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First Capital Realty is working on a major redevelopment of a plot of land that used to be home to a Christie's Bakery facility in Etobicoke, Ont.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Christie doesn’t live here any more, but thousands of people are destined to live and work at the future site of this former cookie factory located in Etobicoke in Toronto’s west end.

Those who grew up near Christie’s Bakery on Park Lawn can recall the delicious aroma of cookies baking. But after 60 years in this location, located between Gardiner Expressway and Lake Ontario, Christie’s was made an offer they couldn’t refuse by Mondelez Canada Inc.

The company closed the factory and Christie moved its cookie production to other plants in Canada and the United States.

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For Mondelez, the initial plan was to build as many as 27 high rises on the site, but the company owner which was developing the site ran into a snag. The site was zoned for business use and, as a result, the condo tower high-rise plan ran into opposition from the city and the adjacent Humber Bay Shores neighbourhood.

Caught in red-tape, Mondelez sold the site to First Capital Realty Inc. in 2016. As the new developer, First Capital held open houses with the surrounding communities. These consultations identified the need for more employment, retail and recreational space, and better transit, bike and pedestrian connectivity through the community. While the southern edge of the site is a block away from Lake Ontario, there is public access to the shore and the lakeside Martin Goodman Trail.

“It’s been a process of continual reimagining,” says Jodi Shpigel, senior vice-president of development for First Capital.

Meeting community needs and being flexible are key

Bolstered by the feedback, First Capital demolished the old factory in 2018, leaving a triangular 28-acre site with a lone water tower brightly painted red and white.

Part of the reason for moving forward was that the surrounding neighbourhood has transformed quite a bit in the past half-decade. A gritty strip of motels along the lake shore has made way for condo buildings of up to 60 storeys – large multifamily complexes that attract families and professionals.

“But it was clear that the area is underserved with retail and amenities,” Ms. Shpigel says.

That’s when First Capital applied to rezone the lot. Last year, the rezoning application for conversion of the property from an Employment designation to a Regeneration Area won approval from Toronto City Council and the provincial Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. An Official Plan Amendment is still being reviewed.

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The plan includes a mix of live-work towers, parks and entertainment.

First Capital Realty/Handout

Now, the developer has announced plans to build a downtown-like mix of work and live towers, entertainment zones and parks all linked to transit.

The plan is a case study in the complexities of brownfield redevelopment. (The site is twice as big as the area Sidewalk Labs is proposing to build in the Port Lands on the east side of downtown.)

To achieve success, First Capital assembled an urban planning and development team for the project that includes London-based, master-plan architects Allies and Morrison, who designed the King’s Cross redevelopment in London and did a master plan for upgrading Yorkville in Toronto, as well as partnering with EllisDon Corp. for managing the build and servicing the large site.

Mixed-use complete community in the works

The new concept – unveiled on Oct. 2019 – includes 15 towers of up to 71 storeys, including up to six million square feet of residential and more than one million square feet of retail, office and service-based uses. More than 25 per cent of the site will be dedicated to parks and open community space. The proposal also includes a transit hub with a new GO Transit station, TTC bus and streetcar service, and a significant investment in road infrastructure.

Alfredo Caraballo, partner with U.K.-based urban planning firm Allies and Morrison, admits the plans are still subject to change.

“Before we started building at King’s Cross, we went through 27 options for using the space and when it finally happened, it happened differently,” he says. “One of the fundamental things you have to have in a plan is flexibility.”

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At the same time, there has to be an underlying framework to work around, Mr. Caraballo says. “What we did in King’s Cross and will be doing here is create what we call an armature. We have to set a robust pattern of the transit lines, the streets and squares and connections that everything else will be built around.”

Every building will be mixed-use, but there will be districts, including employment and entertainment zones located near the transit hub and a public square at the northern zone near Park Lawn Road. A priority is that the buildings be arranged to maximize sunlight, green space and trees. Putting the services and parking below grade will ensure at least 25 per cent of the area is public realm, Mr. Caraballo says.

Within that framework, the project can be built in stages, depending on the demand for residential and commercial buildings. It’s also important to keep the work concentrated, so the area doesn’t feel like a perpetual large construction site, Mr. Caraballo says.

Transit is the linchpin for the new community

There will be a variety of housing options among the planned 7,500 units in low-, mid- and high-rise buildings. Liberty Village, another big industrial site conversion First Capital was involved with, demonstrated the need for a broad mix similar to the Mr. Christie site, Ms. Shpigel says. “As the population matures, going from young singles to marriage to families, we have to provide larger units.”

A very important element for the community is transit, so that’s the top priority at the moment, Ms. Shpigel says. There are negotiations with the Toronto Transit Commission and Metrolinx, the regional authority that runs GO Transit, whose routes run at the north end of the site. “We are very motivated to get the entitlements and move forward as quickly as we can.”

The planned 7,500 residential units will be in a variety of low-, mid- and high-rise buildings.

First Capital Realty/Handout

Looking at other master plan projects and how they have developed, the project will take at least a decade to complete all phases, Ms. Shpigel says.

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The outlook at the moment is optimistic. The Canadian Centre of Economic Analysis and the Canadian Urban Institute’s recent Toronto Housing Market Analysis report projects almost double the rate of population growth to 2041 from what the city has experienced since 2006, adding a million to the city population in the next 20 years.

There is currently a significant increase in housing demand, says Ms. Shpigel, “but there are other factors to consider, such as economic swings, that come into play over such a long lead time. Right now, we have a very robust demand for residential and commercial, and we hope that continues.”

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