Perhaps because it's in the very heart of Toronto, or because it's so darned big, Concord CityPlace has always caught an outsized quantity of flak.
Critics began to pile on some 15 years ago, when Vancouver-based Concord Adex Developments unveiled its plans for the mammoth residential scheme. Planners at city hall, and numerous other architectural professionals and citizens without portfolio, took the proposal to task for its conceptual coarseness, its overloading of the 44-acre site west of the domed stadium now called the Rogers Centre, its general insensitivity to the factors that make urban life livable.
The upshot of these protests was an intensive rethinking of CityPlace by the developer, the city and various experts in the early 2000s. This consultation resulted in a fresh set of urban design guidelines, published in the summer of 2004, which all parties agreed would inform the build-out of the project from that time forward.
Several towers were already up or under construction in 2004, so the rules were to apply mainly to the mostly unbuilt portion of CityPlace lying between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street. Now that this blank patch of former railway yards has been largely filled in with streets, buildings and a park, it's a good time to ask if Concord Adex has honoured the general intent of the urban design guidelines and fashioned a piece of city that works.
After walking the length and breadth of CityPlace west of Spadina one cool, windy afternoon last week, I came to the conclusion that the company has indeed done so – imperfectly, to be sure, but to an extent nobody could have expected on the basis of the earliest plans and downright unlikable buildings rolled out by Concord Adex.
I hasten to add that my remarks are not intended to be replies to the many practical attacks levelled recently at CityPlace – the ones, I mean, having to do with the towers' material and structural integrity, the ownership structure (too many renters, not enough residents who own their homes), and so on. These are important issues, and I may deal with them another day. But not now. The questions that took me to the site last week were about the art of CityPlace, the creative craft of its public realm, its structures and roadways. With the passage of years, has the project become more beautiful than it promised to be at the outset?
Answers are to be found in the details of what has been attempted. Take the porous development grid on the west side of Spadina, for example, and contrast it with the more crowded, pedestrian-unfriendly layout on the east side.
CityPlace's western part is dense, hard-surfaced and very urban, but eminently walkable, as a downtown location should be. It's a pleasure to stroll among the tall buildings, along the wide, well-spaced streets with their terraces of ground-floor townhouse facades, and through artist and author Douglas Coupland's smart, imaginative Canoe Landing Park. In a welcome move, Fort York Boulevard, the main thoroughfare penetrating the site, has been made broad enough to accommodate dedicated streetcar or bus lanes, which could more firmly knit the island-like project into the urban core someday.
But the most striking difference between the oldest part of CityPlace, on the east side of Spadina, and the more recent section lies in the originality of the architecture – originality, it should be said, that operates better in some spots than in others. The earlier towers, for instance, range in style from trivial – I'm thinking of the very first buildings, on Front Street West – to sturdily conventional, solid but routine.
Cross Spadina, however, and the first thing you come to is an abruptly more interesting complex by the Toronto firm of KPMB Architects. This carefully detailed block-sized structure is composed of a graceful, tall point tower, a svelte slab running alongside Spadina and a dramatically angular pavilion that houses a large grocery store. It is contemporary without being trendy, and appropriately cool for a neighbourhood populated mostly (so I gathered on my stroll) by the young, plugged-in and culture-conscious.
Architectural originality is evident, as well, a short way west along Fort York Boulevard, where one finds the cluster of tall and short buildings known as Parade – though here, it doesn't add up to much. Designed by the giant New York-based office of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Parade features two glassy high-rises, one circular in plan, the other square, connected by a two-storey sky bridge and accompanied by a symmetrically arrayed set of structures at the base. The ensemble is novel, but finally dull.
Parade, however, is perhaps just a hiccup in what appears to be a steady improvement in the quality of CityPlace's architecture. We won't know for sure, of course, until the whole massive undertaking is completed, and that date is still a few years in the future.