With the Pan Am Games quickly approaching, all eyes are on the West Don Lands, an area on Toronto's waterfront that was a contaminated brownfield just a few short years ago. From July 10-26 and August 7-14, 2015, the city's newest neighbourhood will welcome and house 10,000 athletes as they prepare to compete in 48 sports across 17 municipalities in the Golden Horseshoe. The process of creating and realizing the master plan for the site has involved numerous players, spearheaded by a partnership—known as Dundee Kilmer—between Dundee Realty (now Dream) and Kilmer Van Norstrand. To highlight the importance of the Pan Am Athletes' Village and its post-games use, Urban Land Institute Toronto organized a panel discussion hosted Wednesday at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Pan Am Village panel, image by Marcus MitanisPan Am Village panel, image by Marcus Mitanis

Moderated by Rob Spanier, a Principal at Live Work Learn Play, the panelists discussed their journey and involvement with the development of the Pan Am Athletes' Village. Bruce Kuwabara from KPMB Architects, Ken Tanenbaum, Vice Chairman of The Kilmer Group, Meg Davis, Vice President of Waterfront Toronto and Peter Clewes from architectsAlliance comprised the expert panel. 

Each panelist presented their perspectives on the village, starting with Meg Davis of Waterfront Toronto. She pointed out that the provincially owned West Don Lands was subject to a number of public policy objectives. Those objectives laid out a vision for sustainable communities served by transit, parks and public spaces, that also included affordable housing and urban design excellence. "The revenues we receive from our projects gets put back into the revitalization, public realm and infrastructure," said Davis. Before bids for the development were submitted, Waterfront Toronto developed the West Don Lands Precinct Plan, which included a vision for the site and the intended scale, function and character of the built form. Following the games, the northwest quadrant of the site will host a 500-bed student residence for George Brown College and a YMCA recreational facility. 

The West Don Lands in its current state, image courtesy of Pan Am Village webcamThe West Don Lands in its current state, image courtesy of Pan Am Village webcam

Davis pointed to Corktown Common as an early success for the project. The park not only acts as a new green space for the city, but serves to protect the West Don Lands from flooding. Waterfront communities will also come to enjoy high-speed internet access through one of North America's fastest fibre-optic networks, which will provide full WiFi coverage throughout the neighbourhood. Touting the various public art installations that can be found throughout the area, including Underpass Park, Davis noted that funds from the City of Toronto's Percent for Public Art Program were pooled to create large public spaces that were highly visible to the public.

The buildings bordering these spaces have also been designed with the environment in mind, complete with LEED Gold certification and green roofs that will add some colour to the area. The village is due to be well served by the TTC as some streetcars of the 504 King line will divert south on Cherry Street to provide the area with essential transit coverage. Finally, Davis discussed the range of housing types within the district, including affordable housing units which will compose 20% of land at the site. Over 800 units will be converted from athlete sleeping quarters to market housing with an additional 253 units of affordable rental housing. "You don't really get a complete neighbourhood unless you can have all kinds of people living there from every background," said Davis. 

Bruce Kuwabara speaks to a full house, image by Marcus Mitanis Bruce Kuwabara speaks to a full house, image by Marcus Mitanis

Bruce Kuwabara spoke about the magnitude of the project. “Of all the projects I’ve worked on this one has the most players," he said. “It was always a dream to work on a project like this, you always want to build the city. I think architecture is really about urbanism.” Kuwabara pointed to the growing rate of urbanism around the world, saying that “The cities of the future will be dense, compact, diverse, walkable, sustainable and connected.” The remnants of the industrial past of the city are on full display in the form of two heritage buildings, including the former Canary restaurant, flanking Front Street, which Kuwabara says acts as the gateway to the site. The majority of the site is now occupied by modern buildings which were designed by several architects including KPMB, architectsAlliance, and Daoust Lestage. Kuwabara said that it was key to invite other architects to collaborate on the project, giving each firm the opportunity to design a different building on each parcel. Although the process was at times stressful, Kuwabara noted that since a plan for the site already existed, buildings were designed within the envelope given, which meant that no Committee of Adjustment applications were filed. 

Peter Clewes spoke to the challenges of creating a mixed-use, sustainable community in only two years. "This project has an extraordinary range of housing types," said Clewes. "The market is telling us very clearly that we want affordable units. We built a project that meshes with that market." He also spoke to the unique placement of courtyards within buildings that have allowed for an interior entryway in addition to the traditional exterior entrance off the street. In contrast with Vancouver's Olympic Village, which contained 1,000 units housing 2,800 athletes, Toronto's village will only utilize 1,300 units to house the 10,000 athletes and game officials expected. "To realize this bid, we had to build less," said Clewes, understanding that fulfilling the desired objectives would have to be done with the least amount of public expenditure. In the end, the development has been delivered "on time and on budget". 

Panelists Ken Tanenbaum and Peter Clewes, image by Marcus Mitanis Panelists Ken Tanenbaum and Peter Clewes, image by Marcus Mitanis

The last speaker, Ken Tannenbaum, thanked all stakeholders involved, including Infrastructure Ontario for producing a "fair, open, transparent, and tough" procurement process. "We had to design, procure, and finance a billion dollars worth of work within 90 days," said Tannenbaum. "Everyone involved in the project knew they were involved with something special," he said. "I tip my hat to Waterfront Toronto for creating the canvas for which we were able to paint our masterpiece." 

Q&A followed the presentations, which yielded some interesting questions about some of the challenges faced during the process and what issues may arise in the future. "The stakes were very high," said Kuwabara. "We didn't want to disappoint anyone." Tannenbaum remarked that there were "two things to harmonize on: one was to achieve the absolute highest level of design ambition and the other was to execute it flawlessly." For Davis, "the toughest moment was when the bids came in higher than the budget," but noted that "we really kept the integrity of the plans and dreams for the West Don Lands and the village."

The Pan Am Athletes' Village, image by Marcus MitanisThe Pan Am Athletes' Village, image by Marcus Mitanis

Vancouver's Olympic Village, which the City had to take over from financially-troubled developers, was a point of discussion. “There wasn’t enough equity skin in the game from the developer initially,” said Tannenbaum. Explaining the difference between Vancouver's village and Toronto's, Tannenbaum stated "there is a tremendous amount of financial security driving us to meet our objectives.” Davis stated that the diversity of housing played a role in minimizing the market risk associated with Toronto's project. Finally, Clewes pointed out that unlike in Toronto, the units in Vancouver were not pre-sold. Rather, they were speculating on where the market would be following the games. "This was tested as a project that Toronto would buy," said Clewes. He also remarked that the Pan Am Games would be a "good proving ground for a credible Olympic bid," but explained that Toronto would "try to build more neighbourhoods" rather than focus on flashy stadiums. 

While the panel was hopeful for the games and the success of the area, its true test will begin when the athletes start arriving in the Summer. Until then, we will keep you updated on the progress of Toronto's newest neighbourhood as the games move closer. A construction update tour is planned for the coming days.

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