author: DAVID ISRAELSON originally published here on 7 March 2023
As plans evolve to redevelop the 9.2-acre Canada Square property at the key midtown Toronto intersection of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, chances are whatever gets built is bound to be an improvement.
It’s hard to argue that the site is due for an update. Right now, Canada Square is a bleak, undistinguished complex of three office buildings, built starting in 1962 and renovated in the 1990s. The property includes an entrance to the Yonge Street subway and a major bus interchange area for the Toronto Transit Commission.
The plans now being considered include mixed-use towers with up to 650,000 square feet of office space, approximately 2,900 residential units, parkland, public space and room for a possible school. The latest proposals call for retaining and renovating one existing 17-storey building and adding two 65-storey buildings, plus 60-, 55- and 40-storey towers.
That may sound like a lot, but the developers say their proposal is consistent with Toronto’s original master plan for the site, drawn up in 2009, and that it also incorporates feedback received from neighbourhood residents and groups and the local city councillor.
“We’re really trying to enhance this property because it has been overlooked for so long. It’s a big opportunity for improving this community, but it’s going to take time,” Oxford Properties vice-president of development Andrew O’Neil says. Oxford and CT REIT are the project’s developers.
The latest plans, unveiled at a public meeting in December, would include an actual, physical Canada Square – right now, the Yonge Street frontage is mostly a wall of concrete.
The new Canada Square would be an open area facing onto Yonge Street nestled into 45,000 square feet of parkland around the property. This urban plaza would be approximately the size of Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, without the massive billboards and more greenspace.
If successful, the revamped corner has the potential to become a true midtown neighbourhood rather than a collection of random buildings, Mr. O’Neil says.
“There are high-rise and single-family homes nearby, retail and Yonge-Eglinton is already a major transportation hub that is going to become even more important,” he says. Oxford wants the primary architect, Hariri Pontarini Architects, and OJB Landscape Architecture, which is focusing on the public areas, to make the office, commercial, residential and open space more attuned to 21st-century living and working patterns.
“There hasn’t been a lot of office development at Yonge and Eglinton for quite some time, and work patterns and workspaces have changed, so we want to be thoughtful,” Mr. O’Neil says.
Statistics Canada reported steep declines in commuting to work both by car and transit since the advent of COVID-19 in early 2020, and while many people are returning to offices, it’s unclear whether commuting patterns will ever be restored to prepandemic levels.
“We’re taking a phased approach to the site, adapting to market conditions,” Mr. O’Neil says.
“The time horizon is uncertain at this point.”
In fact, much of the project is waiting for completion of the seemingly endless construction of Toronto’s new Eglinton Crosstown Light Rapid Transit (LRT) line, which now clogs traffic and confuses pedestrians and cyclists.
Construction of the 19-kilometre line began in 2011; a 2020 deadline for completion came and went. Metrolinx, the provincial agency building the line, has not set a firm completion date for the overall $13.81-billion LRT project.
“There hasn’t been a lot of office development at Yonge and Eglinton for quite some time, and work patterns and workspaces have changed, so we want to be thoughtful.— Andrew O’Neil, vice-president of development, Oxford Properties
Since 2017, Oxford has been looking into upgrading its property, which occupies the southwest corner. It submitted a proposal in 2020, but the details were criticized by local city council members and residents; late last year it unveiled a new proposal with more parkland and pedestrian space that so far is being looked at more favourably.
“The first proposal was a bunch of towers that were not inspiring, but to Oxford’s credit, they worked with our community working group and came back with something better,” says Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow, the city’s local representative.
Mr. Matlow is considering whether to run for mayor of Toronto’s in a snap by-election scheduled for June 26 following the resignation of mayor John Tory.
“It’s encouraging to see developers work with communities and planners to design projects that fit into neighbourhoods, that have access to transit and the ability to walk to work, shopping and other daily activities,” says Kevin Eby, planning consultant and former director of community planning for Waterloo Region.
Mr. Eby, an advocate for the live-work-play trend, says, “This is an example of how to build communities everyone can be proud of, while at the same time protecting the environment and minimizing other impacts on surrounding areas.”
Both public input and the pandemic sent Oxford back to the drawing board to think more carefully about how to configure the open and public spaces in the development, Mr. O’Neil says.
“There’s a need for communal space, for people to engage with what they see right outside their door,” he says. Oxford’s follow-up proposal, presented to the community last Dec. 13, shows widened sidewalks along both Yonge and Eglinton, a new transit entrance adjacent to the public square, rental housing and additional retail space.
“We also chose to retain some of the existing buildings,” he adds. The building at 2200 Yonge, earlier slated for demolition, would be renovated.
“There are things we don’t like about the existing buildings, but maybe we can improve them rather than remove them entirely. We’re rethinking how we accommodate office users,” he says.
While everyone waits for Metrolinx to finish its construction, the dialogue between the neighbourhood and Oxford is important, Mr. Matlow says.
“We’re not quite at the finish line yet, but we’re getting there. They really did listen,” the councillor says.
“This is an historic opportunity, and we want to get it right.”