Lisa Lafave wants to dispel the notion that everyone wants to work downtown.
“It’s a little misguided,” says Ms. Lafave, senior portfolio manager with Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan. Workers, she says, want to be downtown for the amenities: food options, transit access, life after work – in essence, a sense of culture. “You’re really describing an environment that all workers want.”
Ms. Lafave has made it her job to channel downtown’s energy into the archetypal suburban work environment: the office park. Her guinea pig? The Airport Corporate Centre in Mississauga: a sprawling, 380-hectare office park just south of Pearson International Airport.
HOOPP, a major owner of commercial real estate across the country, already owns a cluster of buildings there, including AeroCentre V, a state-of-the-art office complex that houses the headquarters of Target Corp. and PepsiCo Inc. But the pension plan’s bigger bet on office parks is a plot of land just southwest of there, on the other side of a pair of softball diamonds.
This will become Spectrum Square, a 1.3-million-square-foot complex with a six-building “restaurant campus” and plaza that will be nestled against Mississauga’s planned Bus Rapid Transit corridor on Eglinton Avenue West. With this project, HOOPP intends to urbanize – if not humanize – the office park environment, by helping shed its reputation for dated office space, congested roads and few food choices.
Half a million people drive to work in isolated, transit-barren office parks in the Greater Toronto Area, according to the Canadian Urban Institute. If Spectrum Square succeeds in Mississauga, Canada’s sixth-largest city, the project could both alleviate the growing congestion that plagues GTA roads and become a shining example of how to successfully execute a mixed-use office park in the 21st century.
“Somehow, corporate culture got missed along the road,” Ms. Lafave says. “It forgot how to really engage employees.”
The office park, the unexpected stepchild of the industrial park, is a product of mid-20th century planning gone wrong and unchecked, as cheap land and quick development opportunities converged in spacious lands that were often zoned as noisy, industrial areas.
That means these parks often exist in isolation from the rest of their communities, forcing them to be car-centric by design. They rarely have sufficient transit service, and when they do, they’re hardly pedestrian-friendly; they’re also not often zoned for supportive smaller businesses such as restaurants.
On a micro level, this means employees almost always need to take a vehicle to work, with lunch often requiring another car trip out of the park. On a macro level, this adds significant congestion to a city’s roadways, causing headaches for all commuters – and planners.
“They were developed around the car, plain and simple,” says Ed Sajecki, Mississauga’s planning commissioner. In a park home to 55,000 employees, he says, that creates an immense challenge.
That challenge is both complex and urgent, according to the Canadian Urban Institute. In a series of papers released over the past several years, the urban-development think tank has argued that office parks are leading perpetrators in clogging the GTA’s arteries.
Rethinking the accessibility and walkability of these parks, its researchers say, is crucial to keeping traffic off the road. And in the 905 ring of municipalities around Toronto, this is even more imperative. These suburbs have had the highest amount of growth in office clusters; the CUI estimates the region employs more than 325,000 people across its 68 million square feet of office space.
That’s more space than the downtowns of Calgary and Edmonton combined, according to figures from Colliers International.
“These office parks were laid out with an industrial footprint,” says Glenn Miller, CUI’s vice-president of education and research. “You have these office buildings surrounded by surface parking, but also a lot of hard-to-utilize green space. It makes it very hard to get the proximity between buildings that we’re used to in an urban environment.”
The provincial government expects the GTA’s population to grow by 2.5 million by 2036, and the CUI estimates the region could need another 100 million square feet of office space to accommodate that influx. There’s room for this level of development in the 905, but to convince people to work there and save Toronto’s roads from hitting a standstill, it will require office parks – new and old – to rethink their built form.
All eyes, then, are on Spectrum Square. The project’s buildings will be pushed to roadsides, eschewing long lawns, with parking spaces concentrated in the middle of the central four-building cluster. Bus rapid transit will run next to the development on Eglinton Avenue West by 2016, eventually connecting it to major junctures in Mississauga and, indirectly, Toronto, via the Kipling subway station. HOOPP already runs a regular shuttle in and out of the park connecting with transit, and plans to add more volume. At the centre of it all will be the restaurant plaza, providing a walkable place to eat and a central gathering place for the office park’s thousands of workers.
“Everybody’s looking very closely at how HOOPP’s doing,” says Iain Dobson, co-founder of Real Estate Search Corp. and one of the lead authors of CUI’s reports. “They’re pioneering this, and they should be well applauded.”
Spectrum Square’s office buildings will resemble Aerocentre V, which boasts numerous employee-friendly features. (They share an architect: Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co. Architects Inc.) Among the amenities: 11-foot floor-to-ceiling windows, collaborative workspaces, raised-floor HVAC for constant fresh air and individually controlled temperature vents.
But as much as employees will benefit, HOOPP’s Airport Corporate Centre expansion isn’t entirely selfless. It will help them organically retain key clients as they expand and need more room. And it’s part of a larger, growing play on the future of suburbs. Real estate accounts for $7-billion of the pension plan’s portfolio, and a full billion of that is invested in suburban plays in the Vancouver and Toronto regions.
“That’s been our strategy: complexes,” Ms. Lafave says. Creating a culture within that complex is crucial, too. “You know what a HOOPP complex looks like – the brand that comes with it.”
That kind of culture is important to Ms. Lafave – it means happy employees, more relationships and a better bottom line. “When I first joined the working force, I remember joining up for the company baseball team, and going out and playing baseball after work, and then going out for a drink afterward,” she says. “That’s kind of lost downtown – it just doesn’t happen anymore. .... [But] I could see Airport Corporate Centre having a baseball league, where Hewlett-Packard plays Hershey.”