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Urban Experience

Satellite aims to be grounded

Can Vaughan build downtown in the 'burbs?

By Stefan Dubowski

Municipalities surrounding Canada’s fattest town bear certain marks of defeat — crumbling central districts if anything resembling a “downtown” exists at all and a mass exodus during the morning rush hour into the big smoke known as Toronto.

But it appears the City of Vaughan plans to buck that trend. A relatively new burb some 30 km atop Hogtown, Vaughan boasts high ambition: to build a downtown of its own, a centre for its far-flung streets, and rows of single-family houses.

Along Highway 7 and just east of the massive Highway 400, Vaughan’s politicos envision a central district where its residents can work and play a la the much larger centre on Lake Ontario’s shore. Vaughan plans to excavate 1,500 acres for offices, mixed residential and entertainment venues.

First comes the 125-acre “core,” a main street not yet built (“tree-lined,” no less, according to the city’s promotional material) bisecting a ring-road system with roundabouts at each end. Next comes the businesses, cafes, restaurants and human-scale movie theatres designed to attract Vaughan’s very residents to participate in this new-found urban lifestyle.

It’s a big project. Perhaps too big? Frank Miele doesn’t seem to think so. Miele is Vaughan’s economic, technology development and communications commissioner.

The plan “goes back a number of years,” he said during a phone interview. “Vaughan was looking at a centre for its businesses. The ‘corporate centre,’ as it’s known, fit the bill as a centre for the municipality, with office opportunities and mixed use – ground-level retail with apartments above.”

Miele said the proposed core would get its start with local businesses and the corporate centre – a hub for commerce. Down the line an area he called “the district” would rise with a mixture of housing stock, everything from rental apartments to single-family homes for those of us interested in the mini-urban lifestyle. Miele mentioned the possibility of a pedestrian roadway a la Ottawa’s Sparks Street, as well as transit corridors for buses to serve the locals.

He made it sound like the sort of place any self-respecting urbanite would not at all mind calling home. But is this what the city has in mind? After all, this is Vaughan we’re talking about, not Queen Street West. You’d think, judging by the massive tracts of single-family houses on the straight horizon, that Vaughan’s residents were rather happy with the quiet and comfortable living their sleepy city affords.

But again, this is not necessarily the case, said Larry Bourne, a professor of geography and planning with the University of Toronto.

“I don’t think they’re moving to get away from downtown Toronto,” he said of Vaughan’s residents, suggesting that many suburbanites are in fact closet urban lovers. It’s just that housing prices south of Eglinton Avenue (still a fair shot north of Toronto’s "flat-footed and hard-breathing" heart) are so high that many people retreat to the satellites.

Even those Vaughan residents partial to their suburban living would grow to appreciate an urban centre, provided it’s done right, Bourne said.

“As these areas mature, they end up with a population more interested in other things,” he said, meaning even a town as suburban as Vaughan might learn to live with – even love – certain out-of-the-box aspects often associated with urban centres.

Still, that’s provided the project works as it should. Bourne didn’t seem convinced it would, describing “what little” of the Vaughan downtown project he’s seen as “hugely unrealistic,” given such high ambitions.

To be fair, Miele said the city’s plan is extensive in both breadth and time.

“We’re talking 20 to 25 years in terms of the built form,” he said, adding that a subway link from the top of Toronto to Vaughan might shave five years off the ETA. Vaughan’s political leaders are pushing for just such a connection in talks with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

As for what the residents think about the proposal, Miele said Vaughan held a series of public consultations on the matter. “We had no objections,” he said.

Vaughan’s residents might not object to the plan, but perhaps some of them wondered about the order of events here. After all, classically towns begin with a core and build out. Vaughan seems to be doing things backwards, starting with a strong suburban stock and building a downtown after the fact.

But Bourne said that wouldn’t affect the plan’s success. In fact, “it’s one of the in-things with urban planning,” he said of this bass-ackward mindset, citing Mississauga and Scarborough as two other Toronto satellites that did something similar.

Mind you, Mississauga’s so-called downtown is near impossible to cross on foot and Scarborough’s collection of federal and municipal office buildings beside an expansive indoor mall is not so inviting after dark.

“Now you’re getting into how well they work,” Bourne said, suggesting that’s a different question altogether. Despite problems in Mississauga and Scarborough, “I have no doubt that an urban centre can work.”

If you’re interested in measuring the pace of Vaughan’s urban centre development (like watching grass grow at this rate), see the city’s Web site, www.city.vaughan.on.ca.