The Humbertown Master Plan brings mixed-use, contextually sensitive development to an aging shopping centre at Dundas Street West and Royal York Road in Etobicoke. Led by Urban Strategies, the plan was awarded an excellence in planning award by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) on November 7, 2014. Redevelopment of this single purpose strip mall in the affluent Humber Valley sets a precedent for similar sites beyond Toronto’s downtown core, critically in the suburban context.

Humbertown Master Plan, First Capital Realty, Urban StrategiesOverhead view of the Humbertown Master Plan, image courtesy of Urban Strategies

First Capital acquired the site in 2010 with the goal of expanding uses beyond the existing commercial offerings, changing the day to day experience of the site to bring it into the future. It currently holds 13,750 square metres of retail and office uses with the majority of the property dedicated to surface parking. 

Humbertown, First Capital Realty, Urban StrategiesHumbertown Shopping Centre in the early 1960s, image courtesy of Urban Strategies

Humbertown Shopping Centre, First Capital Realty, Urban StrategiesHumbertown Shopping Centre today, image courtesy of Urban Strategies

Urban Strategies and Levitt Goodman Architects (now LGA Architectural Partners) were part of the team that won the initial design competition hosted by First Capital in 2010. The competition design proposed using buildings to define a generous public realm, including with The Humberline, a 228 metre elevated greenway that provides enhanced site connectivity. Five mixed-use buildings with five towers were proposed on five development blocks. ‘Save Humbertown’, a campaign led by the Humber Valley Village Residents Association (HVVRA), vehemently advocated for changes to the proposal, claiming it was too big, too dense, and too tall. 

Original plan for Humbertown, First Capital Realty, Urban StrategiesFirst Capital's original redevelopment scheme for Humbertown, image courtesy of Urban Strategies

Three years later after one of the most complex community consultation processes in Toronto, a negotiated settlement was reached at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) care of five days of mediation. First Capital and their residential development partner Tridel appealed to the OMB in May 2013 after the Etobicoke York Community Council rejected the proposal. In December 2013 the revised proposal was approved. All parties worked together to come to an amicable solution. This is not to say it was easy. Six Working Group sessions were held from April through August of 2012, and two community consultation meetings in September and October 2012 with combined attendance of 1,800 residents, nearly all in opposition to the original proposal.

There are lessons to be learned from this process worth taking to the development of other sites in a suburban context designated mixed-use and identified for growth, and in fact, Humbertown was presented by Christine Fang-Denissov of Urban Strategies at IIDEX Canada 2014 as a lesson and potential template for other such proposals to come.

Urban Strategies’ Senior Associate Leigh McGrath explains that mediation was a great step in the wake of significant consultation. “The mediation process was an effective way to continue to bring the community along and also to have a space to talk about the serious key issues for the neighbourhood. What were the pieces that our clients weren't going to be able to move away from and where could we meet in the middle?”  Stakeholders, including the City, managed to agree on a vision for Humbertown through the very lengthy and challenging process, culminating in mediation.     

The City Staff Report related to the Zoning By-law Amendment Application dated April 26, 2013 demonstrates that significant changes were made to building heights prior to mediation, reflecting the project team’s work with the community. “Mediation turned out to really be about fine tuning the proposal so it was acceptable to both the proponent and to the community. It was about more than height, it was about fit with and transition to the community, and the mediation process improved upon the proposal in these respects,” explains McGrath. 

Revised proposal Humbertown, First Capital Realty, Urban StrategiesSeptember 2012 revised proposal for Humbertown, image courtesy of Urban Strategies

The original proposal submitted January 2012 included commercial uses on the ground and second floors of five mixed-use buildings, totaling nearly 22,000 square metres of floor area, and 28 three-storey townhomes. Building heights ranged from 11 to 21 storeys. 682 residential units, including the townhomes, were proposed. September 2012 a revised proposal was submitted with three rather than five towers ranging from nine to 21 storeys, and over 3,000 more square metres of open space. 

December 2012 a dramatically revised proposal was submitted to the City with Wallman Architects now involved. Building heights range from three to ten storeys with 604 residential units, including 28 townhomes. Open space increased again from 5,657 square metres to 6,215 square metres, while floor space dedicated to commercial uses remains the same, again distributed across the ground and second floors of five buildings. There was a new design language for the development emphasizing a clean but tactile modernism.

Site Plan of Humbertown, First Capital Realty, Urban StrategiesSite Plan dated April 16, 2013, image courtesy of Urban Strategies

Through mediation massing was shaped, in particular the relationship of Block 5 (shown on the Site Plan, bottom left block fronting Lambeth) to the neighbourhood “through the agreement to a general 30 degree angular plane along Royal York Road,” states McGrath. Mediation resulted in five blocks that incorporate ground floor and second floor commercial space, 23 townhomes along Lambeth Road, and mid-rise towers that include 432 residential units and 160 senior suites. The OMB decision delivered January 23, 2014 was published February 5, concluding the formal process. 

Humbertown Master Plan, First Capital Realty, Urban StrategiesProposed entrance to Humbertown at Lambeth Road, looking north towards The Kingsway, image courtesy of Urban Strategies

Redevelopment of Humbertown Shopping Centre has been lauded as precedent setting, though less of a legal precedent and more of a policy direction realization sort of precedent. McGrath observes that there is opportunity for this kind of intensification and infill in Toronto. “Directing growth to more suburban areas of the city realizes so many goals of the Growth Plan and Official Plan, and these areas are going to experience more development as we run out of parking lots in the downtown. These are the places where reinvestment and intensification will be redirected in the future. And we have shown how they can be integrated into the neighbourhood context. It is possible to achieve a significant amount of density in a way that respects the area it’s situated in and creates a better community for everyone at the end of the day.”  

I asked McGrath about what she would recommend for those developing similar sites in the future. Certainly a three year process is not ideal. She recommended planning for additional community consultation meetings and undertaking a working group process, especially when you know there will be community push-back. Understand that applications evolve, and “prepare to be flexible and consider different solutions.” Bring the community along through the process. It may sound hokey, but something good can be achieved working together to refine a proposal. And given communities tend to be told development is coming soon, in a nearly determined form—usually markedly different than what currently exists—and are rarely asked what development might be welcome, working together sounds almost innovative. The developer-City-community relationship need not be so adversarial, resulting in projects that temper diverse interests and evolve, among other things, suburban plazas. 

UrbanToronto will continue to follow the redevelopment of the Humbertown site as it progresses. It will still be many months before we see the first of the Tridel residences ready for the market. In the meantime, should you want to know more about the proposal, click on UrbanToronto's dataBase file for Humbertown, linked below. Want to get in on the conversation? Choose the link to the associated Forum thread, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.