After Alphabet, the Toronto waterfront becomes low tech and high design


Full view of the proposed Quayside development. Building height and density are conceptual and subject to City of Toronto approvals as well as Design Review Committee review and public consultation.Handout

Exciting news: Toronto’s waterfront is undergoing an exciting new development. It involves star British architects, big wooden buildings and a neighborhood with a minimal carbon footprint.

Sounds familiar. Five years ago, when Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs partnered with public agency Waterfront Toronto, you might have said the same thing. Here’s the difference: In 2022, there’s no sidewalk involved and no pretense of a “smart city – just beautiful, sustainable urbanism.”

If this is the city of the future, then the future is in great shape.

On Tuesday, WT announced a new development team for the 12-acre site known as Quayside, the same one Sidewalk Labs had focused its plans on. Through a rigorous process, the agency chose Quayside Impact, a partnership of leading developers Dream Unlimited Corp. and Great Gulf. And the designers included are an architectural dream team: Adjaye Associates, Alison Brooks Architects and Henning Larsen.

Their program includes 4,300 residential units in five high-rise towers, 1,000 for rent or sale below market rate, a huge mid-rise building with a massive timber structure, and a two-acre green yard dubbed a ” community forest” – designed by leading Danish landscape architects SLA.

A rendering of the Community Forest public space, designed by SLA Landscape Architects.Handout

Add to that a new waterfront park and performing arts center (yet unfunded) and you have the recipe for a diverse, culturally rich and beautiful urban neighborhood.

“We are creating what we believe to be one of the most unique and distinct communities in Canada,” said Christopher Glaisek, Director of Planning and Design at WT.

The initial presentation of the scheme was light on details, but extremely promising. The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation participates in area planning and programming. Crow’s Theater and The Bentway are on board. The Woodgreen social service agency runs a “community care centre” which combines medical and recreational services.

The designs show a varied and moody cityscape, a slab and towers sitting side by side alongside a narrow and attractive public park. A waterfront plaza and performance hall carry urban energy to the shore and soak it with the spray of Lake Ontario.

From the design team, the star is David Adjaye, whose practice is best known for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Here his studio is responsible for a building d apartments of 12 floors and 480,000 square feet with a solid wood or engineered wood structure. If completed, it would be the largest mass timber building in Canada.

Alison Brooks – a Canadian, educated at the University of Waterloo – is less well known but an experienced and gifted designer. Here his contribution is the “Western Curve Building”, a skyscraper festooned with cylindrical modules and sprinkled with green terra cotta. And Henning Larsen, an excellent Danish company already working in Toronto, is proposing a tower with a solid wood base that houses the care centre. The other three towers would be subject to design competitions.

A rendering of the Timber House, as envisioned by architect Adjaye Associates.Handout

There are a lot of trinkets to unbox here. Everything will not necessarily be achieved; developers must finalize their agreement with Waterfront and go through city approvals.

But the recipe is good. It turns out that when you start with valuable public land and aim high – while accepting high density to provide housing and pay the bills – you can achieve impressive results. Even in Toronto.

WT strives to distance himself from his Alphabet banter. This company’s sprawling proposals, full of sensors, have made WT the center of an international controversy over the role of Big Tech in cities.

When I asked WT CEO George Zegarac about “innovation,” that tech buzzword, he talked about affordable housing designs, low-carbon cement, and lots of parks.

“It’s about creating the kind of community that the public wants to see,” Mr Zegarac said, “vibrant and inclusive.” Sounds smart.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the size of the building is 480,000 square feet.

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