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A Toronto developer approaches suburbia from a different angle

I've never been sure: Are house hunters in the low-rise subdivisions of Greater Toronto's 905 region actually demanding the faux-Victorian homes that continue to roll out on former farmland? Or have the residential developers simply settled into a comfortable design rut, cranking out the same old-fashioned product year after year?

Christene DeGasperis told me last week that she believes the suppliers are the ones being stodgy, and that a market exists for low-rise suburban dwellings styled in a contemporary manner. An offspring of the very successful DeGasperis real-estate clan, and now a developer with Aspen Ridge Homes, the family business, she's in a good position to know such things. In any case, Ms. DeGasperis is acting on her opinions and currently bringing forward a multi-unit project in Richmond Hill intended to challenge pitched-roof orthodoxy right where it's most firmly entrenched.

The flat-topped townhouse scheme will be known as Kettle Lakes Club, so-called after little nearby ponds punched by nature into the underlying geology. The first phase of this two-part development on the edge of a conservation area features 200 two-storey freehold units between about 1,600 square feet and 2,000 square feet in size. A second phase will add another 200 townhomes to the development.

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Designed by Toronto architect Richard Vink, the modernist phase-one buildings will apparently be like nothing Richmond Hill has ever seen: Ms. DeGasperis believes the boxy, abstract geometry of her project is unprecedented in the municipality, at least at the low end of the density spectrum. The streetside façades, composed of light and dark brown brick, pale stucco and the odd bit of stone, are free of historical ornaments and gestures. Different arrangements of the basic materials create an attractive visual rhythm alongside the streetscape – not jaunty, not bold, and absolutely not avant-garde, but very modestly contemporary.

One might be tempted to compare Mr. Vink's Richmond Hill modernism to the more architecturally adventurous things being done these days with low-rise multiunit housing in downtown Toronto. But the match-up would be unfair, because Hogtown has a long tradition of high design that suburbia just hasn't got. The architecture of Kettle Lakes represents a quite small, over-cautious step away from the historicism that prevails out there in the mass-housing tracts laid among malls and big-box complexes, but, design-wise, it's a step in the right direction.

Otherwise, at the level of urban design, this project is a mix of good and bad. On the good side, it's an instance of intensification in a region that has begun to realize, almost too late, how unsustainable the ideals of ultra-low density really are. And it's a sound example of one way Richmond Hill's remaining open land can be sensibly developed. (Putting up residential towers is another, and an even better, way to go, if we're serious about providing plenty of dwellings for the millions of new people coming to southern Ontario over the next few decades.)

On the bad side of the ledger, the Kettle Lakes Club promises to be a place with some of the least desirable characteristics of monoform suburban sprawl.

No provision has been made in the complex for retail operations, for example, and no stores are within easy walking distance of the site, so homeowners will be as dependent on their cars for shopping and access to professional attention as anyone living in the subdivisions of the 1950s.

Fortunately, residents won't have to travel far to drop their kids off at a daycare or work out in a gym or go swimming, since the city's new Oak Ridges Community Centre will be right across the street from the first phase. And the adjacent conservation area will offer space for other leisure-time activities. But none of these public amenities will really compensate for the lack of shops and services in the immediate, walkable vicinity.

Land suitable for development is where you find it, of course, and I'm certainly not blaming Aspen Ridge for its decision to build out a townhouse complex on this somewhat isolated spot. Anyway, the commercial success of Kettle Lakes – most of the units in the first phase have been sold – suggests that Ms. DeGasperis's hunch about a market for suburban stylistic modernism was correct, and that folks in Richmond Hill are okay with driving across town to buy a jug of milk. But I hope that the developers now occupying the last bits of buildable land in Toronto's suburbs take seriously the opportunity they've got to lay down, not just structures in an empty landscape, but living, breathing and walkable communities.

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John More


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