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Vaughan vaults forward on high-rise hopes

In a brief, intriguing video currently on YouTube, the Toronto suburb of Vaughan rolls out its vision for the stretch along Highway 7 just east of the 400 expressway.

Gleaming residential and office towers, thickly clustered, soar above what is now a dreary patch of sprawl. People bustle on spacious sidewalks. Wide thoroughfares transect the proposed downtown (to be called, rather grandly, the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, or VMC), and large greenswards open its core to the sky.

It remains to be seen whether this futuristic scenario will be effectively, fully translated into facts on the ground during the years and decades to come. But shovels and cranes are already doing their jobs at a couple of spots in the 442-acre VMC quarter.

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One is at the terminus of the $2.6-billion Spadina subway extension, scheduled for completion in the autumn of 2016. Another, located a short distance east of this new underground station, is the 8.6-acre site of Expo City, the district's first high-rise residential complex and, certainly, a foreshadowing of the intensive development that Vaughan wants to see happen in the neighbourhood.

Designed for Cortel Group by architect Alan J. Tregebov, Expo City will eventually consist of five condominium towers, a long, mid-rise mixed-use pavilion alongside Highway 7, and landscaped green spaces. (The first condo stack is under construction, and the sale of apartments in the second has begun.)

For the record, each of the two 37-storey initial towers will contain around 350 suites, all attractively squarish in layout. (As opposed, that is, to the long, skinny format of the common Toronto condo unit.) The apartments range in total area (including balconies, solariums and terraces) from about 527 square feet to more than 2,100 square feet. The prices, Cortel vice-president Peter Cortellucci told me, run along a spectrum between $430 a square foot and around $500 per square foot.

The ideal customers Mr. Cortellucci is angling for, he said, will be either local twenty-somethings "moving out of the home" – young folks in Vaughan are in no rush to leave the family nest – or people over 45 who are single or downsizing. The developer, an offspring of the numerous and successful Cortellucci real-estate family, is in a good position to know the likes and dislikes of one cohort in his target market: He is just 25.

So what are we to make of the home base he is preparing for the first generation of VMC`s high-rise residents?

If what's wanted is livable, workable intensification, then the Expo City scheme makes good sense. While he could possibly have scattered the five buildings more loosely across Cortel's property, Mr. Tregebov proposes to gather them around a small pond behind the low-slung condo/retail structure, to which the first two towers will be linked at grade. One consequence of this close grouping is the freeing-up of land for a park along the meandering itinerary of Black Creek.

Also, this compact arrangement will offer home owners the convenience of doing at least some of their shopping where they live, which, in turn, will cut down on the number of their car trips – a major objective of the municipality's general VMC plan. If Expo City's galleria attracts the designer-label kind of retail Mr. Cortellucci would like, and if his mixed-use formula catches on with other residential developers in the area (as the planners intend for it to do), Vaughan could soon see a certain lightening of its domination by the sprawl culture of malls and cars.

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Unless there is a significant course-correction, however, Vaughan's shiny new downtown will never be hailed as the hatchery of innovative architecture it could and should be. The exterior of Mr. Tregebov's first tower, with its wavy mullions and undulating balconies, will be slightly interesting from an aesthetic point of view – or perhaps merely a little different from the same old thing.

His second tower is the same old thing – a serviceable but completely unremarkable heap of glass and steel.

Of course, not every new suburban residential high-rise project needs to be a show-stopper like Mississauga's curvaceous Absolute complex. There will always be a place for modest "fabric" buildings of the kind Mr. Tregebov has (so far) crafted for this site.

But the commercial success of Absolute has demonstrated that the housing market in the Greater Toronto Area can absorb the shock of a departure from routine glass-box geometry.

If Vaughan is serious about creating a dense 21st-century downtown from scratch – a really new place under the sun – it will press developers and their architects to come up with imaginative, fresh tower designs that delight and move and challenge the people who live in and with them.

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John More


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