East Harbour is the most significant transit oriented development being planned not just in Toronto, but in Canada. The site owned by Cadillac Fairview — which is on that of a former soap factory — is almost exactly three kilometres east of Union Station, and is hemmed in by Lake Shore Boulevard to the south, the Don River and DVP to the west, and the Lakeshore East and Stouffville GO lines to the north. The scale is enormous. With a footprint of over 45 acres, the site is larger than Yorkdale Shopping Centre, and right on the doorstep of Downtown.

East Harbour Site Plan, image via submission to the City of Toronto

East Harbour of course cannot be considered in isolation, instead it is just the latest in a cluster of major urban regeneration projects in the company of the Distillery District, the West Don Lands, and the rethought Port Lands district centred on the new Villiers Island. This will provide the site with a combination of substantial green space and parks, waterfront access, and cultural as well as community amenities that are almost impossible to find in Toronto. And unlike Villiers Island or the West Don Lands, which both lack for rapid and regional transit connectivity, East Harbour will be second only to Union Station in terms of the number and quality of its transit connections.

Construction work at the East Harbour station site, image by UrbanToronto Forum contributor rdaner

That's because the site will be connected with two different GO transit routes, the Ontario Line 3 subway, and a likely future streetcar extension. With GO trains on the Kitchener-Stouffville and Lakeshore Corridors, passengers will be directly connected with Hamilton, Markham, Oakville, Pickering, Brampton, and more as well as potentially Pearson airport. And with two different GO lines, connections to Union Station will be available with subway level frequency. Meanwhile Ontario Line 3 will mean fast direct connections to Lines 1, 2 and 5, as well as the Downtown core, and key downtown adjacent areas like King East and the Fashion District. And as Ontario Line 3 will run with up to forty trains per hour in each direction (the oft talked about 90 second headways also seen in cities like Paris and Moscow), well over 100 trains will be passing through the site every single hour — more than Bloor Yonge.

Fortunately, the “transit hub” (can we just say train station?) those trains will be passing through will be designed for capacity and people-moving power from day one, while people have rightly complained that the station’s design has been aggressively value engineered down from past renderings with Zaha Hadid-esque elevated tubes and volumes.

GO Platforms at East Harbour Station, image courtesy of Metrolinx

The most important element of a station for a site like this with so much planned development and such incredible transit connections is that it is designed to be high capacity and seamlessly interconnected. As opposed to say Dundas West-Bloor, Toronto’s other notable site with four GO tracks intersecting with the subway and streetcar networks, where a connection between GO and the subway is finally under construction, and where GO platforms are limited to just two fairly modest access routes, by comparison, East Harbour will have two wide circulation concourses linking the subway and GO platforms — which will be parallel — and three access points, as well as two elevators on both of GO’s island platforms to help with passenger flow and also provide connectivity to Eastern Avenue at the station's northeast side. There are also other design features which are great to see, including public washrooms, and large public plazas in front of the station so that passengers are not sent out onto a narrow sidewalk or into the parking lot of a grocery store.

Ground Floor Plan, East Harbour Station, image courtesy of Metrolinx

It should also be noted that given the proximity of the Don Valley Parkway, road access to the site will also be very good. Potentially enabling future regional bus connections, and also simplifying deliveries to the site.

There are also plans to further augment the train station with a streetcar connection, which would run south and west to Villiers Island, and likely also north along Broadview to Line 2. However, like so many of Toronto’s new streetcar and light rail routes, tracks are placed in the middle of a wide road right of way — in this case the Broadview extension — as opposed to in their own dedicated off-street right of way despite the blank canvas planners have to work with, meaning passengers changing to streetcars will need to cross traffic lanes to get to the platform, but streetcars will also probably keep with their characteristic slow speeds. A great thread from Montreal urban planning professor Marco Chitti discusses this issue at length.

Actual stated plans for the site's development include a massive amount of office space in tall office towers tightly clustered south of the station and flanked by various mixed-use residential towers which taper to more modest buildings south of Lake Shore, so the natural comparison given the site's city centre adjacent location is Canary Wharf in London (which was developed originally by Olympia and York out of Toronto), and La Defense in Paris, both of which, like East Harbour, are on "the water" — the Thames and the Seine respectively. 

Massing Study of East Harbour, image via submission to the City of Toronto

However, there are some distinctions to be made, Canary Wharf and La Defense are both farther from their respective city centres at roughly five and seven kilometres away, and both feel like separate modern central business districts, while with Toronto's continued growth East Harbour may end up eventually feel like an extension of Toronto’s core eastwards, forming a counterweight similar to Bloor-Yonge. That being said, with the Toronto office market facing increasingly high vacancies in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, the demand for the enormous amounts of office space that were planned, and which cemented Canary Wharf's and La Defense’s status, is now in question, only exacerbated by the major new office developments already occurring near Union Station. This uncertainty around future office space demand as well as the ongoing housing crisis means that some are talking about further increasing residential use on the site — which has already been introduced, as the current mixed-use plan was preceded by an office-only one. 

It's probably worth stepping back at this point to reflect, while additional homes in a time of great housing shortage are very valuable, East Harbour’s incredible site and transit access — which is more significant than Canary Wharf or La Defense, both of which have required continual transit expansion to keep up — would likely be underused if only typical Toronto condo developments (which generate fewer trips than office uses on a square footage basis) were to be built. This calls for a more careful approach where East Harbour’s development cannot only act as an origin for trips, but also a major destination. 

One concept worth considering is that of The Well, a true mixed-use office, retail, residential, and entertainment complex which also involves a large (albeit still not East Harbour size) site, but which is rather poorly served by higher order transit with just one streetcar line adjacent to the site. Right now East Harbour is conceived of as a fairly simple single-level complex with adjacent green spaces and wide planted streets, but perhaps a multi-level design (which can be found at both Canary Wharf and La Defense) with more integration between buildings and into the train station is possible — and could provide the extra circulation space which will likely be needed as the district and transit ridership grow. That being said, the scale of the East Harbour site, and its order of magnitude higher transit capacity and connections across Southern Ontario do call for a much grander plan than The Well, which given that project's acclaim, might be hard to imagine. Something like this is essential so that not just the outbound, but also the inbound transit capacity gets significant use.

Doubtless, East Harbour also needs significant density, and if density cannot be achieved from office uses, residential densities will need to be very high, as will heights. Given how few sites have the proximity and access of East Harbour this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there is significant potential for a design which is not single level, or which even features discrete buildings to break up the density and scale of the site, while also delivering a major trip generator and regional destination.

Finally, it’s critical that East Harbour acts as a true and high quality gateway to the Port Lands, West Don Lands, and Eastern Waterfront in any case, by providing high quality, safe, and attractive connections, from new bridges, to cycle tracks and paths. For those travelling from across the city, and across the GTHA by transit, the easiest, most convenient way to access so many of Toronto’s new waterfront public spaces will be via East Harbour, and so it is essential to ensure the site can serve those journeys well, and perhaps also cater to those visiting Toronto’s newest neighbourhoods, while simultaneously being a neighbourhood and destination in its own right.

What's clear is that while the scale of the challenge for not only planning, but also adapting the East Harbour site is enormous, so to is the potential.

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Reece Martin is the creator and host of RMTransit, a YouTube channel focused on transit, infrastructure, and development around the world, with extensive knowledge and professional experience as a transportation planner.

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UrbanToronto will continue to follow progress on this development, but in the meantime, you can learn more about it from our Database files, linked below. If you'd like, 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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