With more and more development proposals ending up at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), it seems that getting something built in this city cannot be done without ruffling a few feathers. Whether it be the developers and the City not seeing eye to eye, or the community protesting against unwanted development, it is not uncommon to see building applications end in bitterness. So it comes as a welcome breath of fresh air to find a situation where everyone—developers, city planners, and the local community—came together, collaborated, and left in the end with something that everyone was not just happy with, but something that they enthusiastically supported.
That success story is the public realm plan in Yorkville, which was drafted back in 2014 and which is now just starting to be built out. The eastern part of the neighbourhood, defined by Bloor, Bay, Davenport, and Yonge, has been subject to a spate of large development proposals over the past few years, looking to add thousands of new residents to the area in a series of high-rise condo towers. This area, however, contains almost no open public spaces. The City identified this problem, and working together with the various developers and local community organizations, they drafted a public realm plan that will completely transform the area with new parks, public squares, and pedestrian laneways.
UrbanToronto spoke with James Parakh, Manager for Urban Design for Toronto and East York, and Oren Tamir, Senior Planner at the City of Toronto, to discuss how this public realm plan came together, and how they've managed to carve it from scratch out of the concrete and asphalt of eastern Yorkville.
There are currently 8 development proposals within the Bloor-Bay-Davenport-Yonge block, each in various stages of planning and construction. At the southern end, 50 Bloor West, currently on hold, was proposed back in 2014 on the site of the Holt Renfrew, while adjacent to it to the north, Cumberland Square proposes a 3-tower redevelopment of the Cumberland Terrace mall. North of Cumberland street, 1 Yorkville and Eight Cumberland are both under construction along Yonge, while 11 YV and the two-tower 33 Yorkville proposals are approved but not yet built. Further north, both 1 Scollard and 50 Scollard are in different stages of pre-construction. With all of these projects combined, roughly 5,000 residential units are proposed within 11 towers ranging in height from 41 to 75 storeys.
"We started getting a high proportion of applications in the area, and we realized that none of them were talking to each other," Parakh explains. "There was no real coherence, there was no real vision, there was no open space." Tamir adds that, "We’re seeing each of these developers wanting to use Cumberland as their service lane, there’s no open space proposed, and we kind of identify we have a problem. They’re all coming to us individually and saying, we’re going to have great retail, it’s going to be beautiful; meanwhile, we’re looking at the plans and we don’t see it all panning out the way they're painting it."
That is when they came up with the idea of a design charette. The City invited the local community, the local City Councillors, and all of the landowners and their architects to gather for one afternoon to brainstorm ideas for the public realm in Yorkville. "We were successful in bringing them all together, that was step one," says Tamir.
Hosted by architect Ralph Giannone as a member of the Toronto Design Review Panel, the half-day charette was a complete success. Splitting into two groups with a mixture of members from each party, they discussed ideas and sketched proposals for how it would all work. "We had a couple messages for them," Tamir explains, "One was, you tell me about these great retail spaces, but if I’m going to meet someone in Yorkville, I’m going to Yorkville Park, and meeting them by the rock. I’m going to have coffee there and I’m going to hang out there. So the first vision statement we said to them was, where’s the rock? Where’s my gathering place in Yorkville east of Bay? Why am I going to hang out, shop, and linger in this area, because I’m not seeing any open space proposed."
When the two groups reconvened at the end of the day to present their ideas, the two proposals were almost identical. "It was uncanny!" says Parakh.
What they both proposed was two north-south mid-block connections stretching from Bloor to Scollard, and a new central park between Yorkville and Cumberland. The north-south connections aligned with two important landmarks: the clock tower of the Fire Hall, and Town Hall Square, an existing park stretching between Yorkville and Scollard adjacent to the Yorkville library branch.
After the charette, the public realm plan became very clear. The City took that input and translated it into a more tangible planning document, which met with the approval of all parties involved.
In addition to the new parks and laneways, Cumberland Street was also identified as a candidate to be transformed into a destination shopping promenade. All loading and vehicular access to the new tower developments has been consolidated to two points at the east and west ends of the street, so that at some point the City can either temporarily or permanently close down Cumberland to vehicular traffic to transform it into a completely pedestrian environment.
Parakh and Tamir explained that heritage also played a key role in defining the public realm. Today, the centre of Yorkville is commonly considered to be west of Bay Street, but back in Yorkville's heyday at the turn of the century, this eastern portion of the neighbourhood was actually the centre of the village, containing the fire hall, town hall, library, and main commercial stretch along Yonge. In the 1920s, Bay Street was extended north, slicing the neighbourhood in half, and through the 1950s and 60s, the wrecking ball and the construction of the subway lines transformed Yorkville east of Bay into parking lots. Fast forward to the flurry of development activity today, and the City and stakeholders saw the opportunity to bring those remaining heritage structures to the forefront of Yorkville's transformation.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the plan is that each developer is voluntarily contributing a piece of their land to turn this into a reality. Whether it be a POPS or public parkland dedication, small pieces are being assembled from each property to create a whole without it actually being legally required. Both Eight Cumberland and 1 Yorkville pushed their towers back to allow an expanded pedestrian laneway on their western boundary and to preserve the row of historic Yonge Street storefronts along their eastern boundary, while 33 Yorkville and 11 YV repositioned their towers to create the western mid-block connection and the central park. Cumberland Square provided for a widened laneway connecting Bloor to Cumberland as a continuation of the eastern mid-block pathway, while 50 Bloor West, once it is resubmitted at an unknown future date, will further widen this laneway while also providing an interior Bloor-Cumberland connection at the end of the western mid-block pathway.
"The beautiful thing from my perspective as a city planner was, this is a framework document that was developed by staff, the development industry, the owners, and the residents, and everyone bought into it," says Tamir. "This is a guideline framework. It’s not an Official Plan policy, it’s not a zoning bylaw. And we’ve seen this play out better than planned...piece by piece, application by application, people have played by this set of rules, and the community has come out to support them." Tamir and Parakh also speak of the local community attending consultations and City Council meetings to voice their support of the developments, a rare occurrence in many neighbourhoods of the city experiencing this type of growth.
The plan has even gone above and beyond what was expected. KingSett Capital's Cumberland Square proposal includes a new public square along Cumberland that was not part of the original public realm plan, but was instead proposed by the developers themselves to enhance the local public realm network. "To the developer's credit, they actually proposed open space there," Parakh explains. "To our credit, we said well, why don’t you make it so big that you connect the two north-south walkways...when we first saw it, it didn’t connect and it didn’t align with the central park, and now it does."
When asked if the piecemeal approach might result in an incoherent public realm, Parakh and Tamir pointed out that the landowners have taken care of that aspect by hiring the same landscape architects for adjacent properties. For example, both Eight Cumberland and 1 Yorkville have enlisted NAK Design Group as their landscape architect, so the pedestrian laneway between Cumberland and Yorkville will have a consistent design. As well, both 33 Yorkville and Cumberland Square have Janet Rosenberg + Studio designing the public realm, ensuring coherence between the central park and the new public square on either side of Cumberland.
"It was just so obvious, the plan was important for everyone," says Tamir. "[The developers] want to have the great shopping street, and by creating not only these new open spaces, you also create new frontage that didn’t otherwise exist. So everyone saw the benefit: the community saw the open space they wanted, the network they were looking for, and then opened their mind to allowing the tall buildings in these zones. But again, it was a clear plan that they all bought into."
The collaboration seen in drafting the Yorkville public realm is a rare success story in recent years, but it is one that the City is looking to replicate elsewhere in Toronto. It is particularly relevant in contexts where there is an influx of individual high-rise developments from multiple landowners within close proximity to each other, in places such as the Entertainment District and Yonge-Eglinton. "We are working on another plan up at Yonge and St. Clair which is very similar to this," Parakh adds, "and through our POPS program, we’ve added over a million square feet to the downtown in the past decade alone just through privately-owned publicly-accessible space."
The Yorkville public realm plan sets a precedent for city-building and represents a successful model of responsible development. Bringing the often disparate parties of the City, developers, and the community together to create a plan that everyone voluntarily supports and conforms to is no easy feat, but one that everyone can now proudly say they have accomplished. As the various developments in Yorkville break ground, the new public realm is slowly taking shape. In 10 years from now, Yorkville will once again be transformed, hopefully this time for the better.
Check back regularly for updates on the various projects happening within Yorkville as they continue to progress. In the meantime, you can tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum threads for each project, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the current Yorkville library branch is housed in the former Yorkville Town Hall building. The Yorkville library building was in fact purpose-built as a library in 1907, and the Town Hall was located on the opposite side of Town Hall Square fronting onto Yonge Street. The Town Hall was constructed in 1860 and housed the Yorkville library branch from 1884 until the library building was completed in 1907. The Town Hall burned down in 1941, with the only surviving remnant being a carved coat-of-arms that is mounted on the Yorkville Fire Hall.