Walk with Joy
In the lead up to ULI Toronto’s fall symposium on the future of mixed-use intensification, I arranged three short suburban walks with one of our keynote speakers, author and academic, Ellen Dunham Jones. As America’s most famous suburban retrofit champion, Jones was curious to see how Toronto suburban renewal stacked up to other U.S. cities.
With the help of Paul Hess associate professor, Department of Geography and Program in Planning, University of Toronto, and Cherise Burda, director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, we organized an itinerary of three suburban retrofits: a tower-in-the-park neighbourhood; a retail plaza; and a developing new urbanism community. Proud as I was of Toronto’s emerging suburban renaissance story, our walks only served to remind me how it has yet to be fully achieved.
First stop was an examination of the reimagined outdoor suburban shopping mall at Shops on Don Mills, heralded for redeveloping and reinvigorating a failed commercial plaza through the careful orchestration of architectural design, retail alchemy, and attention to detail from sidewalk pavement, street furniture and public art. But Shops rejects some of the most basic urban tenets. It makes no attempt to hide its auto dependency, wrapping itself in surface parking, and rejecting the opportunity to stitch into the network of public streets that connect to the site. It missed an opportunity to create a modern mixed-use environment that could have blended its residential and retail land uses and the potential for office space. While unquestionably pleasant, Shops’ private owned public space (POPS) feels more ski resort than civic.
Next we visited Toronto’s first foray into renovating a tower-in-the-park neighbourhood, a dominant development typography in our city’s inner-suburbs. Forest Park, at Don Mills Road and Sheppard Ave. East, is the first to demonstrate the promise of our long dream of “tower renewal” by developing underutilized open spaces of this failed post war housing model. Leveraging the public transit amenity of the Sheppard subway, Forest Park tapped a market demand for grade related housing and new mid- to high-rise condo unlocking capital to revive the older existing rental towers. Public art has been boldly used to enhance its sense of place and identity. Yet, notwithstanding its proximity to public transit, Forest Park also submits to the automobile. Its flanks on Don Mills and Sheppard are hardened and forbidding public environments that serve as a pedestrian moat disconnecting the neighbourhood from the surrounding community.
Finally, we ventured into the 905 to tour Remington Group’s Downtown Markham, a project that is arguably North America’s most urban suburban community through its commitment to mixed-use intensification and transit infrastructure. While still in the relatively early stages, Downtown Markham is showing that you can create a “there, there” where nothing much existed before. Dense laneway neighbourhoods, juxtaposed with mid-rise condos, at-grade retail and leading edge public amenity facilities set this community apart. An exciting centrepiece will be a new satellite York University Campus that will use the community movie theatre for its lecture halls. But again, this community can’t seem to fully slip the surly bonds of suburbia. An overwhelming aura of architectural sameness permeates. And notwithstanding the new regional bus rapid transit (BRT) service running through it, this community’s centre of gravity is a considerable walking distance from the Unionville GO Station.
A walk of one’s city with an out-of-town guest always changes one’s perspective. On this tour it stuck me how high the bar has raised when it comes to what constitutes successful suburban retrofitting. Getting much right is no longer enough. Success is more complex. Today we strive for “complete communities” that deliver pedestrian-focused neighbourhoods that are connected to surrounding communities, and are destinations in their own right.
It will take decades to renovate our region’s suburbs. But our vision for the future today must be more sophisticated. The good news is that, imperfections notwithstanding, the Toronto region wants to lead the way.