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New resident Sina Mitolidis waters the plants on the balcony of her St. Lawrence home, 1979. (Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail)
New resident Sina Mitolidis waters the plants on the balcony of her St. Lawrence home, 1979. (Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail)

35 years on, St. Lawrence is a template for urban housing Add to ...

If they could talk, downtown dogs would thank David Crombie. In addition to living as urban sophisticates, our furry friends can romp all the way from Parliament to George Streets on the linear park that bears his name.

“I usually get a nice welcome from woofs and stuff when I’m down there,” laughs Toronto’s former “tiny, perfect” mayor, who wore the Chain of Office from 1972 to 1978.

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Those of us on two legs should tip our hats to Mr. Crombie also. While it’s not quite perfect and bigger than tiny, the neighbourhood that surrounds the park, St. Lawrence (also incorrectly referred to as “The Esplanade”), which extends in places from Front Street to the Gardiner Expressway and from Yonge to Parliament Streets is, more than 35 years later, the best example of a mixed-income, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, sensitively scaled, densely populated community ever built in the province. It’s New Urbanism before the term was invented in 1980 to describe Andrés Duany’s Seaside, Florida.

It works so well, in fact, it can be overlooked: “All you really see when you drive through there are the faces of the taller buildings,” says 83-year-old architect Jerome Markson, who designed one of the first buildings, the David B. Archer Co-op, “but you don’t see what’s in behind each block – you have to explore.”

So I did.

I found townhouses dressed in warm red brick, nooks and crannies, front porches populated despite freezing temperatures, hockey nets, strollers pushing strollers and public trees dressed in strings of lights sipping power from private outlets. And, just steps from these intimate three-storey pockets, small businesses – dry cleaners, restaurants, and convenience stores – squatting under mid-rise towers designed by Irving Grossman, Eb Zeidler and Ron Thom, among other luminaries. And, acting as backdrop to all the barking at David Crombie Park, the shimmering curtain of tall towers that once contained only the big banks, but now contain condominiums, too.

Had I taken this walk 40 years ago, I’d have picked my way across railway spurs and parking lots full of buses and heavy equipment, past smokestacks, junkyards and ramshackle storage sheds. That scene, Mr. Crombie explains, was partly responsible for igniting the mid-1960s reform movement (of which he and John Sewell were big players) that eschewed the “American model of the city” where downtown cores were left to “the cops and the muggers” after 6 p.m.

“We began to talk about the importance of having downtown living, and having a mixed-use downtown,” he says, “not just places for people to work south of Queen Street.”

Luckily, unlike the U.S., it wasn’t too late; in fact, seeds were being sown as early as 1962. In a bizarre Toronto Daily Star article proposing futuristic platforms to elevate downtown pedestrians over traffic, author Pierre Berton lamented that the city was “dying at the centre,” inhabited only by those who were “forced” to live there. He asked: “Where are the boulevards, the little squares, the small downtown parks?”

For Mr. Crombie’s team to transform the polluted 18-hectare chunk into boulevards, small parks and homes for 10,000 people, many strange bedfellows had to get under the covers: the federal and provincial governments for funding, private owners to surrender their land, co-operative boards and forward-thinking architects had to be courted, while the old-guard, block-busting developers had to be handcuffed. To do this, Mr. Crombie introduced the controversial 45-foot height bylaw to temporarily freeze downtown development (he knew it wouldn’t last) while plans for St. Lawrence were ironed out; while this created many enemies for the new city council, Mr. Crombie had “a secret.”

“We had spent the previous few years working in these neighbourhoods and understanding [them],” he says, “and therefore we knew we had a large, extensive majority of the people with us.” They also had the support of the hottest urban thinker of the era, Jane Jacobs, newly transplanted to Toronto, and a new Housing Commissioner, Michael Dennis, described by Ms. Jacobs in her final book, Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004) as a “genius at cutting red tape.”

By the mid-1970s, planning began under Eb Zeidler. When conflicting personalities caused Mr. Zeidler to vacate the position, Mr. Dennis, who lived across from the Jacobs family on Albany Avenue, asked for a recommendation. Alan Littlewood, a graduate of London’s Architectural Association who had worked closely with Ms. Jacobs’ architect-husband, Robert Hyde Jacobs Jr., got the job despite little experience with urban planning. Remembers Mr. Littlewood: “[Jane] mentioned my name, and Michael asked ‘Does he know anything about planning?’ and she said ‘I hope not!’”

With that vote of confidence, he and his team came up with three guiding principles: one, the existing street grid would extend into the site (new streets were given historical names by way of a contest); two, the buildings themselves would relate to those streets – “in other words, it was the opposite to Regent Park or the tower-in-the-park kind of thing,” explains Mr. Littlewood – with front doors that opened onto the street or onto front yards; and, finally, there would be a mix of market and social housing.

In addition, on-site heritage buildings would be leased or sold only to those who would restore them, and schools would be included into the scheme.

Other details, adds Jerome Markson, were more informal: “You can blame me for the red brick,” he chuckles, recalling a meeting of architects, early on, where he suggested it because “Toronto is a red-brick city.”

They agreed. Later phases of the neighbourhood, however, didn’t respect that gentleman’s agreement.

Strangely enough, critics have been split on this and other things: some think there’s too much red brick, while others wish it had continued into later phases; Queen’s Professor David L.A. Gordon has written that St. Lawrence contains “little outstanding architecture,” while B.C. architect Roger Kemble suggests there was “a mature sense of collaboration,” between architects that resulted in buildings that show “restraint.”

Mr. Crombie defends the architecture, explaining that the team’s “marching orders” were to “make it work.

“We didn’t know how much money we were actually going to have, we didn’t know who was going to be sending it, we didn’t know how much space there was going to be – there were a lot of balls in the air.”

No one, however, questions the planning.

With townhouses, mid-rise buildings, the park, schools and daycares, there are thousands of eyes on the street.

Families thrive here because, as Roger Kemble puts it, “family habitation … requires a closer relationship to the ground.”

In January, the city’s new chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, announced a desire to change zoning bylaws to “pre-approve” mid-rise buildings along arterial streets such as Eglinton Avenue.

While this is laudable, St. Lawrence proves that a true neighbourhood requires a mix: “The magic of it,” says Mr. Crombie, “was the co-op – almost all those buildings are co-op – and that was new, and it has not been duplicated in the same strength since.”

Unfortunately, finishes Mr. Littlewood, “everybody’s got their arse in a knot over money [and are] terrified of making commitments to public expenditure … we have to learn to be more adventurous financially [and] that it is worthwhile to make long-term investments like St. Lawrence.

“Unfortunately I don’t think we’re in those times at the moment.”

 

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