It seems like a daunting challenge: Take a parcel of derelict land on the east side of Toronto's core that has sat unused for more than 40 years, and transform it into an urban community that rivals the city's most thriving neighbourhoods. But the minds behind the new development in the West Don Lands believe they are going to accomplish just that.
"We're going to create the most sustainable mixed-use development that the city has ever seen," said Jason Lester, president of Dundee Kilmer Development Limited, the real estate developer leading the creation of the "Canary District" – named after the now-closed Canary Restaurant that operated from a 19th century Cherry Street building since the 1960s.
Their task is twofold. First, the Ontario government has given Dundee Kilmer the job of creating housing for 10,000 athletes and coaches for the 2015 Pan American Games. But the end goal goes far beyond a sporting event. The buildings will be converted and sold as condo and townhouse units, creating the foundation of a new downtown east side community that will knit together other communities such as St. Lawrence Market, Corktown and the Distillery District.
"By the time the entire West Don Lands is built out, it's going to be approximately 5,000 units … multiple daycares, community centres and schools," Mr. Lester said. "I think we're going to see a community that all of Toronto can be proud of."
Creating a successful neighbourhood from nothing is no small feat, but with a commitment to mid-rise, mixed-use development, ample recreational space and a progressive private-public funding model, the players involved hope they will create a community that works, while avoiding the pitfalls of athletes villages of the past.
The Canary District is a community that has been meticulously planned. Waterfront Toronto was enlisted by the Ontario government to do a precinct plan for the 80 acres of West Don Lands area back in 2005.
"This is long before Pan Am was a twinkle in anyone's eye," said Meg Davis, vice-president of development at Waterfront Toronto, an organization created by all three levels of government to implement the waterfront's renewal. "When they went after the bid, we got a call from the province asking, 'Can you fit the athletes village into the West Don Lands block plan?' We were excited about the Pan Am, because it meant advancing the West Don Lands [development] by about five or 10 years, getting it to market that much sooner."
The precinct plan resulted in a set of urban design guidelines that developers would have to adhere to in the West Don Lands, governing everything from the location of the streets to sidewalk widths, building heights and setbacks. Through these stringent guidelines, Waterfront Toronto will ensure the area stays walkable and "human scale," Ms. Davis said.
"We set up the streets and blocks so no block is very long; it will be very pedestrian friendly. Lots of permeability, lots of pedestrian connections and bike connections," she said. Front Street will be a wide boulevard that will encourage foot traffic.
"To create a neighbourhood that feels like it's grown over time, we have in the bylaw a requirement for animated space on all the ground-floor areas of Front, Bayview and Cherry [streets]," Ms. Davis said. "You will have restaurants, cafés, grocery stores, banks – all those things will happen so that on the ground floor there aren't dead spaces. People will be walking to their local café and local bakery and cheese shop and butcher."
One of the essential elements of the area, Mr. Lester said, is the 18-acre park being built for a pricetag in excess of $15-million, which will connect with the Don River Trail to the north (a project funded by all three levels of government through Waterfront Toronto).
"It will act almost like a trailhead to the ravine system on the east side of Toronto, as well as to the waterfront to the south. It's quick access to the trail system for biking and walkers," he said. "There's probably more parkland as a ratio to the community being built in this neighbourhood than any other community in downtown Toronto."
Instead of a sea of massive condo towers, the plan is to keep things mostly mid-rise and definitely diverse in the Canary District.
"How do you create a neighbourhood that looks organic, that doesn't look like it was all built at once?" Ms. Davis asks. "During the precinct plan we looked at, 'How wide is this street? If it's this wide, then the built form should only be this high.' "
Residential buildings along Front Street will range between 11 and 15 storeys high, while heights on narrower Mill Street will drop down to eight storeys. In addition, four different architectural firms were called upon to design the buildings within the athletes' village, to avoid a homogenous look and achieve what Dundee Kilmer calls "cohesive diversity."
Toronto's largest YMCA will be built at the corner of Cherry and Front streets. (The Y will also act as a training centre for athletes during the Games.) In addition, there will be a 500-student residence built for George Brown College, and 20 per cent of the housing in the Canary District will be designated "affordable" – at or below average market price.
Urban planning guru Ken Greenberg of Greenberg Consultants Inc. said the area is poised to become one of the city's great neighbourhoods.
"The hardest problem now is, how do you make a new place that is as good as the ones that were recycled?" he said. "One of the failures of so many of these new condominium neighbourhoods is their monocultures, so the fact that you have George Brown College here, you have the YMCA ... [it means that] there are other things happening here."
He said putting limits on building heights is a "huge thing" that will ensure a community that can grow as it ages.
"You need a variety of living arrangements so you don't get thousands of bachelor units. We should make communities where you can raise kids, where older people can live, where you can age in the community and move from one type of housing to another, and it sounds like this is going to have those kinds of living arrangements," he said.
Another important aspect of the Canary District development is a funding model that ensures the budget does not escalate as it has at athletes villages in the past, such as Vancouver's Olympic village. Mandy Downes of Infrastructure Ontario said they have a fixed-price contract with Dundee Kilmer, a key part of the model that ensures the $514-million the province is spending on the village will not increase.
"We do a lot of upfront due diligence so [developers] know exactly what they're getting into. Everything's out on the table, so that when they sign the agreement they are agreeing to a specific date and ... a specific price," Ms. Downes said. "They don't get paid until the work gets done, so there is a big financial incentive for them to complete it on time. They take the risk so that the province and the taxpayers are not on the hook for things we are not in control of."
Ken Tanenbaum of Dundee Kilmer adds, "In Vancouver, they were designing and figuring out construction costs as they went along. [In this case], everything from a construction and delivery standpoint is locked down. You will not hear the words 'cost overrun' in the context of this village development."
Ultimately, Ms. Davis said, the Canary District will link the surrounding neighbourhoods and create a community that will work from day one.
"It's the combination of the parks and public spaces, the transit, the built form, which is so human in scale, the combination of mixed income, the affordable [housing] with the market [priced housing]. It's things like the YMCA, the animation along the street," Ms. Davis said. "These things combine to create a community that has all these rich elements in place right from the beginning."