Scarborough is not typically a part of Toronto associated with density. The borough is dominated by swaths of suburban housing and industrial parks, dotted with small clusters of high rises interspersed throughout. The largest concentration of density is in Scarborough Centre, a 180-hectare area along Highway 401 centred around McCowan Road that was designated as the heart of the suburb back in the 1970s, and which has experienced moderate growth over the last few decades. Currently, Scarborough Centre is home to roughly 14,150 residents and over 15,800 jobs, and is connected to the remainder of Toronto via the Scarborough RT line. But all that is about to change significantly: with the RT line being replaced by an extension of the TTC's Line 2, and the new subway station is being accompanied by a wave — no, a tsunami — of mixed-use, high-rise development.
According to City staff, by Q3 2021, there was a total of over 8,900 residential units either approved or proposed in Scarborough Centre — more than double the number of residential units that exist there today. That is, until Oxford Properties formally submitted OPA/ZBA documents in November, 2021 for their master plan to redevelop the Scarborough Town Centre (STC) mall property, which in itself proposes an additional 15,500 residential units. Altogether, the massive wave of development coming to Scarborough Centre will effectively quadruple its population over the next couple decades.
In light of this, the City of Toronto has been working on updating the Scarborough Centre secondary plan, which has not been revised since 2005, through the OurSC Study. While the previous plan accommodated growth, it did not anticipate this much growth, and recent changes like the subway extension and the redevelopment of the STC property have prompted a rethinking of what the area will look like. Led by Gladki Planning Associates and DTAH, the updated secondary plan was presented to the Toronto Design Review Panel in November, 2021, offering a glimpse into the not-so-distant future of Scarborough Centre.
The objectives of the secondary plan aim to reinforce Scarborough Centre as one of the major centres in the GTA, and to establish a complete community that contains a wide variety of uses along with adequate parks and public spaces. The plan is focused on pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented development, while creating a sustainable and resilient built environment. It also commits to maintaining a strong presence of employment uses within the area, and is governed by the Province's target of 400 jobs and residents per hectare for its designated growth centres.
There are several constraints, however, that make it a bit more difficult to transform Scarborough Centre into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly community. The first is the STC mall, which the proponents referred to as the "elephant in the room", that occupies roughly 20% of the land in Scarborough Centre, around 40 hectares total. The mall is an important source of employment for the area and is also a destination for visitors to Scarborough Centre, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
The second hurdle described by the design team is the current dominance of vehicular traffic in Scarborough Centre, with much of the area being a "sea of asphalt and concrete". The large blocks, prevalence of surface parking, and distances between buildings make it difficult to build a pedestrian-friendly environment from scratch.
The final obstacle to drafting a cohesive plan is the fact that around 25% of the land area of Scarborough Centre is already developed, with roughly 40% accounted for in terms of approved and active development applications. Amongst the existing, approved, and proposed developments, there is no discernible pattern in terms of building heights, with the current skyline being a collection of rather arbitrary heights. Putting together a secondary plan with an already existing built context that has not followed much of a logical pattern is tricky to navigate.
Working within these constraints, the design team has proposed a foundation of three "green loops" as part of the Parks and Public Realm Plan. All parks and open spaces will feed off of these loops, which will connect together all open spaces in a cohesive network. The primary green loop circles the mall and civic centre at the heart of Scarborough Centre, with two secondary loops branching off of it, stretching to the western boundary of the secondary plan and to Highland Creek in the east.
A new finer-grained street network is also proposed across the area. The secondary plan identifies a hierarchy of streets, each with a slightly different design approach that matches their purpose. These include arterial roads for high-volume traffic, identified as Ellesmere, Brimley, McCowan, and Bellamy; higher profile civic streets, such as Progress Avenue and Borough Drive; centre mixed-use streets as secondary connectors; centre neighbourhood streets as connectors with primarily residential uses; and local connections, for low-volume or pedestrian-focused mid-block connectors.
The updated secondary plan also proposes slight updates to the boundaries of the character areas in Scarborough Centre. Six character areas are identified, with each having a different overarching focus for design: the Shopping/Retail District which comprises the STC mall property; the Civic District, centred around the Civic Centre and Library; the western Brimley District; the North District, subdivided into Northwest, Centre, and Northeast segments, which stretches the length of Highway 401; the McCowan District, focused around the new subway station; and the East Highland Creek District, centred on the waterway of its namesake.
The design team is also considering designating the area around the subway station as an 'office priority area,' and is looking at ways of integrating grade-level retail throughout the neighbourhood by identifying several streets to prioritize street-facing retail units in developments.
Regarding built form, the design team was seeking guidance from the Design Review Panel on a few options they were exploring. With respect to building heights, they had presented a 'single peak' option with density focused around the subway station and a 'multiple peak' option with more than one node of height and density spread across the area. Their preferred option was the multiple peak approach.
The design team is also looking at ways to encourage a variety of building typologies to avoid a monotonous neighbourhood of tower-and-podium forms. One idea that is included in the secondary plan is incremental tower separations. Rather than setting a hard separation distance of minimum 25 metres between towers as is standard in Toronto, the design team is proposing that the tower separation increases with height, resulting in stepped massing as the building rises higher. The design team is also looking at ways to encourage more porosity within development sites, avoiding squat podiums that stretch the full length of the property with no breaks in the streetwall.
A final issue that the proponents were seeking input on from the Panel is the fact that the secondary plan has a deficit of parkland proposed for the number of residents, and they are looking at ways to resolve this. The updated plan has roughly 3.61m²/person of parkland, compared to 6m²/person in North York Centre and Markham Centre, and 2.8m²/person in Vaughan Metropolitan Centre (which was originally proposed at 5m²/person but was reduced following an OMB decision). Strategies that could mitigate this would be to reduce the amount of developable land and increase park space; incorporate more non-residential uses, which would decrease the population of the area; or accept the deficit and instead look for opportunities for POPS as part of the planning review process.
The discussion around parkland requirements highlighted an interesting contradiction in planning documents in Toronto. The Official Plan sets a benchmark of 0.4 hectares of parkland per 300 residential units across the city, but this number reflects more of a suburban development typology and is typically very difficult to achieve in high-density developments, particularly in places like Downtown Toronto. In these cases, the City uses an Alternative Parkland Dedication, expressed as a percentage of the site area that is independent of the number of units proposed, typically capped at 10-20% depending on the size of the site. For particularly small sites, there is also the cash-in-lieu option where a fee is paid in exchange for no parkland dedication, and the money goes toward public realm improvements or parkland off-site. With respect to Scarborough Centre, the parkland dedication of 3.61m²/person equates to 0.18 hectares per 300 units, far short of the Official Plan requirement, and is relatively low compared to other contemporary high-density master plans in the city. The City and design team are trying to strike an appropriate balance between existing and future developments and the adequate parkland needed to support the new residents.
The Design Review Panel offered some suggestions in response to the issues raised by the design team. The Panel loved the idea of the green loops, calling them "a brilliant piece of infrastructure" and an excellent foundation around which to organize the secondary plan. They were also very supportive of the ambitions of the secondary plan, emphasizing that development at this scale needs a big and bold vision.
With respect to the built form, most Panel members advocated for less controls over building typologies and heights. They agreed that the "multiple peaks" approach was better for creating variation in the skyline, but pondered whether less restrictions on height and massing would allow the neighbourhood to evolve more organically and would foster more individualism across each site, rather than forcing a built form condition for the area. Other Panelists cautioned that there are limits to individualism and it may not result in a desirable built form, but no Panel members advocated for any height restrictions.
There were, however, some suggestions on how to determine appropriate built form across the site. One Panelist suggested that rather than starting with built form, the design process should begin with determining how many people this neighbourhood can support, and evolving a built form strategy from there. In that vein of thought, it was pointed out that there was a lack of community amenities accounted for in the plan - community centres, athletic facilities, schools (one was indicated in the plan but the Panel felt that more than one school may be needed), and cultural institutions, among others. They emphasized that these should be accounted for when drafting the secondary plan in order to establish a truly complete community.
Regarding the public realm, the Panel was concerned about the parkland deficit, stressing that parks and public spaces are essential for a vibrant and healthy community. They supported including more office uses as a way to both tackle this deficit and reinforce the mixed-use aspect of the neighbourhood, and also encouraged the design team to find more land for public space either by reducing development blocks or asking for more POPS.
The Panel also wanted the design team to push the idea of the green loops even further, perhaps by expanding the greenery along these loops or focusing more on adjacent uses that could reinforce the character of these loops. They encouraged the proponents to focus a little more on the pedestrian experience across the neighbourhood as a way to inform the network of public spaces, the adjacent uses, and the built form.
Overall, the Panel was supportive of the ambitions and directions that the updated secondary plan is headed in, but urged the proponents to push it even further to create a truly unique neighbourhood. They commented that the great ideas and ambitions presented in two dimensions did not quite translate into the three-dimensional images shown, and that more refinement might be needed to achieve the stated goals. There was no vote held for the project.
The City is aiming to produce the final report for the Scarborough Centre secondary plan in June, 2022, and is continuing public engagement in the interim. We will keep you updated as the secondary plan evolves, but in the meantime, you can join in on the conversation in the associated Project Forum thread, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.
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