What the Pan Am Legacy Means for Affordable Housing
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What the Pan Am Legacy Means for Affordable Housing

Glasgow hints at what’s next for Toronto’s athletes’ village

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Picture a thriving community on the edge of what was once a contaminated waterfront. An international sporting event that provided a catalyst to invest in new housing and local amenities for a neighbourhood where more than half of the units have since been converted to social housing.

Although the scene may sound familiar, the waterfront is the River Clyde, not Lake Ontario, and the event that brought together public and private funding is the 2014 Commonwealth Games, not the 2015 Pan Am Games. One year after panamania swept Toronto, Glasgow offers a glimpse of what it takes to turn an athletes’ village into a fully functional neighbourhood.

In order to welcome 6,500 visitors from 71 nations, the Glasgow City Council and Scottish Government built 700 homes on a 33-hectare site along the River Clyde. The athletes’ village is part of an ambitious regeneration of the city’s formerly industrial waterfront that includes a district energy system and large scale soil remediation.

 Photo from Glasgow's City Legacy

Photo from Glasgow’s City Legacy

In the two years since the Commonwealth Games, public transit and cycling connections to Glasgow’s downtown have improved. Today the neighbourhood consists of one and two bedroom apartments as well as larger townhouses and 400 of the units are socially rented.

The Pan Am Village site is also located in an old industrial area along a waterfront and takes up about a third of the 32-hectare West Don Lands, which stretch from the Distillery District to the Don Valley Parkway.

Andrew Hilton, the spokesperson for Waterfront Toronto, explains that the West Don Lands were chosen to host the Pan Am athletes because the area is close to the downtown as well as transportation links leading out of the city. Vacant lots were ideal for temporary facilities during the Games and will eventually be developed for both housing and retail.

Today, the same features that made the West Don Lands a convenient site for the Pan Am Village also make it an attractive place to build a new neighbourhood. But long before the area was branded or the buildings were designed, Hilton says Waterfront Toronto faced the question: “How do you turn this piece of land into a community?”

The answer involves long term planning and creative partnerships. Waterfront Toronto’s precinct plan (PDF) for the West Don Lands outlines everything from the street grid to the height of buildings. The plan was approved by Council in 2005 and subsequent flood proofing and decontamination meant the land was ready for construction in advance of the Pan Am Games.

 Photo from Glasgow's City Legacy

Photo from Glasgow’s City Legacy

The buildings that last summer hosted 7,000 athletes and officials from 41 countries have now been converted into 810 units that range from townhouses to mid-rise buildings and make up part of the Canary District, just one of the market rate developments in progress for the West Don Lands. Of these market rate units, up to 100 are eligible for a provincial affordable homeownership program that aims to support first time buyers.

The former Pan Am Village also offers other affordable housing options. Three new Toronto Community Housing buildings provide 243 units to families and seniors. Another 253 affordable units are managed by two other non-profit housing organizations. Although the combination of these housing types and tenures with George Brown College’s new student residence goes a long way towards creating a neighbourhood that welcomes peoples of different ages, origins and incomes, the plan falls short on accessibility.

While the Pan Am Village was home to 1,608 athletes with disabilities last summer, only 10 per cent of the affordable units will be accessible. Some basic calculations suggest this means a net loss of barrier-free homes for people with disabilities, who already struggle to find appropriate housing in Toronto.

Despite falling short in terms of accessibility, the West Don Lands is a leader in terms of public transit. The neighbourhood is a transit-first community, meaning that all residential buildings are no more than a 5-minute walk from the TTC. The Cherry Street streetcar came into service in June 2016 as the first extension of the city’s streetcar network since 2000 and one of the few routes with its own right of way.

However, transit access, like many of the neighbourhood’s other appealing features, from LEED Gold buildings to ample greenspace, are the result of a decades-long planning process involving multiple levels of government as well as the private sector and non-profit groups. In effect, the successes of the Pan Am Village, and the West Don Lands more generally, raise questions about what the master planning approach can offer established neighbourhoods.

There are few other places in Toronto that offer a blank slate for new development like the West Don Lands. In the case of Glasgow, low income residents were displaced from the Dalmarnock neighbourhood to make space for Commonwealth Games facilities, including the athletes’ village itself.

Following the Regent Park revitalization, Toronto is no stranger to the displacement that often accompanies urban renewal initiatives. Most people would like to live in a place that combines transit connections, parks and public art yet not everyone can afford the price tags or undignified wait times associated with moving into a master-planned community like the former Pan Am Village.

Although the West Don Lands is an encouraging example of the ways that coordinated planning can balance respect for the built and natural environments, a different set of issues are at work in the majority of Toronto neighbourhoods, which grew up over the course of generations.

It remains to be seen how the strengths of the West Don Lands can be replicated elsewhere and whether communities outside of the downtown core will benefit from neighbourhood-level public art strategies (PDF) or when brownfield sites that don’t offer views of the lake will be decontaminated.