Looking Back: St. Lawrence District, Toronto, Ontario

An aerial view from 1981 of Toronto's St. Lawrence neighbourhood, a renewal projects from the 1970s that has endured to the present.
An aerial view from 1981 of Toronto’s St. Lawrence neighbourhood, a renewal projects from the 1970s that has endured to the present.

TEXT Joey Giaimo

In the 1970s, the St. Lawrence neighbourhood entered Toronto’s landscape as an alternative approach to the Modernist planned neighbourhood. Decades on, it stands as the predecessor of current large-scale planning in the city. Unlike some of its contemporaries, there has been no call for overhaul, interventions or renewal. It works, and changes aren’t required.

The site—a 17.8-hectare piece of vacated industrial land in a disconnected part of the city—was prime for a large-scale redevelopment agenda. The direction it ultimately took had to do with a cast of influential characters at the reform-minded City Hall. With the municipality leading the agenda, and the omnipresent Jane Jacobs overseeing the process, the project gained early momentum from proponents including David Crombie, Michael Dennis and John Sewell. Their architectural counterparts—Alan Littlewood, Eberhard Zeidler FRAIC, Jerome Markson FRAIC, Ron Thom, Henno Sillaste, Irving Grossman, and later Jack Diamond FRAIC—set out to design a neighbourhood that, instead of deploying big Modernist moves, exercised restraint.

Developing an alternative to the default planning dogma of the time was no small feat. Taking cues from the site’s immediate context and the city’s built heritage, the design approach was varied and considered. Old downtown roads were extended, uses and demographics mixed, cars welcomed into the neighbourhood, building forms democratized, boundaries obscured. The planning attitude was, seemingly, to devise nothing new at all: a sort of throwback to the courteously developed city.

The intention was to present St. Lawrence as a typical Toronto neighbourhood with fabric buildings and landscapes integrated into larger city programs and processes—a reverent nod to the ordinary. Its success is hinged on this idea. Taken in increments, the neighbourhood’s demure presence is convincing. However, this perception tends to overshadow the innovations of the neighbourhood at the larger scale. The built forms and characteristics may point to the past, but the master plan is a radical take on the city’s residential areas.

Take the best bits from Toronto’s neighbourhoods, mix them up and reassemble them along a kilometre-long swath of land. It is this contextual reassembling that is most compelling—the insertion of primarily residential typologies into the exacting post-industrial context. Prominent east-west linear landscapes and buildings serve the residents well, as they are cleverly laid out with clear public, semi-public and private spaces. Running parallel with the Esplanade, a long linear park becomes the communal connector for the neighbourhood. If this park stands at the forefront, then a mid-rise building datum forms the middle ground, guarding the tranquility of the residential areas in the background. A set of raised townhouses, mid-rise and high-rise buildings form the southern edge, offering respite from the Gardiner Expressway and the rail line, just metres away.

The neighbourhood’s legacy resonates a couple of blocks west, in what is known as the C-2 Block. Completed in the late 1990s, the block comprises four co-op residences bound together to define a hard urban edge, which pull away at the centre to encompass a courtyard. More recently, a podium-plus-tower building has taken root in a pocket between the original precinct and C-2. Its attempt to blend with the neighbourhood context at grade and at the podium level is notable, but these moves dissolve in the upper storeys with a showy tower that proves particularly awkward in this area.

More than 30 years on, the St. Lawrence neighbourhood remains a unique Toronto prototype. Its exceptional master plan—combined with deftly modest architecture and intact social objectives—prove that it is the value of the reticent collective that endures.

Joey Giaimo, MRAIC, is a Toronto-based architect. He is a former associate at ERA Architects and now principal at Giaimo.