Toronto’s former industrial waterfront is undergoing one of the largest urban revitalizations in North America, a project that has the potential to redefine the way that the city is experienced by its residents and visitors – and how it is perceived by people around the world. As Toronto competes with other urban centres for investment and talent, the quality and vitality of this redevelopment will be critical for the city’s success.
Unlocking the full social and economic potential of the district depends on achieving a set of diverse but interconnected development goals: making the entire water’s edge accessible, providing new, inclusive neighbourhoods for working and living, and improving the quality of the environment along the 46 kilometre stretch of Toronto’s waterfront.
For years, the challenge and cost of cleaning up the polluted soil and clearing the industrial lands along the waterfront has made development prohibitively expensive. Frequent comparisons between Toronto’s waterfront and those of other centres, like Chicago and Vancouver, have cast a long shadow on the city – one that is finally starting to pass.
In 1999, an organization called Waterfront Toronto was formed to address the long-neglected waterfront. Funded by all three levels of government, the organization set about creating 300 hectares of public parks and improving infrastructure along the waterfront, with the goal of enticing private developers and businesses to invest in new communities. Within 25 years, Waterfront Toronto has a mandate to deliver 40,000 new residences and 40,000 new jobs.
Since opening Cherry Beach in 2004, Waterfront Toronto has developed about 2000 acres of waterfront land, including more than two-dozen parks and public spaces between Bathurst in the west and the Leslie Spit in the east. The effort has not gone unnoticed. Enthusiasm around the new public spaces is rising, and the underdeveloped sites along the waterfront are now ripe with opportunity.
A Gateway to the City
On the northeast corner of Toronto’s inner harbour, at the mouth of the Keating Channel that connects the Don River with Lake Ontario, lies one key piece of the puzzle. Rising out of a landscape of asphalt and debris is the concrete mass of the Victory Soya Mills Silos. Built in 1943, it is one of only two remaining silo structures from the city’s industrial past, an era that catalyzed Toronto’s urbanization.
The 2.1 hectares surrounding the silos is sandwiched between Lake Ontario and streams of high-speed commuter traffic running along the Gardiner Expressway and Lakeshore Boulevard to the north. Just beyond the expressway, Toronto’s booming downtown core is being rapidly developed. But like other sites along the waterfront, change has come slow or not at all. The site has sat vacant since the mill’s closure in 1991.
In 2012, SvN was hired by the land owner, Castlepoint Realty Partners, to lead the redevelopment of the Victory Soya Mills Silos site. Our job was to lay the groundwork for a new and vibrant mixed-use community at the waterfront, which could one day become a gateway between downtown Toronto and the newly revitalized Lower Don Lands.
The Victory Soya Mills Silos site is unique for a number of reasons, one being that it is one of the most regulated site in the city. Layers of complex policy and planning conditions require a very sensitive and innovative approach to development.
As both planners and architects, one of our first priorities is to determine how the existing planning requirements on the site affect our client’s ability to move forward with a successful development. One critical piece is ensuring that the silos, designated as a heritage structure in 2004, are treated as a functional, meaningful part of the project. Another challenge is refining the zoning requirements on the site, to ensure the project’s feasibility without compromising design quality. Finally, the unique location of the site presents an enormous opportunity and challenge to create a series of exceptional public spaces, animated with cafes, restaurants and activities that make the most of the waterfront location.
Early on, we identified that the site was subject to a precinct plan that restricted the feasibility of the entire project. Understanding its limitations, we developed a new master plan for our client that would optimize the impact, quality and viability of the urban design and architecture, and began a mediation process at the Ontario Municipal Board to request the necessary changes.