Editorial: Athlete’s Village, London vs. Toronto

Located in Toronto's West Donlands, the Athletes' Village for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games will help transform the city's waterfront. Waterfront Toronto
Located in Toronto’s West Donlands, the Athletes’ Village for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games will help transform the city’s waterfront. Waterfront Toronto

With the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games only a few months away, we can begin to scrutinize the success of the Athletes’ Village that will support these highly anticipated events. London’s experience will hopefully inspire the realization of the Athletes’ Village for the Toronto 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games. Along with the costly market-transitioning efforts made last year for the Athletes’ Village that was built to support the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, important lessons can be learned when linking the challenges of housing athletes and officials for events like the Olympics with large-scale urban redevelopments.

Leveraging the potential of the Olympics to spur urban redevelopment is not a new concept: the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 is often used as a successful benchmark. Signature architectural projects that will serve as sports venues in London’s Olympic Park are important, but perhaps the Athletes’ Village has the most potential in shaping the city’s future. Designed to host 17,000 competitors and officials on 67 acres of land, the “legacy mode” of the Athletes’ Village is expected to offer a 50-50 ratio of affordable and market-rate housing units. If everything goes according to plan, commercial office space, along with a school, health clinic, shops, and public open space will support the mostly completed 1,493 new housing units. The Village’s 8- to 12-storey towers are arranged in a rectangular grid with three-storey ground-oriented townhouses at the base. Despite the attempt to variegate the façades, the entire development approaches what one might come to expect from a concrete housing complex built in the 1960s.

Despite the best intentions to link the Athletes’ Village with its adjacent context, the development remains largely disconnected from the rest of London. After the city was selected to host the 2012 Olympics in 2005, the designated land for the Athletes’ Village was sold to Westfield to develop the retail components and to Lend Lease to build the housing. Lend Lease then encountered financial difficulties, forcing the government to take back the land. In August 2011, US-based Delancey Estates and Qatari Diar–an investment company run by the Qatari government–purchased the Athletes’ Village in Olympic Park from the British government for $907 million. The developers are expected to build an additional 2,000 units after the Olympics are over.

Despite its flaws, the design, layout and choice of materials used throughout the Athletes’ Village are of a high standard. And since the plan is to rent rather than sell the units, there is a good chance that the transition will be a success given that Qatari Diar has an incentive to maintain the development. In the case of Vancouver’s Athletes’ Village, developers initially believed that investors would be lining up to buy property in that city’s red-hot real estate market. Sadly, they were mistaken as prospective buyers were disappointed with–among other things–the lack of views to nearby False Creek.

Toronto has already begun to lay the groundwork for its Athletes’ Village. With 10,000 athletes, coaches and team officials coming from 41 countries, the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games share a few things in common with the Olympic Games–notably an impetus to transform the city through speculative urban development. Located on an 80-acre site in Toronto’s West Donlands, the Athletes’ Village will be designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, architectsAlliance, Daoust Lestage, TEN Arquitectos and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects. The legacy projects will include a new YMCA recreational facility, the first student residence for George Brown College, 787 units of market housing, up to 100 units of affordable housing and 253 units of affordable rental housing.

The benefits of the Athletes’ Villages in both London and Toronto have yet to be seen, while the fundamental mistakes in the planning of Vancouver’s Athletes’ Village still remain. To be sure, the organizers behind the 2015 Games are carefully measuring their risk; in contrast, one hopes the architecture will exhibit greater risk than what has materialized in London, as the city of Toronto would more than welcome such a bold addition.