As the City of Toronto continues to attract new residents, so too are the neighbouring towns and cities of the GTHA. After crossing the city limit in any given location, one can often travel for tens of kilometres before reaching anything resembling a rural setting. In a massive urbanized zone where the borders of neighbouring cities and towns meet with few clearly defined buffer zones, we are finding an increasing amount of urban thinking occuring in places we have only ever considered suburban before.

About 25 kilometres east of Toronto, Ajax’s population has now swelled to over 100,000. Like many suburban towns, Ajax’s landscape features large tracts of postwar single-family and semi-detached homes, centred around industrial areas and low-slung strip malls, all provided with oceans of “convenient” surface parking. 

Ajax Plaza; an aging strip mall ripe for redevelopment, image by Jack Landau

Conceived in the early 1950s, the Ajax Plaza was originally built to serve a fledgling community of no more than 25,000 people. Over the years, several factors have led to its decline, including increasing competition from other retail centres, the closure of the Harwood/401 interchange. The bulk of new residential and big box commercial development in Ajax has been across Highway 2 a couple of kilometres to the north, leaving the plaza now outside of the town’s primary commercial centre. As a result the physical condition of the site has deteriorated considerably, making it a prime candidate for redevelopment.  

Ajax Plaza will be transformed into a thriving city centre, image by Jack Landau

This past Friday, Ajax Council and Windcorp Developments Ltd. unveiled a new $118.7 million urban inspired development, called Grand Harwood Place. This proposal plans to introduce a curiously un-suburban mixed use presence along Harwood Avenue, replacing the aging Ajax Plaza in the process.

Ajax Council and Windcorp Developments unveiling plans Grand Harwood Place, image by Jack Landau

The proposed development will feature two classically modernist Zeidler Partnership Architects-designed, 10-storey residential buildings with a total of 268 condominium units. The buildings will feature roughly 30,000 square feet of retail at ground level and at least 25,000 square feet of office space on floors 2 and 3. Grand Harwood Place plans calls for a number of sustainable building elements and green initiatives, including environmentally conscious roofing systems, improvements to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and measures to reduce storm water runoff.

Rendering of Grand Harwood Place, image courtesy of Windcorp Developments

“The revitalization of the Ajax Plaza has long been a priority of numerous Ajax Councils” said Ajax Mayor, Steve Parish. “The plaza was once the commercial heart of Ajax and was a symbol of prosperity when the Town was founded. Grand Harwood Place will act as a catalyst for change, restoring economic growth and establishing a welcoming and vibrant environment once again in the centre of Downtown Ajax. We look forward to working with the community and our partners to make this development a reality.”

Ajax Mayor Steve Parish discussing the proposal, image by Jack Landau

These plans, of course, depend primarily on unit sales. The agreement with the Town of Ajax includes a provision specifying that the developer must be satisfied with the economic feasibility of the development, as well as achieving a sales goal of 85%. In stark contrast to the Toronto norms, Friday’s announcement was carried out with three of the properties in the land assembly yet to be acquired. All of the plans are still subject to the approvals process, but the enthusiasm displayed on Friday by Ajax’s Mayor, Councillors, and even a store owner from the plaza in question, hint at good things to come. If all conditions are met, construction could commence in a one to two year timeframe.

Grand Harwood Place, Aerial view

Despite the loss of an entire plaza full of retail, an initial inspection of the numbers points towards a positive financial impact for Ajax. Construction alone would pay out approximately $60.7 million in labour income and provide 1,100 person years of employment. Region, Town and school boards are projected to collect approximately $35 million in property tax revenue as a result of the development in the first 20 years. Projections over the same timeframe without the development only amount to $4.5 million. Once the project is completed, the town is expected to net approximately $1.7 million in property tax revenue in the first 10 years, as well as $660,000 per year once the initial 10 year period expires.

Rendering of Grand Harwood Place, image courtesy of Windcorp Developments

We are glad to see a development which recognizes that to progress for the future, places which have only had strip malls, curvilinear suburban streets and cul-de-sacs, and the tower-in-the-park style of multi-unit residential architecture until now, are now seeing that healthy cores require density and pedestrian scale convenience to thrive again. Along with Medallion’s Vision at Pat Bayly Square to the south, Grand Harwood Place is another important step in achieving Ajax’s vision of creating a thriving and livable downtown core.

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Related Companies:  DKStudio, Kirkor Architects Planners, LeMine Investment Group, Milborne Group, tcgpr (The Communications Group), The MBTW Group | W Architect Inc