Most people reading this article will neither have ever heard of nor have been to Stonegate Plaza…
and there's a simple reason for that. Stonegate is just like the other plazas that were built in the expanding Toronto suburbs of the late 50s and early 60s, built to suit their surrounding neighbourhood, with nothing to attract anyone from the next neighbourhood over. You haven't heard of it, the way I haven't heard of your neighbourhood plaza. What is happening here though, may soon happen at may suburban plazas across the GTA.
Stonegate has a somewhat unique setting. It's not on our arterial grid, but is hidden at the junction of two collector roads, in an area already somewhat cut off from the greater city by the Humber River to the east and the Mimico Creek to the west. You have to be either quite intentional or entirely lost to find your way to Stonegate, and that relative remoteness has left the plaza, and the neighbourhood around it, looking much like what it did 50 years ago when it was built out.
That said, let's back up one step. This isn't the sticks. This isn't the land that time forgot. The TTC runs a bus through here, on purpose. We have neither an indigenous dialect nor an accent. We're always walking up hills, or down them here, and the Humber valley makes for a pleasant walk up to Old Mill subway station and Bloor West Village. Otherwise it's a quick 2 minutes in the car to hop on to the Gardiner Expressway east or westbound.
Just to the south of the Gardiner is Humber Bay Shores. Where our neighbourhood has been remarkably stable, Humber Bay Shores is growing like topsy. Give it another half dozen years, and the Humber Bay Shores skyline will include the tallest buildings in the country outside of a downtown core. Here, a kilometre to the north, we only do low- and mid-rise.
The neighbourhood is tidy, but it's also tired. Right around the plaza it's mostly inexpensive rental apartments, but go a couple more blocks away from the plaza and it switches mostly to well kept single family homes, and then head another block or two towards Bloor, and the homes get expensive.
In the centre of the neighbourhood is Stonegate Plaza, about 42,000 square feet of retail space on 5.5 acres of land, most of it paved, none of it green. On Tuesday afternoons through the summer and fall a farmers market draws an appreciative crowd. The shops include a grocery store, a convenience store, a dollar store, a pharmacy, a store serving the Polish community, a ministry, a community health centre, a dental clinic, and an auto mechanic. A quarter of the plaza is vacant; the bank has been replaced by a solitary ATM. The parking lot is never more than half full, even with a portion of it given over to a basketball court.
The plaza needs reinvestment. It's exactly the kind of space that begs for the injection of new density called for in Ontario's Places to Grow Plan. Add enough new people here and the local school, currently underused, should fill up again, and the bus, every 15-minutes at rush hour, just might start showing up every 10 minutes, and the shops, should most of them be replaced, would bustle a bit more.
In June 2009 the long-time owners of the plaza proposed a redevelopment. The plan included a sparkling new Loblaws in place of the Valu-mart, most of the shops replaced, a neighbourhood cafe, a new community health centre, and even a new library. All the parking was to go underground, while three residential condominium buildings would rise to 12 storeys above. The plan met with little to no opposition from the community, but it went nowhere.
This August 27, Stonegate Plaza was sold. The purchaser is the Vandyk Group of Companies, a developer that has been around for 30 years now, mostly but not exclusively building in Mississauga and Oakville. Responding to a nudge by Ward 5 City Councillor Peter Milczyn, the company introduced themselves to the community on Monday evening at a local church, and the community certainly showed up, packing the packing the place out.
It's only been six weeks or so since closing, so Vandyk only has an initial concept at this point, a plan that divides the site into quadrants. All parking would go underground, while 30,000 to 40,000 square feet of retail, in purple, would go into the southwest quadrant, with residential mid-rises (yellow) and townhomes (orange) filling out the other three. Vandyk was not willing to go on record with how many residential units they are considering yet. The mid-rises could be 4, 6, or 8 storeys tall.
More details will come as plans develop, but one detail was offered now: there are promises to retain the grocery store and the community health centre. No promises were made, however, regarding the other stores and services, nor to add any new retail tenants.
There were community members on hand to defend most of what it is onsite now, particularly in regards to the community health centre. Concern that neighbourhood youth would lose their basketball court was registered. Local residents also emphasized the need to minimize the downtime during construction; there are no other food stores nor services in walking distance currently. Councillor Milczyn noted the area would be a food desert should the grocery store close before a replacement opened.
With the site as large as it is at 5.5 acres, Vandyk were asked to stage the process in such a way as to avoid disrupting life in the neighbourhood, but only went into detail during one-on-one time after the event regarding the challenge facing them in that regard. The first order is to clean up a plume of contaminants under the site, the result of a long-vanished dry cleaner having poured chemical cleaning solutions down the drain for years. The location of the pollution may preclude the company from building the retail portion of the development where the neighbourhood seems to want it, at the corner of Berry Road and Stephen Drive. Certainly it will make it more expensive to build it there, and would slow down the redevelopment of the whole site if the southeast corner were to be the first quadrant to be built.
Vandyk's representatives stated that remediation would start as soon as the first quarter of 2014, through the digging of a catchment basin on the site, meant to encourage the leeching of the contaminants into a pond from which they could be collected and disposed of properly. The redevelopment, meanwhile, requires a rezoning of the site to permit residential. Councillor Milczyn agreed that the development was significant enough to warrant attention from Toronto's Design Review Panel, a voluntary process meant to improve planning and architectural elements of designs. The final site plan will also require approval by Community and City Council. All of that would take place after an application was submitted to the City, and further public consultations held.
Initial plans invariably morph as applications proceed through the planning process. Vandyk has the chance here to build something that will set the tone for the Stonegate community for the coming decades. The long-term future of the neighbourhood should not be compromised for the sake of saving a few months of construction time now; this large site needs to be rebuilt with the residents foremost in mind, not expediency in construction. We will follow the development here through the process.