places where 10,000 athletes and coaches can bunk comfortably for the duration of the games - places that can be converted after the games into 787 market-rate condominiums, 28 townhouses, 253 affordable units and so on. (The Pan Am village will then become the Canary District, so called after the Canary Restaurant, a popular nearby greasy spoon that Waterfront Toronto put out of business in 2007.)
The architectural firms bring to the table steady hands and level heads, qualities that don't tend to inspire exciting designs, but that are appropriate when the work involves (as it does here) the conjuring of a community from thin air. All these practices do humane, make-no-waves mainstream modernism.
Mainstream, however, need not be dull. Take, for example, KPMB's Canary District Condominiums building, the structure for which ground was broken on Tuesday. The strongly horizontal block of 369 suites is composed of two mid-rise towers, eight and eleven storeys tall, and a five-storey oblong laid out between the towers. The glass and dark brick façades are instances of industrial-strength modernism, with visual rhythms that are muscular and tight, like a dancer's legs.
The athletes' village is not, of course, the very first development in the West Don Lands: That title belongs to the handsome condominium complex called River City, and to the innovative public park due to open soon underneath the massive Eastern Avenue flyover across the Don River, and a couple of other projects. But when it becomes the Canary District, the group of buildings will be the fullest embodiment of Waterfront Toronto's strategy for creating whole, livable urban communities from scratch, including streets, sidewalks, parks, homes, shops, recreational facilities and on and on. Hogtown will get to see if this strategy, a painstaking, elaborate process shaped by consultations with experts and the neighbours every step of the way, really does work in the real world.
It should work, if sheer brain-power counts for anything. Over the 11 years of its existence, Waterfront Toronto has recruited many talented Canadian and international architects, urban planners, landscape designers and other professionals to work on its schemes. With any luck, the result of all this thinking and collaborating and designing (and listening to what lay folk have to say) should be an excellent new piece of the city. If the reality does turn out to be that good, we might even forgive Waterfront Toronto for killing the Canary, though the Canary District will have to be very good indeed for that to happen.