While the skyscrapers of Toronto’s booming south core show no signs of slowing their climb, the equally impressive work taking place at and below ground level is what will define the area.
About 1.6 million square feet of new office space has been added to the south core market in the past five years. New developments under construction will inject a further 23,000 workers and almost another 10,000 residents into the already teeming south core district. As a result, infrastructure has never been more important to the area, particularly one that has undergone a dramatic role change.
“The infrastructure systems that are down there were really designed not for residential communities, they were designed for an industrial past that the city is devolving out of as we change to a different economy,” says Kyle Knoeck, manager of community planning for the area that includes the south core.
Bordered east-west by Bay and Simcoe streets, the south core area stretches south from the railway tracks that run along Front Street to the shores of Lake Ontario. “So part of the revitalization of the waterfront is creating infrastructure that serves more modern, mixed-use communities rather than the type of infrastructure that was needed when the waterfront was a busy industrial port,” Mr. Knoeck adds.
The Toronto waterfront is currently halfway through a 25-year redevelopment plan that is now estimated to cost approximately $34-billion, twice its original budget. In addition to surface-level improvements for residents and visitors – with a particular emphasis on the 2015 Pan Am Games – it also includes less visible but equally vital improvements underground. Many of the aging sewer pipes in the area will be replaced – nearly 20 per cent of all sewer pipes in Toronto are more than 80 years old.
Toronto Hydro is also doing its part with a $195-million transformer station being built under the west side of the railway roundhouse next to the Rogers Centre. Set to open in 2014, the Clare R. Copeland transformer station is the first built in the downtown core by Toronto Hydro since 1955, and will add 144 megawatts of capacity, enough to power 70 condominium towers, while freeing up the company’s 64-year-old Windsor transformer station at Wellington and John Streets for a needed equipment upgrade.
As Tanya Bruckmueller, spokeswoman for Toronto Hydro, puts it, “A lot of the infrastructure, including our station, is significantly past its life expectancy.”
While some in the real estate business warn that a lack of infrastructure could be the undoing of the downtown core, the rapid growth of the south core makes it a prime target for investment.
“I don’t know of another place in Canada where you’ll have this much employment [in] office buildings, a very significant number of new and existing residential units, a tremendous amount of new retail being added at the base of most of these buildings, obviously there’s entertainment in the Air Canada Centre and Rogers Centre – it’s all here,” says Dermot Sweeny, president of Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co Architects Inc.
Mr. Sweeny is one of the architects on the One York Street and Harbour Plaza Residences project, a mixed-use development costing more than $550-million on the south side of the Gardiner Expressway consisting of a 35-storey office tower and two high-rise condominium buildings that will open in 2016. While One York is a collaboration between Menkes Developments and the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, which will be a tenant in the tower, the two residential buildings are being jointly developed by Menkes and Oxford Properties.
The design of One York Street threw up a unique infrastructure challenge when Mr. Sweeny was asked to extend Toronto’s indoor PATH walkway system south of a rather large obstacle – the Gardiner, a crumbling, controversial elevated expressway that dates back to the 1950s. Teaming up with the architects from Oxford Properties, WZMH Architects, who are developing the Royal Bank of Canada’s Waterpark III building to the south of One York Street, the collective knew the importance of making a successful PATH connection – RBC stated it wouldn’t go forward without it.
As Peter Menkes, president of the commercial/industrial division of Menkes Developments, put it, “Any downtown tenant that’s from the traditional King and Bay area, to come to this location, expects to have a PATH connection.”
Unable to go underground owing to low-lying sewer systems and with going above the Gardiner ruled out as it would have put the walkway 20 metres in the air, Mr. Sweeny and his fellow architects responded with a novel concept by planning for the PATH to go under the Gardiner but above Lakeshore Boulevard. Because of the constant need to keep up the concrete underbelly of the Gardiner, the PATH connection will be built on gaskets so it can be moved sideways and still be usable while repairs are going on.
The south core portion of the PATH will come further into focus once the redevelopment of Union Station is complete. Canada’s busiest transportation hub is undergoing a massive facelift which conservative estimates peg at anywhere between $700-million and $1-billion.
“For the first time ever in the history of Union Station it will actually have an entrance that faces south,” says James Parakh, acting director, urban design for the City of Toronto planning division. “That’s important because we can easily get pedestrians from Union Station or from the TTC subway down into this neighbourhood very conveniently.”
One York Street and the Harbour Plaza Residences project will also help to improve that neighbourhood for those pedestrians. With the developers paying rezoning fees under Section 37 of the Planning Act, the City of Toronto now has the funds to follow through on its plan to adjust the layout of the Gardiner Expressway and other roads in the area.
The Gardiner off-ramp that originally deposited vehicles gradually at Bay and York streets will now terminate more sharply at the foot of Lower Simcoe, allowing the freed-up area to the east to be used as green space with a widened eastbound Harbour Street.
“That was the whole intent,” Mr. Parakh says.“We had done a study many years ago, long before the Menkes application, that took a look at removing that ramp and of course Menkes, as part of their approval, provided Section 37 contributions by way of funds that removed that ramp.
“So it’s sort of a win-win. If that ramp is not needed, it’s a great location for a park, right in close proximity to the waterfront.”
Despite concerns that the new layout will increase congestion in the area when it’s finished around 2016, Jared Menkes, director of development for Menkes, believes the opposite, and says that the city’s new “Live Work Play” mantra is firmly in play. “A lot of people are moving downtown because they want that urban lifestyle, they don’t want the car,” he says. “So I think from a car perspective it’s going to ease that congestion but I think foot congestion is going to continue to grow.”