Toronto is growing in unexpected places and in unexpected directions. Take Caledonia Road: this north-south route is best known for factories and Italian bakeries. But soon it could add one of the city’s most and innovative new developments. This month, real estate companies Hullmark and BGO will unveil plans for Beltline Yards, a 1.7 million-square-foot mixed-use project here.
If approved and built, it will be large, with 1,946 apartments and a remarkable 300,000 square feet of light-industrial and retail space. But it will also be excellent. Led by London architects Allies & Morrison, it promises to be one of the best development projects in the history of the city.
Located at 250 Bowie Ave., the 7.7-acre site is mostly occupied today by coatmaker Canada Goose. It stands near the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and immediately adjacent to the new Caledonia Station, which will offer frequent GO Transit service. It also touches the Beltline Trail, a significant cycling route.
Under today’s Ontario planning policy, this is certainly a place to build big. “Transit-oriented communities” will be a major presence in the Toronto region over the next generation. But most of these projects are shaping up to be grim: they are zones of bland architecture, overly wide streets and endless cars.
Beltline Yards is different. It is built around a car-free public space. It has a genuine mix of homes and workplaces. And its design provides texture, colour and details to enliven the pedestrian experience.
Alfredo Caraballo, an Allies & Morrison partner who is leading the design, says the architects began by studying Toronto industrial buildings, learning from their architectural language and their chaotic arrangements of wings and sheds. “For us, there is a source of inspiration in the informal ad hocness of industrial buildings,” says Mr. Caraballo.
The centre of the project is a 4,000-square-metre public area, with landscape architecture by SvN. This is mostly public park. This zone is almost completely free of cars; streets, driveways and loading docks have been pushed to the periphery of the site. Vehicles and asphalt will not dominate the public space here, as they do in so many new Canadian districts.
Four large buildings are scattered “very casually” around the central public space; rather than straight lines and axes, the buildings define angled corners and semienclosed spaces. “Yards,” Mr. Caraballo says, “are a critical element” of the design.
Some of these, predictably, will be restaurant or café patios. Others will be places where stuff actually gets made such as a furniture maker or a metalwork fabricator. “This project has making at its core,” Hullmark CEO Jeff Hull said in an interview. “This area already has a lot of design and furniture making. We want to keep those present in the place and also add other light industry.”
That is partly a requirement of city policy. Because the Canada Goose factory and other spaces would be demolished, Toronto requires most of that space to be replaced. Hullmark aims to go beyond the requirement; Mr. Hull thinks spaces for light manufacturing will make the place more interesting for the 3,500 residents, but it will also be a profitable line of business. If he is right, this will be a valuable lesson for Toronto about how to use urban land.
These spatial and economic strategies seem radical today, but are common in the history of cities. The proposed architecture by Allies & Morrison has a similar quality. It is vaguely traditionalist, drawing on English and colonial Canadian precedents. All buildings are clad in brick or other small units of masonry. Throughout, there are details to catch your eye or to run your hand across. “You have to think at two scales,” Mr. Caraballo says: “The scale of the whole building but also the scale of the door or the loading bay.”
But the architecture is also arch and playful. The designers have imagined the Bowie buildings as “stacks” of specific 19th- and 20th-century structures, based on Toronto factories and warehouses. The tallest tower, in drawings, looks like four Edwardian loft buildings have been thrown on top of one another. This idea is “abstract, certainly,” Mr. Caraballo said, “but it provides a narrative and a way to understand this larger scale of buildings.”
This idea, of making a big thing feel small, is a cliché in North American urban design and planning. But it often falls flat. It’s hard to engineer real diversity of forms and materials in a huge project like this.
But Allies & Morrison know how to do it. This summer I toured the district around Kings Cross Station, a major project for which A&M designed the master-plan and several buildings. I also visited Keybridge, a smaller project in East London for which Mr. Caraballo was the lead designer. Some of the same devices pop up in both places: Lots of colour. Narrow and irregular passageways, carefully proportioned. Buildings that are close together, but angled away from each other to preserve privacy and views. The mixing of materials to deliver textured and friendly streetscapes. To North American eyes, it’s strange to see high density and a historicist design language in combination. But it works beautifully.
And it should work at Beltline as well. The end product is far away, but Hullmark and Allies are off to a strong start. In the past few years, Mr. Caraballo’s team delivered a similar design for the Christie Cookie redevelopment site in south Etobicoke. There the architecture and urban design break with many aspects of recent Toronto policy and tradition: There are narrow streets, buildings kinked at angles, lots of nooks and crannies. So too at Beltline. These projects are manifestos for a city of big buildings but lots of texture.
This is an old argument; it traces back to debates in European city planning of the mid-19th century, which pitted rationalism and regularity against a more humanistic approach. For a variety of reasons, today’s urban design – especially in the Toronto region – has lost sight of the need for spaces that are car-free, colourful and even a bit weird. Our new neighbourhoods look like diagrams. Beltline Yards, if it is realized, will be a real place. Maybe even a great one.