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Full view of the proposed Quayside development. Building heights and densities are conceptual and subject to City of Toronto approvals as well as review by the Design Review Panel and public consultation.Handout

Exciting news: Toronto’s waterfront is getting a splashy new development. It involves star British architects, hefty buildings made out of wood and a neighbourhood with a tiny carbon footprint.

Sounds familiar. Five years ago, when Google sister company Sidewalk Labs partnered up with the public agency Waterfront Toronto, you could have said the same thing. Here’s the difference: In 2022, there is no Sidewalk involved and no claims of a “smart city – just beautiful, sustainable urbanism.”

If this is the city of the future, then the future is in fine shape.

On Tuesday, WT announced a new development team for the 12-acre site known as Quayside, the same one on which Sidewalk Labs had focused its plans. Through a rigorous process, the agency chose Quayside Impact, a partnership of big developers Dream Unlimited Corp. and Great Gulf. And the included designers are an architectural dream team: Adjaye Associates, Alison Brooks Architects and Henning Larsen.

Their scheme includes 4,300 residential units in five high-rise towers, 1,000 for rent or sale below market rate, a huge midrise building with a structure of mass timber and a two-acre green courtyard dubbed a “community forest” – designed by prominent Danish landscape architects SLA.

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A rendering of the Community Forest public space, designed by landscape architects SLA.Handout

Add to this a new park and a new waterfront performing arts centre (as yet unfunded) and you have a recipe for a diverse, culturally rich and beautiful urban neighbourhood.

“We are creating what we think will be one of the most unique and distinct communities in Canada,” Christopher Glaisek, WT’s chief planning and design officer, said.

The initial presentation of the scheme was light on details, but extremely promising. The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation is involved in planning and programming the area. Crow’s Theatre and The Bentway are on board. Social service agency Woodgreen is leading a “community care hub” that combines medical services and recreation.

The drawings show a varied and moody cityscape, slab and towers sitting cheek-by-jowl along a narrow and enticing public park. A waterfront plaza and performance hall carry the urban energy to the shoreline and season it with spray from Lake Ontario.

Of the design team, the star is David Adjaye, whose practice is best known for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Here, his studio is responsible for a 12-storey, 480,000-square-foot apartment building with a structure made of mass timber, or engineered wood. If realized, this would be the largest mass timber building in Canada.

Alison Brooks – a Canadian, trained at the University of Waterloo – is less famous but an experienced and gifted designer. Here, her contribution is the “Western Curve Building,” a high-rise festooned with cylindrical modules and dusted with green terracotta. And Henning Larsen, an excellent Danish firm already working in Toronto, offers a tower with a mass timber base holding the care hub. The other three towers would be subject to design competitions.

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A rendering of the Timber House, as envisioned by architect Adjaye Associates.Handout

There are many baubles to unpack here. Not all will necessarily be realized; the developers need to finalize their deal with Waterfront and go through city approvals.

But the recipe is right. It turns out that when you start with valuable public land and aim high – while accepting a high level of density to provide housing and pay the bills – you can get an impressive result. Even in Toronto.

WT is trying hard to distance itself from its dalliance with Alphabet. That company’s sprawling proposals full of sensors made WT the centre of an international controversy over the role of Big Tech in cities.

When I asked WT CEO George Zegarac about “innovation,” that tech buzzword, he spoke about affordable housing models, low-carbon cement and lots of parks.

“It’s about creating the sort of community that the public wants to see,” Mr. Zegarac said, “dynamic and inclusive.” That sounds smart.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the size of the building is 480,000 square feet.

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