It is being heralded as the new Downtown East: a brand new neighbourhood built from scratch complete with a concentration of jobs rivalling the Financial District, a multi-modal transit hub equivalent to Union Station, and over a million square feet combined of new retail, commercial, arts, cultural, entertainment, and recreation spaces. These are big ambitions for Toronto, ones that are supported by the City and that promise a bright and sunny future for the former industrial area now referred to as East Harbour. Located on the banks of the Don River on the site of the shuttered Unilever soap factory, the project is spearheaded by First Gulf and is currently seeking rezoning at the City.

View of East Harbour looking west, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Last week, East Harbour made its first of what are expected to be several appearances at Toronto's Design Review Panel (DRP), and was presented alongside the City-led Unilever Precinct Planning Study. The two projects are being developed in conjunction with one another.

It is important to note that the master plan is still in its early stages of design and only a high-level concept was presented, focusing mainly on the public realm, street grid configuration, and distribution of scale and massing. The architecture and height of the buildings as shown in the images are not yet refined and are only notional; these will be the focus of the next steps in the design process.

Master plan for East Harbour, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The statistics of the proposal present some staggering numbers: roughly 10 million square feet of office space housing over 50,000 jobs; 1.7 million square feet of retail, culture, and entertainment spaces; roughly 8.5 acres of open space; and 5 different modes of public transit. The East Harbour master plan is a long-term vision that will be implemented incrementally over the next 20 years or so, and is contingent on a number of key infrastructure initiatives that converge on this particular site, including the Don River Naturalization; the partial demolition and realignment of the east end of the Gardiner Expressway; the construction of the Relief Line subway; the implementation of SmartTrack; the expansion of the GO train and RER network; and the expansion of the TTC streetcar network.

Rendering of Soap Factory Plaza, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The last images we saw of the East Harbour proposal illustrated a master plan laid out by Dutch starchitects OMA alongside local firms Adamson Associates and Janet Rosenberg Studio, showing a cluster of towers huddled around a central green space, surrounded by mid-rise development and the transit hub to the north. The layout of the plan has since been modified, doing away with the central plaza and instead opting for a more interspersed network of open spaces throughout a more linear arrangement of towers concentrated along a Broadview Avenue extension. Notably, OMA's name has disappeared from the project, with Urban Strategies now joining Janet Rosenberg and Adamson Associates for design of the master plan and public realm.

Public realm plan, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The central focal point of the master plan is the southward extension of Broadview Avenue into the Port Lands, forming the main street through the East Harbour site. Planned to have a 40-metre right-of-way - not including any setbacks of the buildings from the property line - Broadview is envisioned as having "Spadina-like" sidewalks as wide as 9 metres, with dedicated bicycle and streetcar lanes. The six tallest towers are located on either side of Broadview and decrease in height toward the south.

Proposed cross-section of Broadview Avenue, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The transit hub is located on a bridge along the north edge of the site extending over the Don River, with a point of access provided into the station on the west bank of the river, in addition to multiple access points on the east bank into the East Harbour district. The transit hub is integral to the project, and will provide transfers between GO trains, SmartTrack, and streetcars, with an underground connection to the Relief Line subway to the north along Eastern Avenue. The bridge across the Don, currently occupied solely by train tracks, will be expanded to accommodate platforms and a pedestrian and cycling path that connects to the western shore.

Diagram of the transit hub, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The remainder of the street grid and open space network heavily favours pedestrians in its design. One major east-west street bisects the site, while four smaller local streets divide up the blocks and provide vehicular access to the various buildings. The majority of the space around the buildings, however, is dedicated to Privately-Owned Publicly-Accessible Spaces (POPS) that provide a pedestrian network connecting the plaza outside the transit hub to the north with the remainder of the district to the south. These POPS are flexible in use and range from event and gathering spaces to retail promenades. The size and footprint of the development parcels are purposely being minimized in order to maximize the amount of space dedicated to the public realm.

Public realm plan, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The district is bordered by green spaces on three sides that bridge the disconnect between the currently isolated property and its surroundings. The western edge of the site will feature a new flood protection embankment along the Don River which will be adapted into a linear park, offering a direct relationship to the river. The embankment is notably smaller than its counterpart on the western shore, requiring only a 3-metre crest representing a 3% slope up from grade level, meaning it will not form a large physical or visual barrier between East Harbour and the Don.

The park along the Don River flood protection embankment, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The south edge of the site is bordered by the Lake Shore greenway, currently home to the heavily-used Lower Don cycling and pedestrian trail that runs parallel to Lake Shore Boulevard. The greenway will be expanded to approximately 25 metres in width into more of an urban park, and will provide a buffer between East Harbour and Lake Shore to the south while including infrastructure for stormwater management. This portion of the raised Gardiner Expressway will be removed and Lake Shore will be turned into an urban boulevard, allowing a more hospitable environment for this green space. The greenway also provides a link to the future development in the Port Lands south of Lake Shore.

The park along the Lake Shore greenway, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The eastern edge of the site, along Booth Street, will be anchored by two major green spaces at the north and south corners. The south green space is slated to become East Harbour Park, a 2.1-acre public park that will provide an amenity for local users and residents with programmable areas.

The major green spaces along the eastern edge of the site, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The phasing of the East Harbour site shows different stages of development dependent on the implementation of different infrastructure, and also dependent on the ownership of the land, which currently provides some difficulties in realizing the fully built-out master plan. While First Gulf owns the majority of the land, they do not own the northeast chunk of the East Harbour site, which is currently partially owned and operated by Enbridge, who still occupies the property, with the remainder owned by the City. As well, the strip of land along the north side of Lake Shore Boulevard is owned by the Toronto Port Lands Company (TPLC); this is included in the current master plan, while the Enbridge and City-owned lands to the northeast are earmarked for future development.

Diagram showing ownership of the East Harbour lands, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Phase A of the East Harbour master plan involves the adaptive re-use of the existing heritage soap factory, which will be repurposed into office space. Existing surface parking will be used as a temporary measure until the remainder of the plan is built out.

Phase B represents the largest chunk of work and includes much of the necessary infrastructure needed to sustain the district. This phase includes construction of the transit hub, the Don River flood protection and park, the Broadview Avenue extension complete with streetcar tracks, a portion of the east-west East Harbour Boulevard, and the block of four buildings adjacent to the transit hub on the east side of Broadview, along with their accompanying POPS and plazas.

Phase C includes the two towers located on the west side of Broadview adjacent to the soap factory, along with the accompanying POPS, transit plaza, and soap factory plaza. As well, East Harbour Boulevard will be extended eastward to connect with Booth Street.

Phase D would see the construction of the block of buildings south of East Harbour Boulevard on the west side of Broadview, while the western portion of the Lake Shore greenway will be built and connected to the Don River park. 

Finally, Phase E represents the block of buildings on the east side of Broadview north of Lake Shore, and includes the completion of the Lake Shore greenway along with the major green space at the south end of Booth Street. This is the final phase of the current master plan, with the lands in the northeast corner, as mentioned earlier, slated for future consideration and development.

Phasing plan, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The renderings and diagrams presented put forth preliminary heights and massing of the buildings, but these are only notional forms meant to give a sense of scale to the neighbourhood, and should not be considered final numbers. Ten towers are proposed, mainly clustered along Broadview at the centre of the site, ranging in height from 18 to 50 storeys. These will be surrounded by five mid-rise buildings along the edge of the district, including the repurposed and expanded soap factory, ranging in height from 5 to 13 storeys. Conceptual renderings show that the excluded northeast corner of the site is intended for mid-rise development. 

Plan showing proposed building heights, image courtesy of First Gulf.


Panel members were generally pleased with the first steps taken for the master plan, and remarked on how incredible of an opportunity this project is for city building. However, given the scale and high-profile nature of the proposal, they pushed designers to be more innovative and pointed to several areas of improvement.

Rendering of East Harbour looking south, image courtesy of First Gulf.

The first criticism from the Panel touched on a hot-button issue that has pestered plans for East Harbour from the start: the fact that the site is zoned only as Employment Lands, and does not allow for any residential uses. Several of the Panel members expressed concern about the lack of mixed use, and they were not convinced that retail, cultural, and hotel uses were enough to animate the extensive network of open spaces during all hours of the day. They encouraged the City to allow for residential uses in the area, and to move beyond traditional zoning to match a more contemporary land use governed by how people live their daily lives.

City Planning rebutted, explaining that the designation as Employment Lands must be viewed as part of a larger context. The site is bordered by mixed use and residential lands to the west across the Don, to the north across Eastern, and eventually to the south in the Port Lands. Northeast of the site is a large swath of low-rise residential Neighbourhoods, while to the east is the South of Eastern regeneration area, which will provide further employment and mixed use developments. Some Panel members, however, were not convinced, stating that the site faces large barriers at its edges - namely the Don to the west and the "highway-like" Lake Shore Boulevard to the south - which reduces its connectivity and hinders its relationship to its surroundings.

Diagram of proposed building uses, image courtesy of First Gulf.

Connectivity was also a critique by the Panel, as some members stressed that more pedestrian and cycling connections were needed across the Don in order for it to work. Currently, the proposal calls for an expanded bridge alongside the rail corridor, with the only other options to cross being Queen Street, the Don Valley Trail, and Lake Shore Boulevard (Eastern Avenue is excluded for its on and off ramps to the Gardiner, Richmond, and Adelaide Streets). Panel members did not think this was enough, and encouraged another pedestrian and cycling connection directly into the West Don Lands, an important neighbourhood whose residents would potentially be frequent visitors to the East Harbour site.

Diagram of pedestrian and cycling network, image courtesy of First Gulf.

As well, Panel members noted the inversion of the master plan from OMA's central park configuration to the current perimeter park layout, calling the plan very "commercial-centric". While some members liked the green buffer around the district, others suggested integrating more green space into the centre and placing more emphasis on these important green areas would lead to a more successful neighbourhood.

Panel members also critiqued the phasing of the project, saying that the sequence of construction might not lend itself to a successful district in the interim. They suggested that some of the major green spaces should be built first, and they also advocated for having more connected and continuous streetwalls with smaller storefronts, rather than the one-building-per-block massing that is currently proposed.

Finally, many of the Panelists expressed that though the amount of open space and public realm presented in the master plan was a positive aspect, they were overall underwhelmed by it. They asked what about this place would attract people to come spend time there, and what about it would attract businesses. The Panel stated that they felt the master plan was lacking a grander vision, something that makes the neighbourhood unique, and something that is really designed for the future. One Panel member summarized the sentiment, calling for more authenticity and "disruptive ideas...This place cannot be like any other place, it has to be specific. It has to be unique."

Plan of proposed POPS, image courtesy of First Gulf.

There was no vote on the master plan, but the Panel offered encouragement and support for a proposal they felt was headed in the right direction, but needed much more innovative and powerful ideas.

The East Harbour master plan will eventually be back at the DRP, with more design changes and further details presented as the plan evolves. We will keep you updated on any news of the development, but in the meantime, you can let us know what you think by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.

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