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The Canary District: Here comes Toronto’s instant neighbourhood

Source: The Globe and Mail
By: Dakshana Bascaramurty

In the final days as a construction deadline loomed, the crews working on Canary Park, a 437-unit condominium building, were doing the final touch-ups of paint. From the outside it appeared a polished complex of two mid-rise towers – but the interiors looked more slapdash, a dormitory of kitchenless suites and tiny bedrooms that will soon house bunkbeds.

That’s the plan. The building’s initial occupants, thousands of Pan Am and Parapan Am Games athletes, arrive in July and will reside in this building for the short term. Then the whole area of six buildings will be renovated to serve new purposes as condos, rental buildings, student housing and a YMCA. It will form Toronto’s newest built-from-scratch neighbourhood.

Great expectations rest not just on the Canary Park condos, but all of Canary District, the ambitious $514-million neighbourhood in the West Don Lands whose first phase has just been completed. For years, Waterfront Toronto has had its eye on developing this brownfield site just west of the Don River into a new community. In 2009, the province approached the agency to ask if the Pan Am Village could be built on the site, which gave the planning process new momentum. While it was first anticipated it would take 15 to 20 years to build out the site, the agency now thinks it will be complete – with more than 6,000 residential units – in just a decade.

The area is located near downtown, just east of the Distillery District along Eastern Avenue. Developers have reimagined Front Street, which serves as the central spine of the neighbourhood, as an extra-wide tree-lined promenade. In 2013, Corktown Common, a $135-million park in the neighbourhood’s far east end, opened; it has won multiple awards for its design. When the neighbourhood enters its legacy state in 2016, it will have 40,000 square feet of retail space, much of it health- and wellness-themed. Waterfront Toronto has plans to develop three more blocks of the site in the coming years.

After the cyclists and soccer players have departed, most of the site returns to the possession of developers Dundee Kilmer in September. Then, over the span of six to eight months, the condo buildings will get a dramatic facelift: the cheap broadloom installed in the hallways of Canary Park will be torn out and replaced with something more high-end. The floors in Canary District, now painted concrete, will be laid with gleaming hardwood. Kitchens will be installed. The temporary walls that were put in to turn two-bedroom units into three-bedroom ones will be removed, flooding the living and dining area with natural light.

The neighbourhood’s first phase also includes another condominium (which includes affordable housing units), a residence for George Brown College students, two rental apartment buildings and an expansive YMCA.

Organizers are desperate to avoid the fate of Vancouver’s Olympic Village. When that city’s False Creek neighbourhood transitioned into its post-games “legacy” state, the developer went bankrupt and the city had to take control of the project. Condos were slow to sell and for years the neighbourhood was seen as a ghost town. The community is deemed a success now, but it took several years to get there. In 2014 the city finally recovered the $690-million in construction debt it took on through sales of condos and retail spaces.

Members of the Toronto team blame the ambition of Vancouver’s Olympic Village designers, who used innovative and expensive renewable heating and stormwater management technologies to make the buildings more sustainable, for some of its initial struggles. Also, “Vancouver built all the units out like they were ready for final occupancy, and I think that cost them up front,” Meg Davis, vice-president of development for Waterfront Toronto, said. Fewer athletes could be accommodated in each unit, and far more units had to be constructed. Toronto has built just 1,300 units to house 10,000 athletes.

In the Canary District building, 90 per cent of units have already been sold, while Canary Park is 40 per cent sold, says Ken Tanenbaum of development consortium Dundee Kilmer, which won the contract to build the neighbourhood. He says the remaining buildings will be erected in response to market demand – which, if recent trends continue, shouldn’t be difficult.

For the past decade, developers were focused on neighbourhoods such as Liberty Village and Cityplace in the west downtown, but now that those areas are largely built out, the downtown east area has become “a real growth node,” says Pauline Lierman, the director of market research at Urbanation Inc., which tracks Toronto’s condo market. Last year, 17 per cent of all sales in the GTA happened in the neighbourhoods between Yonge Street and the Don Valley Parkway.

And will the Canary District work as a neighbourhood? Toronto’s track record with master-planned communities is spotty; the first iterations of Lawrence Heights and Regent Park are remembered as failed endeavours. But the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, just west of the Distillery District, has been almost universally praised as a success. Built in the 1970s, its mix of Toronto Community Housing towers, townhouses and commercial properties has attracted families, young professionals and seniors from a range of backgrounds.

“The single most important thing about St. Lawrence was it was conceived as an extension of the already existing city, rather than as a brand-new alternative urban idea,” says George Baird, a key adviser on the project who is an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Toronto. Mr. Baird said he’s optimistic about the Canary District because Waterfront Toronto (on whose design review committee he sits) has adopted that ideal. In fact, he says the West Don Lands are even further ahead than St. Lawrence – thanks to the inclusion of student housing and a recreation centre which will draw visitors who live outside the neighbourhood.

On a hard-hat tour of the site in late January, Mr. Tanenbaum pauses to point out evidence that the neighbourhood isn’t just designed to make a one-time splash during the Games, but to serve the community for the long term. He stops in front of a grate on Front Street in which trees are planted with plenty of space to take root. Planners created corridors between and under buildings to provide direct routes for pedestrians. The array of sustainability features will help all buildings on site meet the LEED Gold standard.

While these aspects of the design may certainly help market the neighbourhood, a diverse mix of residents and connectivity to other parts of the city are far more essential to the long-term success of Canary District, says Ute Lehrer, an environment studies professor at York University who studies the way built environments are used.

“Of course design is an important part of city building, but good design itself doesn’t create good neighbourhoods,” she said. “It gives a good container within which a good neighbourhood can evolve.”