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These towers in Vaughn are the first of five in a complex called Expo City. The tallest buildings in the York Region are the first signs of the downtown Vaughn is building from scratch. (Merle Robillard for The Globe and Mail)
These towers in Vaughn are the first of five in a complex called Expo City. The tallest buildings in the York Region are the first signs of the downtown Vaughn is building from scratch. (Merle Robillard for The Globe and Mail)

Infrastructure

Vaughan rising: Master-planning a downtown from scratch Add to ...

The sister condo towers sprout out of south-central Vaughan like the first shoots of spring.

Surrounded by one- and two-storey industrial, commercial and retail buildings, the glassy high-rises make a big impression. It takes scanning the horizon for distant downtown Toronto to find any buildings that remotely compare to their 37 storeys.

The usual pattern is for cities to grow from their cores, adding density to the downtown while the suburbs expand outward. But Vaughan is doing it in the opposite direction. It’s a suburb now building its heart; reversing the pattern of growing out to growing up.

These towers, the first of five in a complex called Expo City and the tallest buildings in York Region, are the first manifestations of a plan to build a downtown from scratch. A KPMG building that will soon house 400 employees is the second.

The vision is closely tied to the $2.6-billion, 8.6-kilometre York-Spadina subway extension slowly tunnelling its way north from Downsview Station. It’s the first time Toronto’s subway has reached past the city limits and will service Vaughan with about a 45-minute ride to Union Station.

But Vaughan officials say their downtown – dubbed the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre (VMC), rising out of 179 hectares bounded in part by highways 407 and 400 – will be much more than a subway stop. The vision is for a true live-work-and-play city featuring green space, office and condo towers, pedestrian links, hotels, entertainment venues and 36,000 workers and residents.

It’s boosted by upgrades to York’s bus-transit system VIVA on Highway 7, a new set of heightened design criteria for buildings, landscapes and streets and a suite of incentives for developers willing to jump on-board. The VMC also includes a large green space running along the Black Creek corridor.

There has been some opposition to the level of targeted density, mostly over fears of even more congestion along Highway 7. And there has been skepticism about the potential for success in master-planning a downtown in an established industrial-commercial area.

In fact, one of the largest train-marshalling yards in North America is a stone’s throw away from the new condos, and a cement plant is across the street.

But that plant will give way to more development, just as a former car dealership is now the site of another condo development called Centro Square. The most controversial aspect of the VMC was a proposed casino, ultimately killed by city council in a close vote after a public outcry two years ago.

Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua acknowledges the poor optics that Vaughan’s City Hall and plans for a civic square are not part of its emerging downtown. Instead, the expansive, $105-million glass-fronted structure built in 2010 is eight kilometres north in the former village of Maple.

Still, even from there, he can see the city transforming.

Vaughan, largely known by those outside it for Vaughan Mills shopping centre and Canada’s Wonderland, has grown quickly and sprawlingly. It has frequently topped national population-growth rates, booming from 111,000 people when it was incorporated in 1991 to more than 320,000 today. Vaughan’s population is expected to be 416,000 by 2031.

This VMC project – the biggest in the municipality’s history – is a true shift in how that growth is to be managed. Though Vaughan has been called a city since 1991, it really is a typical Toronto suburb of car-centred development: vast subdivisions, retail plazas and power centres, and low-level office and commercial structures.

Along the way, Vaughan swallowed up older villages, including Maple and Kleinburg that break up the suburban monotony.

But a vision for a planned downtown has been at least a few decades in the making, while Toronto, transit agencies and the province haggled over whether the subway extension would ever happen.

That time, along with a two-year delay in finishing the extension, has been put to good use, Mr. Bevilacqua says. It takes getting a lot of things right to convert a suburb into a city with a true downtown. He’s not talking about the square footage or tax revenue or transit numbers or the planning policies. Instead, he’s philosophical, spiritual even, about what a city should be.

“For us, it’s really been an existential exercise … Ideas bubble up that make us think: What is possible? Once the drive is there to build a world-class city, you will find a way to do so.”

It seems to be paying off. Expo City is more than 90-per-cent sold out and developers have submitted applications for five more residential towers in the next three years.

Mr. Bevilacqua was a long-time Liberal MP and cabinet minister who grew up in North York, just a block away from the boundary with what is now Vaughan. He was elected in 2010 and made VMC his priority.

“There are certain places in the world people connect with. It’s the concept of leading with the beautiful and the notion of fulfillment and contentment and happiness through connection with your place. The space itself has to reflect the journey of life.”

A vibrant downtown has to be one of a kind and truly reflect its people, says the mayor, who even penned a song called A Place to Be about his city. There is no shortcut to get there.

Vaughan’s urban journey is unusual but not unique, says Patrick L. Phillips, global CEO of the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. Congestion and its effects on climate change and declining quality of life is driving many American suburbs to be more walkable and city-like.

“Housing is the right place to start. The kind of density Vaughan is building sends a signal that they truly intend to do things differently.”

Retail, commercial and office development is sure to follow, fed by strong transit links.

“And before you know it, you live in a real downtown.”

That can only be imagined in Vaughan right now. The view from the under-construction penthouse of the second tower of Expo City at Highway 7 and Jane Street is certainly unencumbered. The only things to see nearby are the flat roofs far below and stretches of brake lights at rush hour.

Many of the condo buyers are locals, says Peter Cortellucci, vice-president of Cortel Group, builders of Expo City. Building a downtown with mixed housing allows young people and empty nesters to stay in Vaughan, he says.

Starting at about $300,000 for a one-bedroom, an Expo City condo is a fraction of the $840,000 median price for a two-storey house. Some buyers aren’t even aware the subway is being built, he says, though the new station with the undulating roof is under construction only a couple of blocks away.

Cortel Group planner Luka Kot says Vaughan’s model may inspire other GTA municipalities, motivated by a need to ease congestion and the effects of rising home prices, to follow its lead.

“I think Vaughan is really learning from the mistakes of the past. It’s realized the benefits of focused efforts on urbanization.”

Is Vaughan taking a risk? Some established commercial and industrial uses must make way for a new downtown. And consultants’ reports have shown that the subway alone is no guarantee Vaughan will be able to attract the leases necessary to fulfill its vision of 1.5 million square feet of office space and 750,000 square feet of retail.

Mr. Bevilacqua is undeterred.

“Great cities are always built by those looking a step ahead; who can see what others don’t see. City-building doesn’t reward those who play it safe.”

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