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Bruce Kuwabara on “high-speed city building” and the Pan Am/Parapan Am athletes’ village

“It’s the challenge of our time to rethink how we live in growing cities like Toronto, and how we can become an exemplar of how to live in the 21st century,” says renowned architect

“The legacy of the Games is all about creating a sustainable neighbourhood with a mix of uses – not just condos,” Kuwabara says (photo © Brent Wagler_KPMB)

U of T alumnus Bruce Kuwabara is one of Canada’s leading architects. A founding partner at KPMB, he is an Officer of the Order of Canada and was awarded the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada’s gold medal in 2006.

His firm was one of many working on the design of the Pan Am/ Parapan Am Games Athletes’ Village in Toronto’s West Don Lands, a project that will provide housing to athletes and then become a mixed-use neighbourhood. (Listen to Kuwabara discuss the project on CBC Radio.)

U of T News writer Jenny Hall spoke to him about the challenges inherent in the project – and the challenges of city building in the 21st century.

Tell us about the project.
The mission was to create a home away from home for something like 7,600 athletes who are coming in two waves, first for the Pan Am Games and later for the Parapan Am Games. It’s been an integrated design process that allows a substantial amount of one of the waterfront neighbourhoods – the West Don Lands – to be developed almost all at once.

The West Don Lands plan had already been put in place (read about the alumna who worked on the plan) and the landscaping of the public realm was in place. There was a plan of streets and blocks. At the east end of Front Street, there is a new park called Corktown Commons. It’s got a lot of topography – it was designed to protect all of the land west of it from the 500-year flooding of the Don River. So you’re getting a lot of infrastructure plus a complete neighbourhood. 

Our scheme works within fairly strict guidelines that were established by the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto. Because there were so many buildings to be built all at once, we formed a partnership with architectsAlliance to co-lead the design of all the buildings. We invited other architects to work with us, too. A firm called Daoust Lestage worked on some housing that will start out as athletes’ housing and then become affordable rental housing. MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects designed the YMCA.

It must be tricky to design buildings that have one use in the short term and another in the longer term.
It’s a pretty bold move, that you would begin by accommodating the one use, then after the Games are over, another. The challenge of the project is orchestrating the diversity of design, and trying to achieve what we called “coherent diversity,” which means that the buildings aren’t identical, but they work together. 

How did you do it?
You think about the short-term accommodation – this has to be a very good village for athletes. This is their experience of living in a Toronto neighbourhood. But you have to keep an eye on the end user. There are two sets of requirements. For example, in our building code, to have accessible washrooms, you have to be able to set a five-foot diameter circle in the plan. But in this case, because of the Games, they wanted a five-foot square, which is very different – it’s larger because of the corners. That’s a challenge. You need a seamless transition from one use to another.

It’s easy to imagine an athletes’ village becoming student housing – George Brown will have some student housing in the neighbourhood. But when you get into the sites we designed, which are condominiums, you get into another order of transition. The condo is in place, but a living space might be divided in half with a temporary partition to form two bedrooms. And the kitchens won’t be there – the athletes are eating in a dining tent. There are no finishes on the floor. The appliances aren’t there. The end users, many of whom have already bought their units, are expecting their units to be pristine when they walk in. What we’re gearing up for right now is the post-Games transition.

I know the West Don Lands planning has been going on for more than a decade, but what was the time frame for actually getting these buildings designed and built?
Very short. From beginning to end, three years. It’s high-speed city building. Because of the time constraints and the drop-dead deadline, everyone had to make really good decisions right off the bat. 

Do you have thoughts about this neighbourhood being the legacy of the Games?
Most of the units are sold. When all the athletes are gone and everything fades into memory, it has to be something. And that something is called the Canary District. So we went from the West Don Lands to the Pan Am Games Athletes’ Village, and it will eventually transition over several months and emerge as the Canary District.

For us, the legacy of the Games is all about creating a sustainable neighbourhood with a mix of uses – not just condos. I don’t think you can make a city with just condos and retail. The Canary District will have social housing, rental units and student housing. And we had a strategy  to try to immediately create a sense of neighbourhood and amenity. For example, Front Street is shifted in its alignment to the south, which makes the north sidewalk east of Cherry Street very wide. It’s like a linear plaza that’s landscaped. You don’t see this anywhere else in Toronto. What’s really gratifying is that a lot of the people who bought in are intending to live there, unlike some other areas where foreign investors buy units and rent them out.

How will the Canary District fit into Toronto?
Toronto is in the midst of one of the greatest growth spurts in the history of the city. Therefore, the broad challenge for Toronto and places like the University of Toronto is how to think about the urban future that is upon us. How do you make liveable and sustainable cities at higher densities? How do you make a world that is compact, dense, diverse, and walkable? I think the Canary Distract will be all of that. What’s great about it is that it’s not about high rise towers, though. That’s why a lot of people like it.

At this moment in time, there are so many things going on in Toronto. There’s the whole transformation of Regent Park. Alexandra Park is being changed. We’re working on the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health site. The Queen’s Quay revitalization project just opened. 

It’s the challenge of our time to rethink how we live in growing cities like Toronto, and how we can become an exemplar of how to live in the 21st century. The question we have to ask is are we making the world we want? 

July 03, 2015

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