Big plans for empty lots

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Northcrest Developments’ two-year-old “Framework Plan” for the Downsview Airport Lands proposes to create “walkable, amenity-rich neighbourhoods” across the 370-acre swath of runways, roads, hangers and other buildings on the site over the next 28 years.

It doesn’t include mini-golf among those amenities, but then again, the Northcrest-sponsored course that recently covered an empty parking lot about 400 metres west of the airport’s only operational airstrip was never meant to endure for more than a few weeks.

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“Tee Up Downsview,” which featured nine holes designed by local artists, was yet another example of the so-called “meanwhile-use” projects dotting vacant land in the GTA     .

Typically launched while house-hunters wait for pre-construction condo units to go on sale, these projects give developers “a real opportunity to open up their empty sites and buildings to host art, play and sports activations long before construction begins,” explains Mitchell Marcus, executive director of site activation and programming at Northcrest. “We’re quite early on in our process at Downsview, and these activations and creative placemaking efforts are setting the blueprint for our long-term intention.”

For anyone considering a future home on the Downsview Airport Lands, the mini-golf installation, along with other recent offerings from Northcrest — including artwork displayed on the fencing surrounding the site’s Bay 12 hangar —      enables them to start exploring the vast site and “participate in making it a vibrant cultural destination,” Marcus says. “Not only will this early work help to re-energize this site in Toronto in the short-term, but it will directly inform our longer-term plans for our future neighbourhoods and communities by allowing us to test and trial the types of activations and programs that should be incorporated in the future. Best of all, it gave us a chance to interact with our new neighbours in a casual setting” — about 1,200 people      took part in Tee Up Downsview, he reports — “and we really appreciated the chance to hear their questions about the development project and to share our plans with them.”

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Tas Developments hosted the Junction Flea on the grounds of its Duke Condo build. Photo by Supplied

While developers’ meanwhile-use projects can indeed play roles in shaping new projects, garnering public and government support for pending construction is often the main motivator, says Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. “They can show that the developer is willing to contribute to the community, which is of course a good thing, but ultimately meanwhile-uses should not overshadow more important contributions such as affordable housing, high-quality architecture and design treatments, walkability and transit connections, and really focusing on the long-term impacts of what’s actually getting built.”

Prospective condo buyers, he adds, “should focus less on what happens to a site before construction and more on the final product, and on reviewing what the developer has done in the past.”

Given the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) data that shows high-rise residential projects in the GTA take an average of about eight years to go from planning proposals to occupancy, detailed information on final products is often a long time coming. In its stead, meanwhile-uses are flourishing. Every summer since 2019, for example, the developers of the 177-acre Lakeview Village site on Mississauga’s eastern waterfront have arranged for a field of one million sunflowers (give or take) to be planted near the corner of Lakeshore Road East and Hydro Road. Local artwork has also been on display, with a “Sunsets & Sounds” concert series providing free live music. Then there’s the corner of Adelaide and Charlotte streets in downtown Toronto, slated for mixed-use redevelopment by Fengate Asset Management. From November 2023 to October 2024, it’s being given over to presenting the work of artists Raoul Olou, Leone McComas and Natalie Asumeng.

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Aesthetic projects like these are especially valuable on the brownfield and industrial sites that for reasons of land scarcity are becoming the focus of residential development across the GTA, Siemiatycki says. “Encouraging the public to visit these unattractive sites by making them more appealing shows that they have value, and that we should do everything possible to ensure they become great communities.”

In other cases, meanwhile-uses support the creation of art. Marlin Spring’s Neighbour to Neighbour program, for instance, partnered with the Akin Group in 2022 to provide affordable studio space to artists by repurposing a former pharmacy on the proposed site of a condo tower at 2231 St. Clair Ave. W.

Other examples are money-makers. Within months of the Lalani Group’s 2018 application to build a 30-storey mixed-use tower at 335 Yonge St., the World Food Market sprang up on the vacant lot and has since grown to include more than 20-plus vendors serving cuisine ranging from funnel cakes to vegan poutine.

After working with developer TAS on the Junction Flea Market, which once occupied the site of the DUKE Condos  at 2800 Dundas St. W., Toronto-based architecture firm BDP Quadrangle exported its meanwhile-use work to London, England, where it designed the BOXPARK series of food and retail hubs made out of refitted shipping containers.

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Both projects were “designed with the proper consultation to address specific community needs or concerns,” says BDP principal Jesse Klimitz, adding that successful projects share some combination of improving community wellbeing in terms of health, equity or education, filling gaps in community services, and providing economic opportunities.

Whether culturally, socially or financially motivated, meanwhile-use projects “demonstrate that we can have nice things that are sometimes permanent, and sometimes temporary,” Siemiatycki says. “Building attractive, creative, interesting and engaging meanwhile-use projects is a compelling way of showing how our cities evolve and change, while also giving something back to the communities where development is taking place.”

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