There was a time when communities were developed as hubs. People lived close to where they worked and, as a result, often played and stayed in their local community. Over time, however, the development of cities meant more and more people were pushed out of the downtown core – away from the central hubs where work and entertainment existed.
Over the past five decades, property owners pushed urban sprawl – complete with long commutes, excessive fuel consumption and maddening traffic – further and further away from work and play. But new generations of workers began to question the desire for a suburban life and an urban workspace.
This push to recreate complete communities, using mixed-use development, is opening the door for a new breed of architect, says Asaf Gottesman, a principle of the Paris-based architectural practice Gottesman-Szmelcman Architecture SARL. For more than a decade, Mr. Gottesman has specialized in the revitalization of urban areas, with a focus on character and centrality in the urban fabric.
“For architects, the aim is to turn a space into a destination; to imagine and develop a property so that it has intrinsic value and quality of design,” Mr. Gottesman says.
Mr. Gottesman’s pre-eminent North American example of recreating urban space to fit current, mixed-use needs is the redevelopment of 90 Morton St., a former prewar publishing house transformed into 122,000 square feet of stunning high-end residences in Manhattan’s West Village. Initially, Brack Capital Real Estate, the property developer who owned 90 Morton, approached Mr. Gottesman with a problem: How to create high-end residential units in an outdated commercial space.
“People come to architects to formulate a story,” Mr. Gottesman says. “To tell that story, it’s important that we let go of preconceived ideas and concentrate on understanding all the influences that impact the space.”
According to Mr. Gottesman, this means that architects, developers and even city planners all have to move away from rigid usage designations. “We have to blur the lines between eat, work, live and play,” he says. “This is particularly true in a global environment where office space is any spot you can set up a laptop and use your mobile phone.”
Toronto joins a short roster of international cities leading the way
Mr. Gottesmann points to Paris as an example of a city with a long history of success with mixed-use development. In Paris, people often live, work, shop and seek out entertainment all in a small one- or two-block area. This live-work-play community isn’t a new trend for this bustling international destination. It’s how Parisians have always developed their complete communities.
In Canada, planners and developers also dabbled in the idea of constructing a complete community but, until the past decade, with little success. One example was the former public housing project of Regent Park. Built in the 1940s, the aim was to develop a community that attracted young professionals who would rely on nearby public transportation. The project fell short – and eventually was torn down to be rebuilt, anew – but that doesn’t mean architects and developers gave up on the promise of mixed-use and its ability to transform neighbourhoods.
Earlier this year, plans for Union Park – a $3.5-billion residential, office and retail complex that will cover 4.3-million-square-feet in the heart of downtown Toronto – made headlines. In part, the sheer size and scope of the project was news, but so was its place in the more than 50 mixed-use developments that have already been built and put to use in the country’s largest city over the past decade.
These developments include Daniels Waterfront, a master-planned community on Queens Quay East that includes two office towers, two residential and an outdoor atrium lined with boutique stores and restaurants, named The Yard.
Then there is the Camrost Felcorp project at the busy intersection of Burnamthorpe Drive and Hurontario Road in Mississauga. Spread out over three acres, the Exchange District project combines 2,000 condo units with approximately 100,000-square-feet of retail and office space.
Minto Group is also doubling down on the effects of mixed-use with plans for two new projects. Minto Westside, near Front and Bathurst streets, is a 660-unit complex that includes 30,000-square-feet of retail space in Toronto’s sought-after Fashion District. There is also Oakvillage, a 200-townhome development at Dundas Street and Trafalgar Road in Oakville, Ont. – a spot that connects future residents to GO Transit commuter lines, major highways, as well as the 200-kilometre trail system that runs near the project.
Despite a few initial hiccups a few decades ago, the Greater Toronto Area is quickly becoming a global leader in redeveloping complete communities – mixed-use projects that bring back the work, play, live mix that was once so integral to a thriving locality.
Mixed-use is attractive, but not always easy
“The implementation of mixed-use developments is a way to resolve sites that were once considered urban blight,” Mr. Gottesman says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s simple.”
Developers, builders, architects and even financial backers will often specialize in the type of projects they take on or back, making mixed-use developments a hard sell. “While mixed-use may add layers of value to an urban setting, it also adds layers of complexity and, potentially, layers of problems,” Mr. Gottesman says.
He believes architects are integral in bridging the divide and removing barriers to mixed-use projects.
“Sure, architects can specialize, but the overall aim for every project is to maximize the potential for the site. The role of the architect is to allocate according to potential value and to find ways to make each component of the development work together. The role of an architect is to fit the puzzle pieces together and they are doing just that, which is why we are seeing more and more mixed-use developments in most major cities across the world.”
Aside from the New York project, Mr. Gottesman and his firm have created massive mixed-use facilities (known as OVO) in Wroclaw, Poland, as well as high-end travel destination spots in Italy.
Added benefits of this multiuse approach
Quite often, a primary aim for these urban redevelopments is to minimize individual car use and long commute times. Not only does this bring people and families to live, work and play, but it also allows for maximum use of the land – for work, play and living, not for storing automobiles. The added bonus is that these mixed-use developments end up having a natural affinity to creating greener cities.
Turns out, Toronto offers a prime example of how well this development strategy works.
The city’s St. Lawrence community is an early pioneer in the implementation of mixed-use. Prior to the redevelopment in the 1970s, the area was an abandoned warehouse space. Once constructed, the community offered geared-to-income housing, market-price residences, storefronts and even light industrial commercial space. The impetus for the development was the location. A prime spot within walking distance to the waterfront, parks and public transit.
These days, architects and developers are upping the game – broadening the definition of “prime” to include any underused spot that’s ripe for a new approach.
One example is the Ruth Gardens project in Winnipeg. Once an abandoned strip mall, the spot now boasts a new complex that includes commercial space and a bank on the ground floor and residential apartments in the ascending floors. But the real glory is the green space around the building. Mature trees and green grass make this community an oasis for the residents and commercial tenants alike, and helped to revitalize a once-underwhelmed area of the city.
The move back to trees and nature isn’t just good for a person’s mindset, it’s integral to the economic stability of retail tenants.
These days, retail store owners face fierce competition from online retailers. To counter this challenge, bricks-and-mortar stores must find ways to become more convenient or more entertaining. “Projects must become destinations,” Mr. Gottesman says. In his Polish project, Mr. Gottesman was asked to develop a luxurious complex that would turn the town into a must-see location.
“It was a really radical departure for the area,” Mr. Gottesman says, “and it worked.” According to Mr. Gottesman, rents are now higher at his OVO project. “It’s because the retail component is a destination spot; the hotel ranked No. 1 in the area.”
When a community’s retail stores are stable, the entire community begins to flourish.
While the primary features of successful mixed-use projects are typically shaped by location, most of these projects are ultimately the result of “happy accidents,” Mr. Gottesman says. After the purchase of the land, the stakeholders may realize that working together would be better than creating a traditional unidirectional development. “To succeed, we must all become more creative and realize that we need to create generosity. We should not create neutrality but develop spaces that allow for maximum use and the potential for change.”