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Toronto The Canary District flickers to life in Toronto’s downtown east end

As Toronto’s long winter gradually gives way to spring, the Canary District, in downtown’s east end, has begun to flicker into life.

Folks are moving into the shiny new condo blocks and the affordable housing complex and the 500-bed student residence – all of which last summer housed the athletes, coaches and officials on hand for the Pan American/Parapan American Games. (In addition to the built bits, there are large, ugly blank patches in the layout. Ken Tanenbaum, chairman of Kilmer Developments, a partner in the group doing the Canary District, could not tell me when or if these holes will be filled.)

The planners of Toronto’s new Canary District intend the neighbourhood to become a home for locally owned businesses, from a bike shop to a YMCA, seen right, catering to an urbane, active, health-conscious clientele. (Rendering)

Kids are playing in the excellent 18-acre central park, and strollers are using the newly established passageway from the development into the city’s network of waterfront and Don River trails. Speaking of recreation, the handsome Cooper Koo Family YMCA, by sports-facilities specialists MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, goes public any day now.

The newly planted trees and shrubs on broad Front Street East, which bisects the site, are leafing out, and two large public sculptures punctuate the esplanade. When all the committed retail is in place – look for venues to open frequently over the coming summer – the Canary District will feature a bike shop, a locally-owned Dark Horse Espresso Bar, a fitness studio, restaurants and several other down-home outlets pitched to an urbane, active, health-conscious clientele. (According to the developers, there will be no Starbucks, or any other mass-market franchise.)

Mercedes Lee and her son, Thelonious, play in the splash pad at the Corktown Common Park in Toronto in August, 2013. (Deborah Baic / The Globe and Mail)

If you are wondering how the project got its name – canaries not being native to this latitude – the moniker is a nod to the Canary, a popular greasy spoon that once occupied a Victorian red-brick structure on the edge of the present-day development. The Canary was forced out a decade ago by the public agency Waterfront Toronto, which oversaw the 35 acres of desolate brownfields, truck yards and warehouses that included the eatery’s site.

In those days, the crown corporation had lofty ideas about the future of its property – a future without a place, alas, for the best eggs over-easy that this observer had ever found in Hogtown. But if they spelled the doom of the Canary, the detailed block plans and urban-design guidelines for the zone that Waterfront Toronto published 10 years ago added up to a thoughtful, carefully wrought scheme for the revitalization of a spot in the urban grid some thought was beyond rescue. The agency hoped that a developer with the necessary financial muscle and know-how would come forward and agree to build the new community. None did.

A running track circles the multi-purpose gym at the Y being built on the West Don Lands on January 27, 2015. (Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail)

Prospects brightened in 2009, however, when the local bid to host the 2015 Pan Am games won approval from the event’s international organizers. Waterfront Toronto’s riverside property, central to the city and region, large and very available, was perfect for an athletes’ village – especially one that could be rapidly transformed into a permanent settlement.

So it was that the public purse opened and a powerful development consortium (Dundee Kilmer) stepped up to coordinate the construction. Blue-chip Canadian architects Peter Clewes (architectsAlliance), Bruce Kuwabara (KPMB) and Renée Daoust (Daoust Lestage) were brought on board to guide the design process according to the guidelines sketched out years before by Waterfront Toronto. The job of building a brand-new, inhabitable piece of downtown Toronto by 2015 was under way, with not a minute or dollar to waste.

Rendering of the completed Canary District.

The breakneck speed with which the work had to be done is perhaps one reason the architectural results are so staid, responsible and predictable, and no more exciting than they are. If the buildings destined to fill in the blanks are to resemble the ones already done by Mr. Kuwabara and Ms. Daoust, the Front Street of the future will be a wide, windswept alley lined by looming, flat mid-rise facades marching down the promenade like North Koreans on parade. The exception, so far, is Mr. Clewes’s residence, which at least engages Front Street with a quirky little portico and colonnade. The general stylistic atmosphere, however, is that of routine, mass-produced steel and glass residential modernism, circa 1990 and beyond.

But the last chapter about the Canary District is yet to be written. Perhaps the buildings still to come will be more imaginative and artistically bold than what’s there already. Meanwhile – as Torontonians so often have to do – we wait to see if somebody seizes the opportunity to make the remarkable happen.

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