The Ghosts of Don Mills
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The Ghosts of Don Mills

Don Mills Residential Development, 1959. Image Number 59963-38, Panda Architectural Photography Collection, Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary.

Once symbols of post-war economic affluence, the suburbs are now often seen as havens of cookie-cutter culture and lacking history or distinct identity. The stereotype has been more fuelled by movies and literature than reality, but it’s still odd to imagine historical markers erected to the suburbs. Yet that’s exactly what Heritage Toronto did last week. While most heritage plaques located in the suburbs commemorate what came before—a country estate or a general store at an important rural crossroads—Heritage Toronto will be commemorating the patient-zero of the Canadian post-war suburban experience: Don Mills. Perhaps the most significant real estate development in Canadian history, Don Mills had a tremendous influence not only on the form and style suburban sprawl assumed but also on the business practices of the developers who built them.

Don Mills Residential Development Co. Residences, 1953. Image Number 53864-2, Panda Architectural Photography Collection, Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary.

Amid a serious post-war housing shortage, E.P. Taylor, a prominent businessman of O’Keefe Breweries and Argus Corporation fame, bought two thousand acres of land around Don Mills Road and Lawrence Avenue. Between 1953 and 1965, the area around the then quite isolated intersection was transformed into a new type of planned development. The master plan for Taylor’s project, designed by Macklin Hancock, introduced many of the design features that would define more than one generation of suburbs. The site was bisected into four quadrants by Don Mills and Lawrence. Each quadrant was treated as a distinct residential neighbourhood, with an elementary school, church, and local store—although in practice their low density made corner stores economically unsustainable.
Instead of a grid, Hancock devised a discontinuous road system of curving streets all ending at T-intersections. To an extent, the layout took advantage of topography, but the meandering roadways were also consciously intended to be uninviting to strangers. Although intended as a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood, roadways didn’t have sidewalks. As an alternative, there was an internal system of walkways, taking advantage of the copious green space that had been set aside. Don Mills accommodated a wide variety of housing types, including three-storey apartment buildings and semi-detached homes, but ranch-style single-family houses predominated. What most distinguished Don Mills from the rest of the city was its wider lots, which allowed houses to face the street along their broad sides. Hancock’s plan included 320 acres for light industry—at the urging of the North York Council, who wanted a more diverse tax base—and a large commercial area. The three land uses, however, were strictly segregated to avoid the mixture found along Toronto’s main arterial roads.

Don Mills Centre, 1959. Image Number 59963-48, Panda Architectural Photography Collection, Canadian Architectural Archives, University of Calgary.

At the very centre of the development, within a ring road surrounding the Don Mills and Lawrence intersection, Hancock planned for a shopping centre, community centre, curling rink, hockey arena, and other communal facilities. The outdoor shopping plaza opened in 1955 with a Dominion Supermarket and Koffler’s Drug Store among other tenants. Eaton’s added one of its first suburban locations in 1961. Although the mall was enclosed in 1978, it could not compete with the likes of the Fairview Mall. The Don Mills Centre was demolished in 2006 to make way for Cadillac Fairview’s $200 million reconstruction project, The Shops at Don Mills—where the plaque unveiling was part of the official opening last Wednesday—which reverts to the mall’s original orientation as a pedestrian-friendly outdoor plaza. Incorporating a town square (and outdoor skating oval in winter) that hopes to act as a true community centre, the new mall embodies the original planning spirit of Don Mills in all ways but one. Should approvals be granted as anticipated, seven residential high rises will be erected within the commercial precinct over the coming years—contravening Hancock’s strict division of land uses.
With as innovative a concept as a planned community—Canada’s first corporate suburb, as former mayor John Sewell liked to say—Taylor had to devise innovative business techniques. He’d wanted to use a single contractor, but none were big enough to handle the job. So he had to use fifty smaller contractors, who were responsible for building and selling the houses. To keep control of quality—and to harness the profits of increasing land value for the company—Taylor would sell lots to builders year-by-year. If a builder did unsatisfactory work, they were no longer welcome to buy undeveloped lots. To help builders market the homes jointly, Taylor introduced a scale model of the entire development, showing everything in its right place, and housed it in a mobile sales office that migrated as work on the community progressed.

Rendering of the Shops at Don Mills from Cadillac Fairview.

North York balked at shouldering the financial burden for connecting the isolated development to the city’s waterworks, for the necessary treatment plant, as well as its internal infrastructure. In a daring and unprecedented business decision, Taylor offered to build the plant and internal services for the municipality and bought bonds to fund the construction of trunk water lines. In assuming all the upfront infrastructure costs, however, Taylor set two precedents. First, municipalities began to favour working with companies large enough to likewise shoulder the burden of such capital costs. Second, with municipalities now assuming little risk, most saw little reason for obstructing whatever plans developers presented. Following Don Mills, in the conflict between good planning and good business, the commercial impetus always gained the upper hand.
Don Mills was an immediate success beyond anyone’s expectations. Architectural Forum called it “a planner’s dream coming true.” As soon as the first units became available in 1954, Don Mills appealed to upwardly mobile young families. Hancock’s radical design and Taylor’s business plan today seem, as Sewell notes in an essay in The Second City Book (Lorimer, 1977), “so ordinary that [they elicit] almost no response.” Equally ambitious imitator schemes can be found throughout the GTA and across Canada. Don Mills certainly deserves a marker to its historical legacy. But what of its imitators—the ghosts that arose in its wake? We may one day want to memorialize the most well-realized suburban plans or those that currently show promise to eventually overcome the lessons of suburbia, like Cornell or Downtown Markham. In other words: the suburbs we like. But what of well-intentioned failures like Hancock’s next project, Flemingdon Park? If they stand as monuments to their own inadequacies, do we need to erect markers of our own? Even the most poorly executed, seemingly identity-less suburbs have—through the sheer accumulation of lives lived—all exerted influence on their own share of personal drama and been invested with a sense of community—albeit of a more elusive historical character. How should we assess a suburb’s historical importance?