Modern city taking flight through Canary
18 May 2012

This Canary isn’t in a coal mine, but it’s just as much a sign of things ahead, in this case, entirely positive.

We’re talking about the mixed-use residential neighbourhood now under construction in the West Don Lands. Named for the greasy spoon that occupied the corner of Cherry and Front for decades, Canary District is being hyped as Toronto’s first 21st-century community; that means it will be sustainable, urban, connected, transit-oriented and diverse.

Oh yes, it will also be the temporary home of the 10,000 athletes who will come to town in 2015 for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. Once they’re gone, and the cheering has died down, the buildings will be turned over to permanent residents, who are expected to be families and seniors as well as the requisite young professionals. There will also be units for those in need of subsidized accommodation.

Though Mayor Rob Ford was not on hand for the occasion, ground was broken on the project earlier this week. A gaggle of reporters and a horde of real estate brokers showed up for the event, held in a nondescript white tent in the middle of a former industrial wasteland-turned-construction-site.

When the province chose this spot for the athletes village several years ago, there was some consternation it would spell the end of the decade’s worth of planning undertaken by Waterfront Toronto, the tripartite agency whose mandate is top quality waterfront revitalization.

That process, an exhaustive one highlighted by international design competitions and a design review panel, was meant to ensure that the West Don Lands remains an exercise in city-building, not simply a random accumulation of condos.

Though we tend to forget in Toronto, it’s the difference between something that adds up to more than its sum, and something that doesn’t.

“Ultimately,” said lead architect Bruce Kuwabara, “this is about making a great city. We have to get it right for the long term . . . but at high speed. We’re gonna prepare the city for a sustainable future. We know how to build buildings, now we’re gonna demonstrate how to build a city.”

Kuwabara’s partner, Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance, talked about how “housing makes cities” and of the need for “coherent diversity.”

Their vision of the West Don Lands comprises a series of low- and midrise developments surrounded by narrow streets and wide sidewalks, parks and public spaces. Eschewing the standard Toronto tower-on-a-podium model, Kuwabara, Clewes and their collaborators (MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects and Daoust Lestage Inc.), have opted for slab buildings, which rise vertically from the ground.

The intention is to maximize the sense of connectivity; Kuwabara describes them as “extroverted.” Unlike so many contemporary developments, the Canary District does not ignore its context or shrink from its neighbours. This is the opposite of the approach that has deliberately left suburbia without any semblance of street life or a public realm.

Indeed, the architects talk openly about applying the “lessons” of urbanism, lessons learned after half a century or more of horribly inappropriate growth organized around the needs of the car, not people.

The condos here must do double duty, which is to say they must function as housing and serve as elements within the larger urban scheme. Given Canary District’s location between the east end of Front St. and the bottom of the Don River, it occupies a pivotal position. It will play a critical role in connecting the downtown east end with the valley and all stops north.

Keep in mind that Don River Park, designed by highly regarded U.S. landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh, will open this summer. It’s an impressive 18-acre facility that takes advantage of the enormous flood-protection landform — a berm — without which none of this redevelopment would have been possible. This green space now taking shape will be the neighbourhood park for residents Canary District and a destination for people from all over the city.

Also nearby is Underpass Park, an unusually innovative project by Vancouver landscape architect Greg Smallenberg that seeks to open up the shadowy volumes beneath Richmond and Adelaide as they pass over the area.

And by arranging for each building to be designed by a different architect, the developers (Dundee/Kilmer) will avoid the homogeneity characteristic of many such mega-developments. One would expect nothing less in a scheme whose designers insist on diversity, but sameness has become the defining feature of contemporary development, especially in suburbia.

Canary District represents a conscious attempt to halt the suburbanizing of Toronto, a trend that can be seen across the city. The restless spirit of the late Jane Jacobs, urban thinker and author of the seminal 1961 text,The Death and Life of Great American Cities, presides over the project. Jacobs, who moved here from New York in 1968 and remained until her death in 2006, was the great apostle of mixed-use development. Though this should be obvious — after all, what else is a city about if not a mix of uses? — it was a lesson forgotten by postwar planners and their political masters. Even now, diversity remains an elusive quality in our cities. With the development industry having reached industrial proportions, the fight to eliminate architectural and planning monotony continues.

And as Waterfront Toronto vice-president of development Meg Davis points out, but for the Pan Am Games, this sort of development wouldn’t have happened for another five to 10 years: “The games have accelerated the development of the West Don Lands,” she says. “But unlike many athletes village projects, which are purpose-built to house competitors during major athletic events and then converted to other uses following the games, our Pan Am athletes village is advancing the building of a community that was already planned and under development.”

These condos will go on sale within weeks; by the time buyers show up in 2015, the new neighbourhood will have taken shape. Work will continue, but the big moves will have been made. Regardless of the outcome of the Games, Toronto will come out a winner.

Originally posted on The Toronto Star.