Smart Growth: SmartVMC, Vaughan, Ontario

TEXT David Steiner

PHOTOS Tom Arban

RENDERINGS Diamond Schmitt Architects

Just the promise of a subway station is enough to launch serious development. More than a decade ago, the TTC committed to building a station in Vaughan, at the northern end of Toronto’s University Line extension. This announcement provided the fuel for an enormous development called Vaughan Metropolitan Centre (VMC). The project’s ambition is plainly stated in the name—nothing less than a new urban area in the sprawling suburbs of Vaughan. 

As a developer, SmartCentres is best known for outlet stores at the perimeter of cities—less so for urbanism. Paula Bustard, an executive for the company, recounted how she was in a meeting with the TTC when the transit officials disclosed, without forewarning, that they intended to build a subway station on SmartCentres property in the city of Vaughan. Such an unlikely event is as valuable as it is rare. For SmartCentres, it led to rethinking their entire approach. 

Green spaces knit together residential, commercial, and community buildings in the master plan for the 100-acre SmartVMC district.

The VMC is four hundred acres, owned by various developers and commercial landowners. Much of it is covered in parking for a handful of big-box stores. The remainder is sparsely populated by warehouses and some squat office buildings, an abandoned movie theater and a yard for an earth-moving company. In one or two decades from now, when the development area is fully built, it will have the density and make-up of a small city: twenty-five thousand residences in towers of varying heights, commercial offices, institutional buildings, and park space. 

No suburbs around Toronto have anything like the concentration of transit currently found here: a subway line terminus along with two regional bus transit hubs. One of these, the York Region bus terminal, is located immediately north of the subway; the other, a major stop on a dedicated rapid bus transit right-of-way, is to the south. All three nodes—bus stop, subway and regional bus—are mere steps from each other, connected both at grade and by a tunnel. It is a triumph of putting the horse before the cart. An enormous increase in density is preceded by an equally large investment, by all levels of government, in mass transit. Especially in the Toronto area, where government is forever playing catch-up—barreling through existing fabric with new tracks, stations or tunnels—the foresight seems miraculous.

A paving pattern in the complete public square spills over into the adjacent street. The square connects three major transit hubs: the YRT Bus Terminal, at right, and the TTC subway along with a bus rapid transit stop, off the image to the left.

Of the four hundred acres, SmartCentres owns a hundred. For context, that’s the size of forty Manhattan city blocks. Diamond Schmitt Architects, along with Claude Cormier + Associés, were engaged in 2011 to develop a master plan for the SmartCentres parcel, known as SmartVMC. At the time, the subway station was under construction, Vaughan was still working on the secondary plan, and York Region had a vague idea about leasing five acres of land somewhere east of the subway station to build a conventional bus station.

Two major decisions came out of Diamond Schmitt and Claude Cormier’s masterplan. One was to include a linear park as the development’s primary feature. The other was a proposal to place the bus station above the TTC tail track (the extra subway track running past the platform). Taken together, the linear park and bus terminal location will organize the entire site. The park adds a wide aisle down a future row of towers. The bus terminal, constructed immediately north of the subway, aligns all three transit nodes.

Revising the bus terminal location from its original planned location, removed from the subway station, sounds simple in retrospect. But when Diamond Schmitt finalized the master plan, the TTC had already started construction on the subway station. The project was years behind schedule and grossly over budget. Despite all that, they agreed to change the tail track design to include the bus terminal—so long as SmartCentres paid for the entire change order. The results were worth the cost and SmartCentres agreed. Diamond Schmitt’s team redesigned the end of the track and bus terminal above. (Because SmartCentres picked up the extra cost, they were permitted to put their corporate logo on the bus terminal.)

An exposed heavy timber structure creates a warm, inviting atmosphere at the York Region Transit bus terminal, which is laid out to prioritize pedestrian movement.

The bus terminal was the first of nine completed and in-progress buildings that Diamond Schmitt has designed on the site. It turns the typical bus station typology on its head. Instead of a lonely island surrounded by circling buses, here, a horseshoe shaped canopy allows passengers to approach the terminal from the public mews immediately west, and from the urban square to the south. As part of the project’s public art commitment, the team worked with electrical engineers Mulvey and Banani, Studio F-Minus, and artistic advisor Jim Campbell to design a massive video wall—17 metres high and over 50 metres long. It will hang on the southern façade of the tower podium immediately in front of the horseshoe, concealing a six-storey parking garage. SmartCentres has commissioned a group of artists to provide videos to be displayed on the wall. Depending on the art (and one’s tastes), waiting for a bus may become a cultural event in Vaughan. 

A massive video wall, hanging in front of a six-storey parking garage, will display commissioned video art as part of the project’s public art commitment.

Diamond Schmitt’s first completed office building on the site is a commercial tower, with consulting firm KPMG as the lead tenant. It is an elegant object: long and slender, set on a wide two-floor podium and clad in curtain wall with back-painted and fritted spandrel panels. At fourteen floors, the building is a reasonable height (though dwarfed by three 55-storey residential giants to the north) and creates a backdrop to the public square at its doorstep to the east. It will also serve as a quiet terminus to the future linear park. Mike Szabo, the principal-in-charge from Diamond Schmitt, points out how the detailing and materials are a significant departure from the more generic offices along Highway 7. From a commercial perspective, it also demonstrates that a strong design, coupled with location, can compete with lower-cost leasing options nearby. 

The completed KPMG Tower raises the bar for the design quality of commercial office developments on Toronto’s outskirts.

PwC is the main tenant of a second tower, now nearing completion. It’s made of two volumes—a modest nine-storey block to the south and a three-storey block to the north. As people emerge from the subway, the tower’s main feature is front and centre: a seven-metre-high ribbon of gold anodized aluminum fins wrapping the podium. The fins are bright and fun. Their colour gives the public square a visual focus and lends the entire development its most memorable image. Two terraces—one facing east over the public square, for PwC clients, and the other facing west, part of a suite of municipal offices—further animate the facades. The mixed-use building also houses a YMCA (who owns their space within the building, purchased with their own funds and a developer contribution), a public library branch, a Balzac’s coffee shop, and several commercial tenants. 

A tower nearing completion features golden anodized aluminum fins, setting the tone for SmartVMC as a fresh, design-forward development.

Visit Vaughan Metropolitan Centre today and you’ll see two functioning office buildings and three nearly complete residential towers. Despite such a tremendous amount of construction, the sheer size of the remaining parking lots is disorienting. This arrangement of new architecture sprouting all at once, amidst a jumbled suburban fabric, is like clearing a cluttered table, unrolling a fine tablecloth, and carefully setting out cutlery and dishware.

The tablecloth comes from Claude Cormier + Associés’ landscape design. Claude Cormier says that the landscape was designed to create an “urban, modern picturesque” experience. Pop artist Bridget Riley’s pattern paintings inspired a supersized circle motif in the as-yet-unbuilt linear park. In the finished public square, black and white concrete pavers are set within an oversized grid, a pattern that came from examining the knitting in Louis Vuitton’s canvas handbags, with their offset dark and light threads. Seen from eight floors up, the pattern achieves its intended effect, working, as Cormier puts it, on a “larger-than-human scale… a metropolitan scale.”

Designed by Claude Cormier + Associés, the proposed central park includes a grand sunken lawn to be used for large gatherings and sports, an open glade featuring a large fountain and oversized pergola, and a hilled area for outdoor movie screenings. Curved paths link together the different landscapes.

The white grid on the square spills out over the road to the south side of the KPMG tower, extending the public space into the street. Rolled curbs reinforce this extension of the public realm, as does the precision of the pattern’s edges (never severed in the middle, same as that Louis Vuitton bag). Cormier’s office reworked Vaughan’s typical city details to make what they refer to as a “new language for the right-of-way design.” In another turn towards urbanism, passenger pick-up is accommodated in lay-bys on the new streets, rather than by creating dedicated parking. Cormier and associate Sophie Beaudoin were emphatic they would never have achieved this level of detailing in the City of Toronto, with that municipality’s rigid standards.

The commercial success of the SmartCentre development is virtually assured, due to its subway and transit cluster. And if the entire 400 acres is built as planned, it is likely that the area will have a mini-metropolitan vibe, at least in its density.

Tabula rasa-type projects, of which there are no shortage in the greater Toronto area (think East Harbour, the Portlands, Woodbine Districts, Port Credit West Village, Regent Park) are unique creatures. Being so large, they are effectively devoid of a human-scale context, and must create their own character out of ideas alone.

For SmartVMC, strong ideas about building, landscape and urban design, both on paper and constructed, are abundant. But designing and constructing dozens of buildings over a hundred acres to a consistent level of quality also requires a great amount of stamina and vision. Considering the precedent set by the initial crop of nine towers and the accompanying landscape, SmartCentres appears fully committed.

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

KPMG Tower
ARCHITECT Diamond Schmitt Architects | STRUCTURAL Read Jones Christoffersen | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Smith + Andersen | LANDSCAPE Claude Cormier + Associés

Mixed Use Building & PWC
ARCHITECT Diamond Schmitt Architects | STRUCTURAL Read Jones Christoffersen | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Smith + Andersen | LANDSCAPE Claude Cormier + Associés

YRT Bus Terminal
ARCHITECT Diamond Schmitt Architects | STRUCTURAL Fast + Epp | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Smith + Andersen | LANDSCAPE Claude Cormier + Associés

Transit City
ARCHITECT Diamond Schmitt Architects | STRUCTURAL Jablonsky, Ast & Partners | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL ABLE Engineering | LANDSCAPE Claude Cormier + Associés

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