On September 15, 2011, the TTC broke a single-day ridership record with 1.71 million rides recorded that day. Not coincidentally, 132 high rises are currently under construction, making Toronto North America’s leader in high rise development.
These two statistics were referenced by Christopher Hume, Toronto Star columnist and architectural critic, as he set the tone for ULI Toronto’s event Large-Scale Redevelopment Projects in the GTA on October 5th at The Toronto Board of Trade. “This City is in good shape. People are watching,” said Hume, who moderated the discussion as three emerging master-planned communities were presented to a sold out crowd of real estate professionals: The West Don Lands Athletes’ Village; Parc Downsview Park; and Buttonville Airport.
The scale and complexity of these projects, which when combined amount to nearly 35 million square feet of development, are proof of the depth of the Toronto real estate market, and of a “renewed interest in and a return to the City,” said Hume.
Even in a vibrant real estate environment, it was clear from each of the presenters that large-scale redevelopment takes imagination, stamina and a willingness to accept risk. Peter Wilson, vice president for Project Delivery at Infrastructure Ontario, acknowledged that getting the Athletes’ Village right will be an incredible legacy of Toronto’s 2015 Pan Am Games. “[But] if we get it wrong, the West Don Lands will take a long time to recover,” he says.
The redevelopment of 80 former-industrial acres for a new urban community, including the site of the 2,000-unit Athlete’s Village for the 2015 Pan Am Games, is being undertaken using a Design-Build-Finance model in partnership with a team led by Dundee Kilmer. The team will be charged with managing risks associated with design, construction, market absorption and timelines. So far so good, according to Wilson, with the project being ahead of schedule.
Like the Athletes’ Village, Parc Downsview Park is being led by the public sector in partnership with private sector developers. William Bryck, president and CEO of Downsview Park, says being a public-sector entity does not necessarily come with any special advantages when bringing a large-scale project to life. Meeting public expectations and controlling the message are unique challenges.
Five years of planning, three City Council deferrals and an Ontario Municipal Board hearing were required to get the Downsview Park Secondary Plan in place — all without public funding. But finally, the first phases of transforming 572 acres and a former military airbase into a mixed-use community containing 10,000 residential units and a major urban park are underway. Through it all, Bryck is enthusiastic about the future, calling the project “the Don Mills of our generation.”
Cadillac Fairview’s senior vice president of development, Finley McEwan, presented the Buttonville Airport redevelopment of an existing 170-acre regional airport into a mixed-use community of residential, retail and offices, which he distinguished from the other two as a for-profit project accountable to its shareholders, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. However, what stood out was what the three large-scale projects have in common — the need to establish an identity, and a sense of place. McEwan talked about the critical importance of high quality amenities, 24-hour activity, and a retail strategy that provides the “lifeblood and injects energy.” As he says, the intangible quality of a place where people want to be is “very hard to pull off… …there are few successful examples.” Getting the right mix and making the street level work is a unique challenge for large-scale projects that don’t have the benefit of an established urban fabric and a social and cultural history.
At the end of evening, the discussion came full circle, with transportation and transit at the centre of the debate. Hume questioned whether the West Don Lands and Buttonville Airport have the transit infrastructure in place to make them truly successful urban places, because sustaining Toronto’s thriving urban growth, combined with traffic congestion that comes as an inevitable consequence of being the leading urban real estate market in North America, depends on having the urban infrastructure in place to support the next generation of redevelopment, large or small.
Toronto Community Housing Corporation
ULI Communications Co-Chair