Accelerated Urbanism: Pan/ParaPan American Games Athletes’ Village, Toronto, Ontario

Toronto's Front Street culminates in the new Canary District, a mixed-use development including retail spaces, market condominiums, affordable housing, a student residence and a community YMCA. Photo by Tom Arban.
Toronto’s Front Street culminates in the new Canary District, a mixed-use development including retail spaces, market condominiums, affordable housing, a student residence and a community YMCA. Photo by Tom Arban.


Waterfront Toronto has a long roster of slow-burning projects on its list. But they recently put the pedal to the metal on one of these endeavours—the redevelopment of a 14.3-hectare site bordered by the Don River.

The accelerated developement was spurred by Toronto’s successful bid for the Pan/Parapan American Games. Originally planned for completion in 12 years, more than half of the neighbourhood has been designed and built in less than three years. Initially, the newly minted buildings will house over 10,000 competitors and officials participating in the Pan/Parapan American Games. Following the Games, the Athletes’ Village will convert into the Canary District, a mixed-use neighbourhood including market and affordable housing, student housing for George Brown College, and a new YMCA community centre.

Much of the initial planning was completed under Waterfront Toronto’s West Don Lands Precinct Plan, initiated in 2004 and led by Boston-based Urban Design Associates. Extensive public consultations resulted in a detailed document that defines the location, scale, character and function of public spaces, streets, buildings and facilities in the community. “By the end, we had an approved master plan with zoning in place that was oriented around very good urban design principles,” says Chris Glaisek, Vice President for Planning and Design at Waterfront Toronto.

When the Province came up with the idea to put the Athletes’ Village on the West Don Lands, the site was ready to go. The approved precinct plan was the basis for an unusually comprehensive design-build-finance procurement document, complete with construction drawings for the entire public realm and block-by-block guidelines for the whole area.

A team comprised of architectsAlliance, KPMB Architects, Daoust Lestage and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (MJMA) led the design for the winning bid. They refined the precinct plan to establish overall compositional principles. Then, each team member designed individual buildings within the ensemble. Canadian Architect sat down with Peter Clewes MRAIC (architectsAlliance), Bruce Kuwabara FRAIC (KPMB), Renée Daoust FIRAC (Daoust Lestage), and David Miller MRAIC (MJMA) to discuss how the project unfolded.

View of the entry into the Canary District in 2012. Photo by Tom Arban
View of the entry into the Canary District in 2012. Photo by Tom Arban
View of the entry into the Canary District in 2015. Photo by Tom Arban
View of the entry into the Canary District in 2015. Photo by Tom Arban

Let’s start by talking about the genesis of the project and how you became involved as a team.

PC: Dream Developments and Kilmer Van Nostrand came together and wanted to put a bid in on the project. Dream owns the Distillery, so it was a logical extension of what they’d been doing within the area. Our firms [architectsAlliance and KPMB] had both worked on the Distillery, so we had a relationship with Dream. For both of us, it was important that there be more architects involved. When you start to do a series of buildings, you play with this idea of architectural diversity, you negotiate with yourself, and it becomes a bit facile. It’s far better to work with a series of different architects that have different perspectives. We both suggested MJMA, for their technical experience in doing a facility like the YMCA.

BK: We wanted to have someone from Montreal, so we asked Daoust Lestage. I thought that was really important—it couldn’t just be an all-Toronto panel; we wanted to look to other cities where the level of urbanity was quite high. Daoust Lestage immediately started analyzing the site as they would in their own methodology, looking at the historical layers of the site.

RD: It was a very interesting site actually. It was a railway courtyard. The end of the courtyard was just next to the heritage Canary Building. The train tracks were coming in with a curved movement because of the river. So we thought it could be interesting to reveal these traces of the past, to connect the courtyard with the semi-private and private spaces. The notion of connectivity was really important to all of us.

How much liberty did you have in manipulating Waterfront Toronto’s plan for the site?

BK: Very little. You had to sit within the envelopes specified in the plan. One of the successes of the project is that the buildings all do that and yet they don’t have the traditional setback expression of base, middle and top. We were able to create a contemporary urban village within a new urbanist envelope.

PC: It’s also interesting in a time when Toronto is talking about a development permit system, which is really code for very prescriptive base zoning. What we’re used to in Toronto is that every project goes by a site-specific rezoning. We’re used to having great freedom, and we’re probably cheered on by our clients—more density, more height, more this, more that. In this case, they’re saying, “What do you mean you can’t vary these envelopes?” What you see from a massing perspective, and the definition of the streets and blocks, was a complete given. We were very much working within that and trying to develop connectivity, intimacy, beautiful buildings and everything that goes with creating a great neighbourhood.

The curved faade of Block 4 condominiums forms a clear edge to the park known as Corktown Common. Photo by Brent Wagler.
The curved faade of Block 4 condominiums forms a clear edge to the park known as Corktown Common. Photo by Brent Wagler.

You were able to add value in some of the urban moves, such as in the expression of the laneways behind the buildings.

BK: Those were building on Renée’s notion that the traces [of railway tracks] that were running east-west would somehow penetrate the blocks. The manifestation of that is now in the laneways and the mews in the laneways. The condo project that we did on the park—its massing is split even though the zoning allowed you to build a continuous frontage on the park. It’s really two buildings, so you can enter the lobby between the two—anyone can go through. There are more choices of routes in our scheme, there is a finer grain that wasn’t there in the original planning. For the other building we did, Block 11, it’s unusual because there’s parking in the middle. We’ve made an outdoor amenity space—a courtyard on the roof of the parking.

DM: One of the first moves was stepping the YMCA back from the CN building. I think it added to the urban realm and made it a lot better. At one point, we had a scheme where a lane went through the YMCA, allowing it to connect to Front Street. But the YMCA wanted to be completely alone and wanted to face out.

PC: There’s a few housing blocks in the project. It’s not a typology that’s been used very frequently in the city—it’s much more of a European idea. In the block that we designed, the units face into the courtyard, so that they have their front doors in that courtyard. As you transit through the blocks, not only do you get from one street to another, you’re actually going through another level of semi-public space.

RD: Connectivity is being celebrated in the project but in different formats—going through KPMB’s transparent lobby, the mews, the porte-cochère that we did underneath our building, the forest of tall columns, and so on. It’s woven through the courtyards and even onto the rooftops.

You decided to only build out parts of the site at the two ends, leaving other parcels to be developed later.

PC: We realized the team that will have a high likelihood of winning will be the one that reduces the provincial subsidy to the lowest possible amount. So the question was: how can we build fewer buildings and still provide proper accommodation for the Games? We realized we could consolidate the accommodation by using bunk beds, and build far fewer and smaller buildings, which ultimately could be successful in the marketplace. By comparison,
Vancouver’s Olympic Village had massive cost overruns; it didn’t have the discipline of this process. When you look at the neighbourhood now, you have to imagine the other blocks being filled in. My preconception was that you should consolidate everything into a very dense group of buildings, and yet we’ve skipped over some blocks. I think that was very clever from an urbanistic perspective. You’ve got KPMB’s buildings that start to define the park and give the promise for what’s going to come to the south. You have a bunch of vacant lots in there—but our respective projects start to define Front Street and the gateway.

RD: The work that’s been produced was very strategic because the pieces are creating an ensemble. It could have been bits and pieces here and there, not creating a significant or coherent ensemble at the end.

BK: As opposed to Vancouver, where they saw the deadline as the Games, we saw the deadline as years after the Games. It’s a deeper strategy on city-building—at high speed and with high stakes because of the Games. It’s an accelerated urbanism.
You had to get the drawings in, they had to get costed—there were a whole bunch of quick drills on this. The scheme is as good as it is because of the experience of all the design teams. So you get the people who’ve actually done this before whose first instinct on it would be pretty good. We’ve been involved in other schemes where you can study and refine it endlessly. But this is a quick essay.

An open colonnade adds to the expansive streetscape along Front Street. Photo by Brent Wagler
An open colonnade adds to the expansive streetscape along Front Street. Photo by Brent Wagler

What architectural moves did you make to indicate the direction of the parcels to be developed in the future?

BK: When you get the envelopes, they’re just plain like loaves of bread. There’s no articulation. So it becomes a game of establishing rhythms that relate to units, unit expression, ground-floor cadence. And then there was the issue of whether or not to use brick. We went with dark iron-spot brick in precast panels to maintain the industrial tone of the place.
One of the things was to find a scale of building mass that would work through the whole precinct. That’s one of the reasons our building is so stratified—we could see what architectsAlliance was up to setting the stage for the residence. There are shifting long volumes to create an intermediate scale well below the envelope. On an architectural level, there’s a lot that’s different than anything else around it. This is a relatively mid-rise, cohesive precinct with different buildings, and the rest of the city stands as several mountains of vertical towers.

PC: There’s always this tension between fabric and individuality—with architects wanting to assert themselves individually with their work. But then how do those buildings coalesce into this notion of fabric? So there’s a conscious—or maybe an unconscious—effort on our collective part to have this idea of fabric and consistency. But then there is also an individuality between the buildings.

RD: At the onset, we set a six-metre-high datum. Everybody worked with that and tried to animate that. I think it works well even with the connectivity underneath the columns. It’s connectivity but at all scales: at the scale of the street, at the scale of a district, and between two districts.

PC: One of my obsessions, particularly with residential architecture, is how the buildings meet the ground. As you walk around all of these buildings, there’s a consistency of the execution of the detailing at that first datum. You’re dealing with a development and construction marketplace where those things are never considered. As a team, we were constantly challenged about the details: why would you do it a certain way when you could do something more cost-effective. There was that constant debate and tension, which I think was a positive thing. For people who were charged with the execution of this project at a certain budget and in a certain time, challenging us was their role. In the end, when you walk though, it’s effective: these details are very modest but are well-resolved and I think will stand the test of time.

RD: We had a lot of discussions also about retail on the ground floor and the iconography of retail. It was about connecting with the grain of the retail fabric, plus the architectural gestures that would be associated with that—like not having these long façades, but recessed awnings. We fought for specific elements, like high-quality awnings.
One thing that really struck me during that process was the dialogue that was established between the team members, and I think that the buildings are dialoguing also. It reflects the process that happened between us architects.

How was your experience with the P3 process in this project?

PC: At first blush, most architects are concerned about what it can mean. In our team, I was intrigued about how you could actually take this process and turn it into something positive. It’s there to realize value for public money. There was a lot of public expenditure on this project in terms of the infrastructure, because it was publicly owned land that needed to be serviced. So you’ve got the P3 as a client, Dundee-Kilmer as a kind of client; they in turn created a commitment with EllisDon and Ledcor as the builders. Then there was the compliance team that did the initial work for Infrastructure Ontario (IO); they became a kind of a notional client. So we had these layers of people…

The clients also included Waterfront Toronto, the Pan Am committee, the YMCA, George Brown…

PC: Some of those clients came out from behind the curtain after we won. That introduces another level of complexity and interesting debate. If you can produce a compelling piece of architecture and compelling neighbourhood within that system, I think it’s remarkable. It’s about being savvy and understanding what the objectives of each of those (sometimes competing) interests are.

BK: If it’s challenging with IO, what would the alternative have been? Would it just be several RFPs? But those are not the cards that we’re being dealt. The amazing thing is that Toronto did get the Pan Am Games.
Then there’s the pressure to open on the day of the Games, which is fixed. Failing the schedule or any part of it wasn’t a good option for anybody involved. Many of these large-scale Olympics or Pan American Games really are problematic, in ways that are beyond IO—like with overruns, or missing the schedule completely. Thinking down the line to other bids, this positions Toronto really well.

A view looking east shows affordable housing units fronting a landscaped street parallel to the main promenade. Photo by Brent Wagler
A view looking east shows affordable housing units fronting a landscaped street parallel to the main promenade. Photo by Brent Wagler

Having gone through this experience, what would be your one recommendation to Infrastructure Ontario?

DM: One issue with this process is that with the written Project Specific Output Specifications (PSOS), you are locked down for things one might have later reconsidered. It speeds it up, but that notion of doing everything by writing it down is like trying to describe how to build a car. Normally, you rethink things as you go through—you adjust certain relationships and finishes—and here you just didn’t have that opportunity. With some changes, the client wanted to do it, we wanted to do it, but the process couldn’t handle it. The affordable-housing developers only came in quite late, so Renée, you were designing almost entirely based on the PSOS.

RD: We got a bit beyond design development based on the PSOS and the compliance architects’ comments, but then the operators came on board. They were two different organizations, so they didn’t want e
xactly the same thing. It was difficult not connecting directly with these clients and operators. You have to go through this process of asking questions that go through the compliance team, then to the operator, and then come back. It takes too much time, going back and forth. The process is a bit frustrating. We design for people and for clients—isn’t there a more direct contact that can be established? Design excellence is also an important element. I think that we managed to win some battles in giving more importance to design excellence because we were four firms associated with the project.

DM: How do you mandate design quality? Perhaps on the IO side it should start by looking at what quality of building they want on the site, and trying to arrive at a number for the cost. In Nova Scotia, the school board sets a reasonable fee schedule, and if you are over that amount or under that amount, you’re penalized. It’s led to consistency and they’re getting better work. Why couldn’t we do that for these projects? Set a number with quantity surveyors, based on existing examples—say, this should cost $600 million. If you’re right on target, you’re good. If you come in lower, what have you done that’s less? If you’re over, what have you done that’s too much—and is it worth it?

PC: The whole idea of how you ensure design excellence within a P3 process is a very big question. On the one hand, public money is a sacred trust. Then there’s the more nebulous idea of architectural excellence, and how that can feed back in to the objectives and aspirations of the client. There’s no clear answer: it’s very complicated how you assess this.

BK: We think that IO is some kind of monumental block that is going to run our lives. It’s not; it’s people who are coming in with different theories about how to get best value for public money. There should be a healthy public debate about the subject; we’ve got enough evidence.

DM: We should all just embrace the notion of best value. When we say design, everyone else sees it as some kind of surface treatment. But if you play out the notion of best value, that’s not the lowest possible cost all of the time.

BK: Why did we win the Athletes’ Village? Was it good value?

PC: I can’t be objective, but they picked the best team. With all the hundreds of people involved in this—from financing to building to strategizing—it was a very powerful team. You could flip this question around and ask: do we think this is a successful project? And if so, perhaps the IO process was a good one in this case. I think it was a successful project.

How does this process—and the Athletes’ Village—fit into the future of Toronto?

BK: We’re in touch with people at the City, in the neighbourhood, and at Waterfront Toronto, and there’s a pretty good buzz about this as an idea. We had architects of a high quality. We have a brand-new community with a lot of affordable housing, and different kinds of residents. I know older people who bought there because they love the location and they want to face the park. Then there are students and low-income tenants in the Fred Victor and Wigwamen Community Housing buildings. It’s a rich story—it’s not only high-end condos that are coming out of this. What’s amazing is that the pieces are coming into focus now. When I look at the city, I read all the levels of urbanity. The buildings of this generation are about building an urban fabric and an urban neighbourhood. The next group of buildings are going to control the walking experience from here to the Distillery and to the waterfront. I walked around Underpass Park and Gilles Saucier’s River City the other day. Michael Van Valkenburgh’s park changes everything. We’re not some weird outpost. It’s all connecting.