A major milestone has been reached in the planning of Toronto's new 'Downtown East', as City Council approved the East Harbour master plan for rezoning this week, finalizing the Unilever Precinct Planning Framework and giving the go-ahead for the project to move forward. The East Harbour development is led by First Gulf and proposes to construct nearly 10 million square feet of office, retail, commercial, and cultural spaces with an integrated public space network and a multi-modal transit hub, all built to accommodate up to 50,000 workers within the 25-hectare site on the former property of the Unilever soap factory.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoConceptual rendering of East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

It has been some time since we last updated the East Harbour project, as it has undergone a continuous design evolution since rumblings of something big first surfaced back in 2012. An early master plan, put together by Dutch starchitects OMA alongside local firm Adamson Associates was revealed in 2016, featuring a group of towers clustered around a central open space. The design has since evolved, and the project team has shifted to a collaboration of local firms that includes Adamson, Janet Rosenberg + Studio, and Urban Strategies. Now, with the finalization of the master plan, we can get a clearer picture of what is to come. UrbanToronto had a chance to speak with George Dark, partner-in-charge of urban design at Urban Strategies, who provided further insight into the crafting of the East Harbour master plan.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoConceptual rendering of East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The site is divided into quadrants created by a southward extension of Broadview Avenue, which cuts diagonally to the east to align with the Port Lands planning framework and the Hearn south of Lake Shore, along with a new east-west road dubbed East Harbour Boulevard. Minor streets divide the larger blocks in the southwest and northeast corners of the area, while each block is chopped up by a connected network of pedestrian mews, POPS, and open spaces. The emphasis for circulation is on pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users, who are given priority in the public realm design.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoConceptual rendering of the Soap Factory Plaza, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Major parks and green spaces are located along the perimeter, with a linear park along the Don River to the west whose main feature is a flood protection bank that will ensure the long-term resiliency of the site while providing an important green resource for the users of the neighbourhood. East Harbour Park, the main green space of the development, has been relocated to the southwest corner of the site from its previous location at the eastern edge, while a new privately-owned open space will be situated just east of the new park on land that was previously slated for development. Finally, a linear green space will be incorporated along the southern edge of the site.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoPublic realm plan of East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

An integral component of the development is the transit hub at the northwest corner of the site. The transit hub will be a major new station servicing GO, RER, and SmartTrack, as well as a southward extension of the streetcar along Broadview. As well, a stop on the proposed Relief Line subway will be located just to the north on Eastern Avenue, which will eventually provide interior connections to the transit hub. The new train station will extend along a bridge over the Don, providing an important pedestrian route across the river to Corktown Common, with several connections into the East Harbour neighbourhood through plazas located at the major station entrances. Broadview Avenue is envisioned as a grand boulevard through the site with dedicated streetcar lanes and a similar atmosphere to present-day Spadina Avenue.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoProposed cross section of Broadview Avenue, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The built form varies throughout the site, with a series of towers and mid-rises culminating in a height peak adjacent to the transit hub. Consistent streetwalls will line each road and pedestrian walkway, with retail, cultural, and commercial spaces located at grade. All in all, the proposal includes the adaptive reuse of the existing Unilever factory building, which would be expanded to a height of 12 storeys with a new addition; a total of 10 towers rising to heights of 50, 42, 40, 30, 30, 26, 25, 20, 15, and 14 storeys; and six mid-rises, with five reaching 10 storeys and one proposed at 8 storeys.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoSite plan of East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

As with any master plan, the project will be carried out in phases. Phase A, which can be started rather quickly, involves the adaptive reuse of the Unilever factory and its conversion into office space. Phase B, which is the largest phase, would include construction of the transit hub and pedestrian bridge over the Don; construction of the flood protection along the Don and East Harbour Park; extension of Broadview and establishment of the basic street grid; construction of the public realm around the Unilever building and the transit hub; and construction of the towers and public realm in the northeast quadrant of the site. Phase C would complete the northwest quadrant of the site with new towers and public realm, while Phase D would develop the southwest portion of the site with new buildings and a significant expansion of the public realm. Finally, Phase E would complete the neighbourhood by developing the remainder of the site in the southeast portion. To the northeast of the First Gulf lands is a large City-owned property that is not included in this proposal, but is reserved for future phases of development.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoPhasing plan for East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

George Dark of Urban Strategies explained that the East Harbour master plan was no easy feat, and required a collaborative effort between all parties involved. He described how the different components of the master plan were not separated out and treated individually, but rather, were considered collectively as a whole. Instead of each consultant on the design team focusing on their own specialty, the architects, urban designers, planners, and even the client sat down together at roundtable meetings and charettes to collectively and holistically lay out the master plan. Collaboration with the City and community engagement were also key, Dark explained, praising the design process as a successful collective endeavour.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoConceptual rendering of East Harbour, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Contrary to what many may think, the brownfield site was not in fact a blank slate, as Dark explained that there were many constraints to work within. To begin with, the location of the transit hub and the flood protection along the Don were fixed. In addition, the alignment of Broadview was firmly set by the City, while there was little flexibility for the location of the east-west street given the location of the on-ramp to the Gardiner Expressway. Essentially, the quadrant arrangement was already established before work on the master plan even began.

From there, it was a matter of determining the "nature of each block" and asking, "what kind of place do you want to make?". Dark described an iterative process of going block by block and defining a place-making character for each, while still keeping an eye on the larger overarching ideas, such as the consistent streetscape along Broadview, or the concentration of density near the transit hub. With this approach, along with the holistic consideration of built form and public realm, the master plan gradually took shape.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoConceptual rendering of the transit plaza, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Dark cautioned, however, that what is shown here may not necessarily be the final result. From this point on, each component of the master plan will be parcelled out and developed separately, meaning a different team and different architect will be designing each building within the master plan. This may create a variety of results, which is all part of the master planning process. In addition, Dark pointed out that much of this development cannot happen without the necessary infrastructure in place, such as the flood protection and transit hub, meaning it may be quite some time before East Harbour starts to take shape. The master plan provides the framework and vision for what the area will become, but the final result will be determined by the individual phases and design teams involved.

East Harbour, First Gulf, Adamson, Urban Strategies, Janet Rosenberg, TorontoConceptual rendering of East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

There is much more to come at East Harbour, but the rezoning approval represents a major, albeit early step in the long road to construction. First Gulf has not supplied a timeline as to when they will move forward with this, but seeing how fast the master plan came together, it would not be much of a surprise if the adaptive reuse of the Unilever building starts up within the next couple years.

We will keep you posted with more news and updates about East Harbour as they become available, but in the meantime, you can find more renderings, including easier plans that have since evolved, in our database file for the project, linked below. You can also get in on the discussion by checking out the associated Forum thread or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.