How could Toronto evolve differently if you rewrote the rules?
This is the question that a group of young development-industry professionals took to Mount Dennis. And their answers suggested how the northwest Toronto neighbourhood might adapt to the money and development that’s coming its way.
Last week, a crowd filled a church hall on Weston Road to hear from members of the Curtner Fellowship program at the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Architects, planners and developers were tasked with re-examining the neighbourhood planning as it braces for change. “There’s a lot happening here,” said former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford, “and this is a good opportunity to think differently.”
The ethnically diverse, largely working-class area will be much better connected. In 2021, the Mount Dennis station will be the terminal for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and a stop for GO Transit and the Union-Pearson Express transit services. It will become, surprisingly, one of the best-connected transit hubs in the region.
That will – and should – bring change. One problem is that the province is building the sprawling, billion-dollar transit facility in relative isolation, without creating the many new housing units that ought to come with it.
But in this pocket of the city, cut off by river valleys and rail tracks, developers see opportunity. And the city’s Planning and Economic Development divisions are doing studies that will generate a new official plan, zoning, urban design and economic policies by next year. “We should let a hundred flowers bloom,” said local councillor Frances Nunziata.
This potential change isn’t good news for everyone: Residents who have found relatively affordable housing here may be gentrified out. “There is already intense real estate speculation happening,” says Chiara Padovani, a social worker in the area and a former city council candidate. “Tenants are feeling pushed out – even before any of the new projects are built.”
To counter that, some of the ULI proposals and the local Mount Dennis Community Association are endorsing the idea of a community trust: a non-profit, locally run agency that acquires land, helps provide affordable housing and spreads the benefits of development.
The area’s history neatly captures the arc of Toronto’s industrial 20th century. The village began in the 1890s as a streetcar suburb; grew bigger after 1916, when Kodak built its Canadian headquarters here; and then boomed in the 1920s, driven by the arrival of diverse industries such as CCM and piano maker Heintzman, before hitting its high point in the postwar era.
The neighbourhood has become an important reception area for new immigrants, but it’s been in a steady economic decline for 30 years, punctuated by the closing of Kodak in 2005.
Mount Dennis is a pleasantly mixed-up collection of buildings and streets, the kind of area geographer Richard Harris captured in a book called Unplanned Suburbs. While the Weston Road retail strip has empty storefronts, it has just as much architectural character as the main streets in fashionable neighbourhoods such as The Junction.
There are old industrial lands, including the former Kodak site – its buildings largely gone. There is a big-box mall, an obvious place for new development. There are narrow, irregular streets of workers’ housing, spotted with little duplexes and triplexes. There are 1960s and ′70s high-rise apartments. And the landscape is spectacular, cleaved by the deep Humber Valley.
So what do you do with all this? The three ULI proposals each took aim at Industry Street, a mazy, poorly connected cul-de-sac right behind the new Crosstown station. Industry Street is home to building supply and construction companies, a social-services hub and an industrial park.
It’s protected as “Employment Lands,” a category that city planners adamantly defend against change. Mr. Bedford is a critic of that practice; he says that such areas “need new thinking.”
To that end, architects Peter Clewes and Jon Cummings presented to the group their idea, which I published in The Globe and Mail, for small-scale intensification. I also spoke to the group in March.
The three ULI teams called for Industry Street to include “a radical reinvention of Employment Lands,” as one team representative, Devan Sommerville, put it, “focused on the jobs of the next 20 to 40 years.” Specifically: a mix of office and light industry and a centre for growth industries such as mass-timber construction. Plus housing, something the city now forbids, to make a genuinely mixed neighbourhood.
As for the residential streets – usually, in Toronto, the most tightly regulated places of all – the ULI fellows largely agreed that the rules should be looser to let more people move in. “We see some gentle density coming there,” explained team member Maryam Sabzevari, an urban designer with the City of Toronto. “There is already variety in the buildings and there is strong potential for more.”
Finally, the station site itself is ripe for development; the Mount Dennis facility, which includes LRT and bus maintenance garages, includes a lot of wasted space. Basic land-use planning suggests that transit hub ought to have a ton of people living on top of it. Two of the ULI teams recommended just that.
The lessons are clear enough: Spread new growth across the neighbourhood. Focus on jobs and mix up jobs with some housing. Bring lots of people to live near transit. It sounds simple, but would require some changes to the city’s usual planning approach.
Interestingly, many locals are on board with this agenda. Mike Mattos, who heads the Mount Dennis Community Association, says the group largely welcomes the ULI proposals and, in places, development. “We need more people in the area,” he told me. “We don’t think the retail strip is going to survive with the current population. And we need more of the right kinds of jobs.” With all that, and some inventive policy, this could become a more prosperous place without becoming any less interesting.