For a short period of time in the summer of 2015, Toronto will be in the global spotlight as the host of the Pan Am and Parapan American Games. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the event is what follows after the curtain has closed. Toronto, a city going through an incredible growth spurt, is home to the biggest waterfront revitalization project in the world. Part of this grand redevelopment is the West Don Lands precinct, an 80 acre mixed-use site where the Athlete’s Village will reside. Designed and built with legacy in mind, the Athletes Village will be transformed into Toronto’s next great neighborhood: The Canary District. This site also includes Corktown Commons, a beautifully designed 18 acre park with integrated flood protection landforms. Rob Spanier, a partner at Live Work Learn Play, moderated an insightful panel discussion with speakers Meg Davis, vice president of Waterfront Toronto, Bruce Kuwabara, partner at KPMB, Peter Clewes, principal at ArchitectsAlliance, and Kenneth Tanenbaum, vice chairman of The Kilmer Group. Together, the group revealed the strategic vision and integrative thinking behind this landmark development.
Working on an exceedingly tight deadline, the West Don Lands was, as noted by Davis, a great fit for the Athlete’s village because the precinct plan and urban design guidelines were already completed. As a result, the architects and designers had to strictly adhere to the prescribed building envelope (without having to apply for Committee of Adjustment and variance, which is time consuming). The challenge for Kuwabara and Clewes became “how do we make this a vibrant neighbourhood using these rules that had coherence, but also diversity?” The answer: the team itself would also have to be diverse with different architects working on different buildings on different sites. Kilmer Dundee, KPMB and ArchitectsAlliance were joined by Daoust Lestage, TEN Arquitectos, and MacLennan Janukalns Miller Architects along with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for Corktown Commons Park, and EllisDon Ledcor PAAV Inc. for construction, proving that “It takes a village to build a village,” as Spanier said. In fact, at one point, there was a staggering 2,500 people working on the site at any given time. Tanenbaum described the process as a story about remarkable people coming together and was particularly struck by the high level of humility displayed by the team. Kuwabara related the experience as a sport of “High Speed Urbanism” where you had to respect and believe the people on the team to deliver because time is short and the stakes are high.
The Canary District received its name from the Canary Restaurant, housed in one of the two historic 19th century buildings that frame the neighbourhood entry on Front Street. Davis and Clewes noted that what’s extraordinary about this project is the high mixed-use of housing types: supportive, affordable (20 per cent of the total units are designated for affordable housing), student, and market housing. This compelling mix will ensure a diverse background of people in the district. Furthermore, in order to create a community without being sterile, design excellence and ground floor animation within the public realm is critical. A unique street typology was created for the village with shared spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, and low speed vehicles. To create vibrancy, Dundee Kilmer recognized that the ideal retail tenants are going to be provided by “Mom-and-Pop” type shops. The ground floor retail spaces are therefore designed for that typology and integrated with the public realm
During the design review process chaired by Kuwabara, Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt Architects recommended that Front Street should be made asymmetrical. The north side of the street was stretched to create one of the widest linear promenades in the world. Imagine the spectacle of the athletes marching down this grand pedestrian boulevard or massive street fairs filled with festival-goers. The public promenades and passages are specifically designed to interlace with the architecture, as noted by Clewes. These public domains are weaved onto and even “into” buildings, where a number of housing units’ front entry faces the interior courtyards, which are conceived as public spaces. The district also features a public art program, playground/recreational space in an unused underpass as well as a secret tunnel that connects Corktown Commons Park with an 18-acre trail system. Furthermore, the new Cherry Street Streetcar line will connect residents and visitors to surrounding neighborhoods.
The Pan Am Athletes Village was delivered on time and on budget; extraordinary considering that international games of such caliber are often over budget. Comparisons between Toronto and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games are inevitable. The major lesson from Vancouver, Tanenbaum stated, was that there was initially not enough equity from the developers. As a result, the project was under-capitalized. Another issue was that numerous environmental systems were being pioneered in Vancouver, which ultimately tipped over the budget. Dundee Kilmer took those messages to heart and required development partners to provide overhead so there was financial security driving the process.
Vancouver hosted 2,800 athletes and game officials in 1,000 units. The Athlete’s Village of the Pan Am Games would have to house nearly 10,000 visitors. Clewes knew that in order to win the bid, they had to build less. The endeavour would be successful if the buildings could be delivered with the least amount of public expenditure. As a result, the team devised a method for fitting 10,000 people in 1,300 units by building the units as hollow fit-outs. The athletes would sleep on bunk beds in these partition-free units. Clewes also noted another problem regarding Vancouver: the market housing units were not sold before the games due to uncertainties regarding the post-game housing market. By contrast, large amounts of the Canary District market units were pre-sold: Block 11 was 86 per cent sold and Block 4 is at 50 per cent leading up to the Games. This gave a clear indication of where the market was headed towards. Furthermore, Davis pointed out that the diversity of the units offered (affordable, student, market, supportive) took away large market risks compared to Vancouver.
Ultimately, the final success of the project remains to be seen. Once the Games are over at the end of August, the buildings will be turned over to their respective owners. The final interior finishes of the units would be completed and with their occupancy, the transformation of the Athlete’s Village into the Canary District begins. Either way, perhaps the most remarkable legacy of the Pan Am Games is a new piece to the ever growing and diverse mosaic of neighbourhoods that make up Toronto.