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Aerial photo of proposed Canada Square mixed-use development.Handout

In 1958, the critic Jane Jacobs complained about the “urban renewal” projects that were remaking American downtowns. “They will be spacious, park-like, and uncrowded,” she wrote. “They will be clean, impressive, and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well kept, dignified cemetery.”

Her contrary wisdom – that a city should be diverse and messy – still makes sense. But today’s large-scale urban redevelopment projects often fail to acknowledge it. The debacle of Hudson Yards in New York City is a case in point. Here comes another: A huge new development is shaping up in midtown Toronto that, if built as planned, would have Ms. Jacobs rolling in her grave.

The 9.3-acre scheme, announced last month, is led by Toronto architects Hariri Pontarini and American firm Pelli Clarke Pelli. It would replace the mixed-use Canada Square complex and a bus terminal, which are owned by the city and were leased to developer Oxford Properties in a 2019 deal. It would tear down more than 600,000 square feet of office space and rebuild it, adding 2,700 apartments.

It is big and tall. That is fine. But its design has serious flaws.

big plans

The proposed development encompasses 9.3 acres of

land owned by the city and leased by developer Oxford

Properties. The current proposal would remove the two

existing office buildings as well as the other structures,

eventually constructing five towers and

a new bus terminal.

Canada Square master plan

EGLINTON AVE.

YONGE STREET

Phase 1

DUPLEX AVE.

Phase 2-3

Toronto

BERWICK AVE.

Current

EGLINTON AVE.

Canada

Square

YONGE STREET

Mandarin

DUPLEX AVE.

Famous

Players

Cinema

Canadian

Tire

BERWICK AVE.

Toronto

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: oxford properties; google maps

big plans

The proposed development encompasses 9.3 acres of

land owned by the city and leased by developer Oxford

Properties. The current proposal would remove the two

existing office buildings as well as the other structures,

eventually constructing five towers and

a new bus terminal.

Canada Square master plan

EGLINTON AVE.

YONGE STREET

Phase 1

DUPLEX AVE.

Phase 2-3

Toronto

BERWICK AVE.

Current

EGLINTON AVE.

Canada

Square

YONGE STREET

Mandarin

DUPLEX AVE.

Famous

Players

Cinema

Canadian

Tire

BERWICK AVE.

Toronto

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: oxford properties; google maps

big plans

The proposed development encompasses 9.3 acres of land owned by the city and leased

by developer Oxford Properties. The current proposal would remove the two existing

office buildings as well as the other structures, eventually constructing five towers and

a new bus terminal.

Canada Square master plan

Current

EGLINTON AVE.

EGLINTON AVE.

YONGE STREET

Canada

Square

YONGE STREET

Mandarin

Phase 1

DUPLEX AVE.

DUPLEX AVE.

Phase 2-3

Famous

Players

Cinema

Canadian

Tire

BERWICK AVE.

Toronto

BERWICK AVE.

Toronto

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: oxford properties; google maps

Problem number one: It’s more or less a “superblock.” In the 1950s and 1960s, the Modernist fashion was to combine small blocks into larger ones, eliminating streets, and then surround tall buildings with green space. Ms. Jacobs disliked this, and the urban design profession now largely agrees with her.

Case in point: The City of Toronto has spent 20 years cutting up the superblocks of the downtown Regent Park neighbourhood, putting in an ordinary street grid. The key is that streets are unambiguously public places, which give shape to the private and public spaces that make up a neighbourhood.

The Oxford scheme ignores that lesson. It features, at the north end, a tall office building; south of that, a wide swath of green space on top of a rebuilt bus terminal; south of that, four tall condo towers organized around a cul-de-sac and a park in the corner. It’s not quite a 1960s’ “tower-in-the-park” project, but it’s close.

Pedestrians cross the intersection along Yonge Street and Eglinton Ave, in Toronto on Dec. 21, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Problem number two: It wipes the slate clean. This plan demolishes two office and retail towers on the site, skinny Modernist slabs designed by Kenneth R. Cooper in 1961 and 1971. Oxford would replace them with the same amount of office space next door: lots of demolition and building, no new jobs. Aside from the environmental sin of grinding office buildings into gravel, there is a design problem here. A city that grows in increments is always more interesting – and more diverse economically – than a city built from scratch.

Which brings us to problem number three: the “open space” in the middle of the block. The loss of the old towers makes it possible, and Oxford is presenting this as the big selling point. “We’re trying to create something really compelling from a public realm and urban design perspective,” said Andrew O’Neil, the Oxford executive leading the project. After all, planners and local councillor Josh Matlow have been saying for years that this fast-growing area is short on parks.

But quality matters more than quantity. Oxford promises a surfeit of open space. However, the main space would be privately controlled and managed. It would sit partly atop a bus terminal, not so much a park as a roof (which means thin soil and small trees).

It would be divided into several discrete areas, and have one-storey slopes and steps in the middle. Very simply, it would not feel either very public or very open. It would likely become a lunch spot for office workers and a dog latrine. With security guards.

Architect David Pontarini told me this zone is shaped by complex technical constraints, including the presence of the bus terminal. And he rejected the idea that a public street would be more desirable. “A road doesn’t necessarily guarantee any more activity than a well-designed, well-executed public space,” Mr. Pontarini said.

This thinking probably reflects a mix of the developers’ ideas and those of city planning. Oxford has been working privately with city planners, the office of Mr. Matlow, and local residents’ groups. This is how large-scale planning works in Toronto. Much of the work gets done privately before the formal process begins.

Luckily, Mr. Matlow seems ready to keep digging. “This design is not something we have signed onto,” the councillor said. “The community and I need to focus on a beautifully designed, usable public space.”

So what’s the recipe? One: Every building should have a front door on a continuous public street, and not a cul-de-sac. Instead of that “open space,” there should be a smaller square or street with clearly defined edges. It should be lined by retail and services. Two: The existing towers should be kept. Three: The basic assumptions of Oxford and the Toronto Transit Commission, which shaped this thing, deserve hard scrutiny. Does the TTC really need such a large bus terminal? Can that shrink or move out of the way? Mr. Matlow said he’d like to find out.

Much is at stake, especially since this is publicly owned land. We can’t afford to build urbanism that is clean and deathly.

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