The timing couldn’t be better. Just when Toronto seemed hopelessly mired in official idiocy and public self-hatred, along comes the West Don Lands to remind us the city has a future after all.
An afternoon spent wandering the new neighbourhood is enough to convince even the most skeptical Torontonian that leadership — intelligent and enlightened leadership — though rare, can still be found in these parts.
Things have a long way to go, but already it’s clear the fast evolving precinct west of the Don River and south of King St. will be the next great place to live and work in Toronto.
Mixing 21st-century architecture and technology with a 19th-century approach to city building, the community is a brilliant example of what’s possible when the players grasp the need to see their project within a larger vision of the city.
In this case, the cast includes heavy hitters Waterfront Toronto, Infrastructure Ontario, Dundee Kilmer Developments and George Brown College. Together they are quietly transforming a long-neglected corner of the city into a neighbourhood of boulevards, wide sidewalks and mid-rise buildings all organized around a marvelous new park called Corktown Common.
Where once there were cement factories, warehouses and junkyards, a fully mixed-use community is taking shape. Housing, market-priced and subsidized, is under construction as well as a YMCA and other amenities.
In addition to several condos along King, one of the biggest projects is the 2015 Pan Am Games Athletes’ Village. After the Games are finished, the nine-storey structure will become George Brown College’s first student residence.
With 500 beds, the wireless, LEED Gold, amenity-laden building has little in common with traditional student living quarters. The 250 apartments are small, but every unit has a kitchenette and every bedroom a window. Each floor has several lounges and some have a full-sized kitchen.
Best of all, the residence is a short walk to the eight buildings on George Brown’s St. James campus and its recently completed health sciences building on Queens Quay at Sherbourne St. It was conceived under the aegis of Waterfront Toronto, the tripartite agency created in 2001 to oversee waterfront revitalization. So, too, was the residence, whose construction is being handled by Infrastructure Ontario, better known for building bridges, hospitals, highways and the like.
“Infrastructure Ontario approached us to see if we were interested in participating in the project,” explains George Brown president Anne Sado. “We also have an exceptional relationship with Waterfront Toronto. We have worked very closely with them.”
The original purpose of the residence — to house athletes — lasts barely two weeks. But with George Brown at the table, the building was designed and built to minimize conversion costs and time. Kitchenettes, for example, won’t be installed until after the Games.
“We get the building in September 2015, when the Games are over,” says George Brown director of waterfront campus development, Terry Comeau. “After that, we need a few months to finish things off.”
The residence, joined to the Y also under construction, sits on the northeast corner of Cherry and Front St., which has been extended east. It is a two-minute walk from the Distillery District to the west and, in the opposite direction, to Corktown Common.
Seeing the new piazza-sized sidewalks on the new Front St., a clear sign that street life will be a big part of the neighbourhood, should cheer the hardened hearts of all those Torontonians unafraid of urbanity. The West Don Lands is living proof that even in this city, excellence has a place — however unexpected it may be.