While work progresses behind the scenes on the controversial Scarborough Subway Extension, planners at both the City of Toronto and Oxford Properties are cooking up their own master plans for what might accompany the new transit hub in Scarborough Centre. Recently, Toronto's Design Review Panel (DRP) was treated to presentations of two concurrent master plans for Scarborough Centre, both of which propose a significant amount of density for the suburban area.

Scarborough Centre is currently home to roughly 14,150 residents and over 15,800 jobs across its 180 hectares of land. For some perspectives, when superimposed over Downtown Toronto, Scarborough Centre would stretch from Richmond Street up to College Street, and would span from John Street all the way to Sherbourne Street. But this land is very sparsely populated in comparison with Downtown, consisting mainly of low-rise commercial buildings and expanses of surface parking lots, with the civic centre, parks, and various condo towers spread throughout. This, however, is set to change: the master plans in the works would more than double the number of residents living here and significantly increase the number of jobs, representing perhaps one of the most ambitious and largest redevelopments seen in Toronto to date.

Aerial view of Scarborough Centre, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

City of Toronto: Scarborough Centre Focused Review

Facing increasing development pressure from the coming transit project, the City began working on a master plan for the area in Fall 2018. According to the City's master plan, "Scarborough Centre is envisioned as evolving from a suburban, car-centred commercial hub into a vibrant, urban, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community, anchored by transit, an enhanced public realm, and compact development". The master plan is centred around four principles: connectivity; nature, parks, and open spaces; design excellence and placemaking; and leveraging capital investments.

These four principles are to be embodied in seven big moves: focusing on sustainable and resilient design; expanding and strengthening the existing civic node; enhancing both north-south and east-west connections; enhancing and integrating with natural systems; creating community parks; creating neighbourhood parks and parkettes; and creating and integrating POPS and other open spaces into the public realm.

Preliminary public realm plan, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

All of this is manifested in a much finer street grid than what is currently there, with plenty of residential development in the form of high-rise towers and mid-rise throughout. A network of parks and public spaces is envisioned across the area, with several nodes in the western portion of Scarborough Centre, along the southern edge between Ellesmere Road and the civic centre, and in the eastern portion along Highland Creek. Six character areas are also proposed, but were not described in detail.

Proposed character areas, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The City's master plan is still in the very early stages of design, but the DRP did not hold back in pushing the City to be more bold and imaginative with their proposed plan.

The Panel was pleased that the City was taking a public-realm-first approach with their master plan, but criticized the plan's lack of character and vision, claiming that "planning metrics have gotten ahead of form-making and character-making". They pointed out that the master plan was so far "absent of the testing of building typology, of diversity of uses, of diversity of affordability" that would really define the character of the neighbourhood, and that these metrics would help to better inform the public space requirements. Panel members stated that the master plan was too uniform, lacked any form of hierarchy, and lacked an understanding of scale.

Concept model of the civic node, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Panelists encouraged the City to be proactive about acquiring parkland, referencing Downtown Toronto of the 1970s, which was full of surface parking at the time that the municipal government failed to capitalize on to the point where there is a severe deficiency of parks and public space in the Downtown Core today. They also expressed dismay that the TTC seems to not be cooperating with their previous recommendations about creating more north-south connections across the trench that will become the bus bays of the transit hub; they encouraged the City to coordinate with the TTC to mitigate the negative impact of this trench.

The Panel summarized their commentary by pressing the City to "create a place that is a place of choice" and that, "if we only create areas where it's convenient and it's a great place to live because of transit or shopping, that won’t quite do it. It has to be compelling, you can’t have tactical solutions that don’t have vision".

Concept model of the transit node, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Oxford Properties: Scarborough Town Centre Master Plan

While the City is just beginning plans for Scarborough Centre, Oxford Properties have been working for the past two years on a comprehensive master plan for the Scarborough Town Centre mall (STC). Clocking in at over 1.6 million square feet of retail space, 23 million annual visitors, and over 4,200 employees, STC ranks within the top 10 largest shopping malls in Canada and occupies a full 40 hectares of land - roughly 20% of the total area of Scarborough Centre. The majority of this land is used for surface parking, and Oxford is looking to cash in on the coming subway station by redeveloping their underused property into a thriving mixed-use residential and retail-focused neighbourhood.

Aerial view of Scarborough Town Centre mall, image courtesy of Oxford Properties.

Oxford is working closely with the City and fortunately for both, the STC master plan fits nicely within the City's proposal, with a few minor differences that can be smoothed out. As Oxford has been working on this for quite a bit longer, more detail was presented for the DRP to review. The STC master plan is designed by Urban Strategies, along with Quadrangle and ABBARCH Architecture.

The basis of the STC master plan is that the shopping mall will remain and will be expanding outward over time, and Oxford would like to integrate other uses on top of the retail during this outward expansion. The master plan is thus considered an incremental build-out as market forces dictate, with the mall remaining the focal point of the neighbourhood. An incredible 36 towers ranging in height from 20 to 65 storeys are proposed throughout four distinct character areas, along with several mid-rises and lower-scale commercial and community buildings. Parking is sprinkled throughout each block, both in the form of underground garages and above-ground parkades, which are situated at the centre of the blocks and wrapped by retail and residential uses to mask them from view. More details of the master plan can be found in a previous article, here.

Summary of the master plan, image courtesy of Oxford Properties.

A finer street grid and a network of public spaces is imagined around the new STC, with three main squares around the mall: Market Plaza, an intimate, low-scale urban plaza at the entrance of the new subway station; the North Plaza, envisioned as having active and flexible uses; and the West Plaza, a pedestrian precinct providing active uses that will serve as a link to the residential area to the west. The master plan focuses on pedestrian and cycle-friendly design while still accommodating car uses, as it is expected that the new neighbourhood and expanded mall will continue to attract visitors to the area from the suburbs.

Panel members were overall pleased with the progress on the STC master plan, but offered some advice to improve it and turn it into a more successful neighbourhood. They applauded the plan for the character districts and the level of attention given to the public realm, however, they were less convinced of the success of the residential areas around, and questioned whether there were enough parks and public space afforded to the number of new residences proposed. They also pushed for more of a hierarchy in the public realm, with grander central public spaces mixed with more intimate, smaller-scale parks and plazas.

Diagram showing distribution of parks and public realm, image courtesy of Oxford Properties.

The Panel was very critical of the proposed built form, expressing disappointment in the use of the typical tower-on-parkade model. They urged the design team to explore different building typologies, saying that the tower-and-podium should be used but be "not as rampant", and took issue with using the towers as a buffer along the 401 to shield the public park to the south. They concluded that "there was not enough diversity of form and affordability and character to make this place what it needs to be".

Diagram showing distribution of built form, image courtesy of Oxford Properties.

A final point from the DRP was to include a phasing plan for the STC redevelopment. Since the full build out is likely to be 25 years or more, things can change significantly during that time, so detailing the phasing of the master plan would help to ensure that the essential pieces for a complete community are included.

* * *

After reviewing both master plans, the DRP expressed their excitement that Scarborough Centre could one day become the next great urban destination in Toronto. They cautioned, however, that neither of these plans were quite at the level of excellence needed to become a truly unique place, and that more work needs to be done. But they hailed the master plans as a "terrific first step", and a "good starting point to make this into a real community".

We will keep you updated as the master plans for Scarborough Centre continue to evolve, but in the meantime, you can tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum thread for the subway station plan, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.

* * *

UrbanToronto has a new way you can track projects through the planning process on a daily basis. Sign up for a free trial of our New Development Insider here.