University plans future development beyond the subway

What might York University’s Keele campus look like in a decade or two? That’s the big question now that the City of Toronto’s York University Secondary Plan – a framework for the development of the land surrounding the academic core for residential, commercial, industrial and retail purposes, as well as parkland and community centres – has received all the necessary approvals.

Right: Rendering of York University station design concept at the east end of the Harry W. Arthurs Common. Image courtesy of the Toronto Transit Commission.

The most prominent change, of course, will be the coming of the subway, a modern glass structure at the east end of the Harry W. Arthurs Common that will transport tens of thousands of students, staff and faculty to and from the University along the extended Spadina line from Downsview Station. Designed by the British-based company Foster + Partners, it is expected to be operational five years from now. A second subway station, Steeles West, will be built at the northwest corner of the campus.

A permanent Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) office will open in York Lanes in the fall so anyone can drop by to talk about the subway plans, construction and design. “York and the TTC want to put up as much information as frequently as we can so people are well informed,” says Bud Purves (BA Comb. Hons. ’72 ), president of the York University Development Corporation.

Left: Drawing of the station layout showing two entrances up to the street level in the Common. Image courtesy of the Toronto Transit Commission.

Some 33,000 people bus to York every day now, and that number is expected to jump to over 40,000 once the subway is operational. And the Common, where the TTC and GO Transit buses currently loop around picking up and dropping off students, staff and faculty, will be reclaimed as a people area. The GO Transit buses will instead go to the Vaughan Corporate Centre. “There’s an opportunity to re-envision the whole commons,” says Purves.

But the subway is only the beginning. The academic core of the University, now 290 acres, up from 180 acres in 1988, will be preserved for University uses, while 1.4 million square metres of new building space surrounding the core could potentially be developed. The University is embarking on Phase 2 of the York University Master Plan, which will examine the academic lands through three lenses – greening York, pedestrians and infilling – to generate the principles guiding campus growth and to provide flexibility for the use of buildings in the academic core, as well as a physical framework for the campus. “York will have the freedom to conduct its own business within its own academic core and the city respects that,” says Purves.  

Right: Drawing of Steeles West subway station from street level, positioned diagonally under the intersection of Steeles Avenue West and Northwest Gate. Image courtesy of the Toronto Transit Commission.

To that end, the transit density and traffic is placed around the outside of the academic core, not through it. The new developments would include over 9,500 residential units housing up to 24,500 people and the creation of up to 21,000 jobs in the area. In addition, 6.2 hectares of parkland will be interspersed throughout the area to serve current and future residents. That means the area around the academic core could look substantially different in just 10 years and the University would be part of a vibrant community, where people live, work and play.

“The University will feel more connected and less isolated,” says Purves. “It’s the interactions with people that make a community.”

And yes, that means more construction, including the building of temporary roads when necessary around where the construction is happening. Construction for the subway is expected to begin later this spring or summer, with the excavation for the tunnel starting in the winter of 2011.

Above: Proposed uses of lands surrounding York’s academic core

But Purves says it will all be worth it in the end. “This is all good for York. There will be some construction mess, but there will be a concerted effort by the TTC to control dust and noise, look after the environment, and to ensure safety is the first criteria.”

The 15-acre Pond-Sentinel Development, around Pond Road and Sentinel Road, will be a mixed-use project with retail, residential and office spaces, which will connect York to the Tribute Communities Village to the south. Trees will line Pond Road boosting its pedestrian-friendly vibes. Four bidders responded to the request for proposals in January and the winning bidder will be notified by the end of April.

The area around the Steeles West subway station is currently slated for mixed-use development, including office and residential towers up to 18 storeys and going down to five storeys near Black Creek Pioneer Village. Office and research uses are recommended for the southwest corner of Keele Street and Steeles Avenue, with mixed-use employment and residential spaces – shops, services, restaurants and housing – where York borders Keele Street, heading south to below the University.

The Secondary Plan came about after the City of Toronto passed its Official Plan in 2002, which didn’t deal with the subway extension to York. “We objected to this Official Plan,” says Purves. “One of its transit priorities was not a subway to York and we said it should be a priority. As the subway became a reality, the Official Plan was out of step. The city agreed to revisit its plan. We worked with the City of Toronto, the community and residents in the surrounding area for four years and held a series of public meetings.”

With the drafting of a Secondary Plan, there needed to be planning approvals in place along the subway line. The city wanted to see density around the subway and transit areas. “So the investment becomes an investment for society not just for a small group,” says Purves. Social, cultural, physical and environmental concerns needed to be addressed, including issues like the flow of overland water to Black Creek, preserving the natural creeks, proper traffic patterns so cars wouldn’t cut through residential area or the campus, and how to preserve the woodlots (which are all being done). With these concerns having been looked at, the way is now prepared for development.

So in 25 years, York could be a much more community-integrated and happening spot – a lonely desk in the middle of a vast empty field but a faded memory.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer