At last week's CityAge conference, a diverse panel of experts and decision-makers had some critical words for Toronto's city planning department during a lively discussion focusing on recent large-scale land developments in the downtown area. Entitled "Catalyst Projects: City-Building at Scale", the panel consisted of Derek Goring, Great Gulf Vice President of Development; Adam Vaughan, Spadina-Fort York MP; Gail Lord, Co-President of Lord Cultural Resources; and Harold Madi, Senior Principal and Urban Places Lead at Stantec. Katia Rmitrieva, real estate reporter at Bloomberg News, chaired the panel.

The conversation revolved around the relationship of the public and private sectors in Toronto, particularly with regards to large-scale projects such as the Unilever site, CityPlace, and Liberty Village. With a lively debate that needed little intervention from the moderator, some harsh comments about the shortcomings of the planning process exposed some critical issues facing Toronto today.

The panel discussion at the CityAge conference, image by Julian Mirabelli.

Gail Lord kicked off the heavy-hitting criticisms, claiming that we are not focusing enough on the ground level in the design of our buildings. Our streets and public spaces are where life occurs, and what happens in the towers above that, she stated, isn't all that important. A lack of diversity in available spaces and a low quality of the public realm at street level segregates the public, so "people who want to start their own businesses or shops, the lifeblood of the city, are being priced out of rental, and it’s a serious problem".

The panel discussion at the CityAge conference, image by Julian Mirabelli.

At the forefront of the discussion was the lack of community involvement in Toronto's decision-making process. "It’s not a public sector-private sector conversation, it’s a three-legged stool between the community, the government, and the private sector," Adam Vaughan explained, "and when you bring the lived experience to the table you get these values that we talked about on street level".

Citing the highly successful St. Lawrence Market development from the 1980s, Vaughan lamented that, "the City has forgotten how it did that, the City has forgotten why it did that, and the City has forgotten how much it can learn from that project". The St. Lawrence neighbourhood sprouted up on a brownfield site in the 1980s and 90s, and received international acclaim for its mix of social housing and condo units, its integration of office and retail, and its abundance of public space.

Comparing St. Lawrence to more recent developments, Vaughan continued: "The mix of the downtown was sustained, we did not build vertical suburbs, and when we left city planners without community engagement we got CityPlace and Liberty Village… nobody goes to CityPlace unless you live there". Calling Canoe Landing Park essentially a "toilet for dogs", he added: "We are not building complete neighbourhoods, we are building vertical suburbs in the downtown core, and the result is a big problem.”

View of CityPlace from Bathurst Street c.2014, image by Jack Landau.

Harold Madi pointed out that there have been some successful redevelopment projects in recent years, citing Regent Park, Alexandra Park, and the West Don Lands as a few good examples. He agreed that community involvement is necessary—something that these developments all have in common—but also added heritage preservation as an important part of the process as well.

"There are businesses that have been drawn to former spaces, often in [adaptive reuse] buildings, and now we’re trying to knock them down," Madi explained. "There is value in heritage preservation that moves beyond the façade, because these spaces can’t be rebuilt". The unique lofty spaces of many historic buildings are often ignored by many developments, and to pull a page from Jane Jacobs, they provide affordable spaces for start-up businesses that make neighbourhoods more accessible to all.

The Distillery District c.2014, an example of adaptive reuse, image by Craig White.

The Unilever site came up as one of the great potential developments for the city. Goring highlighted that as the developers on the project, they are working very closely with the City and the Province to ensure its success, as everyone involved shares common goals for the land's development. However, Vaughan warned not to make the area solely for employment lands, stressing that mixed use is necessary for a successful neighbourhood. Lord added that, "You have to look beyond 'mixed use' to what is the real use, what is a meaningful use. We have to ask what creativity can we have here… we have to have a clearer vision".

"Let's not forget about the OMB," Madi piped in. He criticized the improper use of the provincial appeals body as a scapegoat for deferral by local politicians afraid of taking responsibility for tough decisions, claiming it instills fear about doing the right thing. "The reason why Unilever is emerging as a single-use development," he added, "is because of the fear of introducing other uses".

Zoning by-laws were heavily criticized during the discussion by all panel members, who claimed that the segregation of uses was an antiquated system that hindered the development of complete neighbourhoods. In some cases it is still relevant, such as separating heavy industrial and residential areas, but in many situations like the Unilever site, which is zoned only as employment lands, it is counterintuitive to healthy city building.

Conceptual rendering of the Unilever development, image courtesy of Great Gulf.

Vaughan was perhaps the most critical of the process, emphasizing that the public sector needs to be more proactive in its role as a mediator between the private sector and the community. He did not pull his punches, and after having served on Toronto City Council for 8 years from 2006-2014, he had these words to say about our current state of affairs:

"One of the big that there are very few councillors elected to City Council who are elected there with a focus on land use management. We’ve got folks who are elected there because they want to cut taxes, folks elected because they want to protect unions, folks elected because they want to get into politics, but the only real power that City Hall has is to manage land, and it has an incredible capacity to create wealth that it can then reinvest in itself by managing land properly. And most of the financial problems of the City of Toronto are directly a result of terrible land use management policies. We spend a fortune on policing because we create inhumane neighbourhoods, we spend a fortune on transit because we think that if we throw a transit line out in a greenfield that it will attract’s never worked. So if we continue to elect people to City Hall because they’re going to cut your taxes, or they're going to protect irrelevant services, then they’re not going to focus on building good, strong neighbourhoods, and you’re going to get a City Council that is lost." 


The CityAge Toronto 2016 event has now wrapped up. A complete event schedule is available in our preview editorial, as well as on the CityAge website, which includes a full itinerary of speakers and discussions. This year, UrbanToronto is CityAge's official media partner, so keep an eye out for our reporting from the conference.

Related Companies:  Adamson Associates Architects, Entuitive, Urban Strategies Inc.