Tucked away in the northwest corner of the city, Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) is looking to bring their Woodbine Racetrack to the forefront as one of Toronto's premiere destinations with a massive mixed-use redevelopment centred around a new casino and shopping district. Located on a 684-acre site largely occupied by surface parking lots and unused land, the racetrack redevelopment would see office, retail, commercial, residential, hotel, and gaming uses constructed on its sprawling lot, creating a denser, more urban district and entertainment destination. WEG and their design team, led by Chris Dikeakos Architects and CGL Architects, provided a glimpse of their proposal at a Design Review Panel (DRP) session last month. (The renderings presented at the DRP were newer than the ones shown below, and more refined. We asked for the newer renderings, but CDA/CGL/WEG did not respond.)
The site is currently subject to two rezoning applications under review at the City: one application is to expand gaming services in the existing racetrack building to allow for table gaming, while the second is to allow the construction of the Gaming District, which is Phase 1A of the Woodbine Entertainment District master plan. The master plan calls for several phases of development concentrated to the north and west of the existing racetrack, which is located at the centre of the property. The southern portion of the site—centred on equestrian facilities for the race track—would remain as is.
It is important to note that the master plan as a whole is proposed solely by WEG and its design team, and has not been reviewed or approved by the City. The rezoning applications are only for specific portions of the master plan, which was submitted to the City alongside the applications as supplemental information. The master plan has not been subjected to an official review by City staff.
The proposed master plan for the Woodbine site parcels the land into designated districts, each with a different theme that together create a mixed-use neighbourhood. Phase 1A of the master plan is the Gaming District—the only portion for which there is an active development application—which would see the construction of a massive casino and resort complex, complete with hotel and performance venue, connected directly to the existing Grandstand on its east side and stretching northward from the racetrack. The main entrance to the complex would be located on Queen's Plate Drive, where a Grand Lobby is envisioned that would provide access to all major uses of the building. The Gaming District encompasses the area east of Queen's Plate Drive to the edge of the racetrack, and north to Rexdale Boulevard.
Phase 1B through E includes the Urban Village, a retail and restaurant district with a fine-grained road network that aims to create an urban shopping experience with ample storefronts and walkable streets. Office, entertainment, and commercial uses would also be included, ensuring a mixed use district with visitors at all times of the day. The Urban Village would be low-rise in height in the southern portion and predominantly mid-rise in the northern portion. This phase also includes plans for 'Woodbine Square', an outdoor plaza and gathering space that can be programmed to host events. The Urban Village encompasses the area west of Queen's Plate Drive to the edge of the racetrack, and north to Rexdale Boulevard.
Also as part of the first phase of the project, a new green space will be introduced in the northwest corner of the site running from Rexdale westward along the northern border of the Urban Village. This green space will have recreational trails and natural features, while also serving a practical purpose of stormwater management for the site. This green space will be expanded in future phases of the redevelopment.
A new street network of both private and public roads is proposed on the site, with several new north-south streets providing increased access from Rexdale Boulevard. A ring road named Lexie Lou Loop cuts through the centre of the site, circling across the lands north of the Grandstand. Queen's Plate Drive remains a central access into the site, with the combined Grandstand and casino-resort complex as its end focal point.
The site section poses some interesting problems for the design team, whose solution caught the DRP by surprise. Currently, the existing Grandstand is located on a raised portion of the site that amounts to roughly one storey above grade. Access to the Grandstand from the parking lot is provided by a series of staircases and pathways over sloped lawns that mitigate this difference in elevation.
To deal with this change in grade, nearly the entire land area of both the Gaming District and Urban Village south of Lexie Lou Loop is proposed to be occupied by a massive indoor parking garage, with grade level raised one storey higher to the top of the garage where the road network and building entrances would be located. The perimeter of the grade-level parking garage, where it meets the street, would be lined with retail to mask the parking behind. Queen's Plate Drive and all north-south streets would be sloped from Lexie Lou Loop up to the grandstand level to mitigate the change in elevation, and each one would be lined with storefronts to activate the sidewalk.
Another restriction of the site is the flight paths of planes approaching nearby Pearson International Airport. The flight path greatly limits the allowable height on the property, and also dictates that residential uses are not permitted within the flight path due to noise levels. For this reason, the majority of the buildings will not rise above 10-15 storeys, and no residential uses are included within the Urban Village.
The remainder of the master plan is much less refined in its planning concept, but nevertheless proposes some intriguing uses that are worth mentioning. West of the Urban Village, WEG is proposing a 'Campus District', which they envision as hosting primarily institutional uses. Given that there are several institutions in the vicinity, such as Humber College and Etobicoke General Hospital, the intent is to house similar uses on the site, perhaps directly related to the nearby campuses.
West of the Campus District along Highway 427 and stretching southward along the west edge of the site is the Sports and Recreation District, envisioned to primarily house uses of its namesake, such as athletic facilities and fields, as well as ample green space and recreational trails throughout. The Sports and Recreation District encompasses the portion of green space slated to be built in Phase 1, which will form a green belt that separates the Urban Village from a proposed Residential District tucked adjacent to the interchange of Rexdale Boulevard and Highway 427 in the northwest corner of the site.
The final piece of the master plan is intriguingly labeled as the 'Transit Corner', located in the northeast corner of the site along the intersection of Rexdale and Highway 27. The Woodbine lands are located only 1.5 kilometres south from the terminus of the future Finch West LRT at Humber College, and with plans in the works for a westward extension of the Eglinton LRT to Pearson and a new regional transit hub at Pearson Airport, the Woodbine Entertainment District will be in a prime location if any of these transit lines were to be extended or connected to one another. In addition, the GO tracks border the south end of the Woodbine lands, albeit along a stretch that is not currently proposed for redevelopment.
The Woodbine Racetrack Redevelopment has big ambitions for the creation of a new mixed-use destination centred on gaming, however, it is important to note that a big reason that this mix of uses is proposed is that City Council approved placement of a casino at this location on the condition that complementary office, retail, entertainment, and hotel uses be constructed as well. While the WEG does appear fully supportive of their proposal, the City had made it clear that if they want a casino, then the other uses have to come with it.
Panel members were unconvinced by the design team's presentation, and provided some stern criticisms of the project. They were supportive of the stated goals and ambitions of the project, but when it came to examining the actual proposal, they pointed to many areas where these goals did not materialize. There were many inconsistencies that they claimed were counter-intuitive to the intent of the project.
The obvious elephant in the room was the massive parking garage occupying much of the ground level of the development, a move that many of the Panel members disapproved of. This criticism also linked to further comments that expressed doubt over how pedestrian-friendly the plan actually was. They claimed that using retail to hide the at-grade parking was a weak gesture that may not lead to success, and also pointed to the fact that many people will park and simply go straight to the casino, racetrack, or performance venue, with little incentive to walk along the streets. Panelists also expressed concern over raising ground level, and how that would impact access to the streets and public spaces for pedestrians.
They also pointed to a lack of hierarchy in the streets and open spaces that could hinder the pedestrian experience. The majority of the streets in the Urban Village are currently proposed to have the same right-of-way width, with no distinction between main and side streets. The same was said for the open spaces and the public realm with a lack of smaller, intimate public spaces to contrast the large ones proposed, while renderings showed wide vehicular lanes with typical sidewalk widths on many of the roads. The Panel was not convinced that the stated goal of a pedestrianized road network was implemented in the design.
The Panel also discussed the insular nature of casinos, and how this might impact its relationship to the surroundings. Typically, casinos are designed with little to no windows, and are meant to focus people's attention to the interior of the building. Panel members pointed out that the design team's instinct was to clump all of the gaming functions together, including the racetrack and performance venue, into one giant complex that would be the centrepiece of the neighbourhood, but they were wary of the lack of connectivity to the surroundings this might create. Some suggestions included breaking the complex up into smaller separate buildings, or perhaps burying the casino underground as an insular structure, with views down into it. The Panelists pondered that perhaps given the inward-looking nature of the casino, it should not be the centre of attention, but rather, the other structures and functions should be the primary focus with the casino as a secondary feature.
The lack of integration of the casino complex also caused concern over the legitimacy of the master plan of the district. Panel members were uneasy that the master plan had not been reviewed by the City, and voiced concern that it was simply a "supportive piece used to build the casino", rather than the guiding document for development of the neighbourhood, as is the purpose of a master plan. They posed the question that since the first phase was the casino, would there be a pause before the other phases are built? What is the interim plan for the district in between phases? The lack of integration of the different districts and phases of construction was highlighted as an area that needed resolution in order for the project to succeed.
One Panelist pointedly summarized the disconnect sensed by many of the Panel members:
"The elements of the proposal are working at cross-purposes to each other, so it is unclear what the main intent is. The one thing that works as an idea is around parking, and that seems to be the guiding principle around the design. The gaming complex doesn’t want to work as a pedestrian experience, it is a huge area...I can’t understand it as a pedestrian place. The argument for raising up ground level, there are other ways to solve that...this idea is largely about parking and the idea of a pedestrian place is suffering a great deal from that. There are a lot of ideas working at cross-purposes, but the main ideas seem to be parking and the casino."
There was no vote on the proposal, but the Panel offered encouragement to the design team, pointing out that this was a tremendous opportunity to do something unique and successful. They urged the designers to paint a clearer picture and present a more unified vision for the site, and that more work needed to be done to truly integrate the mix of uses proposed.
It is still very early in the design and planning process for the Woodbine Racetrack Redevelopment, so the design will inevitably evolve as the project progresses. We will keep you updated of any news as it becomes available, but in the meantime, you can get in on the discussion by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.
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