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The proposed East Harbour development on the eastern edge of downtown Toronto is planned as a transit hub and a 10-million-square-foot office district with 4,300 apartments.Supplied

Do we know how to build a neighbourhood?

This is the key question about East Harbour, the redevelopment shaping up on the eastern edge of downtown Toronto. It’s being planned as a transit hub and a 10-million-square-foot office district with 4,300 apartments.

In theory, this is all good. Yet in drawings, East Harbour doesn’t look like an urban neighbourhood – and maybe it never will. That’s because it’s being planned all at once as a generic corporate anywheresville.

Developers Cadillac Fairview now own the 38-acre site, having bought it in 2019 for roughly $700-million. They’re working with Infrastructure Ontario to create a “transit-oriented communities” plan, because East Harbour will be served by commuter trains and the new Ontario Line. The province will likely lock down the plan in the next few months, with limited input from city hall.

What will it be like? “We see this as Toronto’s next business centre, enhanced by a rich mix of residential, entertainment, cultural and community facilities,” said Wayne Barwise, Cadillac Fairview’s executive vice-president of development. It is now being planned by the firm Urban Strategies, architects Adamson Associates and prominent American landscape architects, OJB.

Those words are fine; the scheme itself is not. Now being reviewed by the province, it shows 17 high-rise towers. They are all tall (or very tall), all chunky, spaced out between new parks and private open spaces. Nothing is short, nothing is skinny, nothing is weird. And nothing is old, because Cadillac Fairview wants to demolish the existing buildings on the site, the former Sunlight Soap Works factory.

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Developers Cadillac Fairview owns the 38-acre and is working with Infrastructure Ontario to create a 'transit-oriented communities' plan, because East Harbour will be served by commuter trains and the new Ontario Line.Supplied

The architects KPF are now designing the first office tower, Mr. Barwise said, and the company is considering WilkinsonEyre, Pelli Clarke Pelli and SOM for future office designs. Toronto firm architects–Alliance has consulted on the housing.

Various planners and architects have been looking at East Harbour for a decade. Previously owned by developers First Gulf, it was a candidate for Amazon’s new headquarters. Back in 2018, the city had approved the area as an all-office district. This would’ve been a disaster – a place that died after 5 p.m. and sent its workers to hunt for housing and push up rents in the surrounding areas.

The addition of housing makes it a “mixed-use” neighbourhood. Strangely, local city councillor Paula Fletcher is unhappy with this – she has expressed concern that the developers will try to replace much of the office with housing. Cadillac Fairview denies this, and their current plan keeps all the earlier scheme’s office space. Office is not dead,” Mr. Barwise says. “It’s important for idea generation, for collaboration, for mentorship. We think it’s here to stay.”

Fair enough. But years of bickering and lobbying have obscured the qualitative aspects of East Harbour – “placemaking,” to use the professional jargon. A new urban neighbourhood should be a place all sorts of people choose to spend time. It should have a variety of spaces, activities and people. Such places are built over time, by people with agendas that clash and change, knitted together by a truly public network of streets and gathering spaces.

East Harbour has none of those advantages. Its scale (all bulky), street pattern (wide and regular) and ownership are all largely set. The developers can say all they want about a “rich mix” of activity – the physical and economic facts dictate otherwise.

Mr. Barwise says all the right things. “We’re as concerned about the space between the buildings as the space within the buildings,” he told me. Parking and loading will be centralized underground, leaving streets largely for pedestrians and bikes. “This is a business centre, but it won’t look that way.”

There will be retail, he said; there will be public art; there will even be unspecified cultural venues. Cadillac Fairview has committed to more than $60-million worth of “community benefits,” and Mr. Barwise suggested there could be more, including affordable housing.

But ask yourself: Have you ever seen a place with 13 million square feet of real estate, planned by one company, that you want to go back to? New “master-planned” neighbourhoods, to use the real estate industry’s unfortunate phrase, tend to deliver bottom-line sameness. The recently completed Hudson Yards development in New York is a grim example. Toronto is already building another one of these glass-skinned brutes, the so-called Union Park.

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The historic Unilever soap factory in East Harbour, the main building on the site, will be torn down in the developer's plans for the site.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Cadillac Fairview has already failed an important test by aiming to tear down the main building at East Harbour. This 150,000-square-foot factory is a 20th-century relic studded with mushroom-shaped concrete columns, which are packed with embodied energy. East Harbour’s former owners, First Gulf, wanted to keep it, with plans designed by a first-rate team of architects from KPMB and Henning Larsen and planners Gehl.

Today, city heritage planners want some of it preserved. “City staff have encouraged Cadillac Fairview to recognize the value of including some conservation of the factory complex as a way to maintain the historic sense of place,” City of Toronto spokesperson Diane Morrison said in an e-mail. They are right.

Mr. Barwise rejects the idea. “The building is functionally obsolete; it has structural deficiencies and some environmental issues,” he said. “It just doesn’t work in terms of our current plans.”

That is exactly why it should be kept. It will link new to old and provide variety in terms of space, materials and scale. Instead, Cadillac Fairview and architects KPF plan to dress up their office park in factory garb. The new buildings “will reflect an industrial character, with steel, brick and stone in their design,” Mr. Barwise said.

Ersatz heritage to bring some vibe to an ersatz place. Does anyone – on Bay Street or the halls of government – know how to make the real thing?

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