The Canary District, a thirty-five acre development in Toronto’s east end, is a concept neighborhood twenty years in the making.
Upon first entering the area – still closed to the public, but set to welcome new tenants and retailers at staggered intervals over the coming months– it may seem a far cry from its proposals. “Imagine,” touts the brochure, “a visionary new city within a city, beside a beautiful park, nestled by a meandering river, imbued in timeless history, enriched with public art, inspired by vibrant culture, designed for healthy living and celebrated throughout the world.” These words run through my head as I make my way towards the presentation centre on a cold and overcast afternoon, the garbage bags taped over traffic lights on these yet-to-open streets flapping in the wind. The area feels, in some ways, like a Hollywood set shut down due to inclement weather. Sidewalks are void of pedestrians; shop fronts are empty, signs promising future occupancy. Compared to that early sales verbiage, this projected urban utopia still feels like something of a concrete jungle – the green space has been blanched by winter and the river is there, but not exactly visible between the condos.
For many Torontonians, the condo boom of the last decade is met with mixed feelings, if not outright condemnation. Sure, condominiums are a means of providing affordable centralized housing for the growing population of Canada’s largest city, but this has brought an influx of poorly-built high rises that have scarred the waterfront and placed corporations at the helm of urban planning. At first glance, the Canary District might appear to be more of the same – just one more development project, just another handful of new structures altering the skyline. But the Canary District is more than that, and though it may still have a way to go before fulfilling its initial promises, it’s on the right track.
The district, home to the athletes’ village of the 2015 PanAm and ParaPanAm Games, still shows hints of its former purpose. Public art installations, commissioned for the Games, dot the sidewalks; signage harkens back to the widely publicized international event. But plans for the Canary District were put in motion long before a bid for the Games was won. The neighborhood concept, explains Jason Lester, president of Dundee Kilmer, began to take shape twenty years ago, though that concept has transformed over time.
“[Originally] it was almost supposed to be one hundred percent non-profit rental,” he explains, standing over an architectural model in the condo presentation building. “Almost like an extension of the St. Lawrence Market.” But provincial money was tight and technology simply wasn’t advanced enough to feasibly develop a project of this scale. Then, in 2005, a precinct plan was put in place for a much more holistic community, with a nonprofit residency closer to twenty percent. “Because there was a basis for this plan in place, when we bid for the Pan Am games, we used the precinct plan as part of our bid,” says Lester. “We said, ‘Hey, we can use it temporarily as an athletes’ village, and then quickly convert it over to a thriving community.” That community would be one built entirely around the concept of ‘health and wellness’.
Today, new flooring and kitchens are being added to the units (kitchens weren’t necessary during the games as athletes ate in a cafeteria). The residential building we are shown on the tour is still a construction zone, but it’s edging ever closer to completion. The model suite, styled and furnished by BoConcept, is a unit Lester refers to as the “Park View,” which overlooks Cortown Common. We are then led to a west-facing unit, overlooking the unfinished rooftop pool.
It’s from these heightened vantage points that one can start to appreciate the true strategic planning behind the Canary District. Gazing down at the development, the footprint of this neighborhood becomes impressive. Yes, these are condos, but there’s room to breathe; they haven’t been packed like sardines into the available square footage. Each building is surrounded by wide, tree-lined sidewalks. Careful consideration has been given to the pedestrian experience of this neighbourhood, in keeping with the health and wellness initiative. And retail renters have been carefully selected. Whereas most developers fight to have chains like Starbucks as tenants, the Canary District has purposely avoided them. In a few months, these storefronts will be occupied by a concept spa, a health food store, a fitness studio, and a bike shop, as well as several healthy restaurants. As for coffee, residents and visitors will be able to obtain their caffeine fix from the Dark Horse, a small Toronto chain opening its sixth location in the Canary District. “I don’t think it’s ever been done before,” says Lester, “where [a neighborhood] is that thought out, that curated.”
The Canary District’s overall design meets LEED Gold Criteria, as well as Toronto’s Mandatory Green Building Requirements. These might be condo developments, but they’re built with nature in mind. And, from a bird’s eye view, it’s not hard to imagine the green spaces to come and the color that springtime will bring to the adjacent eighteen-acre park and its eighteen hundred kilometres of walking trails.
The people will come. The nature will come. And hopefully the Canary District will live up to its full potential, so as to provide a model for future neighborhood developments built with community and sustainability in mind.