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The once-isolated high-rise district is stirring to life

A soccer game takes place on the turf field at Canoe Landing Park in CityPlace.

A soccer game takes place on the turf field at Canoe Landing Park in CityPlace.MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

For a long while, CityPlace was a contradiction in terms. Though it was meant to be a vibrant part of the city core, it lacked a sense of place. To borrow a phrase, there was no there there.

The sprawling high-rise residential district between Front Street and the Gardiner Expressway has been a work in progress for years. Built on the former railway yards to the west of the Rogers Centre stadium, it has grown bit by bit, tower by tower, since the turn of the century. With the recent announcement of two more towers on Spadina Avenue, it is at last approaching completion.

An aerial view of downtown Toronto on June 16, 1969, showing the railway lands and waterfront.

It has had plenty of critics over the years. They called it a bland, blank spot in the urban landscape, with no street life, no stores, no schools – none of the attributes of a real neighbourhood. Some went so far as to call it a ghetto, unlikely ever to truly become part of the city.

In its early years, that was hard to deny. Cut off from the bustle of city life by the hulking elevated expressway and the big trench for the rail lines that carry commuters into Union Station, CityPlace was very much an island unto itself. Many residents complained that it lacked any community spirit.

As the district has grown and matured, though, something interesting has been happening. CityPlace is stirring to life. Merchants and services have moved in to match the growing population. Convenience stores, dentists, dry cleaners, nail salons, banks and fitness joints have popped up.

Cityplace has become a vibrant, family-friendly neighbourhood, and ground was broken this summer for a complex that will include two schools.

The local Sobeys supermarket became a de facto community centre. The Toronto Public Library opened a gorgeous, light-flooded new branch. An artist-designed pedestrian bridge spanning the railway tracks made it easier to reach the rest of the city.

The sidewalks filled up with dog walkers and, more recently, stroller pushers. Residents got together to organize community events: skating on an outdoor rink in the winter, a festival with beer garden and live music in the summer. Thousands joined a Facebook page where visitors can find everything from offers of cat sitting to tips on where to get the best delivery pizza. Local business owners determined to make the neighbourhood better have formed a Business Improvement Area. It runs an outdoor movie night in Canoe Landing, the creative park with a big red canoe that overlooks the Gardiner.

Jesse Topliffe, an eight-year resident who runs a CityPlace bar and grill, said the community has lost the Mad Max feel of earlier years as residents grow to appreciate it and more families with children move in. "When we opened, we had hardly any high chairs," he said. "I didn't think I needed them. I've got a roomful of them now."

Families and children have increasingly moved in at CityPlace.

A recent survey found CityPlacers are less transient than the stereotype, with fewer singles than you might expect. Sixty-four per cent have lived there for at least two years. More than two-thirds of households have two or more people. Forty-five per cent of residents are renters, 55 per cent owners. Sixty-six per cent were born outside of Canada. Eighty-one per cent are between 25 and 44 years old. Sixty per cent walk or take public transit to work.

Gabriel Leung, the executive who has watched over CityPlace for developer Concord Adex, said that as the hardware of the project (the buildings and infrastructure) has matured, so has the software (the people), becoming more invested and engaged.

There have been many problems along the way, and CityPlace still has an air of apartness and incompletion. The designers got the ground level of its earliest buildings wrong, leaving poor retail spaces and deadened streetscapes. City officials botched the maintenance of Canoe Landing, though it has improved lately. As recently as last year, the community was afflicted by a string of power failures. It has taken far too long to build schools and a community centre. Ground was broken only this summer for a complex that will include two schools: one public, one Catholic.

A dog enjoys the splash pad area in Canoe Landing Park.

Just as it is proving difficult to impose rational planning on the booming King-Spadina district that lies immediately to the north, it was a challenge to bring animation and street life to the master-planned CityPlace. They are flip sides of the same problem: how to make the high-rise neighbourhoods that are growing up around North America and the world decent, pleasant places to live. Too much planning and you can leach the life out; too little and you get an urban jungle.

It has taken CityPlace a while to get it right, but its progress is encouraging. Visit on a weekday afternoon and you see lots of joggers, grocery shoppers and patio loungers. The streetcars that run along Bathurst and Spadina let off scores of passengers at CityPlace stops.

A recent survey found CityPlacers are less transient than the stereotype, with fewer singles than you might expect.

A new Loblaws supermarket is coming to the neighbourhood, on Lake Shore Boulevard. The Bentway project, an urban park under the Gardiner, is on the way, too. CityPlace has high hopes for the city's proposed rail deck park, which would put parkland over the railway trench and help connect the neighbourhood with the city. "In our lifetime, hopefully, the whole development could be really well integrated with the rest of the urban fabric," Mr. Leung said.

For now, it's just good to see so much going on at CityPlace. What was once called a high-rise ghetto is well on its way to becoming a neighbourhood. That's good for the 17,000 people who live there, of course. It also puts to rest the idea that high-rise districts can never be real communities. At a time when so many people are moving into tall buildings, it is useful to know that, with patience, planning and a willingness to pitch in, they can be as livable as anywhere else.

Take a tour through CityPlace