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The making of a community called CityPlace

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It’s the combination of community infrastructure and public space that are making it work

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Located on 55-acres of land, the odds of a residential complex called CityPlace turning into a massive example of urban blight seemed quite possible when Vancouver-based developer Concord Adex first submitted its ambitious plans to the city in the late 1990s.

With a proposal that would include 31 residential towers once all were built – 29 exist now – an estimated 12,000 units, critics of it at the time ranged from architects and urban planners to municipal politicians.

During a recent webinar organized by the Toronto chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), Lynda Macdonald, director of community planning with the city, said that at the time, there was a “negative response from the community at large.

“Residents didn’t like it, planners didn’t like it, the press didn’t like it. Paul Bedford, the chief planner at the time, agreed it was a good approach and took a lot of flack.”

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All of the criticism revolved around the Concord Adex proposal, which would see the former CN railway lands located in and around Spadina Ave and Front St. turned into a residential development, made up of not single-dwelling homes, but dozens of towers.

How it has ended up maturing and evolving was the subject of the webinar and in addition to Macdonald, other speakers included Ken Greenberg, principal of Greenberg Consultants, Gabriel Leung, vice president of development at Concord Adex, Dean Maher, founder of the CityPlace Residents Association, and Jesse Topliffe, chair of the CityPlace Fort York, BIA.

Greenberg admitted he was among those who originally thought the developer’s proposal “was heading in a bad direction. Some of us referred to it as becoming another St. James Town.”

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But it was not to be, largely due to the work of several parties including Leung, who led the project through the approval processes, and Concord Adex who committed to a long-term commitment of creating a planned community that today accommodates upwards of 21,000 people.

In the webinar, he described the bricks-and-mortar that make up all of the towers as the “hardware. People, he added, represent the software, and it is that thought process, which has resulted in the creation of a community that works.”

Greenberg, for example, who lives within walking distance of CityPlace has gone from being a “total” skeptic to “completely converted, much of it due to the parkland that now exists, the “wonderful public art,” and the two schools and community centre.

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“It’s the community infrastructure and the public space that have really made this work and it’s a combination of what the city did, and what the city called for and Gabriel’s response. This really could not have come about without the kind of partnership that emerged and it’s in stark contrast to some of the other areas in the city.

“An example is what’s happened at Humber Bay. We have all the tall buildings popping up, but you have virtually no community infrastructure.

“There are a lot of tall buildings following the Tower Podium model, but not much else, and I think that the essence of what’s happened at CityPlace is that hub of community infrastructure in the form of the park which, if you include the schools is about 15 acres of land.”

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Maher contends that CityPlace could have ended up like Humber had it not been for two key initiatives: a group of residents “who wanted to get the people out of the condos and into the community,” and the financial support Leung was able to provide.

“We turned to everybody, but the only person who really came through all the time was Gabriel,” says Maher.

“We, the residents were the ones who initiated the community aspect of it that made it so successful. The city didn’t really help us that much because it took almost two decades for a playground to be put in that area.

“It was a community’s involvement that helped initiate those type of things to animate the area. When I first moved there in 2003 for the first couple of years, I remember going to the waterfront they had everything. North of King St. they had everything, and then we didn’t have anything, but we had all these buildings going up and nobody was paying attention to us. The only one who was helping us all along was Concord.”

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Topliffe, meanwhile, adds that the developer, has always been there for merchants, “not just with marketing or emotional support, but financial support when needed. That’s critical for without it, I don’t know where we would be right now.

“Our business community is doing well. Obviously, the pandemic has had a negative impact and it doesn’t matter what development it is, you’re going to feel it. But we’re going in the right direction and we’re fortunate to have all these (local) residents that are supporting us.”

By The Numbers:

  • When it is completely finished, total square footage: 9.5 million
  • Number of storeys of the final two towers now being built: 68 and 79
  • Number of daycare centres for 124 children at CityPlace: two
  • Percentage of people living in CityPlace that are renters: 55
  • Ages of 80 per cent of occupants currently living there: 25-44
  • Percentage of CityPlace residents that walk to work: 39

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