Friday, April 6, 2012
Toronto’s subway brings downtown vision to Vaughan
The 8.6-kilometre Spadina extension, which will extend from Downsview and stretch the subway system beyond Toronto’s limits for the first time, is scheduled to arrive at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Station, at Highway 7 and Jane St., in the fall of 2015.
The vision is to create a city centre where commuters can pass through a state-of-the-art subway terminal and exit into a hub of office buildings, take a short walk to their condo, catch a bus from the rapid transit hub, and enjoy pockets of green space along the way.
But at the moment, all that sits at that spot is … a Walmart.
“What we have is the best transit area in North America — the subway, two highways and rapid transit” in close proximity, said John MacKenzie, Vaughan’s planning commissioner, who has been given the challenging task of creating a downtown from scratch on an area of 179 hectares.
“Of course, the subway is one big part of it. A city like Mississauga built a downtown in 20 to 25 years without one. But with the subway, it’s accelerated. It’s happening here much quicker,” he said.
The goals are ambitious: Create a new urban, walkable, transit-oriented downtown with close access to green spaces, bike paths and cultural and entertainment facilities, that will offer residents a place to both work and live. The aim is that, by 2031, the new downtown will be home to 25,000 residents and provide employment for more than 11,000 people.
Driving that rapid change is the subway’s arrival. Vaughan won big in 2006, when the provincial government announced it would extend the Spadina line north to take pressure off the overburdened Yonge line. The extension is expected to cost $2.4 billion.
There was controversy, with critics arguing that density levels in suburban Vaughan did not justify the plan. They dubbed it the “extension to nowhere.” That lack of density was much the same argument used in Toronto to fight Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to extend the Sheppard subway line into Scarborough.
But others say the new line, which will take the subway to York University and beyond, puts Vaughan in a unique position to prove the theory subway advocates have always claimed: If you build subways, development will come.
In Vaughan’s case, the land around the subway had largely been bought up before the announcement six years ago. But it has still taken a little prodding by Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua to get things going.
“When I became mayor, I felt the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre needed much more vision and focus, so I created a committee to solely deal with development in the area,” said Bevilacqua, who heads the committee made up of staff and councillors. “The idea was that we can’t just be writing reports about the VMC, we need to act,” he said.
Bevilacqua has been pushing developers and landowners to fast-track their projects, giving the public an earlier look at the future and, it’s hoped, help build support. According to a recent citizens’ survey, fewer than half the people in the region even knew about the VMC.
The response, so far, has been primarily from condo developers such as Cortel Group, which is creating the five-building Expo City. The first building has already sold out. Up for discussion in council last week were two other proposals for 40-storey residential towers — the tallest in Vaughan — to be built at the corner of Jane St. and Highway 7.
“It’s not a matter of if we will have development anymore. Now it’s, ‘When can we get my permit?’ — that’s the question from developers,” said MacKenzie. “And we say: ‘When you come in with a high-quality development proposal.’”
To encourage high architectural standards, the city created an urban design review panel — the first in York Region — made up of 14 architects and planners from around the GTA who review all of the development applications for the downtown and offer recommendations.
Sony Rai, a member of the panel and an intern architect at Diamond&Schmidt who calls the VMC “a big experiment,” says it has been difficult challenging the suburban feel of some of the projects.
“When you are doing so much at one time, it is always very tricky. There is a homogenous look and feel to what we have been seeing,” said Rai. “What we have seen so far … is that the developers and architects aren’t exposed to working in a downtown context.”
But it’s the first few buildings that will set the context for the downtown’s look and feel, Rai said. And creating that downtown experience is also the first step in getting business to move north, MacKenzie said.
But the success of the downtown north, say many planners and architects, will come from what the city can build in addition to the condo highrises-plus-office-towers equation that failed to add up in North York.
To succeed in the long run, efforts must be made to ensure mixed-used development and to cater to a variety of demographics and desired housing types, experts say.
“The key is to make it a place to live, work and play, and the third one is always the hardest,” said Pino DiMascio, an urban planner and partner with Urban Strategies Inc., who helped create the official plan for the city.
“Independent of having offices and condos is the question of: Why will people take the subway to the Vaughan Metro Centre? Will there be cultural spaces, retail, civic spaces and nice green space? It’s their ability to deliver on the third component which is going to determine how successful the downtown will become,” DiMascio said.
But the mayor says the dream of an urbane, modern, transit-focused downtown is achievable, because all parties involved have “bought in” to the vision.
“I always impress upon council and the administration that you really have one chance to build a downtown core,” he said. “It is a priority for us to get it right.”
The new city centre will be at the confluence of Highways 400 and 407, and the tip of the Spadina subway extension, to open in 2015. So the city has been actively talking with Metrolinx about how to capitalize on the area’s potential as a transit hub for the northwest GTA.
“We are right at the centre of everything,” said planning commissioner John MacKenzie. The city also plans tree-lined Bus Rapid Transit lanes and easy access to transit providers such as the VIVA express buses and Brampton Transit.
“When the subway gets to Vaughan Corporate Centre, that’s where our buses will connect to TTC,” said Sue Connor, executive director of Brampton Transit. “So it will make the commute for people much faster.”
But not everyone is happy about Vaughan’s new role. Some residents near the proposed downtown worry about traffic along Highway 7, which already crawls at times. The atmosphere, as one Vaughan resident put it, is “aggressive” for both drivers and pedestrians.
Taking a leaf from the success of urban design review panels in Toronto and with Waterfront Toronto, Vaughan launch its own — the first in the region — last July, incorporating volunteer planners and landscape architects. The group of 14, selected by staff, review and offer recommendations on how to improve development proposals, especially within the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.
The city decided to look outside for help to create a high-quality, urban environment.
“There has been great discussion out of this,” said John MacKenzie, Vaughan’s commissioner of planning. “The design review panel would say it’s not just about the buildings; it’s about the land between the buildings and spaces around the buildings and the streetscapes,” he said. “We are getting some great insights on city building.”
The panel, for example, has given feedback on the Expo City project, suggesting how to make the buildings look less uniform. The discussion that provoked with the developer resulted in revisions to the plan, MacKenzie said.
Vaughan has also created an inter-departmental team to coordinate plans for the VMC, and a VMC implementation team has drawn in representatives from various government levels, including the TTC, Metrolinx, Ministry of Transportation and Municipal Affairs and Housing.
SKYSCRAPERS IN THE SUBURBS
If there’s one thing downtowns have in common, it’s tall buildings. Vaughan will be no exception.
In addition to the five-building, 37-storey Expo City, there are two recent proposals reaching as high as 40 storeys. Another proposal from Liberty Developments includes an office building and four condo buildings on the south corner of Jane St. and Hwy 7. The city is optimistic that office development will soon follow.
“As every month passes, we have a new player on the scene coming in with a development for something,” said John MacKenzie, commissioner of planning with Vaughan. “Most of these people are thinking about a 1 ½ to 2-year timeframe to get all their approvals and at least two years to build. So we expect to get a lot more proposals in the near future.”